Made for General Records, the sessions summarize Jelly Roll's songwriting and piano-playing genius. He is the source from which all great jazz piano originates—from Fats Waller and Art Tatum to Earl "Fatha" Hines and Erroll Garner. Jelly Roll's composing and stride skills were enormous, as evidenced by these late dates.
First, the back story. In late 1939, ASCAP finally relented and granted Jelly Roll membership in the composers' organization after years of stubborn rejection. It also agreed to start paying him an annual royalty for his songs. ASCAP's decision came after a long, and tortuous lobbying campaign by Jelly Roll.
Shortly after Jelly Roll received the good news, the organization informed him that he was being placed in the lowest pay category. At the time, the royalty pay scale ranged from $16,000 a year for white composers such as Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers down to $120 for nonwhites such as Jelly Roll. According to Howard Reich and William Gaines, authors of Jelly's Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton (2003), music by nonwhites was deemed by ASCAP to have less intrinsic 'value' than songs written for Broadway.
Exasperated by ASCAP's treatment and suffering from heart troubles, an aging and anguished Jelly Roll was determined to re-record his songs. Just weeks after receiving the bad news from ASCAP on his royalty scale, he agreed to record for General Records. The sessions would be held on December 14,16 and 18 of 1939, and January 4, 23 and 30 of 1940.
"As Jelly Roll Morton stepped into Reeves' Sound Studios on East 44th St., he came ready to play, with a lifetime of melodies and riffs at his fingertips. Once again, the label—General Records—wanted Morton to play the old ones, and he was going to oblige in full, creating some of the most lush and ornate versions of his music that he yet had committed to record.
Setting aside his pains and miseries for a few hours, he summoned a degree of energy and keyboard virtuosity that defied the present conditions of his life.... The man was summing it all up, bringing to the keyboard every crafty piano trick, sly rhythmic device, and daring harmonic innovation he had in him.
And he wasn't done yet. On some numbers, he began to sing, his vocal tone and phrasing overflowing with the spirit of the blues. Into these pieces—the slow and sultry Winin' Boy Blues, the mournful Buddy Bolden's Blues, the somber Don't You Leave Me Here—Morton poured a decade's worth of sorrows and humiliations.
'At Jelly's request, I sat in the studio with him as he recorded, and I thought at the time I was going through at least as many crises as he was,' recalled writer Charles Edward Smith, who had organized the sessions for Gordon Mercer of General Records.
'On Winin' Boy Blues, for example, Morton closed his eyes on the humming passage. The clock was climbing toward the three-minute mark. Gordon and the engineers motioned me frantically to nudge Jelly. I didn't. It was too good. Besides, I didn't dare. Jelly opened his eyes slowly and murmured, 'Oh, Mamie,' as the number came to its close, that last exhortation almost a sob.'
Morton was reaching deep within for this music, creating sounds that were every bit as personal and as autobiographical as jazz audiences now demanded of their artists. The strength of these performances—and the sterling recordings he knew they would make—sustained him through a harrowing Christmas, during which he seethed over the [royalty-payment] blow from ASCAP.
The very notion that ASCAP could send him a letter in mid-December informing him that performance and broadcast payments from his compositions were worth a pitiful $120 a year demeaned and injured him.
So did the attitude of Benny Goodman's manager, John Hammond, who just before New Year's Eve  finally returned the scores that Morton had lent him months earlier [including Morton's King Porter Stomp]. But Hammond made clear that he was annoyed at Morton for pestering him about such a trivial matter. From Hammond's tone, Morton realized he had made another enemy."
The General sessions of 1939-1940 would be Jelly Roll's last. His health deteriorated over the months that followed, and on July 11, 1941, Jelly Roll had an asthma attack and died at age 51 after an 11-day stay at a Los Angeles hospital. These recordings sum up the pianist's career and brilliance perfectly—and are essential.
JazzWax tracks: Jelly Roll Morton's last recordings can be found on a CD called Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings. The 25 solo and group tracks can be found here or at iTunes for $11.99.
Every single track is clear, crisp and terrific, and Jelly Roll's stomps, rags and blues are nothing short of astonishing. Just listen to Sporting House Rag, King Porter Stomp, I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say, Michigan Water Blues and so many others. If you love jazz piano, especially the New Orleans and stride styles, this is the mother lode.
And the instrumentals—featuring Henry "Red" Allen on trumpet, Joe Britton on trombone, Albert Nicholas on clarinet, Eddie Williams on alto sax, Wellman Braud on bass and Zutty Singleton on drums—are equally heart-felt and earthy.
Just be warned: The rhythm here is so infectious you will likely find it hard to restrain your foot from tapping or your hands from playing air piano on the nearest table.