New Orleans jazz : Jelly on a roll

Boxed Set of CDs The Economist reviews the Oral History of Jelly Roll Morton, in 1938 set of interviews by Alan Lomax, and recently released in their entirety in a boxed set of CDs.

IN 1938, a casual encounter in Washington, DC, inspired one of the most remarkable documents in American music and culture. Alan Lomax, the young director of the American Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, heard that Jelly Roll Morton, a legendary pianist-composer from the bygone days of New Orleans jazz, was languishing in a seedy local club.

…Though Lomax actually disliked jazz, considering it a corruption of folk-music purity, he invited Morton to the Library of Congress to record some of his New Orleans memories. The moment the veteran pianist began to talk, play and sing, Lomax realised he had struck gold. That one-off interview stretched into months, producing a unique portrait of a fabulous time and place, mesmerisingly evoked by a Creole genius.

The author of the article claims that this is the first oral history, a claim which I doubt (just opened up the intro to Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History, where he notes the first were done in the 19th century—with an example of recollections of a riot in NY City in 1863). But that’s a mere quibble. The point is that the recording exists, and especially given the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans, historical collections like these are vital. And there’s talking and playing. It’s an expensive item (over $100), but the author says they’ve been flying off the shelves.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on January 19, 2006 in • Online Oral History Collections
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