He was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe. But history knows him as Jelly Roll Morton—the genius piano player whose stomps and rags laid the foundation for Jazz as we know it. But how’d a man named Ferdinand become a legend called Jelly Roll? It was 1938, when he told archivist Alan Lomax straight up how he got that name.
“How I happened to get the name myself thrown on me as an alias was due to the fact, in the show business, with one of my old partners, a black-face comedian and the first eccentric dancer in the United States — Sammie Russell, who was later known as Barlow, the teammate of Sandy Burns. One night, while working ad lib on the stage doing comedy, Sam said to me, “You don’t know who you’re talking to.” I told him I didn’t care, and we had a little argument. I finally asked him who was he. And he stated to me, he was Sweet Papa Cream Puff, right out of the bakery shop. That seemed to produce a great big laugh.
While I was standing there mugging, as you call it, the thought came to me that I’d better say something about the bakery shop. I said to him, he didn’t know who he was talking to. He finally wanted to get acquainted, so he asked me who was I. And I stated to him, I was Sweet Papa Jelly Roll with stovepipes in my hips, and all the women in town was dyin’ to turn my damper down.” – Jelly Roll Morton
In the film, THE LEGEND OF 1900, Jelly Roll Morton (played by Clarence Williams III) challenges 1900 (played by Tim Roth) to a piano duel: