Now known as the most innocent of standards, “Pretty Baby” is really an artifact from the heyday of Storyville. And it’s virtually all that survives from the career of composer Tony Jackson, which by all accounts was a musically and socially remarkable one. The son of a freed slave, Jackson was apparently playing in brothels well before hitting his teens. Jackson was the James Booker of his time—a prodigy who could play virtually any blues, jazz or opera piece on the spot, and was known as “the man of a thousand songs.”—Brett Milano in 300 Songs for 300 Years.
In late 1904 or early 1905, a lone white man, a relative newcomer to New Orleans, was strolling towards the downtown river corner of Villere and Iberville Streets in the heart of Storyville. On this corner stood the establishment of Miss Antonia P. Gonzales, “the only singer of opera and female cornetist in the tenderloin” (amongst many other talents, no doubt!). As he got near to the front of the building, on Iberville, he could hear the sound of a piano and singing, coming from the Villere side. He stood by the window transfixed, listening to the most wonderful music; the beat of the bass and marvellous embellishments in the treble of the piano were of a kind he had never heard before, and the singing was just as distinctive: high notes, low notes, fast or slow, whoever the man was he was executing everything perfectly. As the white man was listening he realized another man was standing on the banquette near him, another white man. “Who in the world is that?” asked the first one, and the second replied, “Tony Jackson, he knows a thousand songs.”
The first man was Roy Carew and the second was the pianist Kid Ross, the only white “professor” in Storyville. Carew was to become a friend of Tony Jackson, and the above comes from his reminiscences related in The Record Changer magazine of February, 1948.
Jackson, who was called “The World’s Greatest Single-Handed Entertainer” and who was held in awe by his fellow musicians, including Jelly Roll Morton, is believed to have been born on June 5, 1876. The Jackson family home was on First Street between Annunciation and Rousseau Streets, but by the time Tony was about two years old they had moved to Amelia Street, near Tchoupitoulas Street.
Tony had a deep interest in music. At the age of seven or eight he constructed, from pieces of scrap in the yard, a type of harpsichord with keys and tunable strings on which he gave his first concert, to his family, of the hymn “How Sweet to Have a Home in Heaven.” Obviously the scope for progression on this home-made instrument was limited and soon agreements were made with neighbors who had pianos and, in at least one case, a reed-organ, where practice sessions were exchanged for dishwashing duties. Throughout his life, though, Tony never had one music lesson; he was entirely self-taught and was what was known in those days in New Orleans as a “faker.”
Before long his efforts came to the notice of Adam Olivier, who had a barbershop on the corner of Tchoupitoulas. Olivier arranged a permanent practice session at the saloon next door to the barbershop. By the age of 13 Tony was good enough to land his first job, employed by Olivier on a part-time basis either in the band or in the club, or both. Olivier also gave Bunk Johnson his first job. Tony stayed with Olivier for about two years, during which time he learned to read music. His reputation grew, so that when he left the band he was recognized as one of the top musicians in the city and had no trouble securing employment in the “houses” of the newly opened district soon to be known as Storyville.
By 1900 the family home had moved to Magazine Street by the French Quarter. Jackson was the undisputed boss of the entertainers in New Orleans and was the favorite among all the frequenters of the District: customers, musicians, girls and madams. He played at the top establishments, such as Tom Anderson’s Annex, Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall (where in the late 1890s he was seen playing with clarinetist Alphonse Picou with, occasionally, one of the girls singing), Gypsy Schaeffer’s and “Countess” Willie Piazza’s, as well as Frank Early’s My Place and, after hours, The Frenchman’s. The last named was where all the musicians went after work had finished, and if someone was playing the piano when Jackson walked in one of the others would say, “Get up from that piano, you’re hurting its feelings. Let Tony play.” One of his most celebrated performances during this period was the popular song “I’ve Got Elgin Movements In My Hips with Twenty Years’ Guarantee,” and clarinetist George Baquet carried a vivid memory of Tony’s showmanship: “He’d start playin’ a cakewalk, then he’d knock over the piano stool and dance a cakewalk—and never stop playin’ the piano—and playin’, man! Nobody played like him.” Frank Early’s is probably where he wrote his most famous and enduring song, “Pretty Baby,” although it was not published until many years later. It was in this period, 1899–1903, that he earned the soubriquet “The World’s Greatest Single-Handed Entertainer” for a great singing voice, infectious gaiety, incredible timing and, above all, phenomenal two-handed piano playing.
According to contemporary descriptions Jackson was six feet tall with a tendency to stoop, very dark skinned and “not a bit good looking” owing to a prominent nose and a rather weak chin which accentuated the prominence of his lips. He was slender-bodied with a premature tuft of grey (almost white) hair in his forelock. In later years he inclined to obesity, especially round the hips. He had a good disposition (Morton described it as “beautiful, when sober!”), almost happy-go-lucky. He was always well dressed, his clothes being expensive and carefully chosen. Bunk Johnson described him as “dicty,” meaning a well-dressed Negro. And he liked spending money; he was said to have made several fortunes in Storyville but didn’t keep them!
In late 1907 or early 1908 Tony went to Chicago with fellow pianist Bob Caldwell. He settled in Chicago permanently in 1912, only returning once to New Orleans to attend his mother’s funeral in February 1913.
In 1916 occurred the event that would give the world his most lasting legacy: publication of the song “Pretty Baby.”
“Pretty Baby” was originally written in New Orleans in the room over Frank Early’s My Place, reportedly inspired by a good-looking young man who attracted Jackson. The original words are lost but were apparently risqué to say the least. But when composer Egbert Van Alstyne and lyricist Gus Kahn heard it in the Deluxe Cafe they liked the melody and bought the song from Jackson for $250. Van Alstyne added a verse from a previous song of his, Kahn provided more acceptable words for the chorus, and it was sung, originally, by Dolly Hackett in the Shubert Brothers production “The Passing Show of 1916.” Unfortunately, the first edition of the sheet music showed Van Alstyne’s and Gus Kahn’s names above Jackson’s, which angered Jackson’s friends and earned Van Alstyne many lifelong enemies.
Throughout his musical career Tony Jackson wrote numerous piano rags and songs, most of which were never published and are now lost. Roy Carew once asked him why he hadn’t published a particular rag and he replied that the local music stores (in New Orleans) would only give him $5 for it and he would “rather tear it up than give it away.” On another occasion he told trumpeter Lee Collins that he had just sold a $5 tune (allegedly the song “Say You’re Sorry”) for $7.50. Because he didn’t copyright, much of his material was stolen by other musicians. For example, Jelly Roll Morton and no less an authority than ragtime pianist Brun Campbell (“The Joplin Kid” and Scott Joplin’s only white pupil) both said that “Michigan Water Blues,” claimed and published by Clarence Williams, had been composed by Jackson around 1895; Campbell remembered it as being “quite raggy.” Other contemporary musicians said that many Tin Pan Alley tunes had originated at Jackson’s hands. Roy Carew’s favorite tune, “The Naked Dance,” although un-published, does survive in an extended version recorded by Jelly Roll Morton. A song written in collaboration with Glover Compton, “The Clock of Time,” was apparently later purloined by one J. Berni Barbour and re-named “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).”
Jackson usually appeared as a solo artist or as an accompanist to such singers as Lucille Hegamin and Alberta Hunter. In 1917, though, he was seen at the Deluxe in a band he had organized consisting of luminaries Freddie Keppard on cornet and Lorenzo Tio Jr. on clarinet, along with Wellman Braud on string bass and Minor Hall on drums. He is reported to have also accompanied the Whitman Sisters for a second time, possibly on a short, local tour. But probably the most intriguing event that Jackson took part in in 1917 also involved his number one disciple, Jelly Roll Morton.
During the first 30 years of the twentieth century, competitions or cutting contests between ragtime and barrelhouse pianists were common. All the big names and local talent took part, but the mere rumor of Tony Jackson participating put off most others from attending, especially those with a reputation to lose. Even Jelly Roll Morton, on his own admission, ducked one contest because he’d heard Jackson would be there. In 1917 in Chicago, however, just such a contest was organized, and Tony and Jelly competed—and Morton won! To Morton’s credit he always said afterwards that he thought the prize had gone to the wrong man and that Tony Jackson should have won. Twenty-one years later Jelly confessed to Roy Carew that a certain amount of gamesmanship had been employed: “I leant close and whispered in his ear ‘You can’t sing now Tony, you can’t sing now.’”
By March 1921 Jackson had become very ill. He’d not only suffered from chronic epilepsy but he had been a heavy drinker all his life and may also have contracted syphilis. In July 1959, Al Rose and Dr. Edmund Souchon tracked down Jackson’s death certificate (a copy of which is now in the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University), which shows that he died on April 20, 1921 from, perhaps unsurprisingly, Chronic Hepatic Cirrhosis contributed by Gastro Enteritis; in other words cirrhosis of the liver.
His funeral was held on Saturday, April 23, amongst those present being Joe Jordan, Glover Compton, ‘Teenan’ Jones, Clarence Williams and members of the New Orleans Jazz Band. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery.
Although tragically short, his life was full and his legacy, though maybe difficult to assess, is nonetheless real. He left, unfortunately, no recordings, no legendary lost discs or cylinders! There was an attempt to get him to record on piano-rolls when he was almost on his deathbed, and even an offer to get the piano installed in his room, but he was far too ill. All we have are the reports and memories of his contemporaries, and these are legion and unanimous in praising his abilities and his character.
Pianist Clarence Williams told researcher Simms Campbell that Jackson was the greatest of them all, “great because he was original in all of his improvisations—a creator, a supreme stylist.” He added, “Sure I copied him, we all did.”
Richard M. Jones and Jelly Roll Morton considered him to have been the equal of any blues pianist past or present. As we have seen, his versatility was legendary. Morton said “He would sing a blues like a blues singer, opera like an opera singer and was always the first with the latest tunes.”
Both Shep Allen, one-time operator of several Chicago landmark venues, and Clarence Williams said that as a singer Jackson was something like Nat “King” Cole but with greater range and power. And guitarist/banjoist Bud Scott, remarking on his piano-playing, said he “combined the instrumental technique of Art Tatum with the swing of Fats Waller.”
Of his piano style much, now, has to be guesswork. We know it was very varied and included single walking bass and double walking bass (of broken octaves), as later used by boogie-woogie pianists. His long-fingered hands could make fast passages spellbinding and his blues and slow drags would sway with rhythm. White ragtime pianist Brun Campbell said that Jackson was a great New Orleans pianist who could outplay Jelly Roll Morton.
His ballad accompaniments were famous and Alberta Hunter remarked that he was the finest accompanist she had ever heard. He never played a tune the same way twice and he could write a song in two minutes.
As an example of his good nature and generosity, fellow Storyville Professor, multi-instrumentalist and noted teacher Manuel Manetta recalled that when he took a trip to Chicago with violinist Charles Elgar and trombonist George Filhe in 1913, they went to see Tony Jackson’s act at the Elite Cafe. Jackson was so pleased to see his old friend Manetta coming through the door that he stopped the show, had the spotlight turned on Manetta and introduced him to the audience as a major celebrity. Manetta was supremely touched by the gesture and remembered it for the rest of his days.
Tony Jackson was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2011. His song “Pretty Baby” was the inspiration for Louis Malle’s 1978 film of the same name, the whorehouse pianist loosely based on Jackson being played by Antonio Fargas of Starsky & Hutch fame. And Tony Jackson’s relationship with Jelly Roll Morton was made the subject of the play “Don’t You Leave Me Here” by Clare Brown, which premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in September 2008.
This article has been edited and condensed. The full version first appeared in the Frog Blues & Jazz Annual No. 5. and Annual No. 6.