May 18, 2024

Website about Jazz and Blues

Why did Jelly Roll Morton claim to be older? Video, Photos

Lawrence Gushee (1931-2015), long-time music professor at the University of Illinois, was one of my mentors. He knew more about early jazz and its origins than just about anybody. For example, read this:

Remember that today’s mania for proofs of identity and ID cards did not exist yet. Churches kept records of births and baptisms going back a few hundred years, but most governments did not require birth certificates until 1900 or later. The situation was similar worldwide, although some European countries began using, but not requiring, birth certificates in the mid-1800s. The New Orleans city government did begin to register some births as early as 1790, but not in a regular and consistent manner. And there were no drivers’ licenses, no passports.

In short, not everybody knew for certain when they were born. If you were required to state your age, you simply did so—to the best of your knowledge!

So—the question I want to address here is, simply: Why did Morton make himself older than he was? In “show business” it was more common for people to try to be younger than they were, not older. Even if he weren’t certain of his birth year, it’s not believable that he’d be off by 5 years accidentally. You’d notice while growing up that you were about 5 years old and not 10—or 15 and not 20—by comparing yourself with other children!

The main reason, I believe, is that his claim that he invented jazz in 1902 would not have been tenable if it were known that he was 12 years old in 1902! But if he had been 17, it might be believable.

As he wrote to DownBeat in 1938, “It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be creator in the year 1902, many years before the Dixieland Band organized.” (He is referring to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which we call ODJB for short.)

Morton repeated this 1902 claim in writing to Roy Carew (a researcher of New Orleans music, 1883-1967). And on his business cards he described himself as the “originator of jazz.” I believe the Tempo Music card below is from 1938, and the New York City one is from 1939-40:

Now, there is still one question remaining: Why, when he registered for the draft in 1918, did he make himself just a little bit older still? As you can see on his draft registration card (the cards for Morton and for many other early musicians are on the DoctorJazz site), he gave his birthdate as September 13, 1884. Generally the cards were filled out by the staff asking the questions, then signed by the individual:

It cannot be a coincidence that on that very day in 1918, Morton indicated that he would be 34 on the very next day, Sept 13, instead of a week later on September 20th. In this way he made himself as old as he felt that he safely could–and, as you can see, he succeeded in being counted as 34. If he had stayed with September 20, 1885 he would have been 32, and about to be 33 in a week.

When asked his age, I can just hear him saying “Tomorrow I’ll be 34.” So by making himself 34, he surely expected that it was less likely that he would be drafted. (Evidently he knew that he could not go further and pass for being 46 years old, which would have exempted him completely.)

In any case, the war ended just two months later on November 11, 1918, and Morton was not drafted.

And, just to be clear, Morton was in fact very important to the early days of jazz—and his bands, compositions and piano playing sound great on recordings. I’m not trying to downplay his role! But no one person invented jazz. (No, not Buddy Bolden either.)

Jelly Roll Morton - Jelly Roll Blues (1924) - YouTube

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