Ah, the dawning of the Jazz Age in Chicago. Divey drinking establishments, elegant suits and silk dresses, wonderful, wonderful music… and one ridiculously talented gay Black pianist and songwriter who had everyone in town copying his style!
Born in 1884 in New Orleans, young Tony Jackson was something of a musical prodigy. He constructed a harpsichord made from junk in his back garden at the age of ten because his family didn’t have the money to buy him a piano. By the age of 15, he’d become one of the most sought-after piano players in Storyville, the city’s red light district — and he’d also almost certainly realised that he was gay. This didn’t make life in New Orleans particularly easy for him. The memoirs of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton suggest that Jackson complained to Morton about the difficulty of being out and gay in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century (see below). By 1904, Jackson had left New Orleans to tour with various music outfits, and eventually he moved to Chicago, where he worked with and influenced artists such as Morton and Clarence Williams. Here’s what Morton had to say about him:
All these men were hard to beat, but when Tony Jackson walked in, any one of them would get up from the piano stool. If he didn’t, somebody was liable to say, 'Get up from that piano. You hurting its feelings. Let Tony play.' Tony was real dark and not a bit good-looking, but he had a beautiful disposition. He was the outstanding favourite of New Orleans…
There was no tune that come up from any opera or any show of any kind or anything that was wrote on paper that Tony couldn’t play. He had such a beautiful voice and a marvellous range. His voice on an opera tune was exactly as an opera singer. His range on a blues would be just exactly like a blues singer… Tony happened to be one of those gentlemens that a lot of people call them lady or sissy — I suppose he was either a ferry or a steamboat, one of the other, probably you would say a ferry because that’s what you pay a nickel for — and that was the cause of him going to Chicago about 1906. He liked the freedom there. (from Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and Inventor of Jazz (1973) pp. 43-5)
(FWIW, I’m still researching exact details on the ‘ferry’ and ‘steamboat’ slang terms — any historical linguists out there who can help?)
In Chicago, Jackson quickly became just as popular as he’d been at home, performing at venues across the South Side (and apparently influencing other people’s fashion choices with his ascot ties and diamond stick pins!). Jackson doesn’t appear to have discussed his sexuality with many other people in great detail, but as Morton’s comments suggest, it doesn’t appear to have been any great secret either.
He didn’t make any recordings, which is a horrible tragedy to my mind, but he did publish a number of songs as sheet music with full or shared credit. One of these was 'Pretty Baby', which was apparently part of Jackson’s performance repertoire as early as 1912, but wasn’t published until 1916. The published version clearly refers to a female lover (there’s a picture of a woman on the cover of the songsheet, for example), but the lyrics themselves are ambiguous (and adorable and obnoxious in equal measures!):
You ask me why I’m always teasing you. /
You hate to have me call you “Pretty Baby.” /
I really thought that I was pleasing you, /
For you’re just a baby to me… /
… And just like Peter Pan it seems you’ll always be /
The same sweet cunning little baby dear to me, /
And that is why I’m sure that I /
Will always love you best of all.
To me, there’s something particularly poignant in one of the last lines of the song —- And I’d like to be your sister, brother, dad and mother too, Pretty baby, pretty baby. At the time Jackson was writing, I suspect that to quite a large extent, out queer people very much did have to be one another’s families.
Jackson died in 1921, possibly of alcoholism or syphilis (the sources I’ve come across so far are divided as to exactly what cased his death)… he was thirty-fucking-seven years old. In 2011, Tony Jackson was added to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame for being ‘an openly gay man when that was rare' — recognition that came very late, but definitely (for us, at least) better than never.
Bio from Out History: http://outhistory.org/wiki/Tony_Jackson#Tony_Jackson.2C_A_Gay_Blues_Pianist_from_Chicago
2011 induction into Chicago GL Hall of Fame: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php?AID=33783
An early recording of ‘Pretty Baby’: http://ia700504.us.archive.org/9/items/BillyMurray_part4/BillyMurray-PrettyBaby.mp3
Bio from All About Jazz: http://musicians.allaboutjazz.com/musician.php?id=7944#.UNw8Nm_Za3s
Wiki page for ‘Pretty Baby’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Baby_(song)
Wikipedia bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Jackson_(jazz_musician)
Google Books link: Entry in Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XFnfnKg6BcAC&pg=PA559&dq=tony+jackson&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ZUPcUOP0Fq6Z0QWH0IGYBQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=tony%20jackson&f=false
Google Books link: Information about Jackson in Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=44lheqlq-jYC&dq=tony+jackson+chicago+whispers&source=gbs_navlinks_s