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ALL THAT JAZZ

Believe It or Not, Jelly Roll Morton's Letter Surfaces

March 14, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No one ever accused Jelly Roll Morton of being a shrinking violet. In a famous letter to Robert Ripley, of "Ripley's Believe It or Not," the New Orleans jazz pianist-composer, who died in 1941 at the age of 50, identified himself as the "inventor" of jazz.

At the time--1938--the claim appeared over-inflated and self-serving. Morton's most productive years were long gone, and he had found it impossible to adapt to the emerging big-band swing styles of the late '20s and '30s.

But Morton's declaration was not without validity. In the early years of the century, he molded elements of ragtime, blues, spirituals and Caribbean rhythms into a strikingly sophisticated musical form that can only be described as jazz. Mixing improvisation with carefully structured compositions, he wrote music for his Red Hot Peppers groups in the mid-'20s that are among the most innovative achievements of early jazz.

Morton's letter to Ripley has now been located in a previously unknown collection of his memorabilia. Philip Pastras, assistant professor of English at Pasadena City College and a jazz pianist, discovered the material while conducting research for a book on Morton's West Coast years. Morton lived in Los Angeles for five successful years between 1917 and 1922, and returned to the city in 1940; he died here on July 10, 1941.

In addition to the complete Ripley text, the compilation includes newspaper ads, correspondence with booking agents and fans, photos, contracts and the guest register from his funeral.

On Thursday, Pastras handed over the collection to archivist Floyd Levin for eventual housing in the Smithsonian Institution.

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Diva Doings: Singer Cassandra Wilson is on a roll. She was heard, most recently, in Wynton Marsalis' epic jazz oratorio "Blood on the Fields," performing a role that was written by Marsalis with her in mind. Her Blue Note recording, "New Moon Daughter," won a Grammy Award last month, and she has been commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Marsalis is musical director, to present a concert of her vocal interpretations of works identified with Miles Davis.

The program, which will include Wilson's renderings of instrumental works, as well as Davis compositions with newly composed lyrics, will take place in December. Wilson also has contributed a song, "You Move Me," to the soundtrack of the film "love jones," which opens today.

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On the Record: Lots of CD action upcoming from the members of the first family of jazz. Branford Marsalis' fusion group, Buckshot LeFonque, has a new release, "Music Evolution," scheduled for an April 1 release on Columbia Records. Will it once again trigger criticism from observers who question Marsalis' mixture of jazz, pop and rhythm-and-blues elements in his works for the group? Probably so, but Marsalis' response to such criticism is typical of his freewheeling insistence upon following his own path: "Music," he says, "is music. . . . It defies limitations."

Younger brother Wynton's "Blood on the Fields" also will be released in April on Columbia.

Blue Note Records kicks off its hyped "Cover Series" on March 25. Described by the company as "radical, hip and swinging reinterpretations of immortal rock classics," the first three albums feature saxophonist Everette Harp's rendering of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," the Charlie Hunter Quartet doing Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Natty Dread," and Fareed Haque's reading of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Deja Vu."

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Classic Jazz: Commodore, which was started in 1938 by record shop owner Milt Gabler, released many of the finest swing recordings of the late '30s and '40s, as well as some of Jelly Roll Morton's final studio dates. It also pioneered 12-inch, 78-rpm recordings, which opened the possibility of longer jazz performances.

Now GRP Records, which owns the Commodore catalog, has released six classic titles.

"Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore Recordings" is an essential two-CD set, and "The Commodore Story," also on two CDs, surveys the music of the valuable catalog. Among the individual items, there are the superb "Kansas City Sessions" of Lester Young (with the saxophonist playing soulful clarinet on several tracks), Jelly Roll Morton's "Last Sessions," Wild Bill Davison's "The Commodore Master Takes" and the underrated but utterly unique clarinetist Pee Wee Russell's "Jazz Original."

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Around Town: Grammy-nominated singer Nnenna Freelon performs tonight and Saturday as part of the Jazz at Northridge series at the New Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge, (818) 677-3943. . . . Cabaret and jazz stylist Weslia Whitfield starts a two-week run at the Cinegrill on Tuesday, (213) 466-7000. . . . Chick Corea brings an all-star ensemble (trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes) to Billboard Live on Wednesday, (310) 274-5800.

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Free Jazz: Chick Corea does his first-ever in-store appearance at Tower Records, 8801 Sunset Blvd., on Tuesday at 6 p.m., in support of his new album, "Remembering Bud Powell." . . . Pianist Frank Strazzeri performs tonight in a free concert at the L.A. County Museum of Art, 5:30 p.m. (213) 857-6000.

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