Morten Gunnar Larsen was a rare plant who grew tall in the Oslo watering holes he wasn't even old enough to be allowed into. Now his Jelly Roll! is one of Broadway's long runners.
This is the story of the modest Norwegian who comes on stage eight times a week to show the audience that he only has two hands. He is far from home, a pianist, and he doesn't play Grieg. When Morten Gunnar Larsen (1955) interprets Creole crown jewels and is called the “King of Ragtime”, it's about as natural as if a Portuguese fado singer were to become the most prominent Sami joik chanter.
And he only has two hands...
As a five-year-old he plays the piano to gaping amazement. At thirteen he can't understand why he wasn't born in New Orleans. He makes his debut at the age of eighteen and in the jazz columns we read: “Morten Gunnar Larsen, a young pianist who has been studying the repertoires of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin for many years, will be playing real Honky Tonk at Storyville from 5 p.m. today.”
At the age of twenty he makes his first record, Classic Rags and Stomps, wins Spellemannspnsen, the Norwegian “Grammy Award”, and immediately becomes the main subject of musical conversation in Norway: how is this possible? It was possible. For a person who understands how to follow the composer's strong virtuoso line authentically, for a person who finds it impossible to be cut off from the original sources of his music, and for a person who not only understands the demands of the music but also the tales behind the keys, it was possible. And that was only the beginning.
Christmas 1994: the media are full of ranking lists and summaries of the year that is almost over. New York Magazine's feared theatre critic, John Simon, elects the modest performance Jelly Roll! one of the five best of the year. On stage, a stone's throw from Broadway at the 47th Street Theatre, Morten Gunnar Larsen and actor Vernel Bagneris extend the run of their two-man show. The theatre's 200 seats are sold out again. In New York's theatre world they talk of a sensation. The press headlines grow bigger: “Not exactly The Sound of Norway” (New York Times). “One of the most revivifying entertainments to be found on Broadway or off, playing sensational Jelly Roll piano.” (New York Sunday Times). "The piano keyboard is on stage left, concealing Larsen's hands from most of the audience. I am convinced this was necessary to prevent us from seeing the third arm Larsen must use to play as dazzlingly as he does. He is a veritable Sviatoslav Richter of Rag.” (Daily News).
A Norwegian and a Creole create a little jazz history, a little theatre history, in the show capital of the world. This is no accident.
As a student, Morten Gunnar Larsen was a pupil of Norway's most prominent classical pianists at the State Academy of Music in Oslo. At home he dreamed of New Orleans and played Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton before entertaining audiences at Oslo's traditional jazz clubs at night. He had to make a decision. From 1977 he established himself in “the crescent city”, lived in the French quarter and survived on what has been musician's food at the bars since time immemorial; beans and rice for a dollar.
The rumours began to spread about this quiet Norwegian who had discovered something in their own music that few had discovered before him. He also allowed himself to swim against the current. Hadn't American jazz musicians always travelled to Europe to find understanding and audiences for their own music? But this was Larsen's ballast: when he was growing up he had lain under his duvet and listened to radio jazz programmes where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll were the biggest stars. He wanted to touch the stars, feel them through the black and white keys that hid so many miracles, so much that was undiscovered. Young Larsen also wanted to increase his ballast to a full load.
He travelled back and forth between New Orleans and Oslo, anything but unemployed. He was a member of four Norwegian bands at the same time, made recordings, played at concerts and went on tour. Groups like the Magnolia Jazz Band (he played on five of their records), the Canal Street jazz Band (one record), the Ytre Suløen Jazz Ensemble, the most popular, best-loved trad jazz ensemble in the country (four records), Norwegian Rhythm Kings (two records) the Magnolia Quartet (two records) and the impressive, fascinating Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra (two records) evidenced a transatlantic understanding between damp Creole swamp and bitter Norwegian cold almost impossible to understand. At the same time he performed in shows about Eubie Blake, Bessie Smith and Fats Waller. While he dreamed of Canal Street...
In New Orleans, Larsen met dancer, singer and actor Vernel Bagneris, who wanted him to play in his all-black ensemble for the show “One Mo' Time”. A Creole, Bagneris took the pulse of the New Orleans French quarter in the 20s. The show consisted of musical moods from the Lyric Theatre, which burned down in 1927. “One Mo' Time”, a show about a show with actors commenting from the dressing rooms, toured the USA from coast to coast. Bagneris and Larsen had found their respective partners. They already had the music in their blood.
“He's my pianist. Mine.” This is a quote from Eubie Blake, who believed that Larsen was one of two pianists in the world who could play his music as it should be heard. They corresponded for several years and played together only two days before Blake's death. Blake has always had a special place in Norwegian hearts. His composition Memories of You has been the signature tune for Norway's most popular radio programme, the breakfast show Nitimen, for over 20 years. When Blake heard the recording, by a German Tanzorchester, he is said to have commented “At least I recognise the melody!”
The contact between the young pianist and the elderly composer sheds light on one of Morten Gunnar Larsen’s artistic requirements: to be near the source. So he really doesn't have any choice; he must live, think, eat and breathe New Orleans. The performance can be anywhere.
He also requires depth of experience: in addition to playing their favourites, he has always goaded his audiences to greater curiosity and understanding of more difficult, less accessible material. When he celebrated Scott Joplin's 120th anniversary with a concert in Oslo's Munch Museum, he played some music from Joplin's opera(!) Threemonisha. The opera contains a strange mixture of various styles from around the turn of the century. The audience was told that at the time of its first performance in 1911 it was unheard of for a negro who was associated with brothel music to write an opera. After his opera was panned, Joplin was so shattered that he ended his days in a mental asylum. With a storyteller and ambassador like that, the distance between damp swamps and sold climates becomes extraordinarily short and Munch's pictures become illustrations of Joplin's ignorant times.
Autumn 1994: the red lamp blinks outside the 47th Street Theatre. The performers in the two-man show, Jelly Roll!, the pianist and the actor, answer the bevy of journalists: yes, they are happy about the success, no, this theatre is big enough and maybe, maybe, they will agree to perform in London and San Francisco, Scandinavia and Germany, but they don't quite know yet. Larsen is going to a chiropractor for his arms, shoulders and back. Bagneris is looking after his voice, which must embrace the audience, not stop at the third row, in a kleinkunst performance that requires top concentration. A luxury problem: ragtime was not written for understudies.
When a musician who is not yet forty years old has put his musical trade mark on over twenty recordings, received the highest honours from his colleagues, the Buddy statuette awarded by the Norwegian Jazz Federation, and never had a single bad review, where is the challenge? In playing. Morten Gunnar Larsen can play. Perhaps he didn't understand this until he played as a soloist with the traditional New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra in the prestigious Preservation Hall in New Orleans? Perhaps the certainty emerged when Michael's Pub in Manhattan became too small for his and his partner's little intermezzo? Or did he absorb the words of a listener once somewhere during Mardi Gras who said “He's sure white as milk, that guy. I wonder, does he have blue blood?”
Morten Gunnar Larsen is as Norwegian as any who fit such mythical descriptions as down-to-earth, unpretentious and modest. In the same way, Jelly Roll! in contrast with the standard, pompous, over-produced glitter shows, presents a close, sharp portrait of a kind of life. Decades of experience come in handy when the constellation of a Creole and a Norwegian, which at first sight seems hopeless, proves artistically defensible. It would have been unlike Larsen to choose easy solutions in a musical discipline that demands optimum virtuosity mixed with, let us say, Wagner's complete range of emotions. “Humility and respect” might be a suitable label. “My job,” responds the pianist. Opposite poles attract, humidity meets icicles and why should he have to explain the lack of logic in devoting his life to something unique? While we wait for the fado singer with the Sami joik....
It happens then and there, in front of the audience, night after night. That's what it has been like for more than half his life. “The music's there, constant. The approach is different from show to show. The brain chooses the intonation, the facets, the tempo. The sound of the grand piano varies.” That's the way a musician talks who is transformed into an artist in front of your eyes, white in the superficial noise of lame he must reply that he also listens to Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek. Great. The brain observes the present, the heart and the three arms are in the past, while the music that emanates from his games with the keys will always be timeless.
This is Jelly Roll!
A cabaret-type journey through Jelly Roll Morton’s (1890-1941) musical genius and eccentric personality created and performed by Vernel Bagneris and Morten Gunnar Larsen. Morton was one of the creators of jazz style but cared little about copyright and material wealth. Herostratically famous as the pool shark and pimp. Heroically famous as a band leader, singer, composer and pianist. Believed that “Jazz should be played sweet, soft and with plenty of rhythm”. The show consists of anecdotes and music that vary between the lively and the sad, the sophisticated and the seedly. It follows Morton’s life Creole from respectable Creole New Orleans after the turn of the century to Storyville Brothels, via sudden wealth and fame period scenes from St. Louis’ streets to a far too early death in poverty in Los Angeles. The choreography is warm and simple and this American tragedy comes alive over a grand piano with flickering candelabra and carafe in Bagneris' and Larsens highly synchronised performance. The piece was first produced under the title A Jelly Roll Memorial in 1990. Through individual performances, workshops and pub versions, among others at Michael's Pub, Woody Allen's watering hole in Manhattan, the performance has emerged as Jelly Roll! at the 47th Street Theatre. The most quoted lines include Jelly Roll's brief autobiography: “...and if the life I found has not been the perfect life ... well, it' s been a Sweet Substitute.”