He Knew A Thousand Songs
A RECOLLECTION OF TONY JACKSON
By Roy J. Carew
To the tourist or casual visitor strolling about New Orleans, the cemeteries are among the most interesting places. There are many of them, and, although some are more modern than others, to a considerable degree they are very different from cemeteries in other parts of the United States, and the older ones help to impress upon a person the age of the city. In former years, and I have little doubt that it is largely the same today, newcomers to the city were surprised to learn that nearly all burials were above ground, in vaults. This was actually a matter of necessity in early times, since any excavations for graves would immediately begin to fill with water, due to the fact that the ground was nearly always near saturation point. With natural drainage non-existent, or very slow at best, frequent heavy rains kept the ground in a very soggy condition. The only underground burials in former years, as far as I know, were in the potter’s fields, St. Patrick’s Numbers 1 and 2, where, it was said, the coffins had to be weighted with cobble stones to keep them from floating while the earth was being shovelled into the grave. In view of such conditions, in the early part of the nineteenth century, city ordinances were enacted, requiring brick tombs in all cemeteries, and also providing that all cemeteries had to be enclosed by high brick walls of solid construction. It is not difficult to see why burials in clean dry vaults were preferred to interments in more or less swampy ground. For the well-to-do, separate family vaults were constructed; for the poorer folks, tiers of vaults were built in groups or sections, in which a single vault might be obtained. Some of the poorest folks, unable to buy a grave, could rent a vault, with the assurance that the departed might rest in peace, — at least while the rent continued to be paid. I remember a visit to old St. Louis Number 1 with my wife in 1935; we stood listening to the caretaker explain about the rented vaults, and how the coffins were removed when the rent wasn’t paid, while on the ground nearby was a little mound of ashes and smouldering embers, with a few gimcrack coffin ornaments lying among them. Pointing to the ashes, the caretaker said, “There’s all that’s left of a coffin, right now.” Asked what disposition was made of the remains of the departed, he replied that there was nothing left but a few dry bones, and they were shoved to the back end of the vault, finishing his explanation with the cheerful comment, “You’d be surprised what a little space they take up.”
Although St. Louis Number 1 offered much of interest within its thick walls, it may be something of a surprise to the reader to learn that at one period I found a great deal to interest me just outside the walls, — and at night! Ordinarily folks stay away from cemeteries at night, but I remember after dark occasions nearly a half century ago, when I stood on the banquette on the uptown side of Conti Street, just across from the cemetery, enjoying myself greatly while gazing at the ghostly white wall, or perhaps looking just above it, as the southern moon climbed slowly into the sky. However, I wasn’t thinking of cemetery walls or the mellow beauty of the moon; I was listening, for at my back was the establishment of Gypsy Schaeffer, and inside the one and only Tony Jackson was playing and singing.
The Schaeffer place on Conti Street was a couple of doors back from Franklin Street, and I believe Tony played there with considerable regularity. The house was flush with the banquette, and the piano was in the front parlour next to the street, and consequently a sidewalk listener could receive the full benefit of Tony’s performance, which always seemed to me to be perfect. Up to that time I had never seen Tony, which may sound strange to the reader of today, who might ask with reason why I didn’t go inside, where I could watch as well as listen. However, it should be remembered that those establishments were strictly business places, and that fact was made abundantly clear to visitors. The house provided entertainment, but always at a substantial price, and patrons were expected to spend freely, and those who had nothing but time to spend were decidedly de trop. The operators lived up to their well known motto, “Treat, Trade or Travel.” Had I entered, it could have been for a few moments only, or, as the old popular song might have described it, “He Walked Right In and Turned Around, and Walked Right Out Again.” So I took my fill of listening from the banquette. Some time later, however, I was pleasantly surprised while passing the corner of Franklin and Bienville Streets, to hear Tony performing in the cafe on that corner, lately identified as Frank Early’s Cafe. This was my opportunity, for it was a cafe for white patrons, so I strolled in, bought a drink at the bar, and took a seat at the little table close to the platform where Tony was playing the piano.
When I had the chance to see Tony performing in the flesh, I had to revise the mental image I had formed. From the quality of his singing, the clear, vibrant tone and ample volume, and the usual vigor of his playing, I had pictured him to be a robust, deep-chested Negro, sitting erect at the piano, probably tilting his head back as he sang. But my picture was wrong; here was a very dark, rather slender Negro, leaning forward over the keyboard, instead of being erect. With his active fingers roaming over the keyboard, he gave the impression of singing into the piano. As to his features, Jelly Roll had it right when he said “Tony wasn’t a bit good looking,” largely because his rather weak chin accentuated the prominence of his lips. At that time, around 1905, he already had the little tuft of prematurely grey hair in his forelock. But Tony’s lack of beauty was immediately forgotten in his flawless performance, and his happy, friendly disposition. To quote Morton once more, “Tony Jackson was the favourite, no doubt because of his expansive ability and marvellous disposition when sober.” And for my part I can say that he always appeared sober to me, — that is, never under the influence of liquor. He was a happy-go-lucky person, and his actions seemed to evidence the fact.
I spent many a pleasant hour listening to Tony entertain at Frank Early’s Cafe. Usually I would take the little table at the left of the piano stand, and sit there sipping my drink while I listened. Tony got to know me, and would welcome me with that happy grin of his when he saw me taking my place. He had the reputation of knowing “a thousand songs,” and I have a very good notion that he did; he knew all the popular songs of the day, and I heard him sing songs that never got popular around New Orleans, as far as I observed. According to Bunk Johnson’s recollections, Tony started to play in 1894, so at the time I began listening he had been playing over ten years, and doubtless knew many, many numbers. Bunk stated that Tony “didn’t know anything about reading, but could play in any key,” but I feel sure that by the time I knew him he could read very well, and probably could write a piano score too. I asked him one night who taught him to play the piano, and he straightened up and said “I taught myself,” and I could see that he was proud of the fact. Clearly Tony Jackson was one of those musicians with great natural talent, who constantly reach out to add to what they know.* His repertoire included all types of music, anything a customer might ask for, — ragtime songs, waltz songs, march songs, ballads, semi-classics, — and he executed them all in his matchless style; he even sang duets, taking each part with equal facility. His voice was of an exceptional quality, clear and vibrant, of good timbre and wide range.
* Jelly Roll Morton, although receiving some formal instruction while young, was another natural musician who continuously added to his knowledge, playing, reading, writing, arranging and directing. Jelly did more arranging than he is commonly credited with. He made arrangements for his recording sessions, their completeness depending on the ability of the musicians. He told me that he could make complete arrangements for ten or eleven instruments and know how the result would sound; for more pieces than that, he said there might be spots that would have to be corrected.
His assortment of instrumental numbers was also large, and consisted of anything of a popular nature in published music, along with his own compositions and honky tonk numbers which might have some musical merit. These honky tonk numbers were in the minority, for, although Tony doubtless knew much music of that type, I’m sure there was very little call for it at Frank Early’s. As to “blues,” it seems hard for recent generations to realise that they weren’t much in evidence until the publication of Memphis Blues in 1912 showed that money could be made from them. They doubtless existed, but, with a few rare exceptions, I believe they were crude and incomplete, and were held in low regard, for as Jelly Roll stated it, “The blues weren’t considered music” in those days. Still, Tony could play plenty of music in the honky tonk line, and he soon discovered that there was one lively little piece in particular that gave me quite a kick, and before long, when he would see me taking my favourite table, he would give me a welcoming grin and start playing it, — a sort of a theme tune for me. I used to try to play the little tune at home, much to the annoyance of the family, whose tastes in music were somewhat different from mine, but I could never get more than the first few bars, and then I would run off into something else.
One evening Tony played a very fine ragtime piece for me, and when I asked him the title, he replied that it was own number. I asked him why he didn’t have it published, and he said that the local music stores would offer him only $5.00 for it, and, rather than accept that, he would tear the number up. It was clear to see that his opportunities were limited in New Orleans, and I remember telling him “You’re wasting your time in this town, you ought to go north.” He agreed that he would have more possibilities north, but said that, as his mother was still living in New Orleans, he didn’t want to leave her. The subject never came up again, but sometime late in 1907 or early 1908 I missed Tony, and when I enquired for him I was told that he had gone to Chicago. I had a speaking acquaintance with a couple of young fellows who knew Tony, and it was from one of them that I learned that he was playing at Russell & Dago’s or at The Little Savoy, in Chicago.
In 1909, having been working rather hard for the New Orleans branch of the Remington Typewriter Company, I persuaded the local manager to give me a vacation, which I planned to spend with relatives in Michigan. Fortunately, I was able to time my trip with one of the summer excursions the Illinois Central Railway used to run to a few northern towns, principally Chicago and Memphis. These excursions were popular events in the early 1900’s, and the railroad usually had to run several sections to take care of the travellers. I remember the fare that year was $15.00 for a total of something over 1800 miles of travel. From Chicago I could take the boat across to western Michigan. So I packed my grip, got my ticket, climbed on board and settled back for the trip, which usually required a few hours over a full day. I arrived in Chicago about noon, dusty and hungry, so my first need was to clean up a bit and get some lunch. That done, I didn’t hesitate, — I started out to locate Tony. I can’t recall if it was Russell & Dago’s or The Little Savoy, but with the aid of the city directory and the street railway I reached there fairly promptly. The place was unpretentious, evidently a cafe or night club in what previously might have been a good a good sized store. It was deserted when I walked in, the only person in sight being the man at the bar. An enquiry brought forth the information that Tony wasn’t around just then, but would be there before long. The piano stood on a platform on the left side of the room, so I walked back and found a seat in an inconspicuous spot across the room from the piano; the place was not lit up, so I was hardly noticeable. I hadn’t been seated very long when the front doors swung open and four or five Negroes bustled in, walked up to the bar, and asked for Tony; upon receiving the same answer I had, they seated themselves at a table about the centre of the room, not too far from the platform. I didn’t recognise any of them, but from their conversation I learned that they also had come up from New Orleans on the excursion, and, as with myself, it was evident that just about their first desire was to see Tony. It was just another proof, if any were needed, of the high esteem in which Tony was held by all who knew him, or heard him perform; even Jelly Roll, with all his belief in himself, was perfectly satisfied to rank himself second to Tony.
Before long our patience was rewarded. The swing doors were pushed open, and Tony came hurrying in. When he saw his friends at the table, it was evident that he was greatly pleased, and relieved also, judging from his remarks, which, as nearly as I can remember, went something like this: “Well, here you are! I’m certainly glad to see you! Do you know where I’ve been? Down to the Illinois Central depot to meet you. I had a big seven-passenger limousine to bring you out here and didn’t get there in time!” It was clear that he was very glad to see them, and to find that they got to the place safely. He sat down at the table with his old friends, and the conversation was animated while greetings were exchanged. But it wasn’t long before the natural thing had to happen, — two or three seemed to speak up at once, “Tony, play something for us!” Up to that time I had remained seated in the background without being noticed, but when Tony arose and went to the piano to play, I got up and walked towards the platform, and just as he was about to start I stepped up to the railing at his left. He turned to see who it was, and then the old friendly grin came to his face, and he started to play — my little honky tonk number! I surely got a kick out of that!
It was in the spring of 1938 that I sought out Jelly Roll at the Music Box to find out what had become of Tony Jackson; except for seeing his name on published songs, I had heard nothing of him for about twenty-five years, and I had a genuine personal interest in Tony. During one of our conversations, the little honky tonk tune came to my mind, and I stepped over to the spinet, played the opening bars as I remembered them, and asked Jelly if he remembered hearing Tony play a number that began like that. He replied that he recalled the tune, but made no further comment on it, and the conversation turned to other matters. A little later that year, during the period when Jelly was making the recordings for the Archives of the Library of Congress, the telephone in my office at the Internal Bureau rang, and on answering it, I was greeted by Jelly. He asked me if I’d like to meet Mr. Lomax at the Library, and as I was willing to get away from the desk for a while I didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity. On arriving at the Library I found Ferd and Mr. Lomax passing the time in conversation, since, due to a breakdown in the machine, no recording was possible that afternoon. So I joined in the talk, which of course turned to the old days in New Orleans, and there was much to say about Tony Jackson as the dean of the early rag-jazz pianists. As the memory of Tony playing the little honky tonk number for me is one of my choice recollections, I related the story in full, including the Chicago incident. The anecdote seemed to please Alan greatly, and he turned to Jelly and asked him if he knew the tune I was talking about and Jelly said that he did. With that the subject was dropped, and after more pleasant reminiscing, I returned to my office.
There have been many references to, and stories of, Ferdinand J. Morton’s last months in Washington, but the poignancy of it all will probably never be known. Enriching the Archives of the Library of Congress had not benefited Morton one iota in any material respect. He made one futile attempt after another to better his really desperate financial condition, but without success. Certainly the breaks were against him. Back in New York Jelly was up against almost as tough a proposition as he had been in Washington. Those who read Alan Lomax’s remarkable story of “MISTER JELLY ROLL” will get some idea of Ferd’s struggle to make both ends meet, and to gain the position in the jazz music world to which he felt he was entitled. Probably his only lasting achievements during his last stay in New York were the recordings for Victor in September 1939, and the New Orleans Memories album for General Records, now being issued by Commodore. The Library of Congress recordings, issued by Circle Sound, and those made by Morton in New York in 1939 and 1940, should prove valuable to sincere and unbiased students of characteristic American music. The Library monologues and Mr. Lomax’s book should be of value to students of certain social conditions of earlier times, provided always that it is remembered that usually only a very small segment of society is involved in the recital or discussion. To me personally, many of the recordings have the additional value of awakening memories of the pleasant hours I spent long ago, listening to such music when it was very young. Jelly Roll’s recordings of his version of the styles of early New Orleans pianists bring back Tony Jackson rather vividly, and identify strains that to me had always been nameless, — honky tonk strains that Tony played now and then at Frank Early’s Cafe. I am pleased to remember one strain in particular, rather short in the Library recordings, but expanded by Ferd into a complete number for the Memories album, and given a name that surprised me greatly — The Naked Dance. For it was the first strain of The Naked Dance with which Tony used to greet me, when he saw me strolling into Frank Early’s to hear him play.
The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated March 1952, Vol. 5, No. 3, pages 1—3.