Somebody finally got it right. The interviews Alan Lomax recorded with Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of Congress in 1938—the first jazz oral history, complete with musical demonstrations—have been released many times over, but never before this seven-CD box (plus a bonus disc of audio excerpts from Lomax’s shorter interviews with Morton’s associates, PDF transcripts, and other miscellany) have they been complete and unexpurgated. Morton’s enduring reputation as the first bona fide jazz (as opposed to ragtime) composer rests on his Red Hot Peppers recordings of the late 1920s. His reputation as a blowhard, which is equally enduring, stems from magazine articles in which he claimed he invented jazz, a public feud with W.C. Handy, and these Lomax interviews—which have always been regarded as factually unreliable, though invaluable for Morton’s extended piano solos and vaudeville-cum-blues vocals. This aural narrative belongs to a subgenre of jazz literature that also includes Lady Sings the Blues, Beneath the Underdog, and Miles: The Autobiography. What does it finally matter if Morton was exaggerating in telling of epidemics, piano cutting contests, and gunfights in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, or if Lomax (himself a problematic figure) was goading him on? “Like James Joyce in Ulysses, Morton set out to immortalize the Crescent City for those to whom it was lost or never known,” argues annotator John F. Szwed, a Yale professor who has lectured on Joyce and doesn’t make such comparisons lightly. Morton was a master storyteller who knew the value of legend and wanted a hand in shaping it. If Rounder hadn’t sent me a promo, this is what I’d want for Christmas.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 22, 2005