Jelly Roll Morton and the Spanish Tinge

tresillo* x..x..x.
habanera x..xx.x.
cinquillo x.xx.xx.

In 1938, folklorist Alan Lomax interviewed Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of Congress. At one point, while introducing his composition "New Orleans Blues," Morton explained "Of course you may notice the Spanish tinge in it. This has so much to do with the typical jazz idea. If one can't manage a way to put these tinges of Spanish in these tunes, they'll never be able to get the right season[ing], I may call it, for jazz music."* He then demonstrated what he meant by playing a well known Spanish song "La Paloma," which features an habanera rhythm played by the left hand in the lower register. After first playing La Paloma straight, he then shifted the part in his right hand into a style full of blue notes and syncopated twists and turns.

What Jelly Roll Morton called the Spanish Tinge, and John Storm Roberts later amended as the Latin Tinge, came to be understood broadly as the Caribbean, Latin American and Spanish influence on music in the United States. Following Morton's 1938 Library of Congress interview, this influence is often understood as the incorporation of Afro-Cuban rhythmic cells such as the tresillo, the habanera, and the cinquillo* [link here to a separate chapter about these rhythms], a technique also found in certain works by earlier American composers Louis Gottschalk and Scott Joplin. As this course unfolds, this particular model of the Spanish/Latin tinge will be shown to be just one of many ways to understand the subject. It is important to clarify here, however, how the Spanish tinge played out in Jelly Roll Morton's music. Here are some examples, drawing upon musicologist Charles Hiroshi Garrett's analysis of twenty of Morton's compositions:

New Orleans Blues

One of Morton's signature tunes, New Orleans Blues has been described as a "twelve-bar blues-tango"*. The tresillo rhythm propels the bassline throughout. The pianist's two hands are often clashing rhythmically until the third note of the tresillo in each measure. Only at the end of the tune does the tresillo disappear and a swung 8ths take over.

Jelly Roll Blues

In contrast to the way that New Orleans Blues is tresillo-based throughout, only to end with jazz swing, Jelly Roll Blues has a simpler blues accompaniment until the end of the tune, when it ends strong with tresillo cross-rhythms.

The Crave

The Crave is perhaps better described as a Spanish-flavored tune with a blues tinge, rather than a blues tune with a Spanish tinge. The tresillo rhythm is constant in the bassline, and the second time through the first strain (0:33-0:55 on the 1938 recording) includes an almost caricatured flamenco-like flurry of notes. Most striking, however, is the start of the second strain (0:58-1:01) includes what Garrett aptly describes as "a pungent two-measure break, an unexpected interjection" of blues dissonance. The fact that this sudden shift to blues is jarring underscores the point that the rest of the song is more strongly allied with the tango than the blues.

Tia Juana (Tee Wanna)

This song is strong evidence that Morton wasn't above riding the wave of popularity of exotic Mexican music in the U.S.. "Tia Juana" features the Charleston rhythm (the tresillo without the last strike: x..x….) and parallel thirds in an apparent attempt to evoke the sound of Mexican music. The sheet music was sold as a "Spanish Fox Trot."