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Dear Friends,

Today is a very good day in music history. Jazz great Jelly Roll Morton was born on October 20, 1890, in New Orleans. Tom Petty was born this day in 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. Jay Siegel, lead singer of The Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), was born in 1939 in Brighton Beach, New York. British rocker Ric Lee of the band Ten Years After was born in 1945 in Mansfield, a market town in the East Midlands region of England.

It’s an important day for classical music, too. Composer Charles Ives was born on October 20, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut. The conductor, critic, and essayist Robert Craft was born in 1923 in Kingston, New York. I’ve only recently discovered the music of Rodolfo Halffter. Try this (Opens in a new window). Rodolfo’s father, Ernest Halffter Hein, came from Königsberg, Germany. Rodolfo was born on October 20, 1900, in Madrid.

Halffter went into exile in Mexico at the end of the Spanish Civil War. His brother Ernesto, himself a composer and conductor, stayed. He was a Franco supporter. You can read more about Halffter from our friend Angel Gil-Ordóñez here (Opens in a new window) (the Spanish text is a fuller account).

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Peter Berkowitz writes this week about sectarianism and strife in America for RealClear Politics and makes the case (Opens in a new window) against those on the right who seem, increasingly and alarmingly, to have given up on reform. Frank Fukuyama continues his series (Opens in a new window) in our pages on the case for the administrative state. Delegation and some degree of bureaucratic autonomy in government — as in any organization — is essential, Frank observes, a fact fanatical critics of the deep state are loath to acknowledge.

Frank has an essay (Opens in a new window) in The Atlantic this week on crucial weaknesses in today’s authoritarian states. The piece includes a plea for the struggle on behalf of liberal democratic values and institutions.

We see Ukraine as part of this larger struggle. Ukrainian conductor Yuriy Kerpatenko was shot and killed in his home by Russian soldiers earlier this month after the 46-year-old musician refused to lead a propaganda concert planned by occupation officials in Kherson. This week, Russia’s rush-hour drone attacks in Kyiv took Viktoriia Zamchenko, 34, and her family. She was found in the rubble of her home in the arms of her husband Bohdan, next to the couple’s cat. She was due with their first child just after New Year’s.

Joe Wohlmuth brought to my attention this week the recent work (Opens in a new window) of embedded RFE/RL video journalists on the battlefield in Ukraine. (We’ve asked Martha Bayles to moderate a Zoom discussion (Opens in a new window) next week with Mark Pomar to discuss his new book on the iconic broadcast network.)

We were in touch this week with Askold Krushelnycky, who has helped us with reports from across Ukraine. Askold is embedded near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where fierce fighting has raged for weeks. We’ll have Askold back as soon as he’s at a spot with an internet connection.

Here’s (Opens in a new window) former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk in Foreign Affairs on what Ukraine needs to win. We’ve invited Andriy back for another Zoom discussion this month, too. We’ll ask about the impact of Iranian drones and reports that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are operating inside Ukraine. On Tuesday, Iran acknowledged its plans to send missiles and additional drones in support of Russia’s invading forces.

What Iranians need to prevail in their struggle against the theocratic regime in Tehran is unclear. The women-led protest movement continues to rock the country. We’re enlisting writers and discussants.

Roya Hakakian is joining American Purpose as a senior fellow and member of our editorial board. We’re grateful. The distinguished Iranian-American poet, essayist, and human rights advocate joined us for a salon in Washington last week. Roya will be able to guide us in a number of ways.

There are several pieces just out or about to appear on the American Purpose site that I want to commend, including: Peter Schuck on who regulates the regulators, a review of Paul Sabin’s book Public Citizens; Mathilde Fasting on Norway’s surprising and vexing energy dilemmas; Gabe Scheinmann on American exceptionalism; Luis Parrales on an anniversary of the film Juno; and John Rodden on Kingsley Amis. Would Amis be canceled today?


I’m reading a biography of Jelly Roll Morton by Howard Reich and William Gaines. What a bruising, conflict-ridden, and creative life.

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, later Jelly Roll Morton, was born into a New Orleans Creole community. His father left the family when he was three. As an early teen, Morton played piano in a brothel; he told his great-grandmother Felice “Mimi” Baudoin, who was raising him, that he worked at a barrel factory as a night watchman. Still in his teenage years, Morton traveled the south playing music. His great-grandmother had thrown him out when she discovered where the boy was really working.

By the 1920s, Morton made his way to Chicago, where he produced hit after hit. He then moved to New York, where he struggled. His influence in the music industry waned. In the midst of the Great Depression, RCA Victor declined to renew his recording contract.

Morton ended up in Washington, D.C., in 1935 in the Shaw neighborhood, where he played piano and managed a bar called the Music Box (that was 1211 U Street, NW, the location today of Ben’s Next Door, next to Ben’s Chili Bowl).

It was at the Music Box where Morton was stabbed by an unruly customer one night in the fall of 1938. He suffered wounds to the head and chest. He was rushed to the nearest hospital and turned away. It was a “whites only” medical facility.

Morton faded from the music scene. He struggled to make ends meet. By the end of his life, write Reich and Gaines, Jelly Roll Morton — who died in 1941 — was belittled as “a braggart, a pimp, card shark, pool hustler … and a has-been.” He was a good orchestra man, said some, but he could never write music.

Views of his life and legacy evolved. Morton showed that jazz, in its complexity and as an art form, could be written down. His playing and composing started from ragtime and evolved.

Here’s (Opens in a new window) Wolverine Blues.

Here’s (Opens in a new window) Tiger Rag.

This (Opens in a new window) is what I like, “Honky Tonk Blues.”

Morton’s genius became treasured. Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” LaMothe’s conversations — musical recordings and oral history — are part of a Library of Congress collection (Opens in a new window).

Morton once told a trumpet hire that he would be working for the world’s best jazz piano player — not one of the greatest, “I am The Greatest,” he added. Maybe he was.



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