Article published in Piano Today, Summer 2002             Sheet Music for "Jelly Roll Blues"

"Jelly Roll Blues"
Observations on Performance Practice

The following manuscript of Jelly Roll Morton's "Jelly Roll Blues" was transcribed from the Smithsonian Library recordings made in 1938 by Morton. The original recording is available commercially on Rounder Records' "Jelly Roll Morton, The Library of Congress Recordings, Volume 2, tracks #8 and #9". I completed this transcription (along with 16 others) in order to facilitate my own performance of Morton's piano music ("Jelly Roll Morton Piano Music", Richard Trythall, piano, Musicaimmagine, MR 10047). These transcriptions are, therefore, closely intertwined with performance practice. In them, I have attempted to indicate as exactly as possible not only the notes Morton played, but their effective duration and release - a vital element in determining the performing gesture. I have also given detailed attention to the nuance and accentuation with which they are performed and indicated unusual dynamic relations between the simultaneous lines. There are additional indications, in words, regarding "swing" (which I take as a term indicating both a rhythmic and dynamic inequality between the two 8th notes in a beat) and Morton's unique use of the thumb of the RH. All of these indications, and the following observations as well, are intended to help the pianist approximate Morton's own performance practice.
The formal plan for "Jelly Roll Blues" is simplicity itself - a set of variations over a 12 bar blues. Morton's piano realization, however, is anything but obvious. Conceived as if an arrangement for a jazz band of the epoch, he has created a fascinating textural mosaic which alternates florid solo "breaks" with rhythmic chordal responses while yet maintaining the original song's melodic line. (Morton also sings this blues on track #9 of the Library of Congress recording).
The concept of the imaginary jazz band is fundamental to the interpretation process since it clarifies the polyphonic nature of this music and suggests the importance of "orchestrating" every moment of the score. The score lives and breathes in countless little details which project the flux and flow of a group of individuals "conversing" - at times individually (see the solo "breaks" in bars 29-30, 35-36, 41-42, 47-48), at times in homophonic blocks (see the ritornello figure of bar 14-15, 26-27, 38-39, 50-51), as well as in a number of other homophonic textures (some straight forward, others with contrapuntal voices added) which carry out Morton's rich orchestral dialogue. Each of these situations requires a different pianistic touch and weighting - suggested essentially by the orchestration which the pianist imagines. Color and attacks need to be adjusted to suggest clarinet lines, trombone lines, tuba lines, etc. Similarly the homophonic tutti sections need to have a homogenous dynamic, attack and color suggesting performance by a single instrumental "section", while other moments (such as bars 9 - 10) require a variety of dynamic, attack and color in order to clarify the heterogeneous elements of the texture. Particularly important is the projection of the contrast of the tutti material with the solo material. The 3rd chorus of the blues (bar 29-40) provides a good example. Here staccato, tutti chords - dense, wide register sonorities performed by the full "band" - accompany the "clarinet's" solo. The pianist needs to convey both the weight and attack of the band's chords and the fragility of the soloist's trill figure. This contrast prepares the stage for the tutti's explosion on the second line of the blues which, in turn, sets up the contrast for the next clarinet solo (bars 35-36), and so on.
The fact that the roots of this music are found within the band tradition suggests a number of additional points regarding the "nitty gritty" of performance. The phrasing, for example, should be considered from the wind player's point of view, from the necessity to breathe, and from the natural attack and decay patterns of notes and phrases as performed on various wind instruments. Perhaps the clearest example of this has to do with the way Morton interconnects his phrases. Like a wind player, his hand frequently "bounces off" the last note in a phrase (cutting the phrase slightly short), takes a quick "breath" and alights firmly on the "goal" attack of the next phrase unit. Examples of this gesture are found throughout his music. In fact, he does it three times already in the four bar introduction of "Jelly Roll Blues": between the & of 4 /bar 1 and the & of 1/bar 2; between the 1/bar 3 and the & of 1/ bar 3; between the 1/bar 4, and the 3/bar 4. This sort of "bouncing" or "springing", from shortened release-over a rest-to solid attack, imparts an elastic, buoyant quality, a kinesthetic feeling of expectation and fulfillment allowing Morton to interlock his phrases in a particularly visceral way. Another telling example of this can be found in the RH between the & of 4/bar 20 and the & of 1/bar 21. Here both the "bounce" chord (on the & of 4/bar 20) and the "goal" chord (on the & of 1/bar 21) are accented. Additionally the arrival chord is longer, more dense and dissonant creating an explosive, syncopated "landing". What is particularly important in this gesture is the feeling of charged expectancy given to the space in between these points, the moment of "suspended free fall" which is then released by the following attack. For pianists, the breath is drawn with the finger and wrist "lift off". When a natural hand gesture is found, the phrasing and the proper feel come automatically.
Along the same lines, the flow of breath throughout a phrase should be traced in the dynamic shading assigned to each phrase. Like the voice, the sound of a wind instrument is in constant movement reflecting, principally, the amount of breath at disposition at any given time. Frequently (though certainly not always) the volume is slightly higher at the beginning of a phrase, when the player has just drawn a fresh breath, and slightly lower towards its end - as the player is running low on breath. (Examples which might use this shading include the phrases in bars 7, 8 and the ritornello figure of bars 14, 15) This is not so much perceived as a "decrescendo", but as shading and as a sign of the life cycle of the phrase itself. There are, of course, many other breath patterns as well. What is important is that the performer finds a vital, organic shading for each phrase, one that underscores the character of that particular phrase and that fits within the context of the larger "conversation" (phrase structure) which constitutes the entire composition.
A similar dynamic variety, attributable to tonguing and breath patterns natural to wind instruments, is also found within the phrase at the micro level, in the swing beat. In this pattern, the second eighth of the two eighth note swing beat (which places the second eighth of the figure very late in the beat - more or less on the third eighth of a triplet) is performed less loudly than the first note - meaning that the second eighth is both qualitatively and quantitatively weaker than the first. In the piano realization of these passages, Morton generally employs musical devices such as density, harmonic and/or registral stresses to underscore this strong-weak tendency. In bars 7 and 8, for example, the first two longer, "on the beat" notes of the pattern are non-chordal accessory tones which move to chordal tones on the weak portion of the swing beat; in the first 2 beats of bar 14, the longer portion is occupied by dissonant, 5 note chords which move to dyads on the weak portion of the unit. In passages such as these, little, if any, additional accentuation is required to project the swing unit since the stress pattern is suggested so clearly by the harmonic movement and by the hand position itself.
In his more vigorous scansions, however, Morton also uses heavy performance accents to reinforce these stresses. In these cases, the dynamic inequality between the two notes in the swing unit widens exponentially until the short-weak portion of the beat practically disappears in comparison to the long-strong (bars 9-10, 21-22, 33-34, etc.). Occasionally he may also reverse this pattern by placing a strong accent on the shorter part and de-emphasizing the longer part of the swing eighth unit (as in bar 32). This sort of "high relief" accentuation confers a jaunty, "gutsy" quality to these passages. Not surprisingly, it is precisely in these passages that Morton abandons his contrapuntal bass line and resorts to a rudimentary "oom pah" figure in the LH. By clearly marking the beat with this figure (its band origins are clarified by the name itself), he intensifies the feel of the underlying quarter pulse and reinforces the visceral presence of the "beat" against which the heavily swung melody is working.
Seen on a larger formal plane, such heavily accented, "beat intensive" swing passages serve as orientation points for the surrounding material. In this particular case, for example, the first line of each chorus of the blues (bar 5-8, 17-20, 29-32) has the feel of an extended upbeat to the downbeat provided by the vigorous opening of the second line in bar 9, bar 21, and bar 33 respectively. The "release" that the second line brings in each case is palpable. In the latter two choruses, this effect is even stronger since it comes following a solo break. Here the arrival of the swing beat is as much a change of mental attitude and spirit as it is of musical texture. The vital difference here is in the quality of the feeling communicated by the material which is "swung" and that which is not. In "Jelly Roll Blues", the solo breaks are not played with a swing beat. These solos are composed of rapid ornamental filling - trills, scales, arpeggios - made up of equal weighted notes performed in a smooth and regular fashion. The rhythmic regularity of such a material is not well adapted to expressing a strong beat, let alone expressing swing hence it falls in sharp contrast with the material which is performed with the swing beat.
This contrast between swing and non-swing material allows Morton remarkable possibilities for characterizing his musical material. By juxtaposing these opposites, he can achieve extremely dramatic effects locally and by controlling the amount of swing, he can also underscore a larger sense of form. Most of his pieces are constructed with an ever increasing sense of swing in mind - often concluding with a final "stomp" section. In "Jelly Roll Blues", for example, this heavy, swing scansion characterizes all of the variations of the second strain (in Eb Major). Essentially Morton "telescopes" his variation form so that each successive variation communicates greater rhythmic urgency. In turn this increasing excitement gives a sense of progression and ordered form to what easily might have been simply a succession of events.
It is, of course, ultimately up to the interpreter to find the proper manner to project Morton's irresistible energy and unerring sense of form. In my notation of his music and in these observations, I hope that I have supplied indications helpful in confronting both challenges. Morton's music is a demanding music - composed by a first class composer and a virtuoso pianist. It provides the definitive pianistic statement of a vital epoch in American popular music, but it goes beyond this as well. Like Scott Joplin's music, in fact, Morton's music transcends the vernacular "ghetto" and like Joplin's music, it is destined to become a vital part of the larger twentieth century piano repertoire.

Richard Trythall
May 5, 2002

Sheet Music for "Jelly Roll Blues"

 

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