Ferdinand Joseph "Jelly Roll Morton" Lamothe was one of the first jazz composers and one of jazz's great musicians. He was one of the first to determine that composing and arranging jazz could enhance the quality and possibilities of jazz music, and the first great jazz composer.
Jelly Roll Morton was born in New Orleans on October 20, 1890 to Edward J. Lamothe and Louise Monette, who were entered into a common law marriage. In 1894 his mother, Louise Monette, married William Mouton, from whom Morton would borrow his future name (possibly to sound less "French"). Morton learned classical piano at the age of 10 and studied with ragtime pianist Tony Jackson shortly thereafter. Morton's mother died when he was a teenager, and Morton proceeded to drift into the underworld of New Orleans, playing at Storyville bordellos and becoming at various times a gambler, nightclub operator, vaudeville comedian, pool player, and even a pimp. Morton, however, soon returned to focusing on music. He toured the Midwest and the South throughout his teenage years, and in 1912 he settled temporarily in Chicago's South Side. There he wrote his first piece, "The Jelly Roll Blues," published by Will Rossiter.
Morton then moved to California, where he was finally able to settle for several years. He played in Los Angeles from 1917-1922, but moved back to Chicago in 1922. It was during this time in Chicago that Morton would become famous for his piano solos recorded for the Gennet label. By the end of his stay in Chicago, Morton was signed to Victor and had formed his own band of New Orleans Jazz players, the Red Hot Peppers.
In 1928, Morton moved to New York along with the new center of jazz, but he was unable (and, perhaps, unwilling) to keep pace with the changes in style of jazz. At the beginning of the Great Depression he continued to make music, recording a few hits. But he soon came to be regarded as old-fashioned and out of style, and resigned himself to obscurity.
Morton attempted a comeback in the late 1930's after being interviewed about the history of jazz by the Library of Congress. He formed a band in New York in 1939 and recorded a few songs, all of which failed to be a commercial success. The next year he moved to Los Angeles, and died on July 10, 1941 at the age of 50, ironically just before his style of New Orleans jazz would again be popularly received.