“Some people used to put me on by asking whether jazz was born in New Orleans and whether or not Jelly Roll invented it. I said once that was one of the worst things I ever heard. What I meant was that most of the jazz I knew was, in the beginning, from the brickyards. And another thing, jazz comes from the person’s soul and not from a state. But Jelly Roll was a guy who always talked a lot.
He used to be around the Rhythm Club every day and stand out on the corner and he used to bull and con all those fellows. He had his twenty-dollar gold piece on and he’d stand out there with a bankroll, meaning money, so every time I’d come around, almost all the guys who used to play piano kept quiet. Sometimes I’d lay for Fats and Jimmy [James P. Johnson]. Sometimes I’d even lay for Tatum. But I used to come around especially on Friday and Saturday looking for Jelly. I went around this one Friday and he was standing on the corner."
“Look, Mr. One-Hand,” I said, “let’s go inside and let me give you your lessons in cutting.” So Jelly and I would go inside by the piano. I was the only one he would stand and listen to and then he didn’t open his mouth. I must have played nearly everything you could name and when I got through, I said, “Well, Jelly, you’ll keep quiet now.” And, true as I’m sitting here, Jelly would be quiet.”
In “Willie the Lion”, a documentary produced and directed by Marc Fields, Willie recalls the encounter in a slightly different way:
“Well, I knew Jelly Roll well. I think I was the one of the few who did know him… He was a character. Quite a talker, he had a habit of tearing people apart. I challenged him in the Hoofer’s Club, in the Rhythm Club, I got him before nearly 300 musicians and I said “You call the terms and I’ll call them on the piano, and I’m gonna make you remember piano as long as you live”. And I could.”
After that, whenever anybody referred to Jelly Roll Morton, the Lion would say, “Oh, you mean Mr. One-Hand”, noting the supremacy of the “two-fisted” (as they used to call themselves) Harlem piano players. In fact, in New Orleans and Chicago, Morton was generally known that he could cut people, but when he went to New York, the New York pianists really intimidated him, and Willie did.
In that era of house rent parties and cutting contests, every tickler used to have a challenge piece to defeat the competition. For a time, Willie The Lion Smith had “Finger Buster”, a piece that, in Dick Hyman’s words “was clearly throwing down the gauntlet, so that no amateurs would dare to compete the mighty Lion as he strode into a place.”
“Finger Buster” was composed (in F) by The Lion in 1934 and recorded that same year, but this first version remained unissued for many years. The first 32 bars of this piece were written at Clarence Williams’ office while the Lion was doing technique exercises, and The Lion said he invented it by playing around with a scale as fast and as loud as he could.
As pianist Tom Roberts describes in the liner notes for his own disc “In The Lion’s Den” (Stomp Off Records CD 1392), “the most remarkable section of the tune is the second strain. Here the left hand plays a beautiful descending counter line simultaneously with a variation on the Charleston rhythm while the right hand plays a figure in contrary motion. Rhythmically, tension is created by the juxtaposition of right hand figures in 3 against the left hand in 4. At the end of the 2nd strain, as well as the coda of the entire piece, he strays far away from the conventional chords associated with the key and creates one of his most magical musical moments”.
The definitive solo recording of this piece came in the famous January 10, 1939 session for Commodore (where he cut 14 wonderful piano solos) and was issued on Commodore 522 coupled with “Rippling Waters”.
In the Jazz Man recording session from December 1938, that took place at the Rialto Theater Building in Washington, Jelly Roll Morton cut five sides, one of them being a piano solo piece called “Finger Buster” (matrix number MLB-145) issued on Jazz Man JM 12, coupled with “Creepy Feeling”. “Finger Buster” contains a mighty left hand that thunders up and down the octaves, while the right hand flies with a torrent of arpeggios and trills. Everything goes at super fast speed (metronomique speed rises up to 304) and in the last part pianist Morten Gunnar Larsen sees “a conscious caricature of stride piano technique”. In November 1942 the name of the tune was changed to “The Finger Breaker”, when Roy Carew made a copyright application to the Library of Congress. Morton had not bothered to do so himself, on the assumption that his amazing, breakneck, bravura piano piece would deter all competitions. Other sources state that the piece was called “The Finger Breaker” from the start and that I got mislabeled in the Jazz Man 78 rpm disc.
Anyway, through the years, Willie The Lion Smith’s “Finger Buster” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Finger Buster/The Finger Breaker”, which are certainly different pieces, have been mistaken in liner notes and discographical notes from quite a few reissues. A different matter is Leonard Feather’s assertion, in the liner notes for Dick Hyman’s Columbia LP with the music of Jelly Roll Morton, that Morton’s “The Finger Breaker” was his only real piece of "stride" piano. As pianist Butch Thompson told us in the Stride Piano List a few years ago, “it isn't stride piano and doesn't sound like it. It sounds like Morton playing fast, but nothing like James P. or any of the others. Morton's right hand riffs are not characteristic stride figures and the left hand bass notes are an octave higher than you would expect from a fully fledged stride player. Morton was his own man.”