Jelly's Last Jam

Jelly's Last Jam is a musical with a book by George C. Wolfe, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, and music by Jelly Roll Morton and Luther Henderson. Based on the life and career of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known as Jelly Roll Morton and generally regarded as one of the primary driving forces behind the introduction of jazz to the American public in the early 20th century, it also serves as a social commentary on the African-American experience during the era. LaMothe was born into a Louisiana Creole family that was established and free before the Civil War.

Jelly's Last Jam
MusicJelly Roll Morton
Luther Henderson
LyricsSusan Birkenhead
BookGeorge C. Wolfe
BasisThe life of Jelly Roll Morton
Productions1992 Broadway
AwardsDrama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics


The play opens with the recently deceased Morton in a state of limbo, looking back on his life. He is reluctantly guided by the mysterious 'Chimney Man,' who forces him to recall the more painful moments of his life when he attempts to ignore or embellish them. Born into an old and wealthy mixed-race Creole family in New Orleans, the young Morton rebels against his upbringing by going into the streets and absorbing the rhythms of the vendors and poor blacks, meeting blues musician Buddy Bolden. When his Creole grandmother discovers his new lifestyle, she disowns him.

Forced to go on the road, Morton becomes a prominent composer and musician, and the self-proclaimed creator of jazz. His sadness over his family's rejection causes him to stress his Creole ancestry and claim that there are 'no black notes in my song.' Eventually his pride and racism cause him to betray his best friend and the woman he loves. In his later years, as the Jazz culture continues to grow, Morton is largely forgotten and reduced to dealing with crooked music publishers and gangsters, eventually dying of a knife wound in the colored wing of a Los Angeles hospital. At the moment of his death, Morton at last admits to his heritage - "Ain't no black notes in my song/I was wrong/ I was wrong." At this moment, the shadows of the people in his life surround him to congratulate him, and Morton takes his place in history among the other Jazz legends.


Jelly's Last Jam premiered at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, California, in March 1991. Directed by Wolfe, Obba Babatunde played Jelly Roll.[1]

The Broadway production opened at the Virginia Theatre on April 26, 1992 and closed on September 5, 1993 after 569 performances and 25 previews. The musical was directed by Wolfe, choreographed by Hope Clarke, with tap choreography by Gregory Hines and Ted L. Levy, scenic design by Robin Wagner, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, and lighting design by Jules Fisher.[2]

In addition to Gregory Hines and Savion Glover as the older and younger Morton, the cast included Ken Ard, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ann Duquesnay, Tonya Pinkins, Mary Bond Davis, and Keith David.[2] Phylicia Rashad, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Ben Vereen joined the cast later in the run.

An original cast recording was released by Decca Broadway.

Song list

Awards and nominations

Original Broadway production

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1992 Tony Award[3] Best Musical Nominated
Best Book of a Musical George C. Wolfe Nominated
Best Original Score Jelly Roll Morton, Luther Henderson and Susan Birkenhead Nominated
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical Gregory Hines Won
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical Keith David Nominated
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical Tonya Pinkins Won
Best Direction of a Musical George C. Wolfe Nominated
Best Choreography Hope Clarke, Ted L. Levy and Gregory Hines Nominated
Best Scenic Design Robin Wagner Nominated
Best Costume Design Toni-Leslie James Nominated
Best Lighting Design Jules Fisher Won
Drama Desk Award[4] Outstanding Musical Nominated
Outstanding Book of a Musical George C. Wolfe Won
Outstanding Actor in a Musical Gregory Hines Won
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical Savion Glover Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical Tonya Pinkins Won
Outstanding Director of a Musical George C. Wolfe Nominated
Outstanding Choreography Hope Clarke, Gregory Hines & Ted L. Levy Nominated
Outstanding Orchestrations Luther Henderson Won
Outstanding Lyrics Susan Birkenhead Won
Outstanding Costume Design Toni-Leslie James Nominated
Outstanding Lighting Design Jules Fisher Won
1993 Outer Critics Circle Awards[5] Best Actor – Musical Gregory Hines Nominated
Best Actress – Musical Tonya Pinkins Won
Best Broadway Musical Won
Best Choreography Hope Clarke, Gregory Hines and Ted Levy Won


John Lahr wrote the introduction to the printed script of Jelly's Last Jam, and noted that the musical "reclaims the gorgeous power of tap dancing as part of musical story telling".[2]


  1. De Vries, Hilary. "The Wolfe at the (Stage) Door" Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1991
  2. Wolfe, George C. and Birkenhead, Susan. "Production History" Jelly's Last Jam, Theatre Communications Group, 1993, ISBN 1-55936-069-0, pp. xv-xviii
  3. "Search Past Tony Awards Winners and Nominees". Retrieved 16 June 2018.
  4. "Awards – Drama Desk". Retrieved 16 June 2018.
  5. "AWARDS FOR 1992-1993". Retrieved 16 June 2018.
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