The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The first scene of Jelly’s Last Jam takes place in the afterlife, with Chimney Man serving as the conductor on the stage. The character of Chimney Man is a blend of Saint Peter and Satan, and his role is reminiscent of that performed by the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). However, instead of a cold-hearted miser like Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, Chimney Man’s responsibility is Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe Morton, known to his friends and jazz devotees as Jelly Roll. Jelly Roll has died, and in the afterlife he meets Chimney Man, who is accompanied by the Hunnies, a trio of comely backup singers who take on various roles and costumes as the play progresses.

This musical, with a book written by George C. Wolfe and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, features the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton, the self-described “inventor of jazz.” Morton was a larger-than-life figure, a light-skinned Creole with a passion for fine clothes and fast women. He wore a diamond embedded in one of his front teeth, and his journey as one of the early high priests of jazz took him from his New Orleans roots to the stages of Chicago, New York, and finally Los Angeles. Before the era of bebop and big bands, Morton’s music served as a transition between the ragtime tunes of Scott Joplin and the more modern melodies of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

The play follows Morton’s career in flashback, introducing the audience to...

(The entire section is 508 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brustein, Robert. “’Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That.” Review of Jelly’s Last Jam, by George C. Wolfe. The New Republic, June 8, 1992, 33-35. Sees Jelly’s Last Jam as marking a “genuine advance” in African American theater; praises both the dramatic and the musical aspects of the play.

Henry, W. A., III. “Triple Threat.” Review of Jelly’s Last Jam, by George C. Wolfe. Time 139, no. 18 (May 4, 1992): 78. Negative review that notes Wolfe’s ambitions for the musical but finds the result “muddled.”

Kinzer, Stephen. “Sixty Years After His Death, Jelly Roll Morton Gets Respect.” The New York Times, November 28, 2000, p. E1. Finds Wolfe’s portrayal of Morton unfair and questions whether it accurately reflects the musician’s racial attitudes.

Kroll, J. “A Folk Hero’s Hot Odyssey.” Review of Jelly’s Last Jam, by George C. Wolfe. Newsweek 119, no. 8 (May 4, 1992): 66. Lauds Wolfe for theatrical innovation in the representation of African American experience.

Nixon, Will. “George C. Wolfe Creates Visions of Black Culture.” American Visions 6, no. 2 (April, 1991): 50-52. Addresses Wolfe’s assessment of American and African American culture and the role of the latter in the former.

Wolfe, George C. “Theatre and the Wolfe.” Interview by Ed Morales. American Theatre 11, no. 10 (December, 1994): 14. Wolfe talks about the nature of theatrical spectatorship and his humanistic aesthetic.