Of all the places in the United States to look for the headstone of the jazz’s first big innovator, East L.A. is probably the last place on the list. But buried under an unassuming stone in Cavalry Cemetery are the bones of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe — better known as Jelly Roll Morton — the self-proclaimed, and not entirely wrong, “originator of jazz.”
Can any one person be credited with inventing jazz? Probably not, but Jelly Roll Morton had the audacity and experience to at least be a top contender for the position.
Morton was born in New Orleans in 1890 and honed his chops as a teenager, playing piano for deep-pocketed lowlifes in Storyvilile, New Orleans' famed red light district and the birthplace of jazz.
There he developed an unmistakable sound, blending the ragtime feel of the previous century with his own complicated rhythms and innovative arrangements. He was a larger-than-life personality with a giant diamond in his teeth and furs on his shoulders.
When Storyville was shut down in 1918, he sought out his childhood crush, a woman named Anita Gonzales, who was running a tavern in Las Vegas. He wasn’t too keen on the weather there and suggested a move further west.
“Anyway, Anita decided to stay in Los Angeles so she went into a small hotel business," said Morton in a 1938 interview with musicologist Alan Lomax. "She bought a hotel on the corner of Central near 12th in Los Angeles and named it The Anita. By that time, I had several little businesses branching out myself again.”
Most of Morton’s "business" skills had been picked up in Storyville: pool shark and pimp proved to be the most profitable. After an unsatisfactory musical career in Los Angeles, Morton packed his bags and left Anita behind.
He found success in Chicago scoring the more riotous Jazz Age parties with his Red Hot Peppers but when the Great Depression hit, Morton’s career stalled. He sold most of his diamonds and moved to New York.
In 1938, Morton was stabbed twice at a gig — in the head and in the chest. He survived, but the injuries led to chronic respiratory problems.
Two years later, at the age of 50, with failing health and a limited cash flow, he drove himself from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with Anita after almost 20 years.
Once in L.A., he ignored doctor's orders and tried to mount a comeback, going so far as to book rehearsal time at Central Avenue’s Elks Hall with his old New Orleans friends Kid Ory and “Papa Mutt” Carey, but it never happened. On July 10, 1941, after an 11 day stay in Los Angeles’ General Hospital, he died of heart failure.
Jelly Roll Morton was buried without a headstone. Nine years later, the Southern California Hot Jazz Society held a fundraiser to finally put a marker over the jazzman’s casket. Only then did Anita step up to fund the stone herself, likely with the royalties he'd bequeathed to her on his deathbed.
In just a few short decades, Morton was lost to the evolving trends of jazz and had sabotaged his musical legacy with his own ego.
On the night he died, a savvier young bandleader named Duke Ellington premiered “Jump For Joy,” his impassioned bid for equality and artistic nobility at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The history books were far kinder to him.