This is a small fragment of a lengthy series of interviews with the great ragtime jazz pianist, composer, and band leader Jelly Roll Morton (October 20, 1890 - July 10, 1941), born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe. It was conducted by the prominent musicological folklorist Alan Lomax.
Biograhies and recoording discographies of Morton can be found at numerous places on the web and in print books. The interested reader is advised to do a simple online search for more data about Morton and his place in the history of popular music.
During the Great Depression, Jelly Roll Morton moved to New York, where he tried to enter the mainstream world of music publishing and recording on a level more wide-ranging and lucrative than he had been able to sustain as a composer and recording artist. Times were hard, and musical styles were changing from the hot jazz of his early great successes to the more mellow swing sound -- but Morton attributed his failure in New York to another cause -- a hoodoo curse put on him by a rootworker named Madame Elise, who had been hired to ruin him by his own jealous business partner. Madame Elise thus "played both sides of the case," promising to take off Morton's crossed conditions, while secretly supplying his enemy with the means to worsen Morton's situation.
Alan Lomax recorded Morton's account of these events for the Library of Congress and quoted the narrative in full in his biography of Morton, "Mister Jelly Roll," which was published in 1950, after Morton's death.
To understand Jelly Roll Morton's lifelong familiarity with the practice of hoodoo, be sure to also read his earlier account of court case work, Aaron Harris, and Madame Papaloose in New Orleans, circa 1910.
This narrative takes up in 1935, when Morton, now 45 years old, had separated from his wife Mabel, and moved to New York City.
When I was a young man, these hoodoo people with their underground stuff helped me along. I did not feel grateful and I did not reward them for the help they gave. Now, when everything began to go against me, those underground streams were running against me, too.
One day I met a frizzly-haired woman who said she wasn't a fortune teller, but that she could work in those fields. If you wanted anybody killed, you would deposit her fee in the bank and she would go to work. She would buy a package of fine meat, tie it up with strings and throw it in a desolate section. In nine or ten days, this meat would decay and, as it decayed, your enemy would be dying. At the end of ten days, the enemy would be dead and she would go to the bank and collect her money. If the person was not dead, you didn't owe her a thing.
I didn't believe in those things. I didn't pay any attention when this woman told me that somebody was working against me. She said my Lincoln would be stolen. In three weeks it was gone. When they caught the thief, he wasn't even put in jaiL
It wasn't long before I wished I had taken this woman's advice.
I was in the music-publishing business. Everybody was writing me for bands and for music and for radio programs and I had more work than I could do. I bumped into a West Indian guy who was fooling with the music-publishing business in an office so small you couldn't turn around in it to get out; you had to back back the way you came in. I kinda liked this guy and wanted to give him a break and, besides, as I had decided to form a monopoly and put my money behind a lot of my type bands, with the main office located in Los Angeles, I needed a confidential partner to handle the New York end. This guy said he could type and do accounting, so I gave him a break and took him into the firm as a partner, keeping all the property in my name,
I assured him I didn't want to make him an office boy, but the son-of-a-gun was jealous of me. He didn't want to handle the music counter and told me I was high-hat because I kept my door closed. I had to have it quiet for my arranging and composing. I guess he hated me because he was such a poor excuse for talent, himself; if you told him to rhyme "ham," he would say "Pontchartrain." [Lake Pontchartrain is located near New Orleans.]
Many evenings I used to drive him home to Brooklyn in my Lincoln and often he would ask me to wait for him on a certain corner where he would meet and talk with a light-complected old man. Quite often he would have me wait so long that I would grow very impatient. Once I heard this old man tell my West Indian partner that such-and-such a woman was no good.
"Listen," the old guy said, "That woman ain't paid me what she owe me. If it hadn't been for me, she wouldn't have had a quarter. Now she has a fleet of trucks, and is doing business with the subway company. All right, you wait. In a month she won't have anything."
Sometime later on, the West Indian remarked to me that this woman had lost everything she had. He told me the old man had a book like an encyclopedia, full of charms that never fail. If the police caught him with that book, right in the jail he would go. That put me to thinking and wondering if my partner had put anything on me through this old man.
Well, I found out that this West Indian not only couldn't do acounting, he could hardly count on his fingers, much less type. Then I discovered that he was stealing my music and selling it to a big, high-powered firm and I knew I would have to kick him out. "What's the idea of taking my music out of here and giving it to these other companies?" I asked him. "Don't you realize you're selling out for peanuts when I'm trying to go for the millions?"
He wouldn't admit to anything. I told him that our contract didn't mean anything if one of the partners didn't play fair. I showed him I had the goods on him. He told me, "Morton, everything in this office is in my name and belongs to me." We started to fight and the super of the building came running and hollering, "Don't hit him in here. He will sue the building." That gave the West Indian a chance to escape, which he did. He hollered back, as he ran away, "Jelly Roll Morton, you will lose everything you have."
That night he tried to get back in the office, but I had beat him to it and changed the lock on the door. He then had the phone cut off, which -- it was in both our names, and from then on I couldn't get a phone for love nor money. In many ways that was the most peculiar thing that happened to me. I still don't understand why I couldn't get a phone. But the phone business was just the beginning.
I had a young lady working for me by the name of Billy Young. She was an actress friend who was down on her luck and I occasionally was able to give her things to do in the office. After I kicked the West Indian out, she told me she had noticed that people would come to the door, and stop, seemingly unable to step across the sill; that was strange to her, because formerly a lot of people came to the office.
We pulled up the rug near the door and there, underneath, were four different colors of powder: gray, white, brown, and pink. We started searching the office. We found powder sprinkled everywhere, even in the woodwork of the desk. There wasn't a piece of stationery that was clean of it.
How we found out the stationery was fixed, Billy was writing a letter and, by this letter being to a friend, she had her head in her hands, thinking. When she took her hands away from her face, her cheeks busted out in a horrible looking rash. She took a drink out of a paper cup at the water cooler and her lips swelled up as big as the bumpers on a box car.
[The word "fixed" is a technical term in hoodoo; when a candle, a person, or an object has been fixed, it has been prepared for magical use with herbs, roots, minerals, oils, perfumes, powders, incense, baths, washes, or other spiritual supplies. In this case, the powders contained some irritant herb or mineral.]
I was getting wise. I realized this was some funny business the West Indian had done and I started out to find the old man in Brooklyn. I knew he was the one. I planned to shoot him on sight any place I seen him, but everywhere I was directed to look, he had just moved away. And there was something in my mind that made me want to stay out of Brooklyn.
My bus, which I used on out-of-town dates, was in storage at this time. The garage wrote they had completed about six hundred dollars worth of work and asked for their money. I replied that when all the work was done I would pay. When all these things started happening I began to worry about my bus and I went down to see about it. The company had already sold it to pay for the storage and repair bills. I asked about my trunk. They said they didn't know nothing about a trunk. This trunk had all my contracts and all my write-ups in it, as well as the world's most extensive repertoire of ten thousand numbers. I sued the company, but they beat my case.
I began to think I had better get some help and that was the reason I attended a seance run by a woman named Madame Elise. She asked me for one hundred dollars and got it. I seen her put her hand on a woman's head and this woman went out like a light and stayed out for thirty minutes. That put a fear into my heart. Then Madame Elise prescribed a bath to this woman, a bath composed of three or four vials of different water and costing twenty-five dollars. I took one of them baths, too, and she told me everything would be better.
Sure enough, OCA got me some bookings through Pennsylvania. I organized a good band and we set out with great hopes and in two weeks we were stranded in a hotel in Washington, Pennsylvania. The boys piled up some terrific bills for food and drinks and rent, so, when I left for New York to get some money to bail us out, I had to leave my trunk and my fur coats with the hotel. All my most important tunes and my mother's picture were in that trunk, along with shoes and socks and clothes galore, worth a lot of money. (I never wore shoes those days that cost less than $15.00, and my socks averaged around $5.00 a pair.) The hotel also had my raccoon and my beaver coat. When I got back to New York, somehow I just forgot to send for that trunk. I always planned to, but I never could get around to it.
I just wasn't myself any more. I walked around in a stupor. I went back to see Madame Elise. Pretty soon I was bringing big bags of food to her. Then I got to eating there. I don't think her husband liked that. I told her about the condition in my office, how people couldn't walk in the door. She took some turpentine and scrubbed the walls, but this only made everything worse. Then I resolved to take action and to beat the West Indian to death, because Madame Elise told me it would help if I caught him and drew blood. But every time I got to the guy I couldn't raise my hands.
I realize now that she was helping my enemy, the West Indian. I found this powder all in my hats. Every time I would put one on, it felt like I had the Library of Congress on my head.
Madame Elise told me to take my handbags and cut them up in small pieces and throw them into the Harlem River, and, like a fool I did. She personally ordered me to cut up every bit of clothing I had and burn it all. I always had a lot of clothes and the stack I made in my backyard was way up over the top of my head. I poured on the kerosene and struck a match; it like to broke my heart to watch my suits burn.
It seems like I'm still blurry about that doggone thing in New York. I spent thousands of dollars trying to get this spell taken off me, but my luck just got blacker and blacker. I had jobs on jobs offered me, but it got so I couldn't get the men together to make a band. Somehow I never could hold a band together in New York, except for recording dates.
The movies called me to Hollywood, but while I was trying to get my men, they decided they couldn't wait any longer and called in Ellington and this was the beginning of his great rise.
The Palace Theatre wanted me and I had the same trouble, and then was when Cab Calloway got his start.
I joined a show and the show folded. I decided to quit the music business altogether and I started a cosmetic company which lost me the last few pennies I had. Finally I went to the New York District Attorney to see whether he could put the old man in jail to stop him from working against me. He told me there was no law in New York State to prevent people from working in this way.
Morton was never able to make a success in New York; in the end he moved to Washington D.C., where he opened a night club and reunited with his wife, Mabel. The hoodoo curse did not follow him there.
Mister Jelly Roll:
The Fortunes Of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole And "Inventor Of Jazz"
by Alan Lomax; drawings by David Stone Martin
The Universal Library
Grosset & Dunlap
Copyright 1950, By Alan Lomax
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