jelly’s boast (backed up in writing)


i started jass with

latin tinged, cafe colored

keyboard handicrafts



if buddy bolden—or someone black like that—started jazz then how could ferdinand lementh “jelly roll” morton fix his mouth to boast that he “invented jazz in 1903”? simple, my man was the first to write it down, to figure out where and how the notes go when put on paper just so a musician trained in the reading of music but untutored in the ways of the raucous folk could play these wild new sounds or at least a rough approximation, or at least play the heads, the melodies.


and while a lot of folks like to claim that jelly’s skill was because of the creole in him most of those same folks know nothing about the deep draughts jelly drank from the brackish bottom of the blues’ most funky well. jelly had songs that could make a prostitute blush and a pimp hide his face in shame. storyville wasn’t no conservatory and jass wasn’t no waltz. jelly knew this. he knew about the blacks. he knew about the whites. and especially about everything that went down in between. like all good blues folk he also had a mean streak, that cut-you-if-you-stand-still and shoot-you-if-you-run temperament necessary to survive saturday nights in the roughest parts of town.


no doubt it was because of jelly that the story freely circulated that jazz was born in a brothel, specifically the cathouses of storyville. but all that’s said ain’t necessarily so. sure, jelly played jazz there, but  just cause jelly played for tricks and whores that don’t mean that’s where his songs came from. the music was actually made outside elsewhere and later on brought inside those doors. which is not to take nothing away from jelly because figuring out how to write it down was no mean feat, especially those lusty sounds his brothers uptown would just let rip, day after day and night after night, pouring their sacred souls into the secular atmosphere. jelly would listen, and listen, and grin, and hold those sacred riffs inside his jaws and against the crown of his mouth and later spit out onto paper those notes which a bunch of others had written in the air. i’m not saying jelly wasn’t original, i’m just saying a good scribe can always write more than he or she individually knows, especially when they are present at the creation and have the initial shot at drafting up tunes taken down from the motherlode.


given the mixed nature of jelly’s pedigree and his back-a-town, alley-crawling cravings, he was able to create music for all occasions. music for right now if you were ready to get it on and music for later after all the squares were gone. music colored by what jelly suggestively called the spanish tinge.


and what was this latin tinge that jelly so glowingly spoke of? was it african rhythms run through the backyard of the caribbean? one critic talks vociferously about the arab influence—what he maybe means is the moorish number that spain slyly claimed as an original contribution, or mali’s twist on the islamic prayer chant—arab influence, huh? arab sounds altered by contact with african souls and soil, and rearranged caribbean stylee (which “stylee” is just africans in the west reinventing our ancient selves). that mambo, that rumba, merengue, clave, son and so forth. those pentatonic scales, modes, falsettoes and nasal drones. yeah, it’s all arab straight from the heart of africa. jelly knew, that’s why he said the tinge in the latin rather than the whole roman enchilada.


anyway, as much as he wrote and as important as his compositions are, in the final analysis we remember jelly because jelly didn’t forget the import of what he heard, because jelly found a way to write without emasculating the music’s swagger, without perfuming the funk, without covering the flesh in a veil of false modesty.


we remember jelly because jelly accurately remembered us. and lord, lord, lord even if he had never written a note, just one quick listen will confirm how marvelously potent his playing was. that mr. jelly, mr. jelly, he sure could play that shit.


—kalamu ya salaam