Friday, May 11, 2007

Jelly Roll Morton - Black Bottom Stomp

Black Bottom Stomp steps

Jelly Roll Morton (1890 – 1941) is one the first great figures of jazz, along with Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, though Morton might have resented having to share the billing. Jelly Roll Morton was a flamboyant and seemingly irrepressible figure in his heyday, a dandy, a self-promoter, and a sharp customer. Like Bessie, Jelly Roll always made sure you knew that he was in the room, and who he was. He sported a diamond stud in his front teeth. He started out as a “professor” playing the piano in a whore house. As rough-and-tumble as this profession might seem, it in fact paid better and had higher social status than some of the other career avenues in the music business at that time and place.

Unlike Bessie, Jelly Roll tried to flee from Black identity; he was a Creole, and proud of that heritage. My favorite non-listening introduction to him is, I think, Alan Lomax memoirs now available with the complete recorded Smithsonian sessions. Lomax met him at the bar Jelly Roll owned and ran at the time, in Washington, D.C, where - almost entirely forgotten - he played the piano for a few lucky customers. Lomax found him both proud and serious, and though Lomax initially thought he would take no interest, soon found he was talking to the genuine article, and recorded practically their entire conversation. Listening to Jelly Roll reminisce on the piano is a darn good way to spend the hours, even if Lomax won't stay out of the way often enough.

Jelly Roll Morton recorded several New Orleans style pieces in Chicago in 1926. Black Bottom Stomp, one of the early masterpieces of jazz composition and ensemble playing, can be enjoyable the first time you hear it, and its one of those pieces that responds well to familiarity. It is not an easy song to make your way around in because so much is packed into so little. The song is a virtual encyclopedia of the various formal elements that will contribute to jazz songs from here on, including stop-time tempos, solo choruses and solo breaks, call-and-response, collective improvisation, and even a dance called the “black bottom,” which you can hear in the seventh chorus, the fourth B section, with George Mitchell taking a stop-time trumpet solo .

The black bottom dance was all the rage in 1926.

The Black bottom was basically a solo challenge dance. Predominately danced on the "Off Beat" and was the prototype for the modern Tap dance phrasing. The Dance featured the slapping of the backside while hopping forward and backward, stamping the feet and gyrations of the torso and pelvis/Hips like the Grind, while occasionally making arm movements to music with an occasional 'Heel-Toe Scoop' which was very erotic in those days. The dance eventually got refined and entered the ballroom with ballroom couples doing the dance. (Sonny Watson's

Songs about the black bottom range from that of the stately Ma Rainey (Ma Rainey's gonna show you her black bottom) to the tuba-thumping band of Johnny Hamp (one of the first recordings to feature clapping) to the charming Annette Henshaw (Old fellows with lumbago and high yellows, away they go...)

Mike Slack says this about this seminal Morton recording:

Jazz history was made by Morton and his Red Hot Peppers in Chicago in September of 1926 with two great recording sessions setting forth milestones in Classic Jazz. For these record dates he handpicked the best musicians on Chicago's South Side, musicians who were mostly from New Orleans - Omer Simeon, clarinet, Kid Ory, trombone, George Mitchell, trumpet, Johnny St Cyr, banjo, John Lindsay, bass, and Anrew Hilaire, drums.

Black Bottom Stomp, The Chant, Smoke House Blues, emerged from the first session, followed six days later by Steamboat Stomp, Sidewalk Blues and Dead Man Blues. In December that year, they cut four more sides: Cannon Ball Blues, Grandpa's Spells, Original Jelly Roll Blues and Doctor Jazz. These music selections were mostly Morton originals, carefully arranged yet with freedom in the solo passages. They had multiple themes, key changes, and solos interspersed with the driving ensemble. It was as if Morton were saying, "This is New Orleans jazz, this is how it should be played."

Mr Jelly held some strong musical views. "Jazz music is to be played sweet, soft, plenty rhythm." That way you can develop crescendos. Solo breaks, featuring an individual for a bar or two, were deemed important. "Without breaks and without clean breaks and without beautiful ideas in breaks .... you haven't got a jazz band and you can't play jazz." The Red Hot Pepper's recordings are full of breaks: listen to George Mitchell (Little Mitch) on Black Bottom Stomp or on Cannon Ball Blues. The intensity, the drive and the beautiful ideas are all there. --------- © Mike Slack - Reprinted from NOJCNC News, Nov. 2001.

Here is Gary Giddins on this powerful song, in his Visions of Jazz:

The opening strain, blaring with daring mirth, suggests military pomp filtered by irony and typifies his gift for highly rhythmic melodies. It consists of four four-bar figures that imitate the call-and-response of a preacher and his congregation, the rhythm varying between a Charleston stop-time (for the preacher) and a stable four/four. The second strain, which animates the improvisation, combines an eight-bar blues and a twelve-bar blues and is dramatically heightened by the inclusion of two-bar breaks (“it’s always necessary to arrange some kind of spot to make a break,” he counseled). In the closing episode, he employs one of his favorite devices for increasing tension: the ensemble states the theme, then repeats it exactly, except for the addition of trombone smears and a break (p. 72)

Note that the repetition here is described as "exactly, except for..." This is one of the critical turns both in this music and in jazz generally. First you hear something then you hear it again transformed.

In his The History of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1997) Ted Gioia writes,

When lecturing on Morton’s music, I have always been struck by how long it takes to describe in words what is happening in any one of his pieces. For a three-minute recording, it requires ten times as much time to provide even a cursory explanation of the various shifts in instrumentation, harmonic structure, and rhythmic support that characterize these performances. The structural complexity is not arbitrary, but essential to Morton’s maximalist aesthetic. In his September 1926 version of “Black Bottom Stomp,” … the band disappears midway through the piece, leaving the leader to keep the music flowing with a blistering, two-fisted stomp, which Jelly ardently attacks as though it were the star soloist’s cadenza in a classical concerto. But, in a flash, the Red Hot Peppers are back, this time supporting cornetist George Mitchell in a heated stop-time chorus. This leads directly into a Johnny St. Cyr conversation, in syncopated time, with the ensemble. Soon the New Orleans counterpoint of trombone, clarinet, and cornet returns with redoubled energy, the trademark sound—inevitable as the “happily ever after” at the close of a fairy tale—that indicates a Red Hot Peppers performance has reached its intended conclusion. Here again, three minutes of vinyl are forced to accommodate symphonic aspirations (The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia, pp. 41-2).