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SWEET AND SOUR 'JELLY' : Because of Negative Feelings for Morton, Maurice Hines Had Trouble Getting Into the Role

November 24, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers classical music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition

"Jelly's Last Jam" has plenty of songs and dances, but it isn't your usual Broadway musical. It's a musical with a mission, and a controversial one at that: To put jazz creator Jelly Roll Morton on trial as a bigot for denying his own black heritage.

"He's a monster," says Maurice Hines, who plays Jelly in the touring production, beginning Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. "Black, white, Asian--anybody who denies his own race and takes from them, I will always think of as a monster."

George C. Wolfe wrote (and directs) the show to tell the story of Morton on his last day on Earth, as he stands on the brink of heaven or hell and reflects on his life. Wolfe's portrait of Morton is mostly an unflattering one, but the musical ends happily, with Morton redeemed and taken into the pantheon of great black American creators.

"In real life," counters Hines, "he didn't redeem himself. But we live in America, and they love happy endings."

Born Ferdinand Le Menthe Morton about 1890 in New Orleans (there are other ways of spelling his name and other dates for his birth year), he rose to fame playing music based on the rhythms and sounds he heard on the streets and in the brothels as a youngster. His great-grandmother had kicked him out of the house when he was 15 for hanging around such places and people, or "lower orders" as she called them.

He left New Orleans in 1915 and formed his own band, the Red Hot Peppers, in Chicago. The band became one of the top black recording groups for RCA Records. Calling himself "Jelly Roll" (to suggest sexiness) and flush with success, he started living a flashier life, bought lots of suits and had a small diamond inserted into a front tooth.

But by 1930, when he moved to New York, his music began to go out of fashion as a new kind of big band sound became popular. His career went into decline, and, after years of neglecting his health, he died, broke and largely forgotten, in the colored ward of the Los Angeles Hospital in 1941. To the end, he professed to be superior to black Americans, saying he was pure Creole.

"Jelly's Last Jam" was first produced in Los Angeles in 1991 at the Mark Taper Forum. Its eight-week run broke all box office records for such engagements.

Although Gregory Hines, Maurice's younger brother, had been slated to star in the original production, he bowed out because of a conflict with a movie project that, ironically, never materialized. Morton was played in Los Angeles by Obba Babatunde.

But Gregory Hines took over when, after some minor tinkering, the musical moved to Broadway in 1992. There, the show played for 569 performances and gathered 11 Tony nominations. The production hit the road for the first time in September, with Maurice Hines as Jelly. The music is by Morton and Luther Henderson; the lyrics are by Susan Birkenhead.

Despite his negative feelings, Maurice Hines, 50, admits that Morton is "certainly three-dimensional. He's got a lot of layers to him." And the musical does "show how he became the person he did through his family problems. There was racism in his own light-skinned family. It was that Creole way of life in New Orleans."

But he disagrees with those who call Morton a genius. "I think he was innovative, I think that he was creative, but I think his own egomania stopped the creativity when it should have grown," he says.

"Duke (Ellington), Ella (Fitzgerald), Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway--they really nurtured each other, they loved each other. There was never a competition among them, as far as I see or knew. But there was with Jelly Roll, because of this race problem, and his egomania killed him."

As for airing such intra-racial strife, Hines isn't convinced it's necessary. His producer, he says, thinks it's "such an important thing to do."

"Important for whom? As black people, we know (bigotry) exists in our race. Is it important for white people to know? I don't consider myself controversial. I think I'm politically aware. But I don't think it's that important to put it out for other people to see. We already know about it as black people."

Even so, Hines has his own understanding of the problem. His mother, Alma Hines Kilfoyl, now 75, also came from a light-skinned family, and when she married a darker-skinned man, Maurice Sr., her family looked down on him.

"My family certainly knew that attitude between the 'good' hair and the 'bad' hair, the 'white' and the 'black,' " he says. "But my mother put a stop to that immediately. She was light enough to pass (for white) but didn't. She never allowed things of that nature in the house.

"So it was not difficult to get into that kind of part and bring truth to it. It's easy. The rage is also easy to touch."

In fact, Hines took over the role because his mother asked him to. "My mother knew I really didn't want to do it," he says. "But you know how mothers can give you that killing look, like 'Do this for me.' So I said finally, 'OK. I will.' "

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