April 20 – It’s Jazz Appreciation Month

How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz by Jonah Winter and Keith Mallett picture book review

About the Holiday

Jazz Appreciation Month, nicknamed JAM, was initiated by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2002 to celebrate the heritage and history of jazz and to inspire people to embrace this musical form by attending concerts, listening to recordings, reading about jazz, and playing your own jazz music. The theme for JAM 2016 is an exploration of how jazz is a form of democracy in itself. Jazz works as a method of communication, brings people together, and can be enjoyed individually or in a group. This year’s events also remember the legacy of bandleader Benny Carter.

How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz

Written by Jonah Winter | Illustrated by Keith Mallett


So “here’s what could’ve happened” if you were the baby born to grow up and become one of the best, most innovative talents—maybe even the inventor—of jazz music: Living in New Orleans in the 1890s you might have been put under the spell of music by your godmother, who was a voodoo queen. This same godmother might have taken you with her to a saloon, and later that night you may have accompanied her to jail when trouble broke out at the bar. In jail you may have cried and cried until the other people in your cell “commenced to singing—‘cause music was the only thing that calmed you down.”

When you were still a little child, it might have happened that you sat down at a piano and without training “commenced to play.” With that kind of talent you might have snuck out at night to play for adults who loved to hear your music and paid you well. But one morning your great-grandmother who was raising you may have seen you sneaking back home. She’d ask where you’ve been and how you got such a fancy suit.

When you tell her, she says “she wouldn’t have no LOWLIFE MUSICIAN livin’ under her respectable roof.” But music is who you are, and so still a child, you have nowhere to live and must make your way in the world. This is how and why in 1902 “a thing called JAZZ got invented by a man named Jelly Roll Morton.” At least that’s how the story goes.

Jelly Roll Morton knew the only way to escape his life and show people who’s the best is by playing the music inside him “one piano note at a time.” He had a recipe for jazz as spicy as a pot of Creole gumbo combining the rhythms of New Orleans, the beat of Africa, a dash of Spanish melodies and a pinch of Calypso syncopation. Stir in the Blues and add a bit of “messin’ around” and the tones of laughter. Throw in a teaspoon of symphony, with its flavorful instruments, and you’ve got a ragtime band that produces “high-steppin’, low-down, horn-blowin’ spectacularamicus!”

Jelly Roll Morton took his unique style to Mobile, Alabama and Chicago, Illinois and to every place in between, showing people how music should be played. And while Jelly Roll Morton might not have invented jazz all by himself, he “sure did spread it around the towns,” waving that magic spell everywhere he went.

The final pages give more information about the life of Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe, nicknamed Jelly Roll, as well as further reading and listening resources.

Immersing yourself in Jonah Winter’s biography of Jelly Roll Morton is akin to sitting at the knee of the most captivating storyteller. With mesmerizing rhythms Winter weaves the events of Morton’s life into a tale as enthralling as jazz music itself. Passages of the text are infused with the flavor of New Orleans: “I thought I heard Mister Jelly Roll too / Sayin’ ‘I invented jazz in 1902, / It was me who invented jazz—‘cause it sure wasn’t you.’”

Complimenting Winter’s story, Mallett paints Jelly Roll Morton’s environment in dark washes of night illuminated by the glow of music. The bayou of New Orleans, the dance halls, and city streets glimmer in golden hues from lamp light, the dawning sun, and the radiance of Jelly Roll’s piano keyboard. Notes fly away from Morton’s piano, becoming birds as they soar over the wakening city, and the recipe for “Jazz Gumbo” is stunningly illustrated.

How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz is a unique, fascinating true-life tale that will entice music lovers and all readers.

Ages 5 – 9

Roaring Brook Press, 2015 | ISBN 978-1596439634

Jazz Appreciation Day Activity

CPB - Trumpet maze

Blow Your Horn for Jazz Day! Maze


Jazz music is amazing in so many ways! Enjoy this riff on the usual maze and trumpet your success to your friends! Print the Blow Your Horn for Jazz Day! maze here. And here’s the Solution.