By Tim Harding
On the evening of 3 April 2014, The Red Hot Rhythmakers presented a sold-out ‘Jelly Roll Morton Concert’ at the Flying Saucer Club in Elsternwick, a suburb of Melbourne. Billed as ‘a musical journey through the life of pianist, composer and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton’, the concert traced Morton’s jazz career from the bordellos of New Orleans to the height of his fame in Chicago and New York.
Born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in 1890, Jelly Roll Morton began his career in the early twentieth century as a pianist in the New Orleans ‘red light district’ (DeVeaux and Giddens 2009, 78-79, 92-93). Regarded as the first great jazz composer, in that he combined predetermined elements with improvisation (Dapogny 1982, 5), Morton composed an impressive number of works. Now considered to be staples of the early jazz repertoire (Schuller 1968, 135); many of these compositions featured in this concert.
On this occasion, American cornet player Andy Schumm and drummer Josh Duffee joined the nine-piece Melbourne jazz band The Red Hot Rhythmakers. Led by the talented young saxophonist and arranger Michael McQuaid, The Red Hot Rhythmakers specialise in performing authentic big band jazz and hot dance music from the 1920s. By transcribing original recordings, McQuaid also arranges many of the works in the band’s repertoire, often including the horn solos. He also provided an interesting commentary on Morton’s life and works throughout the concert.
Figure 1 – The Red Hot Rhythmakers at the Flying Saucer Club with Andy Schumm on cornet (Michael McQuaid is third from left) (photograph by the author).
The full band comprised six horns (three brass and three reeds) seated across the front of the stage, with a three-piece rhythm section of banjo/guitar, drums and string bass/sousaphone positioned behind. A notable absence was a piano, especially in view of Morton’s prominence as a leading early jazz pianist. In light of this, the rhythm section sounded a little thin when compared to the lush horns, especially in two-beat passages where piano chords would have helped to emphasise the off-beats (beats 2 and 4 in each bar).
In order to showcase the full band, the evening commenced with a rousing up-tempo rendition of Morton’s composition ‘Burnin’ the Iceberg’. This work has two strains – a fast 12-bar blues followed by a 16-bar chorus with instrumental breaks. After a subdued clarinet solo by McQuaid, Schumm responded with a blaring hot cornet solo in the style of Morton’s original 1929 recording, followed by the full band playing harmonised riffs behind improvised clarinet in the final choruses.
Following this opening number, and in order to provide a contrast, the group played Morton’s ‘Black Bottom Stomp’, a two-part work separated by a 4-bar key modulation from Bb to Eb, with three different themes or variations in the 16-bar first part (Dapogny 1982, 201-209). On this occasion, the band played this fast-tempo piece with only 3 horns (cornet, clarinet and trombone). This combo allowed room for more collective improvisation during the ensemble passages than would have been possible with the full band. McQuaid played a rhythmic clarinet solo in the lower register and Schumm shone with an exciting stop-time cornet solo, placing his hand half over the bell to provide tone colour in the 1920s Chicago jazz style.
Interestingly, most of Morton’s compositions were not of the usual 32-bar AABA Tin Pan Alley form. They were original structures, often comprising multiple strains of different lengths (such as 16 bar verses and 32 bar ABAC choruses), like the ragtime tunes and brass band marches that Morton grew up with (Schuller 1968, 135).
The full band then played two of Morton’s medium-tempo works based on the 12-bar blues, ‘London Café Blues’ and ‘Dead Man Blues’. The latter piece began with a somber funeral dirge presaging the blues, but both works contained melodic variations so innovative that the average listener may not have recognised them as blues.
The regular drummer with the band, Sandra Talty, is also a fine jazz singer influenced by Mildred Bailey and Billie Holiday. Sandra also took to the stage to sing the Morton compositions ‘Sweet Substitute’, ‘Doctor Jazz’, ‘Good Old New York’ and ‘Why?’, accompanied by a smaller combo. Unusually, the wistful ballad ‘Sweet Substitute’ (which is about an illicit sexual relationship) consisted of a verse and chorus of 16-bars each, whereas the medium tempo ‘Doctor Jazz’ had a more traditional 16-bar verse and a 32-bar ABAC chorus. The string bassist Leigh Barker played arco (using the bow) in ‘Sweet Substitute’ to great effect.
One of Morton’s most famous compositions performed towards the end of the concert was ‘King Porter Stomp’, which has three different strains of 16-bars each. The full band played it in the late 1930s swing band style of Benny Goodman, for whom it became a huge hit during the Big Band Era. The full band finished the concert with a very fast version of the jazz standard ‘Panama’ (composed by William Tyers rather than Morton). This tune featured some outstandingly rapid fingering by the three saxophones playing in harmony, resulting in enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Overall, the concert was a fine tribute to jazz’s earliest composer, authentically played by some of the best young musicians in this genre.
Dapogny, James. 1982. Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton: The Collected Piano Music. Washington D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press.
DeVeaux, Scott and Giddins, Gary. 2009. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Schuller, Gunther. 1968. Early Jazz – Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford University Press.