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Compared with institutions such as pawn broking and opera, jazz is too young to have much history, which hasn’t stopped it accumulating a quite disproportionate body of myth, fable and legend.

If it were not for a few solid and unassailable truths like Fats Waller, Pinetop Smith’s death certificate, Ronnie Scott’s club and Thelonious Monk’s version of Nice Work If You Can Get it, one might suspect that the jazz press had made the whole thing up.

The truth is, only 75% of it was made up, chiefly by Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), with a few inept contributions from Bunk Johnson and sundry mendacious jazzmen.

A myth of Morton’s making that could have been very helpful was his declaration that he personally invented jazz in 1902. Even his business card modestly proclaimed him as ‘Inventor of Jazz and Stomps’. If the so-called experts had had the sense to go along with his claim, jazz would have a concise, tidy history and we should be free to concentrate on listening to the music instead of arguing about it. Jazz history books would have been able to divide events neatly into AM and PM – ante-Morton and post-Morton.

Always remember: the fabric of the history of jazz is liberally embroidered with names, a roll call from Irving Aaronson to Mike Zwerin. Never heard of them? Don’t worry; your audience is unlikely to have done, either. In between, just to keep it interesting and to make it harder for newcomers to crack the code, are numerous other characters, many of whom probably didn’t exist at all. You might like to keep in conversational reserve a reference to Stavin’ Chain, a genuine jazz-sounding name so marginal as to be practically off the page. Elsewhere we offer a fine bargain selection of names such as Nesuhi Ertegun, Eustern Woodfork, Husk O’Hare, Ishman Bracey, Hociel Tebo, Porridge Foot Pete, Deaf Rhubarb Blenkinsop, John Fallstitch, Wim Poppink and Cornelius Plumb. You are perfectly entitled to disbelieve any or all of these, but you have to admit they have tremendous potential to lend colour to a conversation. And, believe it or not, some of them have actually figured in some quite respectable CD inlays.

Jelly Roll Morton

The name that is totally unavoidable in jazz history is good old Jelly Roll Morton, about whom it is imperative to know a handful of basic facts – such as that he was a pimp, a gambler, a pool shark and a small-time hustler involved in lots of dubious enterprises; he also had a diamond set into one of his front teeth. His given first name was Ferdinand (and his original surname was Lamothe or Le Menthe, which he changed to Morton because he didn’t like being called ‘Frenchy’). He acquired the nickname ‘Jelly Roll’ which, like 90% of all names and words used in jazz, has more to do with sexual prowess than musical ability. The common belief is that Morton must have been rather good at it, but not according to his widow, who recalled, somewhere or other, that he was rather less than outstanding in this department. Once you’ve absorbed all of this vital information, you need to store a few trifles, e.g., that he was one of the first musicians to compose pieces specifically for jazz performance; that he was a superb, if occasionally prim sounding, piano player and a very skilled bandleader; and that while he irritated people with his boasting, he irritated them even more by proving that much of what he bragged about was true. Moreover, he did it all (hear him on those famous interviews with Alan Lomax) with the avuncular charm of a real Southern gentleman.

Morton was born in New Orleans and consistently lied about his age, perversely claiming to be older than he really was. He let people assume he had been born in 1885, and it wasn’t until 1985 when his 100th anniversary celebrations were in full swing that fresh research suggested that his true birthdate was 1890.

Bunk Johnson

Bunk Johnson was another who was economical with the truth concerning his real age, insisting he was born earlier than he was. What helped him with this fiction was that he actually looked old, even as a young man. He persuaded a few eager pioneer historians to believe him, and the record is being set straight only now by learned gentlemen at various US universities.

You can likely now see why it doesn’t really matter if you occasionally throw in a few dubious nuggets masquerading as facts. Jazz history totters on the shaky ground of misinformation. Nevertheless, it is always a good thing to have a few firm facts handy, and one we know for certain is that the first jazz recording was made in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Up the river and all that jazz

Jazz, according to one popular and largely unverifiable theory, was invented in New Orleans around 1am on 17 November 1887, the creation of a Creole barber’s assistant called Thermidus Brown, known to acquaintances and admirers alike as ‘Jazz-bo’ on account of his being such a snappy dresser. He was tootling on a battered cornet, bought in 1867 from an ex-Civil War bandsman called Ephraim Draper. As always, by 1am he had succumbed to the influence of local rye whisky and began to mistime his phrases, giving the tune a strangely propulsive sort of quality. This greatly excited the customers in ‘Loopy’ Dumaine’s lakeside crawfish restaurant where he was playing at the time. Later authorities came to define what he was doing as syncopation, but to Thermidus it was simply an inner memory of the banjo rhythms from the old plantation where he served his time as a slave in his younger days. This might be plausible had he been sober enough to remember anything.

We don’t know much about Thermidus, except that his father was a mule-breaker called Brown and that he was born in New Orleans circa 1847. On 5 July 1894 he was aboard a riverboat en route for St Louis, where he was apparently going to invent ragtime. But at 2am, drunk, of course, he fell overboard and drowned.

You can afford to look sorrowful if recounting this story and, if you feel bold enough, you might even start humming ‘Ol’ Man River’. And if you really want to push your luck, sing:

He mus’ know sumpin’

But don’t say nuthin’…

…which might be good advice for you.

Despite Thermidus’s tragic demise, local dance-band musicians had picked up the exciting new sounds that he’d created and by 1897 or so they were to be heard everywhere in New Orleans. One player worth noting was the ex-editor of a scandal sheet known as The Cricket (rare copies of which now sell for thousands of dollars). This renegade journalist-turned-jazzman was one Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden.

Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden

Buddy’s main – indeed his only – claim to fame was the loudness of his playing – it being said, with the straightest of faces, that he could be heard ‘14 miles away on a clear night’. As nobody who was 14 miles away at the time has ever come forward to verify this, it is yet another jazz legend that has to be treated with a modicum of suspicion.

Proclaim it anyway if the subject of loudness comes up. The would-be jazz bluffer may already sense the deep and treacherous currents of moonshine that ebb and flow beneath the surface of jazz history. The options are to express an unshakeable belief in these legends (a standpoint taken by many writers of jazz books); or to condemn them as being obviously ridiculous (as difficult an argument to uphold as trying to maintain that Noah never built an ark).

Fate Marable

The next thing that happened to jazz was that it went ‘up the river’. This is a useful phrase to bandy about and will ensure nods of knowing approval from anyone who has heard it and not had a clue what it meant. It is nonetheless a vital moment in the evolution of jazz and so you must pretend to be au fait with the circumstances surrounding it. Again, only the faintest vestiges of the truth have been hinted at here. The fact is that an unscrupulous individual with the doom-laden name of Fate Marable, who had come from Paducah, Kentucky, and was a third-rate exponent of the steam calliope (an inefficient instrument which suffered – as you can see in old silent films – from leaky valves), began to feel that New Orleans was getting overcrowded with jazz musicians. Especially the good ones like Louis Armstrong. So, for a modest sum, he bought himself the right to act as a sort of employment agent for hiring jazz musicians to play on riverboats that plied up and down the Mississippi.

He paid them enough to tempt them to make the journey upstream to far-flung places like St Louis, knowing that they would never be able to afford to get back. Which left things much better for his clients in New Orleans. He would lure the unsuspecting riverboat mugs with posters that made Chicago look like a bracing seaside town and off they would go, hoping to find fame and fortune, with a one-way ticket in one hand and an instrument case in the other. None of them knew that, back home in Paducah, he had once run a travel agency.

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