Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bloggo Jazzzz-o: Three Jazz Icons la seconda parte: Thelonious Monk

Benvenuti alla seconda parte del Dottore Gianni’s blog on the course he took at OLLI called Three Jazz Icons. If you are jumping into this one without having read the first I’d advise a quick look at the beginning of la prima parte, as it will fill you in on the background and the reasons for writing this, and if you keep reading a look at the earliest of the three icons, Jelly Roll Morton.

Dottore Gianni is not certain he can do justice to icon number two: Thelonious Monk, or TM, by which term he’ll indicate the pianist also known as “Sphere.” This jazz phenomenon takes him all the way back to his time at the small military compound in Hof, Germany…WEST Germany at the time, and JUST south and west of the borders of East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

View from my barracks, Hof
I won’t go into any detail on why I was there, except to note that I was a Russian linguist in the U.S. Air Force at the time. The base, which at one time housed German troops, was very near an information gathering site, to which we’d be bussed daily to listen in on East Germans, Russians and Czechs, then send information (or as we called it” secret poopie”) back to intelligence services in the States. In addition to linguists from USAF and the U.S. Army, there were also administrative and support staff, a contingent of Germans who worked in various capacities on base, a small club, an infirmary, and a tiny BX (base exchange, or store). Among the paltry range of items available in the BX were vinyl record albums (back then it was that or reel-to-reel tapes). The local currency at the time was the Deutsch Mark and the exchange rate was four marks to a dollar, which meant that even low-ranking airmen like Dottore Gianni could buy German goods
Airman Hrkach in the barracks
very inexpensively. Each of us had his own rather sophisticated sound system in the barracks. Officers did much better, as with the money they were paid they bought classy Mercedes and Porsches!

All that is to say that there were recordings to be had in Hof, mostly rock ‘n’ roll but a few jazz albums as well. Few people bothered with these, which meant that they quickly went on sale. When sales occurred Airman Hrkach swooped in and bought several, including recordings by Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef (I did not know much about jazz, so I went for the most exotic sounding names), and a man with the wonderful first name of Thelonious. I’m fairly the least expensive album I purchased there was called Underground, which boasted not only Monk’s unusual first name, but one of the wildest album covers I’d ever seen…for fifty cents. I began to really dig what jazz I heard and I dug Underground the most-est, baby! TM made me a true believer!

Because there were very few jazz aficionados hanging around Hof AFB, word got out that I liked jazz and one day, in the line for chow, I was introduced to an African American guy named Willy, who served up the grub. He too liked jazz, and unlike me he happened to be a very good piano player – in fact he took me to a place called das Bootshaus (The Boathouse) at the edge of town which became for me, jazz heaven! I also went there on occasion with my German girlfriend, Karin Fritz, with whom I was completely smitten, but one of the times Willy took me there (Karin may have been there too, can’t quite remember – she later broke my heart, so who cares, right?) it was to see Mal Waldron, who had tickled the ivories with many a jazz legend, in fact had accompanied Billie Holiday for a time). A Czech couple (he was Czech, she a German, who was, as the Germans would say schön…beautiful) ran the place – the Germans like jazz a lot, the Czechs LOVE it. Hubby also played a pretty mean bass. Anyway, it turned out that lowly cook Willie knew Mal, who paid him the supreme compliment of allowing him to take his place at the piano for a few tunes – what a great night!

Now, I’m going to admit that however cool that evening was, however cool the couple that ran das Bootshaus was – the last night I was there they made me an honorary “Bootshausler” which is one of my fondest memories of my time in Germany – I remember my usual meal: Russische herrensuppe (Russian MEN’s soup translated literally, a wonderful dark, thick, yummy affair), Schwarzbrot (black bread) and far more bier (I think you can translate that easily enough) than I should have downed…

Hmmmm…I seem caught up in a wave of nostalgia…as I was trying to write, I admit that what I’ve been going on about has little to do with Thelonious Monk…BUT it was at Hof AFB that I was introduced to him, so there!

And TM has been one of my favorite jazz musicians ever since. In fact if I was waffling at all on whether or not to take the course the fact that TM was a part of it put a stop to the waffle!

So who is this Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982)? An idiosyncratic composer/ 
Thelonious Monk
musician, he was also a quirky, eccentric person, known for wearing a beret (occasionally other sorts of hats, including wool caps) and dark glasses when he played, and for his odd, out-of-balance dances around the piano while other musicians were soloing. While he came of age with bebop, I think it would be wrong, or at least limiting, to label what TM composed and played as bop. His music is so unusual, with its frequent staccato passages, laced with improbable pauses and surprising progressions that it is impossible to classify except as Monk’s own. This unique style was loved by some, hated by others. The British poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin rather cruelly characterized Monk as “the elephant on the keyboard.”

To which Dottore Gianni retorts: “Larkin was a far better poet than a critic.” So there! Take that! Harumph! And so on and so forth…

TM was born in Rocky Mount NC, but when he was still very young his parents (his father’s name was also Thelonious) moved to Manhattan. He began playing the piano at age 6, and was largely self-taught, which may go some way to understanding his unique style. He was a high-school dropout and by his late teens he began to get work playing jazz. In the 1940s he played at Minton’s Playhouse on the southern edge of Harlem.
Thelonious et al at Minton's
 Minton’s was known for its pioneering of bebop, and other musicians performing there in the early 40s included Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie.

I want to include here a long-ish quote from Mary Lou Williams (who was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs – no wonder she changed her name!), major early jazz pianist who was a mentor to TM and Dizzy Gillespie among others, about the milieu at Minton’s. She spoke of “Monk's rich inventiveness in this period, and how such invention was vital for musicians since at the time it was common for fellow musicians to incorporate overheard musical ideas into their own works without giving due credit. ‘So, the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the 'leeches', though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses.’”
Quoted in Wikipedia on TM

Dottore Gianni wonders if one of the reasons Monk developed such a unique, difficult to follow style was to limit that writing on shirt cuffs, those scribblings on table cloths.

The music WAS difficult. One of TM’s most famous albums is titled simply, Monk’s Music, and features Coleman Hawkins, the legendary saxophonist with whom TM first recorded and who it has been claimed could play just about anything, and the unmatchable John Coltrane. These great musicians were somewhat baffled by what TM wanted them to play during the recording sessions, leading TM to exclaim: “You're the great Coleman Hawkins, right? You're the guy who invented the tenor saxophone, right? You’re the great John Coltrane, right? Well, the music is in the horn. Between the two of you, you should be able to find it."

TM’s career suffered a setback of sorts in 1951 when he and fellow legendary pianist Bud Powell were caught with drugs. While the drugs were presumed by the police to belong to Powell, TM refused to testify against his friend so his New York City cabaret card was taken from him. Without this little card you could not play in a New York City club, and through most of the 50s TM either played theatres in the city, and not often, or toured. Fortunately, however, he was able to keep recording.

Speaking of recording, TM did a lot of it before getting the recognition he deserved. 
Wacky Cover of Monk's Music
His first successful album of his own work is called Brilliant Corners, featuring Sonny Rollins on sax, recorded by Riverside in 1956. This label produced many other TM albums, including these greats: Monk Himself, Monk’s Music, The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Monk moved to Columbia in 1962 and recorded over ten albums there, including Monk’s Dream, Straight, No Chaser and Dottore Gianni’s first and favorite. Underground.

When he finally got his cabaret card back in 1957 Monk began a longstanding gig at the Five-Spot, a seedy club in the even seedier (at the time) Bowery, which was home to some great musicians. It was here that our teacher George Kanzler heard him frequently. George told us that the piano at the Five-Spot was usually so out of tune that Monk tended to be careful with the way he played it. George pointed out that on the live at Carnegie Hall album TM seemed to take delight at playing a well-tuned piano and the recording is studded with flourishes and arpeggios, somewhat unusual for the more or less minimalist Monk.
Monk and others at the Five Spot
TM returned to the Five-Spot in 1958. In the near 6 month 1957 gig Coltrane had been his sax man, but when it was over he returned to the legendary ensemble led by Miles Davis. Monk picked up Johnny Griffin in 58, but he was soon succeeded by Monk’s long term saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, who worked with him from 1959 to 1970. After Monk’s death Rouse recorded a great album, at least partly in honor of the pianist, called Epistrophy, named for one of TM’s trademark tunes. In 1964 Monk picked up Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, with Rouse of course on sax. This would be his longest serving band, and a great band it was. These three, along with the excellent pianist Kenny Barron, created a tribute group called Sphere (for Monk’s unusual middle name). Interestingly neither Rouse’s album honoring Monk, nor this group was featured or even mentioned in class. Dottore Gianni had the very good fortune to see Sphere live in the late 90s, he seems to remember at the Village Vanguard. By this time Rouse had died and Buster Williams took Gales’s place on bass – what a great evening that was!

1964 was important for TM, and I’d say for jazz as well, because in that year our unique
 icon made the cover of Time Magazine. Only four other jazz musicians (the others are Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis – the first three worthy, the fourth…well, Dottore Gianni is dubious – and just think of those who have NOT gotten covers…) have been granted this…well, whether you think it’s an honor or not (again Dottore Gianni is dubious) it certainly does promote jazz!

After the 1960s TM began to disappear from view. He had written his greatest songs: “Round Midnight” of course, according to George the most recorded jazz tunes, over 1,000 of them; “Epistrophy” I already noted; “Misterioso”, called by George one of Monk’s earliest masterpieces; “Criss-Cross”, tapped by George as perhaps his greatest single work, notable for its abstract, minimal nature; “Straight, No Chaser”, a blues which George says is very popular at jam sessions; “Four in One”, one of his most melodic pieces per George; and another more melodic than usual tune, “Crepuscule with Nellie”, his only “through-composed” – that is with no improvisation – song.

“Crepuscule” with Nellie is in fact a tribute to his wife, and seems to be about a walk with her at twilight, to which that seldom-used work refers. The adjective “crepuscular” is used slightly more often, and even that is unusual…but then so is TM. I note this song as I have given no information about his family. He was married, apparently happily, Monk’s biographer Robin Kelley (Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original 2009) wrote of the song, 

Monk with his wife Nellie
“It was his concerto, if you will, and in some ways it speaks for itself. But he wrote it very, very carefully and very deliberately and really struggled to make it sound the way it sounds. [... I]t was his love song for Nellie.” They had a son in 1949 named Thelonious Sphere the Third – the jazz drummer wisely goes by T.S. – who founded the Thelonious Monk Institute, an organization that with the U.N. sponsors International Jazz Day (the second annual concert was taped on 30 April 2013, and along with Herbie Hancock and others T.S. spoke at it), sponsors competitions and various educational programs. And in 1943 they had a daughter Barbara, affectionately called Boo-Boo. In 1967 TM wrote the song “Boo-Boo’s Birthday” for her, one of his last compositions.

In addition to a family, Thelonious had a wealthy friend, Baroness Pannonica 
(usually shortened to “Nica”) de Koenigswarter, one of the Rothschilds, that ludicrously wealthy family of bankers. Nica was a sort of patroness to a number of jazz musicians, in fact she nursed Charlie Parker in the days before his death. TM spent the last six years of his life in her home in Weehawken, NJ, a place that had a great view of the Manhattan skyline and that formerly been occupied by the famous German film director Josef von Sternberg. Tunes were written in her honor by such jazz luminaries as Sonny Clark, Horace Silver, Kenny Drew, Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan. Monk himself wrote the song “Pannonica” for her. There is not much info in easily accessible net sources, but the obvious question to Dottore Gianni is, where was his family at this time? I understand there’s a new book out about her. It seems like it would be a fascinating and informative read. I also understand that Kelley (see above quote) in his biography of Monk does much to debunk the notion of a romantic liaison between Monk and Nica, and says of Nellie that without her Thelonious would have been nothing

There has been much debate about TM’s eccentricities. Some have called him mentally ill. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser is a 90 minute documentary film directed by Clint Eastwood…flawed in my view, as it takes the point of view that TM was mentally not “right”, but it’s worth watching for the footage of Monk playing and chatting. You can see it on youtube if you go to this site:

 Re TM’s mental health, doctors at one point wanted to treat him with electro-shock “therapy” but fortunately his family would not allow it. Instead he was placed on antipsychotic drugs, which some sources say may have caused brain damage. Ouch.

His last years must not have been easy, except of course that he lived with his patroness in her beautiful house.

During those years, TM saw few people, seldom if ever played the piano in his room, and died of a stroke in 1982. A sad ending for a great musician, but then that is the story of many of them. Rather than end on that downbeat note, I’ll relate a story that our teacher George told, ending his comments in class about TM. In the 1970s a friend visited him, and as he wouldn’t speak much, asked him to play something. Monk sat down at the piano and played some Bud Powell flawlessly. Powell I’ve mentioned before, a legendary pianist whose style was quite unlike Monk’s. When he had finished, his visitor exclaimed, “Wow Monk! I didn’t know you could play like that!” After a long pause, Monk replied in a gravelly whisper: “Don’t tell anybody.”

That does it for la seconda parte. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I have done researching and writing it. L’ultima parte should be out sometime this coming week. Cheers all!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bloggo Jazzzzzz-o: Three Jazz Icons, la prima parte

Dottore Gianni has received a request – and he doesn’t often get requests, so he wants to try at least to honor this one!

One of the ONLY people, the good doctor is nearly certain, who reads his blog with any interest, his younger brother Tom, asked if he/I would write a bit about the classes I/he just finished at OLLI, connected to Furman University. Good golly! On OLLI? I pondered as I considered his flattering request. One of the two courses (on Russia: Pre- and Post-Glasnost) is out, as I attended only the first two of eight sessions, because the teacher was a fundamentalist, uninformed, hubristic crank. And that’s putting it nicely. In fact Dottore Gianni could go on and on about this Dick…that IS his name…but he won’t, as he doesn’t want to turn this into a diatribe.

But the other course (titled Jazz: Three Icons) was taught by an excellent teacher, and I regret that I had to miss just one session of the eight he offered. My brother is a professional musician, and has an intrinsic interest in the subject, so perhaps I can summarize what the class covered, and as usual add my own two (or more) bits to boot.

First, a little on the background of the teacher, George Kanzler. He is very self-effacing, so most of this comes from research. In the late 50s he went to college at NYU, while living just across the river in New Jersey. Afte classes he and his pals frequented jazz clubs and concerts. After college he
George Kanzler
joined the Peace Corps, was sent to Western Nigeria where he hosted a radio jazz show. From 1968 to 2002 he was jazz critic for the Star-Ledger, a widely-read Newark-based newspaper, and his column was also syndicated by the Newhouse News Service. After 2002 George continued (s) to write freelance, but retired to the Greenville SC area (he wrote an article titled “Bible Belt Jazz” for JazzTimes recently) and the upcountry should be glad to have him. I know I am!

Now, the subject of the course: Who are these three jazz “icons” anyway? The earliest of them is Jelly Roll Morton, who claims that he invented jazz – quite a claim to say the least. The second is Thelonious Monk, whose unique style on the piano makes him iconic, one of a kind. The last is Charles Mingus, one of the most daring and political innovators in the form. George never explained why he calls them icons, and in fact the term is interesting in the sense that they can be thought of iconoclastic.

Icons in their first and still I think primary incarnation are images of holy persons. Iconophiles approve of the use of icons, iconoclasts are against the use of icons. They want them put an end to and frequently literally destroy them. One religion can destroy the icons of another religion, and this has occurred throughout history, but there have been intra-religious struggles as well. Several variations on the latter theme have been enacted in the Christian faith, but perhaps the most obvious took place during the Reformation, when beautifully painted church walls were whitewashed, when images were taken down, when statues of the saints were beheaded.

But I think George was referring to these three jazz greats as icons in the sense of the secondary definition of the word, which means idol, model, exemplar. The three Ms (Morton, Monk and Mingus) were all iconoclasts, not in the sense of destroying images but of breaking the mold, challenging traditional jazz patterns and styles. Of course because they challenged the old by inventing bold musical innovations they could be classed as idols of jazz as well.

Words…interesting items, are they not?

George offered us samples of each of these artists in the first three classes, then later focused on Monk and Mingus, usually featuring one in the first 45 minutes of the 90 minute class, using the remainder of the class to focus on the other. He had an interesting way of proceeding. As often as not he played a piece of music made famous by one of our three icons, but played by a more recent ensemble. So it was in the very first moments of the first class, when George introduced Jelly Roll by playing one of his famous compositions, “The King Porter Stomp”, by Gil Evans in a 1959 gig, then by Benny Goodman in 1935, next by Fletcher Henderson in 1928, and finally by Morton himself, earlier in the 20s. He then proceeded to Monk and his most famous song, “Round Midnight”, playing not one of Monk’s recordings of it but instead playing Miles Davis’s famous take on it in 1956. George then played a version that Monk recorded a year later, in 1957, wherein he incorporated some of Miles’s style.

Dottore Gianni sidebar: This near solo by Monk (John Coltrane is heard briefly but only in the final stanzas of the piece) is definitive in the good doctor’s mind, as it seems to be searching for the next note, almost as if, years after Monk wrote and recorded the song he was sitting alone in a piano bar at around midnight, trying to compose a piece of music – lonely, soulful, haunting. You can hear it on the CD or MP3, Thelonious Himself

George finished his presentation on Monk that first day by jumping forward to a brilliant jazz vocal of “Round Midnight” by Sarah Vaughn, sung at Monterey in 1971.

And then on to Mingus, whose music George demonstrated in a slightly different fashion. Mingus was known for including spoken vocals in some of his pieces. George treated us to a very dark, depressing song called “The Clown,” in which a monologist, Gene Shepherd, told the sad story of the clown as Mingus and his band played behind the narrator, sometimes took over from the narrative, but always complemented the narration. He went on to play another Mingus piece played by a Mingus ensemble, “Bird Calls,” which was a tribute to Charlie (“Bird”) Parker. He ended the class by playing a rather bizarre big band treatment of the song, which began and ended with actual birds chirping!

A very cool first class, and if George’s approach to the material seemed somewhat peripatetic, it was actually marvelously controlled. However, if I continue by explaining each class as taught, this could turn into a long post (even by Dottore Gianni’s loquacious standard), so I think I’ll proceed by giving you some background on each composer, followed by some of what I learned from my excellent teacher on each of them.

Let’s begin with Jelly Roll Morton, or JRM! (I’ll refer to each of the musicians by their initials for the sake of brevity
Jelly Roll Morton
and my poor typing style.) JRM was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (1890-1941 in New Orleans. He was of Creole heritage or so he insisted. Throughout his life he denied
that he was African-American. His parents separated and his mother married a man named Mouton, which JRM anglicized to Morton. How did he come by “Jelly Roll”? Dottore Gianni wants to tell you, but he also wants to keep you in suspense. More on this later! 

JRM was musically precocious and by the age of 14 was playing piano in brothels around New Orleans, which as he himself said was a “stomping ground for pianists.” When his grandmother found out where he was playing she kicked him out of the house!

Another Dottore Gianni Sidebar:  It is difficult to know what is true or not true about JRM. Much of what we know comes from a biography written by Alan Lomax, and also from the extensive interviews including music that Lomax taped with the musician for the Library of Congress. The problem is that JRM was a great storyteller, and was not above fabrication. He claimed for example that he “invented jazz” and while some critics scoff at this claim, one of them, Gunther Schuller agrees that his assertions were often “hyperbolic” there is “no proof to the contrary.” Schuller adds that his “considerable accomplishments in themselves provide reasonable substantiation.”

In about 1904, per Wikipedia (around the time grandma gave him the boot) JRM began touring the South with minstrel shows, then in 1910 he toured in Chicago, then on to New York in the following year. While there he came across James P. Johnson and Willy "the Lion" Smith, future famous stride
pianists, Our teacher George sees the move from ragtime to stride as the period where jazz had its beginnings. In 1914 he settled in Chicago for three years. It was about this time that he began to write down his compositions. George claims that JRM is credited as the first jazz composer to do this, and also to write out parts for his band, sometimes even their solos. Among the songs written in this approximate period were “Jelly Roll Blues” and “King Porter Stomp”, which I discussed above.

One of JRM’s more interesting theories about jazz has to do with something he called “The Spanish Tinge”. Rather than flounder around attempting to explain this myself, I’ll let Jelly Roll do it, from the Library of Congress sessions with Lomax:

"Then we had Spanish people there. I heard a lot of Spanish tunes. I tried to play them in correct tempo, but I personally didn't believe they were perfected in the tempos. Now take the habanera “La Paloma”, which I transformed in New Orleans style. You leave the left hand just the same. The difference comes in the right hand — in the syncopation, which gives it an entirely different color that really changes the color from red to blue. Now in one of my earliest tunes, ‘New Orleans Blues’, you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.”

In 1917 he moved to California with William Manuel Johnson’s band. His West Coast touring, which took him as far as Vancouver, was described by jazz historian Mark Miller as "an extended period of itinerancy as a pianist, vaudeville performer, gambler, hustler, and, as legend would have it, pimp." (Quoted in Wikipedia - se above -  as is most of the information I found on JRM, except where I note that our teacher George or some other source was used.)

In 1923 JRM returned to Chicago, where he wrote The Wolverine Blues and also began to record commercially. In class we heard three recordings of that blues, first played by Jack Teagarten and his Dixieland style big band in the 1950s, then by JRM with his band (see just below in this paragraph) and Bob Crosby's (yes, that's Bing's brother) band in the 1930s. Crosby's band was unique in that era in that it was the only band, according to George, to play traditional jazz in 2/4 time, a typical Dixieland tempo. In 1926 JRM was offered a contract from Victor, the largest and most prestigious recording company in the U.S. It was in Victor’s Chicago studios that Morton and his band The Red Hot Peppers, peppered with New Orleans jazz greats, grew famous for their classics of 1920s jazz. Two years later he married a showgirl named Mabel Bertrand and moved to New York where he continued to record for Victor.
Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers
But when the Depression hit in 1931 Victor did not renew his contract, and his glory days were over. As I noted above Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and others recorded his music, but JRM got no royalties from these men. In 1935 he moved to Washington DC where he worked at a club known by various names, including The Music Box, at 1211 U Street in the Shaw neighborhood of the city. But he was unable to profit from this venture, primarily because the building’s owner let all her friends in for free and also gave them free drinks. In 1938 JRM was stabbed by a friend of the owner in the head and chest. As all too often happened in those days the white hospital to which he was taken refused to admit him, and when he was finally got to a black hospital he waited for hours with ice placed on his wounds before doctors attended to him. He never fully recovered and he died from the wounds in Los Angeles three years later.

However, it was in 1938 that Alan Lomax brought JRM to the Library of Congress for the sessions that would ensure his place in jazz history. What was his place? Major disagreements among critics and JRM’s contemporaries will probably never be solved. Wikipedia tells us that it was during the sessions with Lomax that JRM claimed he was born in 1885, because if he had given his proper age he would have proved to young to have “invented” jazz. He argued in the sessions with Lomax that pianist Buddy Bolden
Buddy Bolden - was HE first?
 played ragtime and not jazz, but the majority of Bolden’s fellow New Orleans musicians did not agree with JRM. Invent it or not, Jelly Roll Morton was a formidable figure in the early days of jazz, and a great influence on many later greats, including Charles Mingus. Per our teacher George, there was a great connection between the two musically. He noted that Mingus had a bundle of Morton’s tunes and handed them out to his band when they recorded Blues and Roots for Atlantic in 1959. We We heard a cut from that album called “My Jelly Roll Soul" – clearly an hommage to Jelly Roll Morton.

Dottore Gianni knowas a little about music, but a lot about theatre, and while in class he remembered the innovative musical Jelly's Last Jam, which told
 the story of his life via flashback from a sort of limbo in whch he found himself after his death. Written and directed by George C. Wolfe, it starred the great Greory Hines as old Jelly Roll and the remarkable Savion Glover as young Jelly Roll. It was a fair-sized hit, running for more than 500 performances and winning nine Tony Awards in 1993. It was unique in that its story-telling style was largely via tap dancing. Critic John Lahr (yes, he's related to Bert) noted that the musical "reclaims the gorgeous power of tap dancing as part of musical storytelling."'s_Last_Jam

Savion Glover (left) and Gregory Hines in Jelly's Last Jam
So much for Jelly, wait! Dottore Gianni must tell you how Jelly Roll came to be called Jelly Roll. Wikipedia explains that while working in New Orleans brothels in his teens, “he often sang smutty lyrics; he took the nickname ‘Jelly Roll’, which was black slang for female genitalia.” A not implausible theory, and it is certainly true as to the slang meaning of the name, but there is a more colorful account told to Alan Lomax by JRM himself, which goes like this:

“Then there is the ‘true’ story of how Ferd Morton had the name Jelly Roll ‘thrown on me as an alias.’ He was in a vaudeville act in Chicago at the time, ad libbing comedy. Sammy Russell, his partner, said: ‘You don’t know who you’re talking to . . . I’m Sweet Papa Cream Puff, right out the bakery shop.’ ‘This seemed to get a laugh,’ so Morton ‘stated to him’ that he was ‘Sweet Papa Jelly Roll with stove-pipes in my hips, and all the women in town was dying to turn my damper down.’ In the background Allan (Alan) Lomax can be heard asking for an explanation of all this, and, rather condescendingly, the Sweet Papa tells him that stovepipes and dampers refer to heat — it meant he had ‘hot hips.’”

We actually heard that story in class as George played us segments of the Library of Congress sessions, which became available in only 2005. Before that time it was thought that they were too racy for release. It’s a good story written down, don’t you think? But you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Jelly Roll tell it himself!

Stay tuned for another two posts, one of Monk, one on Mingus, and to all of you from Dottore Gianni, ciao tutti!