Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Jelly Roll Morton and Franz Liszt

Alan Lomax
Jelly Roll Morton
One of my Christmas presents was a recording of Jelly Roll Morton, recorded in 1938 by Alan Lomax, who was hired by the Library of Congress to archive American Folk Music, accompanied by interviews with some of the musical Greats.  I listened to it again as I prepared for this Post and the music is as fresh as it was when recorded. The disc I have is excerpted from the 8 discs made at the time, so it is a little disjointed, but the personality of the larger than life pianist comes through loud and clear.


The man was an unpopular, somewhat arrogant character, who claimed to be one of the best pool players of the time as well as a competitive piano player.  His claim to have invented jazz has been essentially debunked, but the mystic surrounding him, with his start, playing in a Sporting House in New Orleans until 4 in the morning at the age of fourteen, making more than $100 a night, is less in dispute.
Felder as Chopin

For some reason, even though their differences are greater than their similarities, Jelly Roll makes me think of Franz Liszt.  My knowledge of Liszt’s life comes from a rather unusual source: an entertainer named Hershey Felder.

Mary and I first saw Mr. Felder when he appeared at the Laguna Playhouse portraying Chopin.  His one-man show puts him in the character and persona of the pianist where he tells “his” life story, accompanied by piano pieces written by the composer.  It was a truly unique and entertaining performance, and we were not alone in that opinion.

Laguna went on to bring him back in portrayals of Beethoven, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, all of which we saw and enjoyed. One particular aspect we favor is a Q and A session following the performance, where Hershey fields questions as if he were the character on the stage.  I asked him regarding Liszt who transcribed the music, since he played so contemporaneously.  He answered that Liszt actually made his own transcriptions, from memory, following his performances.

Presently Hershey Felder has two projects:  he has produced a similar one-woman show for Mona Golabek titled The Pianist of Willenden Lane, which is returning to the Laguna Theater June 22-24.  He also has prepared and is performing in a new one-man show about the last days of Lincoln.

In that respect he and Jelly Roll (actual name Ferdinand) were similar.  Morton was the first person to actually write down the compositions of the contemporaneous Blues pieces of the time, making several common pieces his own in the process.

Franz Liszt
Liszt would play for hours at parties, in addition to his more formal appearances on tour.  The tours made him fabulously wealthy as well as fabulously popular.  In fact, Felder titled his Liszt show “Rock Star”, because at one point in his life, Liszt was just that, enjoying adulation and international fame, as well as commanding top dollar for his concerts.  Women used to tear his gloves and scarves to bits as memorabilia, fighting for small parts to take home as mementoes.

Both lives ended tragically, Morton’s from a poorly treated wound gained in an LA knife fight because of segregation at the closest hospital and medical ineptitude at the one to which he was admitted. His funeral was a lonely one.  Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford were in town, but failed to attend.

Liszt died from pneumonia, brought on by untreated congestive heart failure, which slowly limited activity in his final years; he died at 72, to little more than existence.  He chose a monastic way of life in his later years, mourning the death of his son, and estrangement from his daughter who had married Richard Wagner, a young genius recognized and financially supported by Liszt himself.

The love of Liszt’s life was a Russian Countessa who left her husband and children for years to live with him, but who finally could not get the absolution from the church she felt necessary to marry him.

Of the two, Liszt certainly had the more glorious life, giving away most of his wealth to charities, having world attention in his youth and middle year, composing pieces whose virtuosity gained him the reputations as the great pianist of his time, and leaving a music heritage that ranks as some of the finest of history.

Morton, on the other hand, probably would be no better remembered than several of his contemporaries, had not Lomax chosen him to represent the birth of jazz.

Life is like that sometimes!

I think in my next Post I will reminisce about what some of the things on my desk remind me of.  I’ll bet you have some things of a similar nature.

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