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Late Night Piano

Late Night Piano: Jelly Roll Morton

by Seth Colter Walls

Late Night Piano: Jelly Roll Morton

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What's better company than piano music, in the after-work hours? We say nothing, so we're giving you a series covering key piano innovators, which you can follow here.

Regardless of whether Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz all by himself (as he liked to claim), there's no doubt that he was an early mover on multiple fronts: as the composer of "King Porter Stomp" (and other immortal tunes); as a visionary band-arranger in the New Orleans style; and as a pianist capable of merging rag, stride and blues forms.

Many of Jelly's most famous solos were captured between 1923 and 1926. The audio fidelity may occasionally be rough, but the technique is clear-as-a-bell genius. (Listen for the left-hand bombs Jelly tosses off during a performance of his classic "Grandpa's Spells.") His vocals are pretty great, too, whether on early recordings like "Winin' Boy Blues" or on his late-career Library of Congress Recordings (supervised by Alan Lomax).

Those latter sessions, recorded in 1938, feature Jelly's reminiscences ("I'm Alabama Bound"), as well as his rousing, one-man conjuring of the New Orleans Second Line-band tradition ("Funeral Marches"), plus a quick master class on his interpretation of ragtime ("Maple Leaf Rag"). There are likewise demonstrations of his "Spanish tinge" style ("The Crave"), and Jelly even finds time to swing an adaptation from a Verdi opera, on "Miserere."

The attached playlist features 30 key piano-based Jelly tracks. Trust us, you've got an hour and a half for a catalog stocked with pieces as good as "Wolverine Blues" -- not to mention the story of "How Jelly Roll Got His Name." So click play, and enjoy! And some other evening, return to our series, and get into some more Late Night Piano.

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