When I first heard Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers in freshman jazz history class, his music honestly didn't make much of an impression, probably for the usual reasons early jazz tends not to speak to 18-year olds. (Was I full of shit? I plead the Fifth.) All I can say is that the music felt completely alien to anything I'd checked out previously -- full of old-timey sound effects ("cha-ooo-gah" car horns, steamboat whistles, animal sounds) and played with a time feel I didn't recognize as having anything to do with jazz. Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, James P., and (especially) early Ellington were all much easier to hang with -- Jelly Roll felt like more of a historical curiosity, for all intents as distant from the music I really cared about as, like, Leonin and Perotin.
Also, the recorded sound was pretty much unbearable. I know that's shallow, but everyone has their limits. Some people won't watch black and white films. (Those people should, of course, be driven from the civilized world and left to forage for roots and tubers.) Some people draw the line at silent films. (For those, a concentrated dose of The Battleship Potemkin will usually suffice.)
The point is, though, is that it's difficult for kids who grew up in an era where literally the only thing they've ever heard is pristine digital recordings to then go back and learn to listen through the surface qualities of old recordings in order to get at the music. Listening to pre-WWII records is an act of imagination, and the further you go back, the more imagination it takes -- in order for you to really hear what's going on, your "mind's ear," so to speak, needs to fill in a lot. This is something that I think people who were born before 1960 or so don't fully grasp, because those people have completely different expectations when it comes to recorded music -- the technology was maturing at the same time they were. (I mean, the Beatles didn't fully embrace the radical concept of stereo until after the White Album.) Obviously, this is a vitally important skill that anyone who's serious about music needs to develop, but it doesn't come naturally to people who grew up taking flawless digital sound reproduction for granted. It takes a considerable amount of practice and effort to develop.
Regardless, something about those early Jelly Roll must have stuck, because when the digitally remastered Red Hot Peppers sessions came out a few years later, I picked that up. And when I put it on, something clicked. Stuff that I'd previously found weird and alienating I now found weird and awesome. Also, I started to listen a little closer to the construction of the music and realized there was something timelessly hip about the way Jelly Roll put the music together. (Also, the remastered sound was much better.)
The other thing that triggered my Road-to-Damascus conversion was acquiring Fred Sturm's Changes Over Time: The Evolution of Jazz Arranging. This book tells the story of jazz arranging using just four tunes as case studies, examining how those tunes have been treated by arrangers over the years (in terms of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic variation, voicing, orchestration, form, etc). One of those tunes is Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp."
On the CD that came with the book, the included version of "King Porter Stomp" is a modern re-creation of Jelly Roll's 1923 recording (played credibly by pianist Mark Flugge). Still, I was curious about the original so I tracked it down.
It had not been clear to me from the Red Hot Peppers records what a truly unbelievably badass piano player Jelly Roll was. Liberated from sidemen who couldn't always hear what he was doing, Morton just slays. It was instantly clear that the groove on "King Porter Stomp" (first recorded in 1923 but Morton claimed to have been playing the tune for 20 years) is the wellspring for, like, everything I care about in music.
This is all by way of saying that you need to stop whatever you're doing right now and get over to pianist Andrew Oliver's blog, where he has kicked off his new series on Jazz Pioneers with a fantastic post on Jelly Roll Morton -- specifically, "King Porter Stomp." This is especially true if you've never heard "King Porter" before -- Andrew has posted three recorded versions (1923, 1926, and 1939) for you to check out. Each is a revelation.
This isn't some weak Ken Burns historicist bullshit, or some slick Broadway show. This is the real deal.