Jelly Roll House: A Tribute to Jazz Legend Jelly Roll Morton

Jazz music is deeply rooted in the history and culture of New Orleans. From the early origins of jazz in Storyville brothels to the evolution of Dixieland and swing, New Orleans served as the birthplace of a truly American art form. One of the most influential figures in the development of jazz was pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. Known for his flashy style and pioneering jazz compositions, Morton made an indelible mark on music history. Today, his legacy lives on at the Jelly Roll House on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. This historic Jelly Roll House, where Morton spent his early childhood, offers an intimate glimpse into the life and legacy of one of jazz’s founding fathers.

Jelly Roll House

Jelly Roll Morton was a prominent figure in the New Orleans jazz scene in the early 20th century. He is considered one of the originators of jazz, taking ragtime piano styles and creole melodies and transforming them into a new genre. Morton made significant contributions to the development of jazz, including composing jazz’s first written scores and pioneering the use of the “Spanish Tinge” that introduced Latin rhythms into jazz. His compositions like “Jelly Roll Blues,” “Black Bottom Stomp,” and “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” are jazz standards.

The Jelly Roll House on Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans has a deep connection to Morton’s childhood. Morton lived in the house from 1902 to 1904 as a young boy. The building still stands as a historical landmark, providing insight into Morton’s upbringing and early influences. Exploring Morton’s history and music through the lens of the Jelly Roll House allows us to understand the origins of jazz and one of its most important innovators.

The Life and Legacy of Jelly Roll Morton

Early Life and Musical Influences

Jelly Roll Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (later Anglicized to Morton) in the Creole community of New Orleans around 1885. He grew up in a music-filled environment, with ragtime and blues popular among the black neighborhoods. From a young age, Morton developed a talent for playing piano and used it to integrate into adult settings like the city’s brothels and gambling joints. These early experiences in the local African-American community influenced Morton’s musical style and exposed him to New Orleans’ unique cultural blend.

Morton left New Orleans as a teenager to travel around the southern United States, learning regional musical styles and working as an itinerant pianist. During this time, he was exposed to a diversity of musical influences like blues, ragtime, vaudeville, and French quadrilles. This melting pot of sounds shaped Morton’s development of early jazz.

Contributions to Jazz Music

When Morton returned to New Orleans around 1910, he began composing and recording jazz pieces that incorporated all his varied influences. Morton played a seminal role in pioneering early New Orleans jazz, taking ragtime and adding more blue notes, improvisation, and swing rhythms.

Some of Morton’s key contributions to jazz history include:

  • Composing the first written jazz arrangements (called “Jelly Roll Blues” and “New Orleans Blues”) in 1915-16 that set the template for big band jazz standards
  • Being one of the first jazz musicians to record solos, beginning with his 1923 recordings “King Porter Stomp” and “Grandpa’s Spells”
  • Mixin Latin American rhythms into jazz through use of the habanera rhythm, which Morton dubbed “the Spanish Tinge”
  • Having a enormous repertoire of over 600 jazz compositions, including “Wolverine Blues,” “The Pearls,” and “Sidewalk Blues”
  • Recording his famous Library of Congress interviews in 1938 that provide insight into early jazz history

Impact on New Orleans Jazz Scene

When Morton returned to New Orleans in the 1910s, his piano playing and jazz compositions made him a celebrity within the local music scene. His flashy, confident style of playing ragtime, blues, stomps, and jazz catapulted him into the spotlight.

Morton impacted the New Orleans jazz scene in several ways:

  • His Red Hot Peppers band gained popularity in Chicago and New York, spreading New Orleans jazz across the country
  • His regular gigs at establishments like the French Opera House helped develop Storyville as the jazz hub of New Orleans
  • His hit compositions helped define the emerging New Orleans jazz sound by combining blues, spirituals, ragtime, and other influences
  • His rivalry with another New Orleans legend, Buddy Bolden, contributed to the creative development of jazz in the city
  • His mentorship of other jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong helped spread his musical style and ideas

The Jelly Roll House: A Historical Landmark

History of the House on Frenchmen Street

The Jelly Roll House, located at 1433 Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, has a rich backstory connected to Morton’s early life. The Creole cottage was originally built in 1841 by Morton’s grandmother.

In 1885, Morton was born at the house when it was located at 219 South Rampart Street. When he was age 12 in 1902, he moved with his family back to the same Frenchmen Street residence where he lived until 1904.

During this time, his grandmother and mother, both musicians, lived at the Jelly Roll House and encouraged the young Morton’s musical talents. The house was sold out of the family in 1917. Decades later in 1994, it was moved from South Rampart Street to its current Frenchmen Street location to be preserved for its historic significance.

Significance in Morton’s Legacy

The two years Morton spent living on Frenchmen Street as a young teenager were formative in his musical development.

During this period spent at the Jelly Roll House, Morton:

  • Was exposed to the thriving New Orleans music scene around Frenchmen Street
  • Learned to play piano from his family members and musician friends who gathered at the house
  • Was influenced by the diverse musical flavors of New Orleans that he later incorporated into jazz
  • Developed his confident performing style through playing piano at the house’s gatherings

The house was his childhood home during his first immersion into music. It was within these walls that Morton cultivated the talent and influences that paved the way for his future jazz innovations.

Connection to Morton’s Childhood

Frenchmen Street was the epicenter of Morton’s early experiences with music. When he lived at the Jelly Roll House from 1902-1904, he would have become familiar with:

  • The lively musical atmosphere of Frenchmen Street with its strings of saloons and nightclubs
  • Brass bands and jazz ensembles parading down the street during second line celebrations
  • Ragtime and blues pianists performing at Frenchmen Street establishments
  • The intersection of Creole, African-American, and other ethnic musical styles around the neighborhood

Soaking in these sounds from his Frenchmen Street home shaped Jelly Roll’s musical Identity. No wonder New Orleans jazz pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, and Louis Armstrong also got their start on Frenchmen Street alongside Morton. The area surrounding the Jelly Roll House was the breeding ground for a young Morton’s jazz development.

Exploring Jelly Roll Morton’s Compositions

Analysis of Famous Compositions

Jelly Roll Morton left an indelible mark on jazz music through his prolific portfolio of compositions. Some of his most influential and enduring pieces include:

“Jelly Roll Blues”: One of the first published jazz compositions, this 1915 tune incorporated ragtime rhythms with blues motifs. Its jazz breaks and melodic variations helped establish the framework for jazz arranging.

“Black Bottom Stomp”: This 1926 tune popularized the Charleston dance craze with its “call and response” figures between the trumpet and clarinet over a syncopated beat. Morton captured the Jazz Age’s dance floor energy.

“Wolverine Blues”: This 1923 ragtime stomp exemplifies Morton’s “Spanish tinge” with its habanera rhythm. The piano glissandos and scores for trombone, trumpet, and clarinet also display Morton’s arranging skills.

“The Pearls”: This gorgeous 1925 jazz piano solo piece demonstrates Morton’s rich harmonic imagination and lyrical playing. Its delicate cascading lines evoke the beauty of “pearls.”

“Sidewalk Blues”: This 1926 blues composition features Morton’s improvisatory brilliance, with piano stomps and blue notes that capture the spirit of the street.

Influence on Jazz Genre

As one of jazz’s key architects, Morton exerted influence through his pioneering compositions:

  • His process of taking musical motifs and layering embellishments and variations established the “arranged” jazz aesthetic
  • Complex pieces like “Grandpa’s Spells” demonstrated the possibilities for multi-part jazz compositions
  • His melding of genres showed how to synthesize diverse influences into a holistic jazz sound
  • His prolific output of high-quality jazz compositions set the standard for the genre’s melodic and harmonic sophistication
  • His recordings proved jazz could thrive not just as improvised music but also as note-for-note written scores

Overall, Morton showed how the raw materials of vernacular music like blues, ragtime, and marches could be transformed into enduring works of jazz art.

Legacy in Modern Music

The echoes of Jelly Roll Morton compositions can be heard throughout modern jazz and popular music. Covers of his songs by artists like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman cemented his pieces as jazz repertoire standards.

Many musicians today continue to record versions of Jelly Roll classics, from Dr. John interpreting “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” to Wynton Marsalis’ album of Morton songs. Contemporary pianists from Marcus Roberts to Dick Hyman preserve Morton’s virtuosic playing style.

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial Celebration in 1985 saw new generations of musicians discover his catalog, validating the timelessness of these jazz treasures. Morton’s combination of sophistication and soul lives on through his enduring compositions.

The Complete Morton Project

Overview and Significance

In 2005, preservationist John Schwarz launched the nonprofit Complete Morton Project to collect, preserve, and research Jelly Roll Morton’s music. This extensive effort aimed to restore and reissue Morton’s neglected recordings to highlight his central role in early jazz.

The project involved:

  • Compiling rare shellac records, piano rolls, period films, and radio recordings of Morton’s music
  • Digitally restoring damaged or degraded source materials through state-of-the-art transfer techniques
  • Organizing a definitive library of Morton’s recordings from 1923 to 1941 through exhaustive historical research

By making Morton’s oeuvre accessible for modern listeners, scholars, and musicians, the Complete Morton Project underscored his foundational impact on jazz history and American music.

Discussion of Neglected Masterpieces

The Complete Morton Project focused on preserving not just Morton’s famous tunes but also the more obscure masterworks deserving renewed attention.

These neglected gems include solo piano improvisations like “Shreveport Farewell” that showcased Morton’s talent for embellishment. Reissued ensemble numbers like Morton’s Stompers performing “Mamanita” revealed Morton’s direction of intricate, tight arrangements. Solo vocal pieces like “Oh Didn’t He Ramble” demonstrated Morton’s soulful singing and vivid storytelling.

Restoring these overlooked tracks provided a fuller picture of Morton’s brilliance across genres and playing contexts – from delicate balladry to fiery bravura. The project unearthed a treasure trove of Morton’s legacy buried in worn grooves and storage crates across America.

Keeping Morton’s Music Alive

By preserving nearly 150 rediscovered Morton recordings, the Complete Morton Project single-handedly reignited interest in this jazz icon’s work. The restored music and exhaustive liner notes opened a time capsule into jazz’s formative days through Morton’s career.

These recordings gave modern musicians insight into Morton’s improvisatory language, harmonic palette, and arranging techniques. They enabled new interpretations and remixes to introduce Jelly Roll to contemporary ears. Perhaps most importantly, this project guarded against the profound loss of Morton drifting into obscurity. The Complete Morton Project honored jazz history by protecting one of its most essential voices.

Mister Jelly Roll: A Biography

Overview of the Biography

In 1950, folklorist Alan Lomax published Mister Jelly Roll, a biography of Jelly Roll Morton based on a series of interviews. Lomax conducted these in-depth conversations with Morton at the Library of Congress in 1938, just three years before Morton’s untimely death at age 51.

Mister Jelly Roll provides a fascinating oral history of turn-of-the-century New Orleans from Morton’s perspective. Through anecdotes, recollections, and digressions, Morton narrates his experiences coming of age in the fertile jazz incubator of Storyville. Lomax shapes these reminiscences into a compelling profile of Morton’s monumental but troubled life at the dawn of jazz.

Portrayal of Morton’s Life and Music

Lomax presents Morton as a dazzling but flawed genius – boldly claiming to have “invented jazz” but not receiving his due recognition. The book captures Morton’s forceful personality and lyrical vernacular as he chronicles his early development at the Jelly Roll House, escapades in the vice district, travels in vaudeville shows, and clashes with other jazz originators.

Mister Jelly Roll vividly maps how Morton absorbed diverse musical flavors into his singular jazz sound, from Cuban habaneras to Kansas City stomps. Morton emerges as a seminal figure who crystallized jazz’s syntax – establishing the grammar for improvisation and group interaction that defined the genre. However, the biography also shows Morton’s post-1920 decline, as depression and resentment overshadow his legacy.

Impact on Morton’s Legacy

Mister Jelly Roll played a pivotal role in restoring awareness of Morton’s importance in jazz history after years of being dismissed as a relic from an outdated era. Lomax’s articulate portrayal aligned Morton’s innovations with the continuing jazz tradition.

The book influenced praised biographies like Howard Reich’s Jelly’s Blues and appreciations of Morton’s work on radio programs reaching wide audiences. By inspiring renewed interest, Mister Jelly Roll sparked the 1950s New Orleans jazz revival and Morton comeback. Most significantly, it cemented Morton’s reputation as an indispensable pioneer who shaped jazz into an artistic form.

Preservation Efforts and Ongoing Legacy

Preserving the Jelly Roll House

Since the 1990s, the Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans Heritage Foundation has owned and operated the Jelly Roll House as a historic site. Through museum exhibits and educational events, the organization shares Morton’s story and promotes jazz history and heritage.

Key preservation efforts at the Jelly Roll House include:

  • Offering weekly tours showcasing artifacts, images, and decor replicating the house’s early 20th century appearance
  • Hosting monthly jazz concerts on the patio accompanied by Creole cuisine and cocktails
  • Maintaining the historic cottage structure and periodically restoring original architectural details
  • Presenting talks by jazz scholars about topics like Morton’s library of compositions
  • Developing partnerships with institutions like the New Orleans Jazz Museum to amplify Morton’s legacy

Educating the Public

In addition to physical restoration of the house itself, the Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans Heritage Foundation aims to nurture cultural memory of this influential musician. Public programs at the site provide rich context about Morton’s career and significance.

Visitors gain insight into Morton’s life through photographic exhibits of his performance posters, touring routes, and original sheet music. Scholarly lectures analyze Morton’s pioneering compositional techniques and improvisatory language. Re-enactments transport audiences back to the Jelly Roll House’s lively rent parties. These experiences deepen public understanding of Morton’s irreplaceable contributions.

Ongoing Events and Initiatives

The Jelly Roll House celebrates Morton’s legacy year-round through an array of community-centered initiatives. These include:

  • The annual Jelly Roll Morton’s Birthday Block Party with live bands, Creole food, and a second line parade
  • Collaborations with local schools to teach jazz history and host student musicians
  • Workshops teaching youth traditional New Orleans jazz instruments like cornet and banjo
  • Master classes by internationally renowned musicians focused on the jazz canon Morton established
  • A neighborhood oral history project to document local memories and stories about Morton’s legacy

By serving as a dynamic community hub, the Jelly Roll House advances its mission of promoting the pioneering spirit of jazz into the 21st century. Morton’s presence reverberates through the house’s continuing festivities.


Jelly Roll Morton endures as a towering figure in jazz history for his vital role transitioning ragtime and blues into the intricacies of early jazz. His virtuosic piano playing, lively arrangements, and melodic flair crystallized jazz into an art form with sophistication yet deeply rooted in American folkways. The Jelly Roll House on Frenchmen Street offers an intimate window into the formative years Morton spent soaking in the abundant musical influences of New Orleans. This historic site provides a tangible connection to the origins of America’s iconic musical contribution to the world.

Preserving the Jelly Roll House honors the legacy of jazz’s formative days in New Orleans. The house stands as a place of pilgrimage for appreciating Morton’s genius and discovering the rich cultural context that shaped his sound. As a sacred space imprinted with Morton’s artistic spirit, the Jelly Roll House deserves ongoing support and awareness to keep his foundational contributions resonating for new generations. By sustaining this heritage site, we safeguard the very roots from which jazz blossomed into a diverse, world-changing musical language.

Roger Angulo
Roger Angulo
Roger Angulo, the owner of, curates a blog dedicated to sharing informative articles on home improvement. With a focus on practical insights, Roger's platform is a valuable resource for those seeking tips and guidance to enhance their living spaces.