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Rafters and skylights in the English Building

Colloquium Archive

Jonathan Stone

Name: Jonathan Stone, English Department

Presentation Title: "Inventing Jazz: Jelly Roll Morton and the Sonic Rhetorics of Vernacular Musical Performanceā€¯

Date: May 2, 2013


In May of 1938, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton arrived at the Library of Congress claiming to be the inventor of jazz. Alan Lomax, the folklorist in charge of the music archive there in Washington D.C., was skeptical. He was weary of the type of jazz that dominated the radio, jazz that white performers had appropriated to make more “accessible,” more commercial. But Morton’s story, which included roots in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, compelled Lomax, who later remarked: “I thought I’d take this cat on [and] see how much folk music a jazz musician knows.”

My presentation focuses on key moments of Morton’s recorded argument for his own authenticity as an originator of jazz music and for his place in the larger historical mythos of jazz. We’ll listen together for three layers of sonic rhetoricity that Morton develops in the interviews with Lomax. In the first, Morton uses detailed oral history as a deliberative argument against other musicians’ claims for the authorship of jazz. In the second, Morton’s virtuosic musical skill works as a kind of epideictic aretÄ“ tied to the distinguishing and disciplining of certain social and musical values in the jazz community. In the third, Morton declares and demonstrates how “jazz is a style that can be applied to any type of tune.” In other words, in the same way that eloquence is the result of applying the art of rhetoric to language, jazz is the result of deploying a distinct set of musical skills to a melody. In this way, jazz can be thought of as a rhetoric of music, and Morton a sonic rhetorician.