In 1897, there was mass chaos down in New Orleans. The wild rowdy city was a melting pot of ethnicity and commerce. Frenchmen, Creoles, West Indians, Spaniards, Blacks, Mustees, legitimate businessmen, church ladies, pirates, and prostitutes, all co-existing in a relatively limited area.
An alderman by the name of Joseph Story proposed setting aside an eighteen square block district for vice. The proposal was passed and the chaos submitted to organization. The district was dubbed Storyville.
Storyville was a siren calling men from every state. There were 2000 prostitutes in its 230 brothels; as radically diverse as the city. They were catalogued annually in an official "Blue Book" which sold for a quarter on street corners. In those days the bar owners did not hire bands. They did not believe patrons who danced would drink. Brothels, however, hired parlor piano players, and that is where Jelly Roll Morton began his musical career.
Born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe in New Orleans on October 20, 1890, Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz. Of course, he also claimed to have invented the piano and anything else that came to mind. He was a colorful character, and -- veracity aside -- an accomplished pianist, composer, arranger and writer. He could put his money where his mouth was.
In another part of the country, during the same era, a baby boy was born to J. E. Ellington and Daisy Ellington. Edward Kennedy Ellington’s life could not have been any more further from conditions in Storyville. Born in the home of his maternal grandparents in a northwest corner of Washington D. C., he spent his earliest years in a big comfortable house just a few blocks from the White House.
J. E. was a man of modest means but lofty aspirations. Butler to a prominent Washington physician, he sometimes served as a caterer at the White House, and eventually became a blueprint maker at the Washington Navy Yard. His son remembered him raising his family as if he were a millionaire.
Daisy, the daughter of a police captain, was so devoutly religious that she wore no lipstick because she thought a woman should not be attracting men. Daisy had lost one child in infancy so when Edward came along he represented a second chance. Nothing was too good for him. He was pampered and spoiled rotten by all the women in his family. He once said his feet weren’t allowed to touch the ground until he was the age of six.
Daisy took Edward to church twice each Sunday, once to the Baptist Church where her family had always gone and again to the Methodist Church favored by her husband. When the boy fell ill with pneumonia she saw to it that not one, but two, doctors were in attendance.
On the piano, Daisy played classics so beautifully for Edward that sometimes he wept. She made certain that when he was old enough to reach the piano keys, he faithfully practiced after each lesson with the neighborhood teacher, Marietta Clinkscales. His mother used to tell him, "Edward, you are blessed. You can do anything anyone else can do." She believed it, and because she believed, he did too.
In 1901, in a section of Storyville so violent it was called the "Battlefield," another baby boy was born. He grew up with the nick-name Dipper. At the tender age of seven Dipper began working after school for a rag collector. He collected rags, bottles, and bones and delivered coal to the prostitutes in Storyville. He rode in a wagon while blowing a long tin horn to let clients know the rag collector was coming.
When Dipper was ten years old he spotted an old battered cornet in a pawnshop window. He borrowed $5 from his employer and purchased it. It was so dirty it had turned black. Morris, one of the ragpicker's sons, cleaned it up with brass polish and poured oil through it. Morris was quoted years later as saying Dipper played a song for him on the newly acquired horn that sounded so bad he did not have the heart to tell him.
When the Dipper was 11 he dropped out of third grade. He quit his job with the ragpicker and organized a street quartet, who sang for pennies while keeping a sharp eye out for truant officers and policemen. His eye was not sharp enough though, because on New Year's Eve he got arrested and sentenced to an indeterminate term at the Colored Waif's Home.
The cosmos aligned for the Dipper with that one unlikely event. The home was known for its marching band. The Dipper had to prove himself worthy before the band director would allow him to join, and in a short time he was made leader of the band.
Up North, fifteen year old Edward Ellington took a temporary job washing dishes at the Plaza Hotel while on vacation with his mother in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He was befriended by the headwaiter who talked him into going to hear a Philadelphia ragtime pianist during his off hours, named Harvey Brooks. It forever changed his life.
After returning from Asbury Park in 1914, Edward entered Samuel H. Armstrong Technical High School. This was during the Jim Crow era, so the high school was segregated. Young Edward was determined to become a piano player – in part because he noticed girls were attracted to piano players and he was attracted to girls — and because music would be his way to express himself.
Edward was soon playing for teen-age dances at True Reformers Hall on U Street for 75¢ a night. He began to work up his own tunes. As young Edward matured, his grades waned and his interests shifted away from school toward ragtime piano. Yet, he painted well enough to win a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York. With just four months to go until graduation, and to his mother's horror, Edward gave up the scholarship and dropped out of school. He had decided to become a full-time musician. As for jazz – the music he would one day make his own – it was unlikely that he had yet heard a single note. But within a few weeks that would change for young Edward and for the whole country.
Back in Storyville, young Dipper turned 13 years old and made it back to the streets. In the black section of the red light district, known as the "25s," Freddie Keppard was the number one horn player. Joe Oliver was number two. One night Oliver decided he was going to be number one and snatched the crown from Freddie's head.
Oliver told his piano player; "Get in B♭." Oliver walked to the door, lifted his horn to his lips and stepped outside playing beautiful, soulful blues. People started pouring out of other spots to see who was blowing all that horn. Oliver took young Dipper under his wing. He let him substitute in the band and one day passed him a battered cornet.
In 1917 members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded "Dixieland Jazz Band One-Step," and "The Livery Stable Blues." The record sold more than a million copies at 75¢ each. One moment jazz was virtually unknown . . . the next, it was a serious past-time of 100 million people. Initially people wanted only to listen to this music. Eventually the melody, the beat and the energy all culminated in the frantic form of dance called the Charleston. In retrospect, it was a natural progression.
The same day the record was made President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress asking permission to arm merchant ships against attacks by German submarines in the Atlantic. Thirty one days later America entered the World War.
On New Year's Day 1918, two thousand men of the Fifteenth New York Regiment landed at Brest on the coast of Brittany. The French soldiers, sailors and civilians who turned out to greet them had never seen or heard anything like these Americans. The officers were white, as were all the combat soldiers who had trooped ashore in France since the previous June. But these enlisted men were black. So were all the members of the regimental band.
The leader of the regimental band was Lieutenant James Reese Europe. He had joined the regiment two years earlier because he thought a National Guard unit for Harlem would bring together all classes of men who stood for something in the community.
The Army brass believed Europe's band with its brand of martial ragtime would be good for morale while winning new friends among the French. The band played French marches, American military marches, plantation melodies and ragtime pieces. The music was still orchestrated ragtime meant for marching, not jazz, but it was filled with jazz elements; breaks, riffs, trombone smears, and rhythmic excitement no other marching band could come close to matching.
A concert was given in the Tuileries Gardens in conjunction with the greatest bands in the world; the British Grenadier's Band, the Band of the Garde Republicain, the Royal Italian Band and Europe's band. Europe was quoted saying, "My band, of course, could not compare with any of these, yet the crowd, and it was such a crowd as I never saw anywhere else in the world, deserted them for us. We played to 50,000 people, at least, and had we wished it, we might be playing yet."
Making nice with the Allies, playing music and sowing seeds of jazz for future tours was not the only thing the Fifteenth New York Regiment was known for. They endured 191 unbroken days of combat, won 171 decorations for bravery (more than any other American unit) and took special pride in the name the French gave them – Hellfighters.
Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. a young Edward Ellington was making a name for himself as one of the most successful dance band leaders in town. The Duke's Serenaders played all over the city and its suburbs, but Washington had become too small.
Even though the Duke was married and had a young son to care for, he took off with two friends a drummer and a saxophone player, for Harlem. The Duke was soon getting pickup jobs. Then he was chosen to be the band leader of the Black Sox Orchestra before changing their name to the Washingtonians.
There was an exodus of musicians to Chicago and New York. The clubs were begging for jazz. King Oliver headed for Chicago in 1918, leaving Dipper to take his place in the band. Dipper, also known as Satchel-mouth, or Sachmo, was becoming known in his own right. His given name was Louis Armstrong.
Four years later, King Oliver sent word to "Little" Louie asking him to come to Chicago, which he did. Meanwhile, the Duke made his way north to New York. Clubs were flourishing. The country was experiencing unprecedented prosperity. Post-war a decade later caricatured as the "Roaring Twenties."
This was a time unparalleled in American History. Homes were lit by electricity; and featured refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, twelve million radios, 30 million automobiles, untold tickets to theaters, luxury and glamour unimagined. But there was also prohibition.
Rural life could not have been more different than city life in the twenties. Slum conditions were so severe tmen went to saloons to escape the depressing reality of their home life. Drinking only made them quarrelsome and disorderly. Hardworking, nondrinking, churchgoing farmers and business people in the rural districts and country communities began to think of all cities as Sodom and Gomorrah, and they blamed alcohol. They launched temperance movements to counter its bad effects.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, sentiment among the majority of Americans was that temporary Prohibition would help the war effort. The war was over, however, by the time the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 15, 1919.
When Prohibition went into effect, many people believed the public would accept it. Who would risk a $1,000 fine or six-month jail term just for a drink? Chicago's gangsters, on the other hand, saw a promising business opportunity in Prohibition. Brazenly, six masked men invaded a Chicago railway yard and took $100,000 worth of liquor from two boxcars. Bootlegging led to the division of territories between gangsters like Al Capone, Detroit's Purple Gang and others.
Gangsters owned most of the best clubs, dance palaces and cabarets. It was natural to sell alcohol in these establishments and liquor was on everyone's mind because of Prohibition. People were curious, and drinking was more attractive now that it was illegal. Speakeasies were supplied with liquor by underworld dealers and protected from arrest by corrupt police and public officials.
By the late 1920s the country had more speakeasies than it ever had saloons, and though bootleg liquor was of low quality, even dangerous, millions of people were drinking it. Women who would never have considered entering a saloon were now gleefully sitting at bars.
Meanwhile in the Windy City, Louie Armstrong was teaching the world to "scat" (singing in nonsense syllables). Legend had it beginning as an accident. Armstrong said his lyric sheet slipped on the floor as he was recording "Heebie Jeebies," and the record producer signalled him not to ruin the take by stopping. "Heebie Jeebies" was Armstrong's first hit, selling more than forty thousand copies within a few months. "Scatting" caught on and became a trademark for future jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway.
Prohibition continued to negatively impact the nation. In 1929 a meeting in Atlantic City, N.J., of Capone, Detroit's Purple Gang, and other territorial czars agreed to a nationwide division of the spoils. In Cincinnati, Ohio, George Remus, an attorney-turned-bootlegger, bought nine distilleries and amassed a fortune estimated at $40 million before he was caught. Captain Bill McCoy of Jacksonville, Florida, also became a millionaire by carrying schooner-loads of liquor from the Bahamas to New York, then dropping anchor beyond the 3-mile limit, and selling to bootleggers who came out in speedboats. He founded "Rum Row," a huge fleet of vessels selling liquor outside the limit.
Mabel Walker Willebrandt, U.S. Assistant Attorney General in charge of liquor law prosecutions, sent Remus, McCoy, and many others to prison, but when she resigned in 1929, she became an attorney for the wine industry.
Some of the unfortunate results of Prohibition are still with us. The affiliation between corrupt politicians and organized crime, is still evident today. So is the disrespect for the law which became widespread during the Prohibition era.
Liquor and its impact on the nation was not the only form of corruption in America Jazz – and the dancing it inspired – was also said to be having a catastrophic impact on the national character. "Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls," reported the New York American, "through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras."
Within two years in Chicago alone, the Illinois Vigilance Association reported in 1923, the downfall of one thousand girls could be traced directly to the pernicious influence of jazz music. In Cincinnati, the Salvation Army obtained a court injunction to stop construction of a theater next to a home for expectant mothers on the grounds that "the enforced proximity to a theater and jazz palace" would implant dangerous "jazz emotions" in helpless infants.
A social worker reported on the "unwholesome excitement" she encountered even at small-town dances in the Midwest. "Boy–and–girl couples leave the hall in a state of dangerous disturbance. Any worker who has gone into the night to gather the facts of activities outside the dance hall is appalled . . . by the blatant disregard of even the elementary rules of civilization. We must expect a few casualties in social intercourse, but the modern dance is producing little short of holocaust."
Ethel Waters possibly advanced the "moral disaster" view early in her career. She began as a shimmy dancer and singer. Singing lewd burlesque blues and specializing in sly insinuation with records like "Organ Grinder Blues," "Do What You Did Last Night," and "Handyman."
He shakes my ashes, greases my griddle,
Churns my butter, strokes my fiddle,
My man . . . such a handyman. . . .
He threads my needle, creams my wheat,
Heats my heater, chops my meat,
My man . . . such a handyman. . . .
Don't care if you believe or not,
He sure is good to have around
Why when my furnace gets too hot,
He's right there to turn my damper down....
My ice don't get a chance to melt away,
He sees that I get that old fresh piece every day,
Ah that man . . . sho' is such a handyman.
Her manager insisted she try to perform for the all-white vaudeville circuit. She was certain she would fail, but white people loved it and she became the first black woman to headline at the Palace Theater, in New York. Starring at the Plantation and Cotton Clubs, she went on to Hollywood. In 1929, appearing in a film in which she introduced her best-remembered song, "Am I Blue." For a time she was the best paid woman in show business, black or white. Lena Horne once paid her the highest possible compliment saying, “Ethel Waters was the Mother of us all.”
New Yorkers could not get enough of this new music. In 1924 a jazz enthusiast visiting the West Side of Manhattan could, , without walking more than four blocks see and hear the giants of the age. Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians played at the Hollywood Club at Forty-Ninth Street and Broadway. Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines played at the Cinderella Ballroom at Forty-Eighth Street and Broadway, and Fletcher Henderson, with the brand new cornetist Louis Armstrong, played in the Roseland Ballroom on Fifty-First Street and Broadway.
Whenever Duke and his men could get away from the Hollywood club they came to the Roseland to hear Armstrong. "There weren't words coined for describing that kick," Ellington was quoted as saying, "everybody on the street was talking about the guy."
At a time when cornetists and trumpet players rarely played higher than high C, Armstrong would routinely finish choruses on F and with a big, robust tone. Other trumpet players would eventually play higher than Armstrong had, but no one since has gone so high with such a consistent blend of power and warmth.
Back in Chicago, Jelly Roll Morton was making records under contract with Victor. He handpicked his band, called them the Red Hot Peppers and paid them $5 a session for rehearsals – unheard of in that day and time. But Morton's recording sessions were strictly business.
Morton willingly listened to his musicians, recalled Johnny St. Cyr. "Jelly was a very, very agreeable man . . . He was fussy on introductions and endings and he always wanted the ensemble his way, but he never interfered with solo work . . . He'd tell us where he wanted the solo or break but the rest was up to us."
There was never any doubt about who was in charge. Once, when trombonist Zue Robertson repeatedly refused to play a melody precisely as written, Morton pulled a revolver from his jacket and placed it on top of the piano: on the next run through Robertson never missed a note. "You did what Jelly Roll wanted you to do," Baby Dodds recalled, "no more, no less."
Immediate successful, the records they produced sounded like pure New Orleans improvisation at its best. Morton's celebrity only enhanced his ego. He was in demand all over the mid-west, yet at the height of his success, he decided to pull up stakes and move to New York. He believed the success he’d enjoyed in Chicago would be even bigger in the center of the music business. It did not happen.
Jelly Roll Morton continued to tour and make memorable records for Victor but he never established himself like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Still, he did pretty good for a piano player who started his career in the House of the Rising Sun down in Storyville. Who else will go down in history as claiming to have invented the one truly American form of music embraced by the rest of the world?
Dennis Vertin #135167
Lakeland Correctional Facility
141 First Street
Coldwater, Michigan 49036
Dennis Vertin, pen name Denver, is 66 years old. He has served over 44 years on his life sentence. He is the only prisoner in the history of Michigan who had his conviction reversed by the federal court after serving ten years, was released on PR bond, was free nearly four years without negative contact with authorities, then the reversal was reversed.
In 2009, after a public hearing, the Parole Board recommended Denver's sentence be commuted to thirty-seven years but Governor Granholm turned the recommendation down without explanation, despite absolutely no opposition from the victim's family or friends. Denver has currently served more time than any Michigan prisoner who has been granted a commutation, with three exceptions.