Friday, October 9, 2015

Jelly Roll Morton By The Seat Of Your Pants

Last night the Southside Aces reported for jazz duty at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34, ready to serve up some Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton off the seat of our pants. I say this because it's been difficult to gather the Gates for rehearsals, so I really have to rely on the strength of our collective trousers. Sometimes the band can be hard on pants. But last night, as one of my mentors likes to say, was "halfway decent." As he also likes to say, "It could have been worse."

It could have been a lot worse. There is a lot of jazz music that can be easily played even though one or more of the musicians doesn't know the song. Musicians will often hear phrases like this: "It's in B flat, goes to the four in the bridge." It's a message about the key and chord movement of a song. You could say a simple sentence such as that on the bandstand ten seconds before downbeat, and a musician would have a fighting chance to make great music on a song he or she has never before played. Jelly Roll's music does not lend itself to such easy description. The difference between, say, "Exactly Like You" and Morton's "The Pearls," would, respectively, be like the difference of having to describe a lone gunman wearing a Green Bay Packers hoodie as opposed to each of a team of four bank robbers with different heights, clothing and noses spread throughout a lobby. By the time you were done describing "The Pearls" to your poor, unsuspecting fellow musician, the audience would forget that a band was playing, and during the song your poor, now aware fellow musician would be giving you the hard stare that says, "Why the bleeping bleep would you call this song?!"

Many Morton songs follow ragtime patterns, with three different strains, interludes and key changes. I mention "The Pearls" because it is one of my favorite jazz compositions of all time. And that's the thing about that rascal Ferdinand. Though he did go down in history as a rascal, he also is arguably the first person to provide us with jazz compositions. The first to codify ways of playing jazz that musicians take for granted today. Morton said, "In all my recording sessions and in all my band work, I always wrote out the arrangements in advance. When it was a New Orleans man, that wasn't so much trouble, because those boys knew a lot of my breaks; but in traveling from place to place I found other musicians had to be taught. So around 1912 I began to write down this peculiar form of mathematics and harmonics that was strange to all the world." 

As you can see, Jelly Roll was not oblivious to his own prodigious talent. About "The Pearls," he is legendarily supposed to have said he gave the song it's name because he felt each movement was just as perfect as the last. It really is a beautiful song, the third strain being my favorite, filled with a sort of wistfulness, but not lacking in swing and strut. 

The Aces fared well on some great ones last night. "Kansas City Stomps," for instance. The writer and jazz critic Albert Murray was talking about his 1927, fifth-grade self when he wrote, "I was already trying to project myself as the storybook heroic me that I wanted to be by doing a syncopated sporty limp-walk to the patent leather avenue beat of Duke Ellington's then very current 'Birmingham Breakdown'. [That], along with old Jelly Roll Morton's 'Kansas City Stomps,' and Fletcher Henderson's 'Stampede' functioned as my personal soundtrack some years before Vitaphone movies came into being." I don't know about you, but I'm going to start practicing my "sporty limp-walk."

The Aces also took to menacing the crowd with the dark and lurking "New Orleans Bump," and bounced them about the place with the steamrolling phrases of "Tanktown Bump." Our "bump" set. I want to know what a "bump" is. Our "Jungle Blues" was majestic, which is an amazing testament to Jelly Roll. How did he make an earthy blues song that pretty much has just one chord sound so majestic?

We did, however, strain the fabric on the seat of our band pants a couple of times. We were slightly frantic on "Black Bottom Stomp," but the said seat of said band pants maintained it's integrity. "Original Jelly Roll Blues,"on the other hand, tore off one of our back pockets and possibly popped a belt loop or two. The song is considered to be one of, if not the first published jazz composition, a century old this year. It combines blues, stops and ragtime effortlessly. We didn't combine them so effortlessly. It was the most confounding 32 bars of music we played the whole night. But you know what? We got to play it. A hundred years later, and the Southside Aces got to play it. 

Our rendering of "The Pearls" wasn't as perfect as Jelly Roll composed it, but it was pretty dang good. We lost hardly any corduroy on that one. Are you tired of my extended seat of the pants analogy yet? My problem is that I consider "pants" to be one of the funniest words of the English language. But I'll give you a break and leave you with Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers from 1927:

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