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Our Jelly Roll Soul. The New Orleans soul of Mingus

Known as one of the greatest jazz composers, Charles Mingus is a jack-of-all-trades. Detour below through Louisiana, returning to his tribute to pianist Jelly Roll Morton.

While Charles Mingus is one of the most important musicians of what used to be called in the catch-all category of “modern jazz”, he is also one of the first truly jack-of-all-trades jazzmen. Mingus’ eclecticism drifts between blues, gospel, hard bop, bebop and even free.

But Mingus’ music also has its roots in New Orleans. It is moreover a music that influenced him quite early: born in Los Angeles, the young adult Mingus carved out a place for himself in the traditional jazz ensembles passing through the West Coast. And not just any: Kid Ory in 1942, and Louis Armstrong in 1943. Just that. A sign of this filiation, the track “Jelly Roll” which appeared in his discography at the end of the 1950s.

The composition appears for the first time on Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, CL-1370) in 1959, Mingus’ first record for Columbia. An earlier version “My Jelly Roll Soul” is recorded for Blues & Roots (Atlantic – 1305), even though the record was released after Oh Um. Another title for an alternative version also exists, under the name of “Jelly Roll Jellies”.

Jelly Roll Morton (Bloom photo studio, 1927)

The title is a tribute to one of the most famous New Orleans Creole pianists in posterity, Jelly Roll Morton. Morton has fascinated New Orleans historians and enthusiasts, including folklorist Alan Lomax, who conducted an interview kept at the Library of Congress in the United States as well as a book, Mister Jelly Roll. It’s the start of a cult and a legend, part of which was shaped and invented by the character himself. This is probably due as much to the music and compositions of Morton as to the eccentric and story-telling character who, ironically, ultimately lived only a little in New Orleans. Besides the fact that Charles Mingus praises the talents of Jelly Roll Morton in the liner notes of Let My Children Hear Musicsimilarities exist between the two exuberant, eccentric characters and leaders of small or medium bands.

First particularity of “Jelly Roll”, it is a piece in Ab in 14 measures that we could probably bring closer to a blues. Primitive blues not necessarily being codified around the 12-bar format, we can probably consider that this particular number of bars is part of a compositional effort to sound new. Second characteristic, a progression in a cycle of fifths (Eb7 over 4 bars, Ab7 over 2 bars, then Db7 over 2 bars) which is reminiscent of the sequences of pieces of ragtime, a music whose black, Creole, white or mixed orchestras claimed in the first half of the 20th century. Beyond the “old style” sound that the progression draws, this minimalism imposes as much a simplicity as a certain challenge for the improvisers – an exercise that Morton liked, according to Mingus. Poet and author Dave H. Rosenthal sees this piece as an attempt at a modern transcription of the New Orleans pianist’s compositional techniques.

In both versions, a first grid scrolls with a baritone sax solo (Blues & Roots) or trombone (Ah Um). The most distinctive element of the tribute remains Mingus’ slap: pulled 1/3, tapped 2/4, typical of pre-walking New Orleans basses. He is accompanied by Horace Parlan and danny richmond on both recordings.

For me, there are two differences between “Jelly Roll” and “My Jelly Roll Soul”: the first is in the dynamics. While the version of Oh Um scrolls in a very classic way and that the slap is a short-lived stylistic borrowing, “My Jelly Roll Soul” from Blues & Roots takes its time. The slap comes back, and goes again, while Mingus and Richmond agree a real dialogue in the second part of the piece. The other difference is Horace Parlan’s solo. He also resumes the path marked out by Blues & Roots on Oh Um, except that the end of the last one is almost a cliche of the hard boppers. For my part, I prefer that of Blues & Roots : the sound of the piano is closer to honky-tonk and less clean than on Oh Um.

Charles Mingus by Philippe Debongnie

After the death of the double bass player in 1979, work to heritage his music began with the group Mingus Dynasty formed the same year. “My Jelly Roll Soul” continues to be included in the band’s repertoire on chair in the sky (Elektra – 6E-248, 1979), Live At The Village Vanguard (Storyville, SLP 4124, 1979) or during the Live At The Theater Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris Vol. 2 (Soul Note, 121193-2, 1993). We find the different tendencies of the original versions, alternating between bass two beats and swing – at the Village Vanguard, drummer Kenny Washington does not hesitate to play it very traditionally.

In that sense, we can say that the attempt to make a little bit of traditional New Orleans sound modern has succeeded. Thanks to this composition, it is the whole story of Jelly Roll Morton which continues to find a place on the stages of today and to shape our imaginations.


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