In our previous virtual exhibit on Louis Armstrong’s record collection, we promised to share more treasures from his music library in a series of regular Friday posts. For the inaugural effort in this series, we have chosen a masterpiece by another legend of New Orleans music, Jelly Roll Morton’s The Saga of Mr. Jelly Lord Vol. II: Way Down Yonder.
This was the second volume in a series of long-playing discs issued by Circle Records in 1950 and containing Jelly Roll Morton’s legendary 1938 Library of Congress interviews, as conducted by Alan Lomax. Morton died in 1941 but his story was in the process of rediscovery in 1950 thanks to the publication of Lomax’s biography, Mister Jelly Roll.
When the New York Times needed someone to review Lomax’s book, they called upon Armstrong, even sending him a galley copy, which survives in our Archives. After reading it, Armstrong dictated not so much a review but more of a remembrance of Morton to longtime friend Jeann “Roni” Failows, who sometimes helped Armstrong with “secretarial” duties such as organizing and answering his fan mail. Here is a Paul Studer photo of Armstrong and Failows at work in Armstrong’s Queens den in 1957.
For the first time, here is Armstrong’s unpublished draft, dated March 4, 1950 and written in his typical conversational style:
Armstrong refers to Morton as his “personal friend” in the review but also admits that he didn’t even meet him until they were in Chicago at the same time until the 1920s. Still, Armstrong seemed genuinely interested in learning more about his story. Circle Records had already issued much of the Library of Congress material on a series of 10-inch 78 albums in 1947 and now rushed to reissue it all on 12-inch LPs to take advantage of the publicity around the book.
Judging by the back cover of Armstrong’s copy, he purchased the whole set at Seymour’s Record Shop in Chicago, quite possibly when he played the Blue Note in that city in the summer of 1950 or 1951.
After getting his first tape recorder in December 1950, Armstrong decided to transfer all of the LPs to reel-to-reel tape. Once again, with his “for posterity” concept in mind, Armstrong opened up his tape by talking to an imaginary audience and imploring them to listen to Morton’s words. “What he says, lend an ear,” Armstrong finishes.
He then dropped the needle on side 1, covering “The Animule Ball.” However, about six minutes in, Lomax asked about “scat songs.” Morton responded with these words (taken from the very helpful transcript at the Doctor Jazz website):
“Oh, I’ll sing you some scat songs. That was before Louie Armstrong’s time. Er, by the way, scat is something that a lot of people don’t understand they…and they begin to believe that the first scat numbers was ever done, was done by one of my hometown boys, Louie Armstrong. But I must take the credit away, since I know better. The first man that ever did a scat number in history of this country was a man from Vicksburg, Mississippi, by the name of Joe Sims, an old comedian. And from that, Tony Jackson and myself, and several more grabbed it in New Orleans.”
Armstrong let Morton finish before stopping the record and picking up the microphone. “Of course, Mr. Jelly Roll, I just have to take time out and kinda let you pause a minute while I explain this situation about scat,” he begins. “I don’t think I’ll let you get away with this.”
Here is an edit of this entire sequence, beginning with Armstrong’s introduction, followed by the excerpt of Morton’s interview that offended him, and finishing with Armstrong’s rebuttal:
Stunning stuff! In his response to Morton, Armstrong explains his story behind “Heebie Jeebies,” giving the credit for that song’s success to E. A. Fearn of OKeh Records. “If I did copy scattin’ as you’re trying to rudely put it—all due respect to your ability and the diamond in your tooth and all that—but still in all, I still say that it’s a coincidence,” he says. Armstrong also bragged about his recordings and live performances in Chicago in the 1920s, adding, “And when you got to Chicago, young man, everything had been done before. So I just wanted to make a little correction cause after all, I’m still in the business and you’re still six feet in the ground, young man. So don’t hand me that shit—well, okay, carry on, here we go. No hard feelings, but I just couldn’t let you get away with that.”
After that, Armstrong resumed dubbing the LP to tape and ended up filling up multiple reels with other LPs in Circle’s series. He never found the need to correct Morton again, but this stands as a striking example of Armstrong going to great lengths to make sure his side of the story is told.
In the last two years of his life, ill health forced Armstrong to spend much of his time at home. He spent his days renumbering his reel-to-reel tape collection, listening to his old tapes, designing new collages for their boxes, and writing the contents of each tape into a catalog. Here is his page for Reel 16, covering the Morton sequence. He writes, “Louis Armstrong Explains Heebie Jeebies.”
If you’d like to listen along to the contents of The Saga of Mister Jelly Lord, here is a link to a Spotify playlist containing the music originally contained on that Circle LP–sans commentary from Louis Armstrong!