Dreams of Jelly Roll
Psychoanalysis and jazz were both born at the end of the nineteenth century, though under very different circumstances. Their founding fathers were respectively Sigismund Schlomo Freud (1856-1939), a doctor and medical researcher in Vienna, and Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton (1885-1941), a Creole musician who had honed his musical skills playing in the brothels of New Orleans. Whilst Freud never claimed for himself the title of ‘founding father’, Jelly Roll most certainly did, attracting derision and controversy in the process.
In fact both Freud and Morton built on the work of their predecessors. Freud specifically attributed the origins of psychoanalysis to the work of Dr. Joseph Breuer whose hysterical patient, Anna O, first described the method as ‘the talking cure’ (Freud 1910).
Jelly Roll was a great talker. Accompanying himself on piano and later guitar, Morton left us a strange and dreamlike account of his life in over eight hours of recorded interviews made in 1938 by Alan Lomax, Folk Music Curator at The Library of Congress. Morton’s detractors have accused him of self-aggrandisement and braggartry in these recordings, and yet his testimony remains ‘the first significant attempt at constructing a history of the music’, and Morton himself emerges as the ‘first theorist and intellectual of jazz’ (Schuller G 1968).
Morton’s boast of having invented jazz is not as risible as some have suggested. As well as being a composer of great subtlety and invention, his piano playing provided a bridge between ragtime and jazz. He modified his claim when speaking to Lomax, saying ‘I started using the word in 1902 to show people the difference between jazz and ragtime’. Freud might have been interested in Morton’s choice of the word ‘jass’, a patois term for sexual intercourse, and indeed in his stage name of ‘Jelly Roll’.
What are we to make of Morton’s numerous fabrications and exaggerations? Were they signs of an immoral personality as some critics have claimed, or were they a culturally specific form of hyperbole? Support for both viewpoints can be found in Jelly Roll’s reputation as a fast talking showman, a singer of lewd lyrics, a dandy given to ostentatious displays of diamonds, a poolroom shark, gambler and occasional pimp.
But maybe the causes were more complex than either of these scenarios suggest. Laurie Wright comments that ‘Morton would have been a wonderful subject for psychoanalysis’ (Wright L 1972). Morton’s contemporary, Volly De Faut, believed ‘Jelly suffered inwardly from an inferiority complex’ (Russell W 1999). Gunther Schuller argues that Jelly Roll was ‘led by his musical and personal frustrations to embellish the truth’ (Schuller G 1968) whilst Philip Pastras draws attention to Morton’s uncertain sexual orientation, and the disturbing effect on a young mind of witnessing nightly floorshows in the brothels of New Orleans (Pastras P 2001).
Psychoanalytically, Jelly Roll on the couch would have found himself considering his primary narcissism, egotistical omnipotence, obsessional defences, and underlying melancholia. The impressions on his psyche created by the absence of a father, abandonment by his mother as a two year old and her death when he was fourteen, would have been a significant part of his analysis. Tracing his Oedipal configurations through the subsequent influences of Catholicism and Voodoo in his extended Creole family would also have formed part of the work.
Lomax’s daughter Anna Lomax Wood’s depiction of Jelly Roll seems particularly pertinent. She describes how his fragile mask of ‘pride, dignity, vanity, and bravado’ protected him from hurt, and helped him to ‘cross the lines’ of class and race. She seems to have understood that his distinctive personality traits were used in the service of securing his creativity and art (Wood 2005).
Morton’s sensitive emotional intelligence and understanding of human nature come through on careful listening to the Lomax recordings, beyond the showmanship of his virtuoso performances as a musician and oral historian. Perhaps the most enduring aspect of these recordings is Morton’s articulation of creativity and its emergence from a sophisticated montage of high and low culture. Like Freud he was a genius who stirred up envy and admiration in equal measure amongst his contemporaries, and even to this day both continue to suffer hostile critical attacks.
Morton’s personality and worldview might best be described, in the Bakhtinian sense, as carnivalesque. Whether in Mardi Gras or Vaudeville, the Wild West Show or Minstrelsy, whether through Catholicism or Voodoo, the dividing line between rational life and the teaming unconscious seemed porous for Morton. Goto argues that for artists this is, as it needs to be.
Alongside the exhibition, in collaboration with Matthew Leach, Goto has created an Augmented Reality installation in which Maresfield Gardens is inhabited by virtual figures from Jelly Roll’s dreams.
John Goto is a British artist particularly known for his work with photo-digital media, which he began using in the early '90s. He has worked with historical and political subjects throughout his career. Goto has held solo London exhibitions at Tate Britain, The National Portrait Gallery and The Photographers’ Gallery, and mounted many one-person shows in Europe. He is currently Professor of Fine Art at the University of Derby, UK.
Freud, Sigmund (1910) The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis, Lecture 1, Standard Edition Vol.XI, Hogarth Press, London
Pastras, Philip (2001) Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton Way Out West University of California Press, Berkeley
Russell, William (1999) Oh, Mister Jelly: A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook JazzMedia ApS, Denmark
Schuller, Gunther (1968) Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development Oxford University Press, Oxford
Wood, Anna Lomax (2005) afterword to Doctor Jazz by John Szwed, booklet included in Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax, Rounder Records, Burlington, MA
Wright, Laurie (1972) notes republished with the CD Ferd ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton 1923-1926 Retrieval RTR 79002
The University of Derby generously supported this exhibition