Tony Jackson (pianist)

Last updated

Tony Jackson
Tony Jackson in the 1910s in Chicago
Antonio Junius Jackson

(1882-06-05)June 5, 1882
DiedApril 20, 1921(1921-04-20) (aged 38)
OccupationMusical composer, pianist, singer
Years active1897-1920

Antonio Junius "Tony" Jackson (October 25, 1882 - April 20, 1921) was an American pianist, singer, and composer.


Early life

Jackson was born to a poor African American family in Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana on October 25, 1882. While some sources claim birth dates back to 1876, and a June 5 date, this was likely an error made by his sister Louvina in a later interview, when she appears to have quoted her own birth information. Tony did not appear in the 1880 Federal census unlike his older sisters. [1] He was born a twin, along with Prince Albert Jackson, who died in New Orleans on January 5, 1884, [2] at fourteen months of age, further reinforcing the October 1882 birth date as correct. The 1900 Federal census further reinforces the year and month of birth as October 1882, [3] and his 1918 draft record shows a birth date of October 25, although the year reads 1884. [4] His parents were freed slaves. [5] Jackson was epileptic from birth. [5]

Tony showed musical talents at a young age. At about the age of 10 he reportedly constructed a type of crude but working and properly tuned harpsichord out of junk in his back yard, since his family lacked the money to buy or rent a piano. [5] On this contraption young Tony was able to reproduce hymns he heard in church; news of this accomplishment soon spread around the neighborhood and he was offered use of neighbors' pianos and reed organs to practice on. Jackson got his first musical job at age 13, [6] when he began playing piano during off hours at a Tonk run by bandleader Adam Olivier.


Advertising flyer of Jackson, ca. 1910 TonyJacksonGoodCard.jpg
Advertising flyer of Jackson, ca. 1910

Jackson became the most popular and sought after entertainer in Storyville. He was said to be able to remember and play any tune he had heard once, and was hardly ever stumped by obscure requests. [7] His repertory included ragtime, cakewalks (one of his show stopping tricks was to dance a high kicking cakewalk while playing the piano), popular songs of the day from the United States and various nations of Europe and Latin America, blues, and light classics. He was also "openly, almost defiantly homosexual." [6] After hours, he would go with friends to The Frenchman's saloon, which catered to musicians and cross-dressers. [8]

His singing voice was also exceptional, and he was said to be able to sing operatic parts from baritone to soprano range. Fellow musicians and singers were universal in their praise of Jackson, most calling him "the greatest", and even the far-from-modest Jelly Roll Morton ranked Jackson as the only musician better than Morton himself. [6] Morton met Jackson in 1906. [9] Jackson became a mentor to Morton. [6] Jackson also wrote many original tunes, a number of which he sold rights to for a few dollars or were simply stolen from him; some of the old time New Orleans musicians said that some well known Tin Pan Alley pop tunes of the era were actually written by Jackson.

Clarence Williams noted "He was great because he was original in all his improvisations . . . We all copied him." More than Jackson's music was copied: he was always well dressed. [7] Jackson dressed himself with a pearl gray derby, checkered vest, ascot tie with a diamond stickpin, with sleeve garters on his arms to hold up his cuffs as he played. [10] This became a standard outfit for ragtime and barrelhouse pianists; as one commented "If you can't play like Tony Jackson, at least you can look like him". [11]

Later career and death

Jackson moved to Chicago hoping to have more of an influence on his career . [12] He was also looking for more freedom in his personal life, since being gay was difficult in New Orleans. [13] He lived in an apartment on Wabash Avenue with several members of his family and later they all moved to South State Street. [14]

One of the few tunes published with Jackson's name on it, "Pretty Baby" came out in 1916, although he was remembered performing the song before he left New Orleans and may have written it in 1911. [15] The original lyrics of "Pretty Baby" were said to refer to his male lover of the time. [16] The song inspired the 1978 eponymous film by Louis Malle. [17]

Jackson was resident performer at the De Luxe and Pekin Cafes in Chicago, although in his later years his voice and dexterity were impaired by disease. Although it has been cited by some as syphilis, the diagnosis at the time of his death was the more likely cirrhosis of the liver which had been progressing for years, in addition to chronic epilepsy. [18] His friends knew that his health was suffering and they held a benefit for him on February 17, 1921, calling it the "All Star Tony Jackson Testimonial" and raising $325 for Jackson. [19] He died in Chicago on April 20, 1921. [20]

Jackson's piano rolls can still be heard today and portions of his style are no doubt found in the recordings of younger musicians he influenced, like Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, and Steve Lewis. In 2011 the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame inducted Jackson into the hall. [21] Jackson was honored for his musical contributions and for living "as an openly gay man when that was rare". [22]

Fictional portrayals

The play Don't You Leave Me Here by Clare Brown, which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in September 2008, deals with his relationship with Jelly Roll Morton.

Jackson appears as a minor character in David Fulmer's Storyville novel Chasing the Devil's Tail.

Related Research Articles

Jelly Roll Morton American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader and composer

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton, was an American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer. Morton was jazz's first arranger, proving that a genre rooted in improvisation could retain its essential characteristics when notated. His composition "Jelly Roll Blues", published in 1915, was one of the first published jazz compositions. Morton also wrote "King Porter Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", "Black Bottom Stomp", and "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say", the last a tribute to New Orleans musicians from the turn of the 20th century.

Storyville, New Orleans Human settlement in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States of America

Storyville was the red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1897 to 1917. It was established by municipal ordinance under the New Orleans City Council, to regulate prostitution. Sidney Story, a city alderman, wrote guidelines and legislation to control prostitution within the city. The ordinance designated a thirty-eight block area as the part of the city in which prostitution, although still nominally illegal, was tolerated or regulated. The area was originally referred to as "The District", but its nickname, "Storyville", soon caught on, much to the chagrin of Alderman Story. It was bound by the streets of North Robertson, Iberville, Basin, and St. Louis Streets. It was located by a train station, making it a popular destination for travelers throughout the city, and became a centralized attraction in the heart of New Orleans. Only a few of its remnants are now visible. The neighborhood lies in Faubourg Tremé and the majority of the land was repurposed for public housing. It is well known for being the home of jazz musicians, most notably Louis Armstrong as a minor.

Kid Ory American jazz trombonist

Edward "Kid" Ory was a Black Creole jazz trombonist and bandleader. He was born on Woodland Plantation, near LaPlace, Louisiana.

Steve Lewis was a jazz pianist and composer.

General Records was a small American record label during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Its most notable releases are piano solos recorded by Jelly Roll Morton in December 1939 late in his career.

George Washington Thomas

George Washington Thomas Jr. was an American blues and jazz pianist and songwriter. He wrote several influential early boogie-woogie piano pieces including "The New Orleans Hop Scop Blues", "The Fives", and "The Rocks", which some believe he may have recorded himself under the name Clay Custer.

Lorenzo Tio Jr. (1893–1933) was a master clarinetist from New Orleans, as were his father Lorenzo Tio Sr. (1867–1908) and uncle Louis "Papa" Tio (1862–1922). Their method of playing the instrument was seminal in the development of the jazz solo.

Music of New Orleans Overview of music traditions in New Orleans

The music of New Orleans assumes various styles of music which have often borrowed from earlier traditions. New Orleans, Louisiana, is especially known for its strong association with jazz music, universally considered to be the birthplace of the genre. The earliest form was dixieland, which has sometimes been called traditional jazz, 'New Orleans', and 'New Orleans jazz'. However, the tradition of jazz in New Orleans has taken on various forms that have either branched out from original dixieland or taken entirely different paths altogether. New Orleans has also been a prominent center of funk, home to some of the earliest funk bands such as The Meters.

The soundtrack to the film Pretty Baby used many local New Orleans musicians playing in the jazz, ragtime, and blues style of the city in the early 20th century. An LP album of the soundtrack, also entitled Pretty Baby, was issued in 1978 on ABC Records. The film is named after the song "Pretty Baby" by Tony Jackson.

Rudi Blesh

Rudi Blesh was an American jazz critic and enthusiast.

Lulu White Brothel madam, procuress, entrepreneur in New Orleans, Louisiana during the Storyville period

Lulu White was a brothel madam, procuress and entrepreneur in New Orleans, Louisiana during the Storyville period. An eccentric figure, she was noted for her love of jewelry, her many failed business ventures, and her criminal record that extended in New Orleans as far back as 1880.

Hilma Burt American brothel owner

Hilma Burt was a brothel madam in Storyville, New Orleans during the early twentieth century. This area, originally known as "The District", permitted legalized prostitution from 1897 to 1917 and became possibly the best known area for prostitution in the nation.

Knocky Parker, born John William Parker, II, was an American jazz pianist. He played primarily ragtime and Dixieland jazz.

Jelly Roll Blues

"Original Jelly Roll Blues", usually shortened to and known as "Jelly Roll Blues", is an early jazz fox-trot composed by Jelly Roll Morton. He recorded it first as a piano solo in Richmond, Indiana, in 1924, and then with his Red Hot Peppers in Chicago two years later, titled as it was originally copyrighted: "Original Jelly-Roll Blues". It is referenced by name in the 1917 Shelton Brooks composition "Darktown Strutters' Ball".

Tin Roof Blues 2021 single by New Orleans Rhythm Kings

"Tin Roof Blues" is a jazz composition by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings first recorded in 1923. It was written by band members Paul Mares, Ben Pollack, Mel Stitzel, George Brunies and Leon Roppolo. The tune has become a jazz standard and is one of the most recorded and often played New Orleans jazz compositions.

John Glover Compton, usually referred to as Glover Compton, was an American ragtime and jazz pianist.

Willie Vincent Piazza was a prostitute and brothel proprietor in the Storyville during that red light district's period of legal operation. From 1898 until the district's closure in 1917, Piazza worked as a madam and specialized in providing octoroon women for her clients; she herself was mixed-race.

Thomas C. Anderson

Thomas "Tom" Anderson (1858–1931) was a political boss and state legislator, and the unofficial “mayor” of Storyville in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Baby Franklin Seals

H. Franklin "Baby" Seals was an American vaudeville performer, songwriter and pianist, whose successful 1912 song "Baby Seals' Blues" was one of the first published blues compositions, predating W. C. Handy's "The Memphis Blues" by several months.



  1. 1880 Federal census for the family of Antonio Jackson and Rachel (Dennis) Jackson taken in New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana.
  2. New Orleans, Louisiana, city death records 1804-1949, 5 January 1884, as available on at
  3. Federal census taken 5 June 1900, New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana, Ward 12, enumeration district 118, page 6A
  4. Draft record taken in Chicago, Illinois. An image of this document is available on the Dr. Jazz website at
  5. 1 2 3 Bullock 2017, p. 21.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Bullock 2017, p. 22.
  7. 1 2 Bullock 2017, p. 23.
  8. Bullock 2017, p. 24.
  9. Brown, Clare (September 25, 2008). "The man of a thousand songs: the forgotten star who inspired Jelly Roll Morton". The Guardian. Retrieved March 31, 2018.
  10. Bullock 2017, p. 34.
  11. Rose, Al (1978) Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District, University of Alabama Press. ISBN   0-8173-4403-9
  12. Bullock 2017, p. 26.
  13. "Tony Jackson · Queer Bronzeville". Retrieved March 31, 2018.
  14. Bullock 2017, p. 27.
  15. Bullock 2017, p. 29.
  16. "Gay New Orleans 101". The Advocate : 50. October 11, 2005. Retrieved February 2, 2011.
  17. Bullock 2017, p. 33.
  18. Chicago, Illinois, death records as available on
  19. Bullock 2017, p. 32.
  20. Carr, Ian, et al. (2004). The Rough Guide to Jazz, p. 396. Rough Guides. ISBN   1-84353-256-5.
  21. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 17, 2015. Retrieved June 28, 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  22. Times, Windy City. "2011 Chicago G/L Hall of Fame to induct 11 people, 4 groups - Gay Lesbian Bi Trans News Archive - Windy City Times". Windy City Times.


Further reading