KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A jazz standard called “Kansas City Stomp” enters the public domain this year. Jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton recorded the song in Richmond, Virginia on July 18th, 1923 along with the tunes “Wolverine Blues” and “Grandpa’s Spells.” Morton started his career in New Orleans. He was an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer.
Kansas City Stomp wasn’t originally about the city of fountains. After playing at a saloon called the “Kansas City Bar” in Tijuana, Mexico, Morton wanted to capture the liveliness of the scene. Morton said a friend of his named Jack Jones ran the saloon and wanted a song named after his business. The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted the song into its list in 2010. Below is a recording of the song from the Library of Congress.
Life of major jazz figure
Morton’s recognized for unlocking the secrets to arranging the new genre. He proved a music rooted in improvisation retains its essential spirit, and it can be transcribed for wider use. His composition “Jelly Roll Blues” is widely considered the first published jazz composition back in 1915.
Morton played ragtime on the piano. He often played the melody of a tune simply with his right thumb. He liked to play the harmony above these notes with his other right hand fingers. It often made his songs sound slightly out-of-tune, fitting for the 1910s and 1920s. Music theory experts explain this further — they have noted he frequently played a diminished 5th above his melody. The style was common in New Orleans, and he likely learned his piano quirks there. Morton played basic swing rhythms with both his left and right hand.
Several of his most popular compositions were tributes to himself. This includes: “Winnin Boy”, “The Jelly Roll Blues”, and “Mr. Jelly Lord.” His musical influence continues in the works of modern day artists Dick Hyman, David Thomas Roberts, and Reginald Robinson.
At the age of fourteen, Morton started his career in music. He worked as a piano player in a brothel (which was referred to as a sporting house back then). His name “Jelly Roll” came from African-American slang. While working at the brothel, he convinced his churchgoing great-grandmother that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory. She later found out he played jazz music at a cathouse, and she promptly kicked him out of her home.
Cornet player Rex Stewart said Jelly Roll took on the last name Morton to protect his family from disgrace — that’s if he was identified for his work at the house of ill fame. His birth name was Ferdinand Jospeh LaMothe, possibly spelled Lemott, LaMotte, or LaMenthe.
In 1923, Morton released the first of his commercial recordings, first as piano rolls, then on record, both as a piano soloist and with jazz bands.
In 1938, a friend of Morton stabbed him in Washington D.C. He suffered wounds to the head and chest. A nearby whites-only hospital refused to treat him. The city had racially segregated facilities. He was taken to a black hospital. The doctors there left ice on his wounds for several hours before treating the injury. His recovery was incomplete from the medical world’s staggered help. For the next three years, he was prone to illness and frequently short of breath. But amazingly during this time, he continued working on commercial recordings in New York.
Worsening asthma sent Morton to a New York hospital for three months. He suffered from respiratory problems while visiting Los Angeles; he took with him a series of manuscripts including new tunes and arrangements. Morton wanted to form a new band and restart his career. He died on July 10, 1941, after an eleven-day stay in a Los Angeles hospital. He was only 50 years old.
In 2005, Rounder released an eight-disc box set including interviews of Morton by biographer Alan Lomax. It focused on the musician’s early days of jazz, ragtime, and piano playing. It also includes 1949 recordings of Morton’s contemporaries. The entire set is called “Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.” It spans an impressive 128 tracks.
The bar that inspired the “Kansas City Stomp” song no longer exists, but if you take a 40 minute drive from Tijuana to San Diego there is a restaurant called Kansas City Barbecue where two big scenes from “Top Gun” were filmed. This includes the scene where cast members play “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano.