Jelly Roll Morton (essay date 1938)
SOURCE: “I Created Jazz in 1902, Not W. C. Handy,” in Down Beat, Vol. 61, No. 7, July, 1994, pp. 10, 12-13.
[In the following essay, originally composed in 1938, Morton claims that blues music predates both himself and W. C. Handy, and maintains that he—rather than Handy—was the originator of jazz.]
Dear Mr. Ripley:
For many years I have been a constant reader of your (Believe It or Not) cartoon. I have listened to your broadcast with keen interest. I frankly believe your work is a great contribution to natural science.
In your broadcast of March 26, 1938, you introduced W. C. Handy as the originator of jazz, stomps, and blues. By this announcement you have done me a great injustice, and you have also misled many of your fans.
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. Jazz music is a style, not compositions; any kind of music may be played in jazz, if one has the knowledge. The first stomp was written in 1906, namely “King Porter Stomp.” “Georgia Swing” was the first to be named swing in 1907. You may be informed by leading recording companies. “New Orleans Blues” was written in 1905, the same year “Jelly Roll Blues” was mapped out, but not published at that time. New Orleans was the headquarters for the greatest Ragtime musicians on earth. There was more work than musicians. Everyone had their individual style. My style seemed to be the attraction. I decided to travel, and tried Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and many other states during 1903-'04, and was accepted as sensational.
In the year of 1908, I was brought to Memphis by a small theatre owner, Fred Barasso, as a feature attraction and to be with his number-one company for his circuit, which consisted of four houses, namely Memphis, Tenn., Greenville, Vicksburg, and Jackson, Miss. That was the birth of the Negro theatrical circuit in the U.S.A. It was that year I met Handy in Memphis. I learned that he had just arrived from his home town, Henderson, Ky. He was introduced to me as Prof. Handy. Who ever heard of anyone wearing the name of Professor advocate ragtime, jazz, stomps, blues, etc.? Of course Handy could not play either of these types, and I can assure you he has never learned them as yet (meaning freak tunes, plenty of finger work in the groove of harmonies, great improvisations, accurate, exciting tempos with a kick). I know Mr. Handy's ability, and it is the type of folk songs, hymns, anthems, etc. If you believe I am wrong, challenge his ability.
Prof. Handy and his band played several days a week at a colored amusement park in Memphis, namely, Dixie Park. Guy Williams, a guitarist, worked in the band in 1911. He had a blues tune he wrote, called “Jogo Blues.” This tune was published by Pace and Handy under the same title, and later changed to “St. Louis Blues.” Williams has no copyright as yet. In 1912 I happened to be in Texas, and one of my fellow musicians brought me a number to play—“Memphis Blues.” The minute I started playing it, I recognized it. I said to James Milles, the one who presented it to me (trombonist, still in Houston, playing with me at that time), “The first strain is a Black Butts' strain all ‘dressed up.’” Butts was strictly blues (or what they call a Boogie Woogie player) I said the second strain was mine. I practically assembled the tune. The last strain was Tony Jackson's strain, Whoa B-Whoa. At that time no one knew the meaning of the word jazz or stomps but me. This also added a new word to the dictionary, which they gave the wrong definition. The word blues was known to everyone. For instance, when I was eight or nine years of age, I heard blues tunes entitled “Alice Fields,” “Isn't It Hard To Love,” “Make Me A Palate [sic] On The Floor”—the latter which I played myself on my guitar. Handy also retitled his catalogue “Atlanta Blues.” Mr. Handy cannot prove anything is music that he has created. He has possibly taken advantage of some unprotected material that sometimes floats around. I would like to know how a person could be an originator of anything, without being able to do at least some of what they created.
I still claim that jazz hasn't gotten to its peak as yet. I may be the only perfect specimen today in jazz that's living. It may be because of my contributions, that gives me authority...
(The entire section is 1914 words.)