Morton was born into the inward-looking, Creole (free people of color) community in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of downtown New Orleans, Louisiana, c. 1890. Both parents could trace their Creole ancestry back four generations to the 18th century. Morton's exact date and year of birth are uncertain, owing to the fact that in common with the majority of babies born in 19th-century New Orleans, no birth certificate was ever issued for him. The law requiring birth certificates for citizens was not enforced until 1914. His parents were Edward Joseph (Martin) Lamothe, a bricklayer by trade, and Louise Hermance Monette, a domestic worker. His father left his mother when Morton was three (they were never married) and when his mother married William Mouton in 1894, Ferdinand adopted his stepfather's surname: anglicizing it to Morton. He showed musical talent at an early age. At the age of 12, he had depression; he suffered for a month before getting help.
Morton claimed to have written "Jelly Roll Blues" in 1905.
At the age of fourteen, Morton began working as a piano player in a brothel (or, as it was referred to then, a sporting house). In that atmosphere, he often sang smutty lyrics; he took the nickname "Jelly Roll", which was African-American slang for female genitalia, and by extension a lover of same. While working there, he was living with his churchgoing great-grandmother; he convinced her that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory.
After Morton's grandmother found out that he was playing jazz in a brothel, she kicked him out of her house. He said:
When my grandmother found out that I was playing jazz in one of the sporting houses in the District, she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house. ... She told me that devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn't put it behind me.
The cornetist Rex Stewart recalled that Morton had chosen "the nom de plume 'Morton' to protect his family from disgrace if he was identified as a whorehouse 'professor'."
Tony Jackson, also a pianist at brothels and an accomplished guitar player, was a major influence on Morton's music. Morton said that Jackson was the only pianist better than he was.
Around 1904, Morton also started touring in the American South, working in minstrel shows including Will Benbow's Chocolate Drops, gambling and composing. His works "Jelly Roll Blues", "New Orleans Blues", "Frog-I-More Rag", "Animule Dance", and "King Porter Stomp" were composed during this period. He got to Chicago in 1910 and New York City in 1911, where future stride greats James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith caught his act, years before the blues were widely played in the North.
In 1912–14, Morton toured with his girlfriend Rosa Brown as a vaudeville act before settling in Chicago for three years. By 1914, he had started writing down his compositions. In 1915, his "Jelly Roll Blues" was arguably the first jazz composition ever published, recording as sheet music the New Orleans traditions that had been jealously guarded by musicians. In 1917, he followed the bandleader William Manuel Johnson and Johnson's sister Anita Gonzalez to California, where Morton's tango, "The Crave", was a sensation in Hollywood.
Morton was invited to play a new nightclub,
The Patricia, on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, British Columbia. The jazz historian
Mark Miller described his arrival as "an extended period of itinerancy as a pianist, vaudeville performer, gambler, hustler, and, as legend would have it, pimp".
Morton returned to Chicago in 1923 to claim authorship of his recently published rag, "The Wolverines", which had become a hit as "Wolverine Blues" in that city. He released the first of his commercial recordings, first as piano rolls, then on record, both as a piano soloist and with various jazz bands.
In 1926, Morton succeeded in getting a contract to make records for the largest and most prestigious record company in the United States, the Victor Talking Machine Company. This gave him a chance to bring a well-rehearsed band to play his arrangements in Victor's Chicago recording studios. These recordings, by Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers, are regarded as classics of 1920s jazz. The Red Hot Peppers featured such other New Orleans jazz luminaries as Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, George Mitchell, Johnny St. Cyr, Barney Bigard, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, and Andrew Hilaire. Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers were one of the first acts booked on tours by MCA.
In November 1928, Morton married Mabel Bertrand (1888-1969), a showgirl, in Gary, Indiana.
New York City
They moved that year to New York City, where Morton continued to record for Victor. His piano solos and trio recordings are well regarded, but his band recordings suffer in comparison with the Chicago sides, for which Morton could draw on many great New Orleans musicians as sidemen. Even though Morton generally had trouble finding musicians who wanted to play his style of jazz, he recorded with such noted musicians as the clarinetists Omer Simeon, George Baquet, Albert Nicholas,
Wilton Crawley, Barney Bigard, Russell Procope, Lorenzo Tio and Artie Shaw, the trumpeters Bubber Miley, Johnny Dunn and Henry "Red" Allen, the saxophonists Sidney Bechet, Paul Barnes and Bud Freeman, the bassist Pops Foster, and the drummers Paul Barbarin, Cozy Cole and Zutty Singleton. His New York sessions failed to produce a hit.
With the Great Depression and the near collapse of the record industry, RCA Victor did not renew Morton's recording contract for 1931. He continued playing in New York but struggled financially. He briefly had a radio show in 1934, then took on touring in the band of a traveling burlesque act for some steady income. In 1935, Morton's 30-year-old composition "King Porter Stomp", as arranged by Fletcher Henderson, became Benny Goodman's first hit and a swing standard, but Morton received no royalties from its recordings.
In 1935, Morton moved to Washington, D.C., to become the manager and piano player of a bar called at various times the Music Box, Blue Moon Inn, and Jungle Inn, in Shaw, an African-American neighborhood of the city. (The building that housed the nightclub still stands, at 1211 U Street NW.) Morton was also the master of ceremonies, bouncer, and bartender of the club. He lived in Washington for a few years; the club owner allowed all her friends free admission and drinks, which prevented Morton from making the business a success.
In 1938, Morton was stabbed by a friend of the owner and suffered wounds to the head and chest. After this incident, his wife, Mabel, demanded that they leave Washington.
During Morton's brief residency at the Music Box, the folklorist Alan Lomax heard him playing in the bar. In May 1938, Lomax invited Morton to record music and interviews for the Library of Congress. The sessions, originally intended to be a short interview with musical examples for use by music researchers in the Library of Congress, expanded to more than eight hours of Morton talking and playing piano. Lomax also conducted longer interviews during which he took notes but did not record. Despite the low fidelity of these noncommercial recordings, their musical and historical importance has attracted numerous jazz fans, and they have helped to ensure Morton's place in jazz history.
Lomax was interested in Morton's days in Storyville, in New Orleans, and the ribald songs of the time. Although reluctant to recount and record these, Morton eventually obliged Lomax. Because of the suggestive nature of the songs, some of the Library of Congress recordings were not released until 2005.
In these interviews, Morton claimed to have been born in 1885. He was aware that if he had been born in 1890, he would have been slightly too young to make a good case for being the inventor of jazz. He said in an interview that Buddy Bolden played ragtime but not jazz, a view not accepted by Bolden's other New Orleans contemporaries. The contradictions may stem from different definitions of the terms ragtime and jazz. These interviews, released in different forms over the years, were released on an eight-CD boxed set in 2005, The Complete Library of Congress Recordings. The collection won two Grammy Awards. The same year, Morton was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
When Morton was stabbed and wounded, a nearby whites-only hospital refused to treat him, as the city had racially segregated facilities. He was transported to a black hospital farther away. When he was in the hospital, the doctors left ice on his wounds for several hours before attending to his eventually fatal injury. His recovery from his wounds was incomplete, and thereafter he was often ill and easily became short of breath. Morton made a new series of commercial recordings in New York, several reprising tunes from his early years that he discussed in his Library of Congress interviews.
Worsening asthma sent him to a New York hospital for three months at one point. He continued to suffer from respiratory problems when visiting Los Angeles with a series of manuscripts of new tunes and arrangements, planning to form a new band and restart his career. Morton died on July 10, 1941, after an eleven-day stay in Los Angeles County General Hospital.
According to the jazz historian David Gelly in 2000, Morton's arrogance and "bumptious" persona alienated so many musicians over the years that no colleagues or admirers attended his funeral. However, a contemporary news account of the funeral in the August 1, 1941, issue of Downbeat magazine reported that the musicians Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Fred Washington and Ed Garland were among his pallbearers, noting the absence of Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford, both of whom were appearing in Los Angeles at the time. (The article is reproduced in Alan Lomax's biography of Morton, Mister Jelly Roll, University of California Press, 1950.)