Portraits from Jelly Roll’s later travels
April 1923 – 1941
by Peter Hanley

PORTRAITS FROM JELLY ROLL’S LATER TRAVELS
Introduction  ·  Lester Melrose  ·  Eubie Blake  ·  Kudos

INTRODUCTION

Jelly Roll’s professional career may be roughly divided into two 18-year periods. The first period extends from 1905, when he first stared to play piano in the sporting houses of New Orleans and Biloxi, until he left California in April 1923. The second period extends from April 1923, when he arrived in Chicago, until his death in 1941. Even though this later period has been well documented, it is the most controversial period of his life. The portraits in the last part of the series number twenty-three from a cross section of people associated with him during this period. They range from those who praised him greatly, to those who criticised him greatly. I have told both sides of the story where it need to be told, relying on documented facts, some of which are not generally known.

© 2002 Peter Hanley

LESTER MELROSE

“Listen mister, Jelly Roll wouldn’t have been nothing if it hadn’t been for Melrose”

Lester Franklin Melrose was the second of six children of Frank and Mollie Melrose who owned a small farm in Claremont, in south-eastern Illinois at the turn of the 19th century. He was born in Sumner, Illinois on 14th December 1891. (Social Security Death Index)  When Lester went to Chicago around the start of the First World War, he tried out unsuccessfully as a catcher for the White Sox baseball team. He registered for the World War I Draft in Chicago on 5th June 1917, and it has been claimed that he served in the army. However, I have not been able to verify this.

Melrose worked as a grocery salesman, probably at Marshall Field’s store, in Chicago in 1919 and 1920. At the time of the 1920 census, 1st January 1920, he was lodging at 6225 Drexel Avenue, Chicago.
(U.S. Census 1920, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, 7th Ward, SD1 ED394, Sheet 9B, Line 72)

Walter Melrose, Lester’s oldest brother, opened a music store in South Cottage Grove Avenue, Chicago after the war and Lester joined him in 1922, about a year before Mr. Jelly Lord made his dramatic entrance into their store one evening in May 1923. Lester Melrose remembered it vividly when he recounted Jelly’s arrival for Alan Lomax twenty five years later:

“A fellow walked into our store with a big red bandanna around his neck and a ten gallon cowboy hat on his head and hollered, ‘Listen, everybody, I’m Jelly Roll Morton from New Orleans, the originator of jazz.’ He talked for an hour without stopping about how good he was and then he sat down at the piano and proved he was every bit as good as he claimed and better. That was when Jelly Roll got his start.” [MJR 185]

Lester sold his interest in the music store and the publishing business on 23rd April 1925 to his brother, Walter. He then went into business as an agent and talent scout for black blues artists in Chicago for the Bluebird and Okeh record labels, among others. Such blues artist as Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon were associated with him.

Although he could not play or sing a note of music, Melrose finished up owning the copyright to over three thousand tunes, mostly blues. He acquired those copyrights in a manner said to be normal for the period, but he was, in reality, a bully and a tune thief. He was quite candid in explaining his methods to Alan Lomax:

“I took my chances on some of the tunes I recorded being hits, and I wouldn’t record anybody unless he signed all his rights in those tunes over to me.” [MJR 187]

The influence of Lester Melrose on the Chicago blues scene before World War II was extensive, and he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1999, as a non-performer.

Melrose retired to Florida in the late 1950s and died there in April 1968. His last known place of residence was in Clermont, Lake County, Florida.
(Florida Death Index 1967-1969, as Lester Franklin Melrose and Social Security Death Index, Social Security Number 355-30-9846)

© January 2007 Peter Hanley

EUBIE BLAKE

“Everybody’s just wild about Eubie”

Eubie Blake lived a long and eventful life, and his career as a pianist, entertainer and songwriter took him to the worst of places and to the best of places, from the sporting houses and dives of the Baltimore tenderloin to the concert halls of New York and beyond. When ragtime became respectable in the early 1970s, Eubie was there to lead the new generation of lovers of ragtime music, and to be their elder statesman. Everyone looked up to him, and what he said about men and music was accepted, almost without question.

Like all professional pianists, Eubie was always interested in what other pianists were playing, what tunes they wrote, and how good they were. His memory was a virtual storehouse of all the good piano players he ever encountered. He knew them all, from Jesse Pickett and One-Leg Willie Joseph(s) in the very early years of the 20th century to Johnny Guarnieri and, in his last years, the young Norwegian pianist, Morten Gunnar Larsen.

It is not surprising, then, that he knew Jelly Roll Morton. He said that he had met him in New York after World War I, but that does not fit into the known Morton chronology in the period from 1918 to 1921. Perhaps Eubie was thinking of the later period, beginning in the middle of 1928, when Jelly Roll lived in New York. In an interview with Bill Russell in New Orleans on 5th June 1969, Eubie had this to say:

“And Jelly, you know, was a great guy when he’d come around the fellows. Had a heavy voice; he’d keep you laughing all the time, and you’d know he was telling fibs and all — but he was a jolly sort of a fellow. There’s about four guys I know who talked like Jelly. Willie the Lion (he’s a demon), a guy named Jerry Wilford, and Vladimir de Pachmann, the concert pianist, was the same way.

“Jelly Roll knew all the — I hate the word — I’ll call ’em ‘gentlemen of leisure.’ Yes, he knew all of them. I did, too; you see, we didn’t have any other place to play but in the sporting houses. So that’s why, I think, the powers that be always knocked ragtime. I’m one of the pioneers, like Jelly, you see. I was older than Jelly, but he was a man when I first met him. Now, in his early years, when I first knew him, the gentlemen of leisure wore full-back coats and all. Yes, box-back coats. But I never saw Jelly with one of these on, see? He always wore conventional clothes and — he was a jolly sort of a fellow. . . .

“I was around him not as much as the average guy, because I was on the road all the time. But Jelly was a fellow — if you knew him, and was around him, he was very interesting because he knew both sides of life. He knew the best people of our race, and he knew the worst people, see? I do, too. . . .

“Let me tell you about Jelly Roll. I liked his music, of course, and I liked to hear him play piano, too. He had a nice ragtime style and he played some nice blues sometimes, too. He was a good player, but he didn’t rank with Luckey Roberts, James P. and ‘Big Head’ Wilber and those guys — and ‘Slew Foot.’ Now these are the only names I know — ‘Slew Foot’ Nelson (you never heard of him because he died very young). ‘Slew Foot’ Nelson and Don Lambert. Jelly was good — he wasn’t no slouch, now. He wasn’t no slouch; but these other guys were — like Joe Louis was a fighter, see?

“Jelly Roll wrote good rags, yeah. I liked him, you know, because he was a jovial guy. But musicians gave him hell — they’d say ‘That guy wrote this and he wrote that, and I don’t believe he wrote.’ But he did — he wrote a lot of music. Yeah, I liked old Jelly. . . .”
[OMJ 444-445]

In a letter to Mike Meddings dated 8th January 1974, Eubie referred to Jelly Roll as “an acquaintance of mine” and to James P. Johnson as “a good friend of mine” and that helps to explain his attitude towards the music of the two men. The southern blues played by Morton and the New Orleans musicians formed no part of the music of the stride pianists whose main influence was ragtime and Tin Pan Alley. Nevertheless, Eubie had a genuine regard for Morton and, in a later letter to Mike (28th August 1975), wrote: “I remember him when he first came to New York. Quite a talker, good piano player. . . . he wrote some good tunes.”

One of the highlights of Eubie’s playing career was his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in the summer of 1960 in a stride piano concert arranged and compèred by Rudi Blesh. Eubie appeared with Willie (The Lion) Smith and a relatively unknown younger pianist, Donald Lambert. Neither Eubie nor The Lion knew Lambert and The Lion is said to have greeted him backstage with, “Hey, punk.”

Well, it was a different story when they got out on stage. Eubie played in his own unique way, not what I call stride, and the crowd loved it. Then it was Lambert’s turn. He cut loose on Anitra’s Dance (from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt), and he had the audience on the edge of their seats. His playing was that exciting, and those in the audience who knew what Lambert was doing must have thought that Anitra had never had it so good. His version of Gershwin’s Liza was even better. The Lion followed and tried to upstage Lambert with his version of Chopin’s Military Polonaise (Polonaise in A major Opus 40 Number 1), but it came over a little hollow. No one could have followed Lambert that day. As they used to say, he cut the other two to ribbons.

After Lambert had finished playing, Eubie, gracious as ever, rushed out on to the stage and shook his hand, saying: “I’m 77 years old. I’ve heard them all, and you’re one of the best god-damn pianists I ever heard.”

But there was also another side to Eubie, and it is best to let Al Rose, his official biographer, tell us about that:

“I knew Eubie Blake so well, and for so long, that I still can’t believe he’s gone. As his official biographer, I put almost all the Eubie stories in that volume, Eubie Blake by Al Rose, (Schirmer-Macmillan, 1979) but not all of them. Some were withheld in deference to Eubie’s wife, Marion, who was always offended by mention of his many — and I mean many — amours. She was very generous in the matter of supplying photographs, but she absolutely refused to turn over any, no matter how innocuous, that showed him with another woman — even his first wife Avis, who died before he began his courtship of Marion. Eubie had an extended string of affairs from his extreme youth, through both his marriages, and the last of them when he was in his nineties. I asked him when he was ninety-seven, ‘How old do you have to be before the sex drive goes?’

“He answered, ‘You’ll have to ask somebody older than me.’

“Eubie wasn’t a man to pursue the ladies, but he was certainly quick to yield to temptation. After all, when Shuffle Along became a smash on Broadway, he was rich, talented and personable. He was an international celebrity; his songs like Memories of You, I’m Just Wild About Harry and You’re Lucky to Me were part of the main body of American music. The ladies, especially the show business ladies, were all over him. He was lionized.

“Certainly everybody knew that he was in love with Lottie Gee, his Shuffle Along ingénue. The cast knew, Avis knew and all of Broadway knew. Both Avis and Lottie were jealous as they could be, and Eubie’s attitude was one of complete helplessness. He never felt he was “cheating on anybody. It was just that all women were always taking advantage of the unfortunate fact that he couldn’t resist them. He once confessed to me, ‘I been gettin’ away with that act for sixty years.’

“. . . The roster of Eubie’s lady friends read like a directory of black soubrettes, ingénues, chorus girls, and showgirls. That, he said, was the big thing about being a success in the music business. He was saddened by the girls — and there were several — who committed suicide over him, two who were killed by their husbands — yet he discussed these events as an outsider, as one who had exercised no initiative in these matters. He viewed it all as an innocent bystander.

“ ‘Listen,’ he explained. ‘You got to understand how the world is. I wasn’t foolin’ with jail bait. These were all grown-up women. They were all in the theatrical world, and a woman in the theatrical world needs to know it ain’t the same as the rest of the world. Show people think a certain way. They act a certain way — and what I did was what show people did. Maybe I did it more than most of the others — but it wasn’t the kind of thing you just decide you’re gonna do! It just comes up on you and there you are. I treated Avis good and she was the first to say it. And Marion, too. A guy like you, you been in it and you understand it, but women — even show business women — they might understand it if it’s somebody else. But if it’s them, hah!’ ”
[IRJ 103-104]

Much criticism has been levelled at Jelly Roll Morton for putting his birth year back five years, from 1890 to 1885, to give himself an earlier entry into the New Orleans jazz scene. Let me say this. He certainly was not the only one to make himself out to be older than he really was. Many other early ragtime and jazz musicians did, and the much-loved and much-admired James Hubert Blake was assuredly one of those.

Eubie Blake told Blesh and Janis that he was born in Baltimore on 7th February 1883 and that is the date that succeeding writers have used ever since.
[TAPR 197] The first inkling I had that this was not the correct birth date was about two years ago during the course of my research on the ancestry and relatives of Ferdinand (Jelly Roll) Morton. I had decided to cast my net very wide in my research, and look for primary source data on other early musicians, especially those who had some connection with Morton. There were indications that much data, which had been published in highly regarded books on the history of jazz and ragtime, was historically inaccurate and carelessly adopted by various authors.

In searching the Social Security Death Index, I turned up an entry for James Blake who had died in New York in February 1983.
(Social Security Death Index, Social Security Number 113-05-1371, as James Blake) This was surely Eubie Blake (born James Hubert Blake) but the date of birth was given as 7th February 1887. The birth date in the index does not come from the informant who made the claim for the death benefit but comes from, or is at least checked against, the date on the original application for a Social Security Number, which would have been made by Eubie shortly after the requirements to apply for a number were introduced in 1937. In other words, Eubie would have given 7th February 1887 as his birth date in the original application.

I searched further in the available census information and the results of my searches over a period of time confirmed the birth date in the Social Security Death Index. The census information is summarised below:

Name (Sex Race)

John Blake (M B)
Emma Blake (F B)
Hubert Blake (M B)
Lucy Blake (F B)
Nettie Stewart (F B)
Relationship

Head
Wife
Son
Niece
Niece
Age or birth date

July 1838
July 1861
February 1887
October 1885
February 1875
Where born

Maryland
Virginia
Maryland
Virginia
Maryland
Occupation

Day Laborer

At School
At School

(U.S. Census 1900, Maryland, Baltimore, 8th Ward, SD111 ED103, Sheet 12B, Lines 96-100, Census Date 1st June 1900, enumerated 7th June 1900, residence at 1508 Jefferson Street, Emma Blake listed as the mother of 8 children with 1 living at the date of the census)

Name (Sex Race)

John Blake (M B)

Emma Blake (F B)

Waltimore Hill (M B)

Viola Endrage (F B)

Hubert Blake (M B)

Sarah Morgan (F B)

Relationship

Head

Wife

Nephew

Niece

Son

Adopted
   Daughter
Age or birth date

71 (born 1838)

45 (born 1864)

28

21

23 (born 1887)

14

Where born

Virginia

Virginia

Virginia

Maryland

Maryland

Maryland

Occupation

Laborer —
   Lumber Yard
Laundress —
   Private Family
Laborer —
   Lumber Yard
Laundress —
   Private Family
Musician —
   Hotel
Laundress —
   Private Family

(U.S. Census 1910, Maryland, Baltimore City, 6th Ward, SD3 ED76, Sheet 2A, Lines 15-20, Census Date 15th April 1910, enumerated 18th April 1910, residence at 1505 East Jefferson Street, Emma Blake listed as the mother of 8 children with 1 living at the date of the census)

Name (Sex Race)

Isabella Burey ? (F M)

Aves E. Lee (F M)

Relationship

Head

Granddaughter

Age or birth date

54

20 ? (born 1890 ?)

Where born

Maryland

Maryland

Occupation

Dressmaker —
   at Home
Waitress —
   Restaurant

(U.S. Census 1910, Maryland, Baltimore City, 17th Ward, SD3 ED286, Sheet 13A, Lines 4 and 5, Census Date 15th April 1910, enumerated 23rd April 1910, residence at 620 George Street)

Name (Sex Race)

Avis Blake (F M)
James Blake (M M)

Relationship

Lodger
Lodger

Age or birth date

30
33 (born 1886)

Where born

Maryland
Maryland

Occupation

None
Actor —
   Vaudeville

(U.S. Census 1920, New York, New York County, New York City, SD1 ED1415, Sheet 8B, Lines 81 and 82, Census Date 1st January 1920, enumerated 7th January 1920, residence at 236 138th Street)

Name (Sex Race)

Hubert Blake (M N)
Avis Blake (F N)
Relationship

Lodger
Lodger
Age or birth date

41 (born 1889)
38
Where born

Maryland
Maryland
Occupation

Actor — Theater
None

(U.S. Census 1930, New York, New York County, New York City, Block H, SD24 ED31-984, Sheet 24B, Lines 77 and 78, Census Date 1st April 1930, enumerated 23rd April 1930, residence at 236 West 138th Street)

Some readers will certainly ask: what about Eubie’s birth certificate? The answer to that question is that there may not be one, and that is not an uncommon situation for children, both black and white, in that period. If Eubie was born in Baltimore, as he claimed, the chances of finding a birth certificate with conclusive information are rather remote.

The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City passed an ordinance in 1874 (No. 86, Ordinances of 1874) for the registration of births and deaths in the city. The City Council continued to maintain its own records until 1972, even though the State Board of Health passed regulations in 1898 requiring registration of births and deaths for the 23 counties of the State of Maryland.

From 1874 to 1911, birth certificates recorded in Baltimore City contained only the sex, race, number in birth order of the child, date and place of birth, names and birthplaces of both the parents, occupation of the father, the name and address of the medical attendant, but not the name of the child. In 1903, the form was revised to include the name of the child, but certificates do not generally include the name of the child until 1911.

The Maryland State Archives in Annapolis now holds the Baltimore City birth records, and there is a Baltimore City Birth Index covering the period 1875 to 1941. The information in the index gives the parents’ names, the date of birth, and the certificate number, but not the name of the child (as the records prior to 1911 do not include the name).

The 1900 and 1910 census records show that Eubie’s mother, Emma Blake, had eight children, but only one child (Eubie) was living in 1900. Eubie always said that he was the youngest of eleven children. Because the name of the child was not recorded in the Baltimore City birth records until 1911, the procedure to verify Eubie’s birth date in these records would be, firstly, to find the birth dates of all the eight Blake children in the Baltimore City Birth Index, and then find the date of death of the seven deceased children in the Baltimore City Death Index which covers the period from 1875 to 1972. If the information obtained was sufficient, the details from the death index would have to be matched with the details from the birth index to verify when the surviving child (Eubie) was born.

This would turn the exercise into a daunting task even if all the records were found; an impossible task if any of the births or deaths were not registered or occurred outside of Baltimore City. Birth and death records in Maryland’s 23 counties are generally only available from 1898. A simpler approach might be to look for baptisms and funerals in church records which may or may not be extant.

It also surprises me that greater attention has not been paid to the Eubie Blake Papers, ca. 1905-1983, in the Maryland Historical Society Library at 201 West Monument Street, Baltimore, Maryland. There are 94 boxes of various types of records in this collection. I have perused an inventory of the Blake Papers, and noted that Box 17 contained passports for Avis and Eubie Blake, insurance policies, and premiums and correspondence with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Inc. from 1914 to 1939. Box 16 has the Marion Tyler Blake papers and contains her birth certificate and marriage certificate, but not Eubie’s birth certificate.

Whatever the outcome, it now seems certain that James Hubert (Eubie) Blake was born on 7th February 1887, not on 7th February 1883 as he claimed. If I may paraphrase a statement made to Eubie in an entirely different context by a friend who went by the Runyonesque name of Broadway Joe:

“Eubie, you lovable old fraud, you should be ashamed of yourself, telling all those nice white folks, who hovered around and held their breath on your every word, that you were a hundred years old when you were only ninety-six. You even had President Reagan fooled.”

It may now mean that we have to look more closely at, and probably revise, the chronology of Eubie Blake’s early career and compositions. In the final analysis, however, the fact that he was only ninety-six years of age and not one hundred when he died cannot detract, in any way, from his extraordinary achievements. He will always remain among the finest popular composers and songwriters of his era.

© January 2003 Peter Hanley

Postscript

The portrait of Eubie Blake above has created a lot of interest and a good deal of controversy in ragtime and jazz circles. There were many who welcomed a fresh and objective approach to Eubie’s age, but there were also many who appeared to consider it impertinent to question their idol’s statements about when he was born.

The Maryland Historical Society have put the issue beyond doubt by posting digitized images of Eubie’s 1920 application for a passport, his 1920 passport, his 1925 passport and Mrs. Emma Blake’s sworn statement of his birth date to support his 1920 passport application.

All the documents clearly show a birth date of 7th February 1887.

The links to the digitized images are as follows:

1920 passport application

1920 passport

1925 passport

1920 sworn statement of Mrs. Blake

Special thanks go to fellow researcher, Bob Pinsker, who located these images on a recent trip to Baltimore, and quickly communicated the information and Internet links to Mike Meddings.

© March 2004 Peter Hanley

Author’s note: Eubie appeared on a national radio program Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on 15th December 1979 and told how he went to Carnegie Hall with his friend, Broadway Joe, when the great composer and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), made his American debut. Both were so impressed with Rachmaninov’s playing that Eubie told Marian: “Broadway Joe said to me, you ought to be ashamed of yourself robbing these nice white people, telling them you could play the piano.” The thing that struck Eubie about Rachmaninov’s playing was the way he played The Star Spangled Banner, particularly the final chorus in octaves without harmony. In actual fact, Rachmaninov made his American debut in Providence, Rhode Island on 8th December 1918, but the final concert in his first full American season was at Carnegie Hall on 27th April 1919. He opened the concert with his own piano arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner (Geoffrey Norris. The Master Musicians: Rakhmaninov, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1976, 211 pp., at page 58). It must have been this concert which Broadway Joe and Eubie attended. Rachmaninov’s name is generally spelled “Rachmaninov,” but his biographer, Geoffrey Norris, used the Russian form “Rakhmaninov.” At the time of the Rachmaninov concert, The Star Spangled Banner (words of an 1814 poem by Francis Scott Key set to the tune of an English drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven by J. Stafford Smith) was not the National Anthem. It was only officially adopted as the National Anthem by Congress in 1931.

© January 2003 Peter Hanley

Some readers have suggested that Eubie said “Broadway Jones” on the recorded interview with Marian McPartland. Eubie told Al Rose that Henry “Broadway” Jones (a baritone) was his partner in vaudeville in 1918 and 1919 when Noble Sissle was overseas with the armed forces (Al Rose. Eubie, Schirmer, New York, 1979 at page 61, courtesy of Bill Egan, Canberra, Australia). I can assure everyone that Eubie said “Broadway Joe,” not “Broadway Jones,” on the broadcast (released on Jazz Alliance CD TJA-12006). Whether he meant to say “Broadway Jones,” no one can say.

Eubie also told Rose that Jerome Kern wrote Ol’ Man River for Jones to appear in his great musical Showboat, but Jones turned the offer down. This appears to be another of Eubie’s fictions. Michael Freedland, in his excellent biography of Kern (Stein and Day, New York, 1978), devotes a whole chapter to Showboat without mentioning Jones. Freedland wrote at page 91:

Right from the beginning, Kern had wanted the young Negro bass who had inspired Ol’ Man River to be the one to sing it in the show. But the man could not be traced until after Jules Bledsoe had been signed and had triumphed on the opening night, The elusive bass? A certain Paul Robeson.

© November 2004 Peter Hanley

In researching the World War I Draft Registration Cards, we located the draft card for Eubie Blake. Eubie registered for the draft in New York as James Hubert Blake on 5th June 1917. His date of birth is clearly shown as 7th February 1887, adding to the extensive and conclusive evidence that he was not born in 1883 as he later claimed.

© January 2007 Peter Hanley

KUDOS


Dr. Edward A. Berlin (USA)
Peter Hanley (Australia)
Prof. Lawrence Gushee (USA)


Mike Meddings (UK)
Dr. Robert Pinsker (USA)
Roger Richard (France)

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