Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright Socialist Review



Shaking all over

Jolly Roll
by Vernel Bagneris

Jelly Roll Morton: rebel and path breaker

Jazz is regarded by some as a specialist music form. That is why it was brilliant to see such a mixed crowd of young, old, black and white people enjoying a production about one of the key founders of jazz--Ferdinand La Menthe (Jelly Roll Morton).
Morton's recordings can sound uncomfortable and one dimensional to modern day ears, but he is, along with Ellington, Monks and Evans, one of the great pianists. Vernel Bagneris not only wrote the production but plays Morton as well. Using song and dance Bagneris paints a picture of Morton's life and the birth of jazz in New Orleans, in the first half of this century.
One of the high points of the production is the recreation of Jelly Roll's piano style by the Norwegian pianist Morton Gunner Larsen--one of the best ragtime pianists in the world. The combination of Bagneris' acting and Larsen's playing recreate brilliantly Jelly Roll Morton on stage.
New Orleans became the 'cradle of jazz music' for a number of reasons. Jazz is the music of urban America. It reflected the growing financial independence of blacks working in cities in large numbers for the first time, with money to spend on leisure. Like Kansas City in the 1930s (the home of Lester Young, Count Basie and Charlie Parker) the officials of New Orleans turned a blind eye to a flourishing red light district. This gave space to a generation of musicians to play and learn their craft in the brothels and bars that sprang up. New Orleans was also the melting pot of the cultural heritage of jazz--the black American experience of racism and a strong spiritualism. This was combined with the French and Spanish Catholic social traditions--public festivals and processions and finally North European technical innovation. Jelly Roll Morton, a Creole, was literally a synthesis of all this.
The play also shows that Morton was one of the wild men of jazz. He was a pimp, gambler, gun carrying hustler with a diamond in his front tooth. His nickname, Jelly Roll, had more to do with his sexual prowess than his liking of confectionery. He was a real life rebel and hated by the establishment, not just because of his behaviour, but also because jazz was not accepted as serious music.
But Morton and the rest of his contemporaries were path breakers. Unlike their predecessors they were professional musicians who although forced to play vaudeville type shows, which reduced many to little more than stand up comics, also created brilliant music. It was these pioneers who toured the States that ensured jazz became a permanent music form. Louis Armstrong may have been the father of jazz, but Morton's music was his roots.
Bagneris has created an insight into Morton's life and he has rejuvenated his music for a new audience. If you like jazz music you should come and see this play. Morton is the beginning of the chain that gave us Coltrane, Davis, Rollins...
Martin Smith
Jelly Roll plays at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 14 October

Sounds of black Africa


This play, devised by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company of Johannesburg, is based on Modike Dikobe's novel Marabi Dance, the first novel ever written about working class life by a black South African. It is set in the 1930s and explores, with humour and insight, the lives of the close knit communities in the slum yards of the cities.
The narrative focuses on Mabongo and his family and their struggle to escape from the poverty and exploitation which dominates their lives.
Mabongo's daughter, Martha, hopes that a good education will be her road out of the slums. To boost the meagre family income, she sings in a band at weekends. She meets and falls in love with George, one of Johannesburg's best piano players. Her father dislikes George and wants Martha to marry her cousin.
The struggle between old and new values in the family reflect wider struggles between tradition and modernity.
The Marabi of the title is the name given to the culture of the slumyards, a defence against the harsh conditions imposed on the people and also the name given to the defiant, radical music of the young--the rave music of its day. The production is described in the publicity material as a musical but, I felt, was rather a play with many threads pulled together by a vibrant music representing the subversive spirit of the people.
The singing is a joy and the acting is sincere. If you can, see this play, which celebrates the dignity of working class people struggling for survival in the most difficult of circumstances.
Pat Smith
Marabi plays in Nottingham, Cardiff Manchester and London during October

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page