erdinand “Jelly Roll Morton” Lamothe was such a colorful character that it’s not possible to discuss him at length here; it would take an entire book (and it has.) Instead, I’ll focus on just one tune: Dead Man Blues.
Many of Morton’s recordings begin with bits of banter between band members. The Smithsonian, in their “Smithsonian Jazz” releases (currently unavailable, I believe) removed these spoken bits, commenting that they were ‘apparently intended to be humorous.’ Perhaps I’m too far away in the stream of time (it was recorded 21 September 1926); perhaps I’m too culturally integrated (or not integrated enough?) but I prefer “Dead Man Blues” with the introduction intact. It’s better heard than read, so I won’t reproduce it here. Suffice it to say that they make it clear it’s not intended to be a dirge.
The final words of the spoken intro herald ‘the trambone-phone’ which, in the hands of Edward ‘Kid’ Ory, opens the tune with a jazzed rendition of Chopin‘s “Funeral March.” The trombone was frequently used for humorous effect in traditional jazz, and that’s the obvious intent here. A brief nod to Chopin, and suddenly the trombone, trumpet, and clarinet take off in their own polyphonic paths. Leading by turns, each instrument swirls out of the depths, does its bit, then drops to the background. First Omer Simeon’s clarinet, syncopating its way through a couple bars, and then, my favorite trumpet solo of any jazz tune. Not the fastest, not the most creative, not the most anything, as far as I can tell, but it just feels perfect. Picking up almost where the clarinet left off, George Mitchell’s trumpet has just the right amount of tremolo; it wanders gracefully through the first passage ending in a half-cadence that doesn’t really let you know if that’s a signal of more to come, or just a quirky conclusion. But no, another passage, so similar to the first, but stretched here where the first was stretched there. This one ends in a full cadence, and it feels right to have a traditional closure instead of something more complex or ‘jazzy.’
During the last minute of the recording, the horns converge, then just as quickly go their separate ways. This time, the clarinet and trumpet compete for the spotlight. Before a clear winner emerges, a quiet chorus and quick cymbal clash bring down the curtain.
On a completely unrelated note, I was reminded yesterday of Elvis Costello‘s “Watching the Detectives.” I’ve always thought it was the soundtrack to Raymond Chandler‘s “The Big Sleep” but I can’t prove it. This is how a Gretsch White Falcon should be played. Superb percussion, languid guitar, mysterious bass, and lines like “she pulls their eyes out with her face like a magnet” combine to form a truly memorable pop tune. (So how come I had to be reminded?)