Jelly Roll Morton: Bridging Ragtime and Jazz Traditions

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.

Ragtime and Stride – Two American Piano Styles

Ragtime and Stride are two styles of American piano playing that are closely related and often mistaken for one another. Both styles are virtuosic with an active, steady bass line with a syncopated melodic line in the right hand. The styles developed over a short period of time, first Ragtime and then Stride.

Here’s a breakdown of some features that set these two styles of playing apart.

Repertoire

Ragtime repertoire consisted primarily of “rags,” a compositional form and style inspired by marches. These pieces of music were typically written down and played as the sheet music dictated. Most rags were composed in duple meter (2/4 or 2/2), though there are a fair selection of waltzes (3/4) in the repertoire. They often consist of four strains, melodic ideas typically 16 measures each that are organized in the following form:

||: A :|| ||: B :|| A ||: C :|| ||: D :||

A common formal variation is to include a final playing of the “A” strain at the end of the piece. Rags often start with a short introduction before the first playing of the “A” strain. Other modifications to the form are possible, even prevalent.

Stride repertoire was more open-ended. It included songs from the Great American Songbook as well as original compositions. Tin Pan Alley songs were typically published in the form of a very generic piano arrangement. This gave stride pianists room to add their own personalities into these songs rather than being beholden to the sheet music.

Improvisation

Ragtime music did not involve improvisation. It stayed true to the written music. Sometimes, performers would repeat sections of pieces more times than indicated to add length to the pieces, particularly during social functions.

Stride allowed for more embellishments and improvisation as part of the performance of pieces. This component was critical to moving forward from Ragtime into the Jazz tradition.

Origin

Ragtime originated in the southern and midwestern United States in the 1890s. Missouri was a central hub for the music, perhaps in part because legendary Ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin made Sedalia, MO his home for much of his life.

Stride originated in Harlem, New York City around 1920. James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie “The Lion” Smith were the three pianists credited with being innovators and masters of Stride piano. These artists were aware of Ragtime and drew from its rich tradition in their own music.

Recorded History

Ragtime waxed and waned in popularity before recorded music was commonplace. The music was primarily preserved in the sheet music published during the time. Toward the end of the Ragtime Era, player pianos came into prominence and some Ragtime performances were preserved as piano rolls. Once music recording technologies advanced, some of the surviving pianists of the Ragtime Era, such as Eubie Blake and Joseph Lamb, recorded their works.

Stride developed alongside early recording technology. This is a true gift because we, a century later, can hear how Stride was played at the time of its creation by the artists who created it.

I hope this explanation helps bring clarity to how Ragtime and Stride are distinctive approaches to pianistic performance and composition in the United States.

Sources

About Stride Piano
Harlem Stride Piano
History of Ragtime
Stride Piano: Bottom-End Jazz
Stride Piano


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.

Meet the Gellers

Sometimes it can be a struggle to put on some new music. I find a lot of comfort in listening to my favorite albums over and over again. While I do deepen my understanding and appreciation of this music when I listen to it again, it is important to be exposed to more artists. I am really thankful one of my incredible mentors Allan Chase (who has his own amazing blog) introduced me to the music of Lorraine and Herb Geller.

Pianist Lorraine Geller (1928-1958) was born in Portland, Oregon. From 1949 to 1952, she played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm led by Anna Mae Winburn. She played with many legendary West Coast jazz artists including Zoot Sims and Stan Getz.

Alto saxophonist Herb Geller (1928-2013) was born in Los Angeles, California. He attended Dorsey High School long with saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd. Herb worked with Billy May’s and Claude Thornhill’s orchestras in New York.

In 1949, Lorraine and Herb met at a Los Angeles jam session. They married in 1952. The Gellers were vital contributors to the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s and played with the likes of Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, and others live and in the studio.

Lorraine was diagnosed with asthma prior to giving birth to her daughter, Lisa. The birth took a toll on Lorraine’s health and shortly after she suffered pulmonary edema and an asthma attack, tragically passing away at the age of 30.

Lorraine only recorded one album as a leader entitled At the Piano, released a year following her untimely passing. It is a gem, a sampling of the soundscape of a burgeoning artist gone too soon.

Lorraine Geller’s sole album as a leader

The couple recorded together as well. They cut a record aptly titled The Gellers which I have been listening to obsessively for the past week or so. The tunes, a mixture of standards and originals, are catchy yet find ways to surprise and delight the listener. The music feels effortless, even on the burning opening number “Araphoe,” a contrafact over the Ray Noble classic “Cherokee” (first made famous as the theme for the Charlie Barnet band but then became a bebop anthem with the rise of Charlie Parker). I found myself taking particular interest in “I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling” for its driving swing and nuanced arrangement.

a playlist of the masterful collaboration between the Gellers

I look forward to further exploring the music of the Gellers and their affiliates. Their music has been a gateway for me to learning more about the West Coast jazz stylings, an area in which I would like to be better versed. What do you think about the Gellers’ music and story?


Sources