When Jelly Roll speaks


When Jelly Roll speaks
it sounds like a wagon made of sand
is rolling ‘cross a summery lawn,
all whispery, wasting, but moving
always moving to the slow snake rhythm
of a sure, sexual heartbeat.
Tell me baby, don’t you like the way I grind…
He says outrageous things.
“I invented jazz. I am jazz,”
and you bite your tongue;
you hold your breath and listen
‘cause it might be true, it might!
All these young boys and girls who imagine themselves brave
should go back and listen to how a gentleman speaks,
how a dangerous man can snap propriety like a pencil.
There is lightning in those finger-breaking hands
and a sureness that makes the sporting girls
believe some days that they are fresh and creamy,
duck-butter spread on a pallett on the floor.
There is gentility in his speech and precision in his posture
and you realize, holy cow, he might be
if not the font, then one of three, or maybe four
or maybe he really is: the beginning, the father
of almost everything you ever danced to, ever.
Because it might just be true, it probably is.
What a hell of a thing.
Listen to him speak, mark his cadence,
and tell me there isn’t goosh in everything he says.
How can you doubt he invented jazz?
What is jazz anyway, but so much sex in the air?
The gentleman’s name is Mister Jelly Roll Morton!
Tell me baby, don’t you like the way I grind?

—Don Whittington



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