[This post started way back in 2009 in response to some other articles floating around the jazz internet at the time. I’ve made some revisions and think it’s still a fun analysis of one of Morton’s best tunes and one of the iconic early jazz composions. Enjoy…]
As I continue to explore early jazz, I am constantly reminded about how innovative and original these musicians were in the context of their times, and few as creatively as my all time favorite, the New Orleans pioneering pianist and composer Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton. Morton grew up in the New Orleans of the 20’s, full of brothels, white/black/creole divides, and the famous “melting pot” of musical influences inherent therein. He claimed to single-handedly invent jazz in the early part of the century. Though a hyperbole, I believe it’s not much of one. You’d be hard-pressed to find another early jazz musician who combined classical, ragtime, blues and Caribbean influences as subtly and skillfully as Morton, not to mention his skills as a composer and arranger, which were far ahead of other jazz musicians of the time and really not paralleled until Ellington came on the scene. Most importantly, there was no one else before him (and not too many since) who were able to single-handedly deliver solo piano performances with such textural variety, contrapuntal melody, and above all, incredible rhythmic drive and swing! It’s difficult to be simultaneously relaxed and swing really hard in any context, small or large group, but is especially difficult when playing solo piano, and Morton remains the most convincing example in my opinion.
Clearly, I have plenty to say about Morton, and will not attempt to cram it into one lengthy post. Instead I will focus on one of his best-known compositions, “King Porter Stomp.” This piece was later made famous in the 1930’s by Benny Goodman’s band among others, and the chord progression of it’s third section was very influential throughout the swing era. It was written in 1906, and named after Memphis pianist Porter King. As with many of Morton’s pieces, it has three sections (or “strains”), a formula he carried over from much of the ragtime repertoire. Unlike most of his 3-strain tunes, however, the first strain is not presented between the second and third as a reprise, he simply states them one after another. Morton’s three-strain pieces almost always focus on the third strain, and this one is no exception. This piece is a great example of how to use form to create tension and excitement in a tune. The first strain contains some “breaks” – sections without a stride-style left hand, and firmly establishes the key of A-flat. He usually plays it twice, then moves on to the second strain, which is in the relative minor. This already creates some harmonic tension, and again he breaks up the left hand significantly throughout the strain, making it feel a bit unsettled. He also builds in volume and intensity during the second repetition of the second strain, leading directly into the transition. Then comes the third strain, which is repeated an indefinite number of times. The whole piece moves down a fifth, once again upping the ante harmonically. He typically states the melody quietly, in a “chorale” like style, as was one of his trademarks. Then he moves on to a series of continuously building riff choruses with a very “stompy” left hand driving the piece to its conclusion.
Although this form is nearly foolproof and demonstrates Morton’s skills as a composer and arranger, his solo performances demonstrate his unstoppable swing and his conception of the piano as an entire band, a point which he discussed at many points throughout his life. I have selected three versions from 1923, 1926, and 1939. which demonstrate not only his skill, but also his evolution from a more straight-eighth ragtime style to his eventual hard-swinging mature style.
It’s quite interesting to notice the evolution of his swing feel and contrapuntal playing. Especially by the time of the 1939 recording, you can really hear a lot of very well executed inner voices in his right hand alone, and his left hand has lightened up but is simultaneously more swinging. Amazingly, he used almost no pedal at any point in his career, which makes the smoothness of his left hand playing quite remarkable. I can really hear the magic of the New Orleans groove in his later playing, the type of groove which was later used to great effect by pianists such as James Booker and Dr. John, and continues to be an integral part of the brass band tradition there. Along the same lines, his renditions suggest a full band very clearly, especially in the first two strains where there are various breaks one could easily imagine being played by a trombone or clarinet, and in the very trumpet-like third strain riff choruses.
Hope you enjoy the recordings, they really each have their highlights – I especially like the ultra-“stompy” second chorus in the 1926 version and of course the later one, from one of his last recording sessions, is quintessential Morton, building to an exciting climax at the end of the piece.