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Ragtime Project

Jelly Roll Morton: Bridging Ragtime and Jazz Traditions

Jelly Roll Morton demonstrates the stylistic differences between Ragtime and Jazz, an evolution of which he was a major proponent

Ragtime and Jazz are two musical traditions that are closely related, yet distinctively unique. In a previous blogpost, I wrote about the defining features of these two styles pertaining specifically to the piano. Now I would like to explore the works of a specific artist who was crucial to bridging these traditions – Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known by the crude moniker “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941).

Morton claimed that he invented Jazz, a bold statement. Nonetheless, Morton was active as a pianist and composer during the shift between Ragtime and Jazz. Morton’s influence on American music was well-documented in his 1938 interview series with Alan Lomax.

Using Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Morton demonstrated the difference between a Ragtime and Jazz interpretation of the piece.

Morton performing Maple Leaf Rag in a Ragtime and Jazz style in his 1938 interview with Alan Lomax

In his critical book Early Jazz (1968), Gunther Schuller singles out this particular recording as a prime example of the evolution of swing feel. Schuller purports that the key to Morton’s “smoothing out” of the “rhythmic tightness” found in Ragtime is due to the improvisation in his right hand (Schuller p. 144). “By means of his improvisational methods, Morton was able to horizontalize the music, as it were, and to suppress the vertical, harmonic emphasis of ragtime and other musical forms” (Schuller p. 144).

In other words, Morton’s rhythmic language was less predictable and contained more forward momentum than Ragtime. The side-by-side comparison Morton offered makes the difference strikingly clear.

I agree with Schuller’s observations, but I also need to add that there is more in the music than can be expressed in mere words. We are fortunate to have this recorded history of a primary innovative source demonstrating the nuances of the music he grew up around and went on to advance irrevocably.


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

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