Tony Jackson was not a handsome man in the traditional sense, but none of his peers could deny the fact that he was one of the most original and influential musicians to come out of what was then known as the Storyville district of post-Victorian New Orleans. Although he was never captured on film nor recorded on wax, Tony Jackson is also now remembered as a most elegant man of fashion with a beautiful personality, and for living openly as a same gender loving man and being accepted as such. From what I'm able to gather, this bit of information first came from his legendary, more famous friend and protege, the infamous Dr. Jazz - Jelly Roll Morton! Since then, it seems that subsequent writers and historians have done the appropriate legwork to verify that claim by peering into Jackson's life as a resident of Bronzeville, Chicago's African American cultural center of the early 20th Century. (In this very early photograph, Jackson (top) is shown with a friend, mistakingly identified as Kentucky pianist, Glover Compton).
Toney Junius Jackson Jr., was born on June 5, most probably in 1882, to a poor family of former slaves in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was an epileptic child who had his first professional gig at age 13, and by 15 was known as one of the best piano players in the city of New Orleans. He was a singer known for his high, almost operatic vocal stylings, and a composer most well known for the Ragtime-era composition, Pretty Baby, a song which is still known, loved and considered an American standard. The original lyrics to Pretty Baby have since been lost but they were once thought to be quite bawdy even for the era as they were written by Jackson as a paean to a male lover. Jackson had Pretty Baby in his repertoire as early as 1912, singing the song in the funky-butt bars and whorehouses of Storyville, or the red-light district where black musicians were forced to play in order to make a living. When the sheet music rolled off the press in 1916, there were two new additional composers, Gus Khan and Egbert Van Alstyne, listed as co-writers, thus underscoring the common practice of Tin Pan Alley songwriters and producers to cheat and steal from musicians like Jackson, Scott Joplin and later Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. However, in all fairness, the lyrics had to be changed to make the song more palpable to the mainstream, but Tony Jackson certainly wasn't called upon to rewrite it.
In large part, it is due to the memories of Jackson's friends and peers like the great, but egocentric jazz innovator Jelly Roll Morton (left,1917) that we know much about him at all. During a recorded interview in 1938, Morton first told musicologist, Alan Lomax, that "Tony happened to be one of those gentlemens that a lot of people call them lady or sissy ... and that was the cause of him going to Chicago ... he liked the freedom there." In Chicago's Bronzeville, Jackson apparently found the freedom he was looking for and settled into the thriving entertainment community there and continued to make a name for himself. It wasn't something that he would have spoke about during that time, but it was well-known that Jackson was homosexual. There is no record of his relationships with men, and the male paramour that he wrote Pretty Baby for is not known.
Clarence Williams, another of the early fathers of jazz, noted that while Jackson was a true original on the piano keys, more than his musicianship was admired and copied. Tony Jackson was elegant if not handsome, and his trademark pearl gray derby, checkered vest, ascot, diamond stickpin and sleeve gaters became THE look for ragtime and barrelhouse pianists of the day. Indeed, it was a well known axiom that if you couldn't play like Jackson, at least you could look like him!
The great blues and cabaret singer, Alberta Hunter, also admired Tony Jackson and remembered when "Everybody would go to hear Tony Jackson after hours. Tony was just marvelous - a fine musician, spectacular, but still soft. He could write a song in two minutes and was one of the greatest accompanist I've every listened to... He had mixed hair and always had a drink on the piano - always!... Yes, Tony Jackson was a prince of a fellow, and he would always pack them in. There would be so many people around the piano trying to learn his style that sometimes he could hardly move his hands - and he never played any song the same way twice."
While the evidence is strong that Tony Jackson lived out and proud in his truth, and still had the respect and admiration of the musicians that he strongly influenced like Jelly Roll Morton and Clarence Williams, it is obvious that life was not a cakewalk for Jackson. He was a black male homosexual during a time when all of who he was was considered criminal and mentally ill. Jackson was also a life-long alcoholic, and compounding his issues with epilepsy, it is thought that he suffered with the ravages of syphilis.
I should note that one source of information tried to insinuate that Jackson was in some type of "long term" romantic relationship with another now legendary but mysterious ragtime pianist, Glover Compton. Although we know better, Compton was a married man but there is no evidence to support that he was either homosexual or bisexual. This is the same source that called Jelly Roll Morton a "blues singer" and identified Compton as the "probable" friend in the photo above. It's not!
If Tony Jackson is all but forgotten except among historians and jazz enthusiasts,Pretty Baby was destined to become one of the most beloved American melodies that we still know today. The song has been covered by everyone from Al Jolson to Dean Martin. It inspired the 1978 Louis Malle film of the same name, which scandalized audiences with its graphic sexual situations involving 12-year old Brooke Shields portraying a child prostitute working in a New Orleans bordello. The whorehouse piano player, loosely based on Tony Jackson, was played by the brilliant character actor, Antonio Fargas. There are a number of short bios on Jackson and a few rather lengthy ones. They read rather fluidly concerning his professional career but not much information was collected on his personal life. In his later years, his voice and musical dexterity were impaired by illness. He died in Chicago, in 1921, a bonafide, respected jazz innovator.
*This post was remixed from an earlier piece that originally appeared on this blog in Feb, 2009. Like a number of the posts from that period, it had a potential that was never realized. I hope it's better now!