The ‘Inventor of Jazz’ Plays the Tango

2010 July 14
by Simba

–There is this guy…. and he plays the tango, too. I was at a Christmas party, sharing table with a guy that was writing his thesis on stride piano or pianists. Somehow the topic of tango had come up (strange, isn’t it?), and he was delighted to enlighten me about this early tango reference in American music. He promised to make me a copy, but that never materialized.

Nevertheless, I managed to track down the recordings myself. I didn’t remember the name of the pianist, but a little investigation revealed that it must have been Jelly Roll Morton in his Library of Congress recordings with musicologist Alan Lomax. In the recording sessions with Lomax, he tells his life’s story and illustrates by playing the piano. The sound quality isn’t great, of course, as this is really documentation of jazz history, old, and not really a recording meant for publication.

Fortunately, these recordings were published on cd a few years ago, and most of the “tango” songs (e.g. “New Orleans Blues”, “The Crave” and “Creepy Feeling”), you will find on Volume 4: Winin’ Boy Blues. Brilliant.  Morton himself calls what these tracks have the Spanish Tinge, which is really the habanera rhythm, so Spanish does not really refer to Spain, but rather to Afro-Caribbean influence.

I have often thought of the similarities between jazz and tango (more about that later), and in that context it is interesting to note that the self proclaimed inventor of jazz found the habanera so imporant to make jazz swing:

Now in one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues”, you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.

–Jelly Roll Morton

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