When trumpeter Lee Collins was hired by Jelly Roll Morton, the first thing Morton told the astonished Collins was, “You know you will be working for the world's best jazz piano player … not one of the greatest — I am The Greatest," according to jazz historian Martin Williams.
When Morton introduced himself, he often said, "I invented jazz."
Cocky? Definitely. Arrogant? Certainly. But as it turns out, he was probably right.
According to jazz historians, when Jelly Roll Morton said, “I invented jazz,” there was a lot to his claim. Buddy Bolden may have been the first musician to add improvisation to what would eventually become known as jazz, but Jelly Roll Morton is regarded as the first true jazz composer. He was the first to write down his jazz arrangements – and a number of his compositions became jazz staples.
Jelly was born Ferdinand Joseph Le Menthe in 1885 to a middle class Creole family on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. At the age of 8, Ferdinand received formal guitar lessons. A relatively short time later, he was employed as a piano player by Countess Willie Piazza, a Storyville madam, who was said to speak seven languages, wear a monocle and punctuate her speech with a foot-long cigarette holder. She also knew great music when she heard it.
By the time Jelly was in his early twenties, he was an in-demand musician, playing the entire Gulf Coast. From 1917 to 1922, he was conquering the West Coast. And in 1922, he left California for Chicago. During that period, he created some of the most innovative and creative music that ever emerged – tunes like “King Porter Stomp,” “New Orleans Blues,” “Kansas City Stomp,” “Shreveport Stomp” and the “Original Jelly Roll Blues.” In his typical humble way, Jelly once said, “Everyone today is playing my stuff and I don't even get credit. Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style hell, they're all Jelly Roll style.”
In 1938, Jelly capped a brilliant musical career with a grand recording session for the Library of Congress. Fifty-two records with more than one hundred individual compositions resulted. Jelly would be the first to tell you, “They were the greatest.” He died in 1941.