Portraits from Jelly Roll’s New Orleans
by Peter Hanley

 Introduction  ·  Youthful associations
Storyville characters  ·  The professors  ·  The musicians
Some prominent New Orleanians  ·  Kudos


Jelly Roll Morton recorded a fascinating narrative about his early life in New Orleans for the Library of Congress in 1938. He mentioned many characters from various aspects of the New Orleans scene in the early part of the 20th century. Some have doubted the veracity of this part of his story, but the more researchers have delved into the surviving evidence, the more accurate his story has proved to be, apart from his actual birth year and the date of some events. In writing these portraits, my aim has been to give more precise details about these people. There are forty-eight portraits in this part of the series, gathered from primary sources and other material, with a detailed reference to all material used.

© 2002 Peter Hanley

Youthful associations


“This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life”

Two of the most beautifully nostalgic performances by Jelly Roll Morton are the versions of a blues by Mamie Desdunes, known as Mamie’s Blues or 2:19 Blues. On the Library of Congress version, the piece is introduced by Morton with these words: “Here’s was among the first blues that I’ve ever heard, happened to be a woman, that lived next door to my godmother’s in the Garden District. Her name was Mamie Desdunes. On her right hand, she had her two middle fingers, between her forefingers, cut off, and she played with the three. So she played a blues like this all day long, when she first would get up in the morning.” [AFS 1688-A]  Jelly Roll plays the piano introduction with his characteristic emphasis on the beauty of the melody, but with a quietly rocking, Spanish bass, not present on the later version.

The 1939 version is much simpler in structure, but equally beautiful and highly regarded since its first release, with its poignant spoken introduction in these words: “This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdunes, this is her favourite blues. She hardly could play anything else more, but she really could play this number. Of course, to get in on it, to try to learn it, I made myself the . . . the can rusher.”
[General 4001-A]

Mamie’s surname has generally been transcribed as “Desdoumes” but, if you listen closely to the record, it sounds as though it could be either “Desdoume(s)” or “Desdune(s)”. Jelly Roll does not pronounce it the French way (day-doon), but in a mixed way; des-doon, without sounding the final “s”. Whatever way he pronounced her name, Jelly Roll clearly wrote it as “Mamie Desdune” in a letter to Roy Carew dated 18th December 1939, two days after he recorded Mamie’s Blues for General Records. [OMJ 223]

Research in census records of the period indicates that the correct spelling is “Desdunes”, although some also spelled it “Desdune”, dropping the final “s”. Who was this Creole woman, with the two middle fingers amputated from her right hand, whose playing etched itself so firmly in Jelly Roll’s memory, and who composed one of the most beautiful blues ever put on record?

Bunk Johnson told Alan Lomax in an interview recorded by Lomax in March 1949 that he knew Mamie well.
[MJR 21] This is what he said: “I knew Mamie Desdoumes (Lomax’s spelling) real well. Played many a concert with her singing those same blues. She was pretty good looking — quite fair and with a nice head of hair. She was a hustling woman. A blues-singing poor girl. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido Street. When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that Mamie was going to be singing at her place, the white men would turn out in bunches and them whores would clean up.” The date of the interview was verified by Lomax in a letter he wrote to The Record Changer about Bunk Johnson in June 1949.

Mamie is listed in the 1901 Soards New Orleans City Directory as Mrs. Mamie Desdunes, residing at 2328 Toledano Street, New Orleans (from Lawrence Gushee).
[MSS 7] There is a photograph of this house reproduced in Oh, Mister Jelly. [OMJ 481]  It is very similar in style to the Monette home at 1443 Frenchmen Street, [MSS 8] designed for easy conversion into two separate residences, simply by closing up a doorway or two.

I decided to find out more about this obscure but memorable woman. It was not easy because I could not find any listing for her in the index to the 1900 United States Census, and she was not present in the household of any Desdunes listed in the index; only the head of the household is listed in the index. As a last resort and with a good deal of effort, I located the address in the census sheets to see who was living there in 1900. The sheet revealed that the house was divided into two residences.

The head of the household of the first residence was recorded as George Degay whose occupation was described as a hotel handyman; actually written as “hotel handman” on the census sheet. His wife’s name was Mary and there were three other persons living in that part of the house. One of them was Edna Desdune; a 13-year old born in April 1887, and she was described as a sister-in-law of the head of the household.

Mamie is a Scottish form of Mary, transported to the New World and many other places. So here, at last, was Mamie Desdunes in the guise of Mary Degay. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, Mamie was born in Louisiana in May 1880, and both her father and mother were also born in Louisiana. She had been married to George Degay for two years but had no children. Both she and her husband were able to read and write English, and the house was rented. No occupation was listed for Mamie. Another member of the household was John Desdune; born March 1882, presumably Mamie’s brother.
(U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 7th Precinct, 12th Ward, SD1 ED123, Sheet 4B, Lines 75-79)

The name Degay is probably a variant of Dugas; very common in Louisiana and Georgia, or Dugay; not common in Louisiana. The word “dune” means a seaside sandhill in French and “desdunes” means “of the sandhills”. The original Desdunes family in New Orleans were a wealthy family from the Artibonite Valley in Haiti. The Artibonite Valley is along the reaches of the Artibonite River which rises in the mountains east of Port-au-Prince and runs northwards to the Caribbean Sea, about 25 miles north of St. Marc. The family’s name was said to be Dugas-Rossignol de Desdunes.  Roger Richard advised that this means a man from the Dugas family married a woman from the Rossignol family and they were from a place called “Desdunes”. Desdunes is a city situated in the delta of the Artibonite River, about 10 miles from the sea, with a current population in 2002 of about 34,000. Roger also advised that Desdunes was not recorded in the list of French surnames until the 1960s, and it has no history in French genealogy. Mamie Desdunes was descended from this family of Haitian immigrants.

With the aid of the information in the census records, I was able to make searches of the Orleans Parish Birth Records. The results were surprising in that Mary Desdunes turned out to be one of the love children of Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes and Clementine Walker (1860-1893), the daughter of John and Ophelia Walker. Desdunes was actually married to Mathilde Cheval, and he lived with her and their six children in the 6th Ward. The precise details from the searches of birth records are set out below. No records were available for Edna Desdunes.

Child (Sex Race)

Mary Celina Desdunes
   (F C)
John Alexander Desdunes
   (M C)

Rudolphe L. Desdunes

R. L. Desdunes


Clementine Walker

Clementine Walker

Date of birth

25th March 1879
Volume 74, page 79
31st July 1881
Volume 77, page 800

Rodolphe Desdunes (1849-1928), descended from Haitian immigrants by that name, became very well known as a leading member of the Comité des Citoyens, a group of early civil rights activists who supported the unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States against segregation laws in Louisiana, Plessy v Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). He was also the author of an important book on New Orleans Creoles, Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire (Our People and Our History), published in Montreal, Canada in French in 1911.

Jelly Roll’s godmother, Laura Hunter, lived at 2706 South Robertson Street
[MSS 9] in 1900. (U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 10th Precinct, 11th Ward, SD1 ED116, Sheet 18B, Line 85) This house did not adjoin 2328 Toledano Street, but the properties were close to each other. Of course, Laura Hunter or Mamie may have lived at various addresses in the Garden District during this period, and there is no reason to doubt Jelly Roll’s statement that Mamie “lived next door to my godmother’s in the Garden District.”

There is now evidence that the Desdunes family and the Péché and Monette families were well known to each other. In 1880, Mamie Desdunes’ paternal grandparents, Jeremie (or Geremie) and Henriette Desdunes, were living at 149 Urquhart Street, New Orleans in the 8th Ward. The Péché and Monette families (including Jelly Roll’s mother, Louise Monette) were living two doors up the same street at Number 153.

The entry in the 1901 edition of Soards New Orleans City Directory shows that the relationship with George Degay had ended, at least for the time being for one reason or another, as Mamie was listed under her maiden name, but with the added title of “Mrs.” However, the relationship was resumed at a later time, for Mamie and George are recorded in the same household in the 1910 U.S. Census.

Name (Sex Race)

Mamie Desdume (F B)
Louis Desdume (M B)
George Dugue (M B)
Robert Winn (M B)
Edna Winn (F B)
Elanora Winn (F B)


Place of Birth


Laborer — Dairy
Laborer — Warehouse
Teamster — Cotton

(U.S. Census 1910, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 10th Precinct, 11th Ward, SD1 ED189, Sheet 5B, Lines 64-69, household at 2414 Clara Street, New Orleans, Census Date 15th April 1910, enumerated 17th April 1910) Edna Winn was Mamie’s sister.

Mamie Desdunes died at 2414 Clara Street, New Orleans on 4th December 1911, aged 32 years, almost exactly the same age at which her mother died. The death certificate was recorded under the name of Mamie Dugue, married and a housekeeper. The cause of death was phthisis pulmonitis (tuberculosis of the lungs). (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 133, page 833)

© 2002 Peter Hanley

Click on photograph to enlarge view of 2328 Toledano Street, New Orleans

2328 Toledano Street, New Orleans


His name was “Willie” not “Gerry”

Bunk Johnson was the most controversial figure in the history of jazz.  Fifty-three years after his death on 7th July 1949, the controversy still rages. Two of the issues, which made him so controversial, were his claims, firstly, that he was born in 1879, and secondly, that he played second cornet in Buddy Bolden’s legendary jazz band during the last few years of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century. Although Bunk claimed he was born on 27th December 1879, most authorities now give his birth date as ten years later, 27th December 1889.

Mike Hazeldine and Barry Martyn’s excellent recent biography, Bunk Johnson: Song of the Wanderer, examines the issue of Bunk’s birth date with exemplary objectivity in the first chapter, presenting all the available evidence and hearsay. The case for an 1889 birth year; and not an 1879, rests mainly on evidence from the 1900 United States Census and on an application for a Social Security Card signed by Bunk; but filled out by the government agent, in September or October 1937.  Despite the evidence and the hearsay, nothing yet found has been in any way conclusive.

I have never believed that Bunk was born in 1879 as he claimed.  Equally, I have never believed that he was born in 1889 as nearly every jazz writer and researcher on the subject in the last twenty-five years have claimed.  Some little time ago, I decided to conduct my own research on Bunk’s ancestry and earliest years with the knowledge that anything I found would only add to the confusion, rather than resolve it.  Searching for someone named Johnson in the United States is a very daunting task indeed. It is one of the most common surnames found in the Southern states of America.

Let us examine the facts.  Bunk said that he was born on 27th December 1879, and that his name was Willie Geary Johnson. When he married Maude Balque on 23rd February 1949, shortly before his death, he signed the marriage certificate as William Gary Johnson, probably on the instructions of the priest, as the marriage license was made out in the name of Willie Johnson. Bunk gave an account of his parents in these words:

“My father, William Johnson, a slave, who was owned by a Mrs. Brooks of Houma, Louisiana, was sold to Treasuremore Landry of St. James before the Civil War.  On Mr. Landry’s property, in Assumption Parish, slaves were paired off to bear children for the slave owner.  Oftentimes parents never saw their children because they were put on the block and sold.  The boys sold faster than the girls because they were needed for work in the fields.  In Assumption Parish my father was paired with Theresa Jefferson. They married shortly before the war. . . . I was born on Constance Street, between Peters Avenue and Octavia Street, in uptown New Orleans, December 27, 1879.  I was one of fourteen children, seven boys and seven girls. I am the only one living.” [BJSW 20-21]

The main evidence for an 1889 birth date rests on entries in the 1900 census records for a household at 3523 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans. (U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 1st Precinct, 12th Ward, SD1 ED117, Sheet 10B, Lines 52-55)  Details of the members of the relevant part of the household were:

Name (Race)

Theresa Johnson (B)
Gerry Johnson (B)
Rozelia (B)
Millie Young (B)


May 1856
December 1889
July 1878 ? (age 11)

At School
At School

It has been suggested that the name of the son, Gerry Johnson, might really be “Geary” which was Bunk’s second name.  I have enlarged the relevant panel in the copy of the census sheet I have by 200%, then by 400%, and the name is clearly “Gerry.”  It is a five-letter word with the third and fourth letters the same (both an “r”).  Of course, the enumerator could have made a mistake, but I do not believe for one moment that this was Bunk Johnson, and I do not believe that Theresa Johnson was Bunk’s mother.

I have, for many years, found it difficult to contemplate that researchers would regard Bunk as a liar when he said he was born in 1879, and then believe him implicitly and without question, when he said his mother was Theresa Johnson.  It is this rather surprising attitude which has led research on Bunk’s earliest years up a dead-end street, with no way out but to turn back and start over again.  Unfortunately, everyone is still searching blindly in that same dead-end street.

You will recall that I mentioned in my portrait of Mamie Desdunes above, that the house she lived in at 2328 Toledano Street, New Orleans in 1900 was divided into two residences.  I now want to focus on the persons listed on the census sheet as living in that second residence because they are of extreme interest.
(U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 7th Precinct, 12th Ward, SD1 ED123, Sheet 4B, Lines 80-85) Here are the relevant parts of the details on the census sheet:

Name (Race)

Joe Johnson (B)
Virginia Johnson (B)
Willie Johnson (B)
Florence Johnson (B)
Joseph Johnson (B)
Chas. Lee (W)


August 1873
December 1869
November 1885
October 1888
August 1897
September 1829

Labor Ice
At School

You might ask, is this really Willie “Bunk” Johnson?  Well, I firmly believe that it is.  To start with, his name is “Willie” not “Gerry” but there is very much more to it than that.  You might also ask why Bunk would fabricate the story he told to the authors of the early book on jazz, Jazzmen [JM] and continue with that fabrication until the day he died.

The answer is simple.  No matter when he was born, Bunk had been one of the pioneers of jazz and he was a great musician when he overcame the perverse side of his nature and decided to play at his best. Don Ewell told Bill Russell that he played with one genius in his lifetime and that genius was Bunk Johnson.
[OMJ 339] Bunk knew that he still had more talent and ability than many musicians who had become successful, and he wanted another chance to prove that.

Bunk Johnson was also a man of considerable intelligence and cunning, and he knew an easy mark when he saw one.  He had become disillusioned and bitter with long years of poverty, prejudice and hardship.  Who can blame him when he took the opportunity to get out of the near slavery of his life in New Iberia, working in the rice fields and sugarcane plantations for $1.75 a day when he could manage to find work. There is no doubt that he stretched the truth beyond its limits, but the story he told was not, in reality, a complete fable.  I believe that what he did was to rearrange his extended family tree to suit his particular need and purpose.

Let us turn back to the evidence, which might prove that Willie Johnson of 2328 Toledano Street was Bunk Johnson. Besides the actual data in the census, there is the fact that Mamie Desdunes lived in the other residence in the same house.  Bunk told Alan Lomax in a recorded interview in March 1949, that he “knew Mamie Desdoumes (Lomax’s spelling) real well.”
[MJR 21] What better way to get to know someone “real well” than to live in the same house, separated only by thin wall and a locked door or two.

Willie Johnson is shown as the son of Joe Johnson on the census sheet, but Joe was born in 1873 and Willie was born in 1885, so it is highly unlikely that Joe was Willie’s natural father. He was undoubtedly his stepfather, and that is where the name Johnson came in. The census records that Joe and Virginia had been married for two years, but she was the mother of four children, all living at the date of the census.  Who was this Joe Johnson, and is anything else known of him?

Joe Johnson was listed on the census sheet as a teamster.  Bunk had said on occasion that his father was a teamster, but Joe Johnson was much more than that.  He was also a musician, firstly a guitar player, and then a cornet player, and from all accounts a very good one, even though the jazz history books seem to have overlooked him.  I shall let Christopher Hillman take over the evidence in this extract from his biography of Bunk Johnson:

“Buddy Petit, a later legend of New Orleans trumpet playing, told George Lewis that ‘Bunk and Joe Johnson were the men who knocked me out.’ Joe Johnson was said by both Louis Armstrong and Lee Collins to have had a style similar to Petit’s. It has also been alleged, though without any clear evidence, that Joe was Bunk’s brother. Pops Foster knew him well, and most of what we know of Joe’s career comes from the bass player, who was with him in the Rozelle band around 1907. He originally played guitar, then changed to cornet on which he became very proficient. He could make his cornet sound like a chicken, but generally ‘he played in the middle range and played it rough and beautiful.’

“When the Rozelle Band broke up in 1908 Joe Johnson went work in the Primrose Band, led by the trombonist Hamp Benson. This was a small reading group that worked in the Storyville cabarets and played on Sunday nights at the Come Clean Hall in Gretna, across the river.  Joe also played occasional jobs with Pops Foster and the Dutrey brothers — Sam (clarinet) and Honoré (trombone) — and with Richard M. Jones. When, sometime in between 1910 and 1912, Benson took the money owing to the Primrose Band and left New Orleans, Joe joined the Eagle Band, possibly in place of Bunk. Pops reckoned that working with the Eagles was the death of Joe, a church-going man, as he could not adapt to the heavy drinking that was an essential part of their lifestyle.  He was already sick with tuberculosis when he left them to play with Jack Carey’s Crescent Orchestra, and he died, according to Pops, around 1914.”
[BJCH 32-33]

Unfortunately, Hillman does not quote directly from his references but, with the help of Roger Richard, I have checked the references to Joe in Pops Foster’s book and what Hillman wrote is correct. [PFTS 19-20, 27, 48, 64, 82, 84]  The only inaccuracy; but only in the light of today’s knowledge, is that Bunk was Joe Johnson’s stepson, not his brother. I found two other references on Joe Johnson. One was in Sam Charters book on New Orleans musicians where he indicated that Joe had played cornet in 1912 in the Primrose Orchestra, a dance orchestra of 5 pieces. [SC 55]  The other reference was in Louis Armstrong’s autobiography.  Louis had this to say:

“Storyville. With all those glorious trumpets — Joe Oliver, Bunk Johnson — he was in his prime then — Emmanuel Perez, Buddy Petit, Joe Johnson — who was real great, and it’s too bad he didn’t make some records. . . .” [LA 134]

For my final evidence, I would have liked to call on Mr. Jelly Lord himself, but he never even mentioned Bunk.  Or did He?  Well, yes, he did.  In a letter to Roy Carew dated 22nd June 1939, Jelly Roll wrote:

“Bunk Johnson did not play with Buddie Bolden, & was’nt [sic] known in that time. Bolden was a blues & ragtime player, knew nothing of jazz. Bunk Johnson finally played in Bolden’s former band known as the Eagles Band, under the leadership of Frankie Duson (Trombonist).

“I remember someone questioned me along those lines since I’ve been in N.Y. & the information that I mentioned to you, was given to them. Yes, Louis Armstrong is a copy of Johnson & King Oliver.”
[OMJ 190]

The letter quoted above clearly indicates the Jelly Roll knew Bunk, but he was not going to say too much about him, even to Roy Carew.  The reason is obvious and Mamie Desdunes is part of the connecting link between the two.  Both Bunk and Jelly Roll would have known each other’s age and both would have known of the other’s public misstatements about their age.  They were both down on their luck and I suspect they respected each other’s predicament and said nothing. Bunk, to my knowledge, did not mention Jelly Roll until after Jelly Roll’s death.  In a letter to Dave Stuart dated 28th August 1941, he wrote:

“Now, near as I can think I played with Jelly Roll off and on, on the nights that the band didn’t have any work, at Hattie Rogers’ sporting house on Gravier between Franklin and Liberty. Between the year of 1903 and 1904. I’m pretty sure it is along in that neighborhood.  Now Jelly Roll was some piano player, he was great on jazz. The later years, along 1904 or 1905 I also play with him at Tom Anderson dance hall (the cabaret on N. Rampart) and good many more private houses in the tenderloin district.  Now we have lost a great man and he will never be forgotten by his old pal Bunk.” [OMJ 341]

Bunk also gave similar information to Bill Russell in a letter dated 5th December 1944 and to Alan Lomax in the 1949 recorded interview mentioned above. There seems little doubt that Bunk and Jelly Roll knew each other well in their early youth and probably competed with each other for the job of Mamie Desdunes’ “can rusher.”

I suppose that some readers are still saying, but what about Theresa Johnson?  In the statement I quoted at the beginning of this portrait, Bunk said that his father, William Johnson, married his mother, Theresa Jefferson, shortly before the Civil War.  If Theresa Johnson was born in 1856, she would have been only four year old when she was married.  The 1900 census sheet of the Johnson family at 3523 Tchoupitoulas Street records that Theresa Johnson had thirteen children; not fourteen as Bunk said, and only three were living in 1900.  Two of them, Gerry and Rozelia, were living in the same house, but who was the third surviving child?  I believe that, in all probability, Joe Johnson was the other surviving child, and here we may have the link between Bunk and Theresa Johnson.  She was his step-grandmother not his mother, and that is why he knew so much about her. That is what I meant when I said above that Bunk’s story about his parents and when he was born was, in reality, a rearrangement of his extended family tree. Bunk mentioned that Theresa Johnson was a cook and owned several restaurants; which may have only been a type of lunch-bar or café, and he knew about the large number of children she had.  It would not surprise me if one of her sons who died at an early age was a Willie Johnson born in 1879.

If Bunk’s natural father was not a Johnson, the question has to be asked what his birth name was.  In a way, it is anybody’s guess, but Bunk was so perverse and such a clever mimic and “leg-puller” that he may have been telling us all along.  In other words, his name may have been Willie Geary and he only adopted Johnson as his surname when Joe Johnson came along, probably about 1895.  Geary is a name of Irish origin, and there were many people with the name Geary in New Orleans at that time. Gary is also another possibility, and there were also plenty of those in New Orleans. There is some other information on the census sheet that should not be overlooked as it might provide a link for further research.  You will have noticed that there was another person in the household, a white man by the name of Chas. Lee.  This is an unusual situation in the New Orleans of the time.  Chas. Lee may well have been Virginia Johnson’s father, or some other close relative.

This then, is the evidence I put before you in the case of the identity of Bunk Johnson. The jury is still out, but I have little doubt that they will return a verdict that Willie Geary (Bunk) Johnson was guilty of residing at 2328 Toledano Street, New Orleans on 1st June 1900.

© 2002 Peter Hanley


The Search Continues

The above article was based on a piece of original research, designed to stimulate interest in finding documentary evidence of Bunk’s birth year and more precise information about his ancestry. It has certainly done that, particularly from readers in the United Kingdom and in Europe. Much of the research has been done by Prof. Lawrence Gushee and myself, working both independently and in collaboration. The results of our findings are set out in the paragraphs below:

1.   Theresa Jefferson was indeed Willie Geary (Bunk) Johnson’s mother.  She was the daughter of George (or Nelson) Jefferson and Aimée (or Aimy) Jefferson (not Rose Jefferson as Bunk remembered his grandmother) who were living in the town of Carrollton, Jefferson Parish, at the time of the 1880 United States Census.  Jefferson Parish adjoins the western section of New Orleans, and their surname could well have been taken from the parish name.  Theresa Johnson was even more evasive about her age than Bunk was.  We discovered the following birth dates for her:

         1854    (1880 U.S. Census 1st June 1880, age 26)
         1857    (4th April 1887 marriage certificate, age 29)
  May 1856    (1900 U.S. Census 1st June 1900, age 44)
         1860    (1910 U.S. Census 15th April 1910, age 49)
         1859    (from her probable death certificate, see below)

2.   The earliest documentary evidence we have on Theresa Jefferson is an entry in the 1880 U.S. Census.  She was living at Religious Street, New Orleans with her common-law husband, George Early, a roustabout on a steamboat, and their ten-year-old daughter, Maggie Early.  A four-year-old orphan, prophetically named Charles Parker, was also living in the household.  It is quite possible that some of Theresa’s thirteen or fourteen children may have been foster children rather than her natural issue. (1880 U.S. Census, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, ED1, page 16, Lines 12-15)

3.   There are two marriage records for Theresa Jefferson.  On 13th May 1882, Theresa married Charles Maple in New Orleans.
(Orleans Parish Marriage Records, Volume 9, page 329) The marriage appears to have ended in divorce for there are no death records for a Charles Maple until 1934.  As Mrs Theresa Maple, she married Gary (Geary) Johnson on 4th April 1887 who was about ten years younger than her. (Orleans Parish Marriage Records, Volume 12, page 500)  We are not certain of the date of her death, but a Theresa Johnson (colored, aged 66 years according to the death certificate) died in New Orleans on 10th December 1925. (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 191, page 1282)

4.   Bunk’s father was Geary Johnson, sometimes referred to as William Gary Johnson, who was born in New Orleans in 1864.  His parents were Alfred Johnson and Millie Young (1845-1906). Geary Johnson died of pulmonary consumption at the age of twenty-eight on 30th September 1892 at Jersey Street (later renamed Annunciation), near Belle Castle Street, New Orleans.
(Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 102, page 897)  Bunk said that he was seven years old when his father died. (Mike Hazeldine and Barry Martyn. Bunk Johnson: Song of the Wanderer, Jazzology Press, New Orleans, 2000, 276pp. at page 11)  If this statement is correct, he was either born on 27th December 1884 or 1885.

5.   We were not able to find any further evidence to clarify the two entries in the 1900 U.S. Census; the first for a Willie Johnson (born in November 1885) at 2328 Toledano Street in the 12th Ward, living with Joe Johnson next door to Mamie Desdunes, the second for a Gerry Johnson (born in December 1889) living with his mother, Theresa Johnson, at 3523 Tchoupitoulas Street, also in the 12th Ward.  It is, of course quite possible that both entries are for Bunk Johnson.  There are many instances of double entries in census records with quite different information.  Félicie Péché (1880), Edward Lamothe (1900), Tom Turpin (1900), Glover Compton (1920) and Bill Johnson (1920) are but a few which come readily to mind.

6.   At this late stage, we were unable to verify the connection between Joe Johnson and Bunk mentioned by Pops Foster in his autobiography.  Joe (born about 1876) may have been a younger brother of Geary Johnson, Bunk’s father (born 1864).  Whatever the facts of the matter, Joe Johnson died at Charity Hospital, New Orleans on 6th September 1912 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
(Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 155, page 955)

7.   The most important document we have discovered is a marriage record from 1907. On 3rd September 1907, William Gary Johnson, aged 21 years, married a Miss Fanny Bradley, 19 years, in the City of New Orleans.  The marriage was celebrated by Reverend J. W. Washington, and Bunk is positively identified as the son of Gary Johnson and Theresa Johnson.
(Orleans Parish Marriage Records, Volume 29, page 329)  Bunk stated in 1949 in his application for a license to marry Maude Balque in New Iberia, Louisiana that he had been previously married to Fannie Bradley, and that she was deceased.  Fannie Bradley was born in New Orleans on 22nd September 1888 (Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 90, page 215) and died there on 12th September 1916, shortly before her twenty-eighth birthday. (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 167, page 237) The marriage certificate between Bunk and Fannie Bradley is the best evidence found so far of Bunk’s real birth date, although it is far from conclusive.  It indicates a birth date of 27th December 1885.

8.   Bunk and Fannie separated before the date of the 1910 U.S. Census (15th April 1910) for they were listed in the census living in different households in New Orleans. Fannie Johnson was living with her parents at 513 South Roman Street in the 3rd Ward.  Her son from the marriage with Bunk, William Johnson (born January 1910, died in New York about 1948), was with her.  Bunk was living with his sister and her husband (Margaret and Scott Willis), and his mother at 1519 Saint Peter Street in the 5th Ward. Bunk was recorded on the census sheet as “Willie Johnson,” aged 21 years, a slater by occupation.
(U.S. Census 1910, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, SD1 ED76, Sheet 9A, Lines 45-49)  The age of twenty-one in the census entry is evidence for a birth date of 27th December 1888. Margaret Willis (née Maggie Early), Bunk’s only surviving sibling we are aware of at that time, died on 22nd September 1910 at the age of forty. (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 150, page 460)

9.   Bunk registered for the World War I Draft in Calcasieu Parish, in the western part of Louisiana, on 12th September 1918.  At the time, he was working as a musician for Paul Jones (a local band leader born 25th February 1879), and he gave his address as 140 Bank Street, City (presumably Lake Charles).  His birthdate was recorded as 27th December 1882, making it the sixth different birthdate for Bunk on the public record. (Information about World War I Draft Registration Card for Willie Johnson, Calcasieu Parish Draft Board, Louisiana, courtesy of Bo Lindström and Dan Vernhettes)

10.   No positive entries could be found for Bunk in the 1920 U.S. Census, but we were able to locate the entry for him in the 1930 census.  At the date of the census (1st April 1930), he was working as a janitor for a funeral home in Electra, Texas.  He was recorded as William G. Johnson, aged 50 years, which evidences a birth date of 27th December 1879.
(U.S. Census 1930, Texas, Wichita County, Electra City, SD3 ED243-51, Sheet 1A, Line 25)

11.   Bunk applied for a Social Security Number on 7th June 1937 when he was living in New Iberia, Louisiana.  The application was filled out by someone else (probably from the office of his employer at the time) but signed by Bunk.  The application gave his date of birth as 27th December 1889.  The Social Security Number issued to Bunk was 438-07-6206.

12.   On 15th February 1949, shortly before his death, Bunk applied for a license in New Iberia to marry Maude Balque with whom he had co-habited since 1929.  Bunk gave his age as sixty-nine at the date of the application while Maude gave her age as forty.  The marriage ceremony was performed on 23rd February 1949.

13.   Willie Geary (Bunk) Johnson died in New Iberia, Louisiana on 7th July 1949. To add a further complication, Maude Johnson, the informant on the death certificate issued in Iberia Parish, gave Bunk’s date of birth as 27th December 1880. The certificate was issued in the name of Willie “Bunk” Johnson.
(Louisiana Death Records, Iberia Parish, Volume 8, Certificate 398)

So there you have all the facts so far discovered.  But what do all these complex facts mean?  At the moment on the above evidence, the likely birth date for Willie Geary Johnson (on the strength of the 1907 marriage certificate and his father’s death certificate in 1892) is 27th December 1885, but a birth date in 1889 or 1888 is not in any way ruled out. The only other records yet to be located are his baptismal certificate, or an entry in a baptismal register.

Like many other children born in New Orleans in the 19th century, there is no birth registration for Willie Geary Johnson in the records for Orleans Parish. The reason for this is that, although the Parish required registration of births, deaths, and marriages, it did not receive a clear mandate to compel registration until 1914. That being so, the record that will now give conclusive evidence of Bunk’s birth date is his baptismal record. Bunk was brought up a Baptist, the same as Buddy Bolden, and his baptismal record should still be extant.

© January 2005 Lawrence Gushee and Peter Hanley


“The biggest ham of a teacher”

Although New Orleans was not a large city, compared with New York, Chicago and Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it produced more than its share of fine pianists.  In the field of classical music, the city produced, in Louis Moreau Gottschalk; 1829-1869, the most renowned American pianist of the 19th century.  It may be thought that there was a surplus of excellent teachers in New Orleans, but it seems they were no different there from anywhere else, a mixture of good, bad and indifferent.

Jelly Roll recorded, for Alan Lomax in 1938, his recollections of the teachers who gave him lessons when he first decided to learn the piano:

“So then I taken to the guitar, that was due to the fact that my godmother was always interested in me, and I become to be a very efficient guitarist until I met Bud Scott, one of the famous guitarists in this country today.  I was known to be the best, and when I found out that he was dividing with me my popularity, I decided immediately to quit playing guitar and try the piano which I did secretly, that is with the exception of my family.  They only ones that knew.

“I taken lessons. I tried under different teachers and I find that most of them were fakes those days.  They couldn’t read very much themselves.  During that time, they used to have, in the Sunday papers, different tunes come out, and when these tunes would come out, it would be my desire to have to play these tunes correctly. At the time, I had a coloured teacher by the name of Mrs. Moment.  Mr. Moment was no — Mrs. Moment was no doubt the biggest ham of a teacher that I’ve ever heard or seen, since or before.  She fooled me all the time.  When I’d take these numbers and place in front of her, she would rattle them off like nobody’s business and about the third one she rattled off sound like the first one.

“Then I began to get wise, and wouldn’t take lessons any further. Then I demanded I would either go by myself and learn the best way I knew how, or be placed under an efficient teacher. . . .”
[AFS 1640-B]

Mrs. Moment was actually Miss Rachel Moment, and she was a school teacher at the end of the 19th century.  She was born in August 1874 in Louisiana, and her parents were also born there. Miss Moment, at that time, was boarding with Jackson and Emma Aycock and their two children at a house owned, free of mortgage, by Mr. Aycock.  They were all described as black, but were all undoubtedly Creoles of colour. The house was located at 3319 Freret Street, New Orleans, and it was only a few doors around the corner from Mamie Desdunes’ house at 2328 Toledano Street. (U.S Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 7th Precinct, 12th Ward. SD1 ED123, Sheet 5A, Line 24)

Jelly Roll also mentioned Miss Moment in “A Fragment of an Autobiography” published in the Record Changer in March — April 1944. [MSS 1]  He said that she was a teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic College in New Orleans. [OMJ 39]  She was also listed in the Soards New Orleans City Directory for 1903, 1907 and 1910 as Mrs. Rachel D. Moment residing at 3231 South Franklin Street (from Lawrence Gushee). [MSS 10]

It is part of the irony of life that the name of Rachel Moment has come down to us in history through the memory of her star student, Ferdinand Morton, not because of her ability, but because she was “the biggest ham of a teacher that I’ve ever heard or seen, since or before.”

© 2002 Peter Hanley


“I then later taken lessons from a known professor, coloured professor”

After he refused to take any more lessons from Mrs. Moment, Jelly Roll went to several other music teachers.  He continued the story of this youthful period of his life:

“Then I began to get wise and wouldn’t take lessons any further.  Then I demanded I would either go by myself and learn the best way I knew how, or be placed under an efficient teacher, which I was then placed under a teacher at the St. Joseph University, a Catholic university in the city of New Orleans, and I become to learn under the Catholic tutelage, which was quite efficient. I then later taken lessons from a known professor, coloured professor, named Professor Nickerson, which is considered very good.

“I tell you things was driving along then.  Then one day at the French Opera House, going there with my folks, I happened to notice a pianist there that didn’t wear long hair. That was the first time I decided that the instrument was good for a gentleman, same as it was a lady. . . . Well, I don’t remember his name, but I undoubtedly must have been about ten years old.”
[AFS 1640-B]

Jelly Roll described Professor Nickerson as a “coloured professor” but, some of the records I found describe him as being white.  In 1900, he was a widower (his deceased wife was Amélie or Aurélie Ducongé) residing with his uncle and aunt at 1918 Conti Street, New Orleans. (U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 5th Precinct, 4th Ward, SD1 ED38, Sheet 10A, Lines 22-27)

Name (Sex Race)

Henry Thezan (M W)
Clara Thezan (F W)
William Nickerson (M W)
Henry Nickerson (M W)
Camille Nickerson (F W)
William Nickerson Jr. (M W)


January 1841
May 1856
November 1865
June 1885
March 1887
January 1893

Cigar Maker

Music Teacher
At School
At School
At School

Nickerson was born in New Orleans and so was his mother, but his father was born in Kentucky. The house was owned by Henry Thezan, subject to a mortgage.  As one would expect in this situation, all members of the household were literate.

A search of the Orleans Parish Birth Records
(Orleans Birth Parish Records, Volume 47, page 767) produced the following result:

Child (Sex Race)

William Clinton Nickerson (M W)

William Nickerson

Jane Herwin
Date of birth

4 November 1864

There are entries for William Nickerson and his father in Soards New Orleans City Directory for 1890 and 1891.  His occupation was shown as “musician” and he resided at 446 Orleans Street.  His father, William Nickerson Sr., was a policeman and lived next door at 444 Orleans Street.

However, in the 1920 census, William Nickerson was living at 120 North Galvez Street, in a house which he owned.  The others in the household were his daughter, Camille, his youngest son, Dalton; age 9, born 1910, and his uncle, Henry Thezan.  The “color or race” (column 10) of all members of the household was recorded as “mulatto.”  Nickerson; age 55, born 1864, listed his occupation as “professor of music.”
(U.S. Census 1920, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 4th Precinct, 4th Ward, SD1 ED68, Sheet 3A, Lines 42-45)

In his “Fragment of an Autobiography” (Record Changer, March-April 1944), reproduced in Oh, Mister Jelly [OMJ 37-41] and at [MSS 1], Jelly Roll said that Nickerson taught music at St. Joseph Catholic College, New Orleans when he was at school there.

Manuel Manetta was also a student of Professor Nickerson around this time and referred to him as “Old Nick,” a stern man and a strict disciplinarian with little to say.  Manetta recalled that one of the Nickerson boys played the violin and the daughter, Camille, “was a pianist, greatest pianist they had around here.” He remembered her as Camile Nickerson and said he thought she was later at Howard University in Washington D.C.
[OMJ 122-123]

Professor William Nickerson died in New Orleans on 7th February 1928 at the age of 63 years. (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 195, page 1809)

© 2002 Peter Hanley


“There’s a man that used to teach me to play piano”

New Orleans Blues is probably Jelly Roll’s earliest composition, and he claimed to have written it in 1902. Whether that was so is a matter of some contention, and some writers have put the date of its composition a few year later, around 1905 to 1907.  As fine as it is, New Orleans Blues is a work that could have been composed by a talent such as Morton’s at the age of twelve or thirteen. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, born in New Orleans in 1829, wrote and had published his famous trio of Louisiana piano pieces, La Bamboula, Danse des nègres (Opus 2), La SavaneBallade Créole (Opus 3) and Le Bananier, Chanson nègre (Opus 5) between 1844 and 1846 at fifteen to seventeen years of age. The great Mozart had written piano pieces, symphonies, sacred works and a full-length opera buffa, La Finta Semplice (K. 51) by the time he was twelve.

After Jelly Roll played New Orleans Blues on the Library of Congress recordings, he spoke about how he had been given help to complete the composition of the piece by a friend who was also a pianist:

“There’s a man that used to teach me to play piano.  I’ll have to give him credit for some contribution to this tune.  His name was Frank Richards.  He was older than I was.  He was on the ragtime order, but he was a very good player as far as it went, although he was incapable of instructing anybody along music in the very, that is, for a short ways, that’s all he could go, he couldn’t go very far, because he didn’t know so very much about music himself.  But at least in the early days in my beginning on piano, he was the first one that started my instructions, and I thank him greatly for that.  His name is Frank Richards.  I mentioned it before, but I wanna be sure you get his name correctly.  Frank Richards. . . .

“Well, I claim that his contribution was more in the perfection way.  The melodies were all mine.  But I believed that he could do much better than I could with it, because he made a lot of corrections that probably would have gone, maybe haywire. And, of course, I’ve kept the tune ever since.  It’s one of my first tunes.”
[AFS 1682-A]

Frank Richards was recorded in the 1900 U.S. Census when he was living with his father and mother at 2919 Philip Street, New Orleans around the corner from Willow Street, just a few blocks from Laura Hunter’s house at 2706 South Robertson Street.  The father, Frank senior, was a house carpenter, and he may have been associated with Edward Lamothe, Jelly Roll’s father, who was a builder and bricklayer.  He was born in New Orleans, but his mother was from Virginia.  They must have been reasonably prosperous for the time because they owned the house they lived in, free from debt.  I have listed below some of the details about the members of the household from the census sheet. (U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 12th Precinct, 10th Ward, SD1 ED106, Sheet 4A, Lines 37-39)

Name (Sex Race)

Frank Richards (M B)
Marcella Richards (F B)
Frank Richards (M B)


July 1852
February 1863
October 1888
Can read and write


I searched for details of Frank Richards’ birth in the Orleans Parish Birth Records (Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 87, page 71) and they are registered as below:

Child (Sex Race)

Frank Ulysses Richards (M C)

Frank A. Richards

Marcella Richardson
Date of birth

24 October 1888

Frank Richards played for a time in the Storyville bordellos in New Orleans [AR 119], but his name has come down to us mainly through Jelly Roll’s recollections.  The Richards family, who were described as mulattoes, were living in another house they owned at 2225 Willow Street at the time of the 1920 U.S. Census (1st January 1920) but Frank, unfortunately, was not with them.

© 2002 Peter Hanley


“I happened to invade that section, one of the sections
of the District where the birth of jazz originated”

Every major city in the United States, from St. Louis and Kansas City in the Midwest to Chicago and Detroit in the North, and to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore in the East, had its centre of African American music in the early part of the twentieth century.  These centres were the meeting places, usually only a club or a saloon, where pianists and other musicians could play the music they wanted to, and display their musical talents to their peers, without the restrictions imposed by a paying audience.

The cities in the South were not any different from other cities around the country.  Indeed, in New Orleans, there existed the most star-studded gathering of them all in a saloon that was both famous and well patronised in its day.  Imagine going there on almost any night of the week in the latter half of the first decade of the twentieth century and finding Tony Jackson, Albert Carroll, Alfred Wilson, Sammy Davis and young Ferd Morton (or was it Mouton?) playing some newly conceived musical masterpiece on the old upright in the corner of the room.  A magical experience never to be forgotten, one would say, but, in truth, remembered by so few.

Where was this holy relic of a place, which gave so much to American music yet took so little from it, and what was it called?  Jelly Roll Morton put it in the history books when he sat at the Steinway concert grand in the Coolidge Recital Hall in Washington D.C., and narrated his story to Alan Lomax for the infant Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1938:

“I happened to invade that section, one of the sections of the District where the birth of jazz originated. . . . At that time, that was the year of nineteen-two. I was about seventeen years old. I happened to go to Villere and Bienville, at that time one of the most famous nightspots after everything was closed. No, only a backroom, where all the greatest pianists frequented after they got off from work. All the pianists got off from work in the sporting houses at around four or after, unless they had plenty of money involved. And they would go to this Frenchman’s — that was the name of the place — saloon. And there would be everything in the line of hilarity there. They would have even millionaires come to listen to the different great pianists, what would no doubt be their favourites maybe among ‘em.” [AFS 1641-A]

It wasn’t 1902 when Ferdinand Morton made his debut at The Frenchman’s but more probably 1907, because The Frenchman himself was as new to New Orleans in 1902 as Jelly Roll was to the piano. Whatever the date, it was the great Tony Jackson who was the leader of his piano-playing peers, primus inter pares as it were, in New Orleans.  When Tony walked into The Frenchman’s, the reigning pianist would get up from the piano stool.  If he didn’t, one of the patrons would say, “Get up from that piano. You hurting its feelings.  Let Tony play.”  [MJR 43]

The proprietor of The Frenchman’s was, we now know, a Jean Laban who was born in France in May 1863, and had migrated to New Orleans in 1899.  Laban was listed in the 1900 census as a baker by trade, living with his wife, Rose, at 2000 Bayou Road, near Esplanade Avenue, which seemed to be a small French colony in the city at the time. (U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, 6th Precinct, 6th Ward, SD1 ED60, Sheet 28B, Lines 65-66)

Lawrence Gushee discovered, only very recently, that Laban was “The Frenchman,” and was operating a bar room from and living at 1533 Bienville Street, on the corner of Villere Street, the location of his famous saloon in 1910.  The property was actually on the river corner of Bienville, not the lake corner as previous commentators (Rose and Souchon, and Richard M. Jones) had stated, and the entrance to the saloon was from Villere. (U.S. Census 1910, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 2nd Precinct, 4th Ward, SD1 ED59, Sheet 8A, Lines 11-12, household of John and Rose Laban, courtesy of Lawrence Gushee) The 1910 census has the year of migration as 1890, but other details are consistent with the 1900 census.  Laban had not become a citizen of the United States, but remained an alien.

It has not been possible to establish the precise date Jean Laban opened The Frenchman’s but it was probably about 1905.  Jelly Roll’s rival, Sammy Davis (or Sam as he preferred to be called) verified the existence of the saloon to John Heinz when they became friendly in Albany, New York, in the late 1940s.
[OMJ 331]

Jean Laban, “The Frenchman,” did not have a lengthy prosperity in New Orleans, for he died there on 11th April 1914 at the age of about 51 years.
(Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 160, page 358)  His wife Rose did not survive for long after his death, and died on 12th September 1915.  (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 164, page 865, as Rose Fourcade Laban, age 50 years)

© 2003 Peter Hanley


The French Opera House was both a great social and musical institution in the city of New Orleans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even though it was part of the social establishment of the city, most of those who attended loved both the drama and the music of the opera. It was often said that New Orleanians sang the well known arias at home with as much gusto as the singers themselves did at the performances, although without the necessary technical skill which lifts the music from mere melody and harmony to high art.

Jelly Roll Morton vividly recalled the French Opera House for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in May 1938, forty years after he went there as young Ferdinand Mouton in the last years of the 19th century:

“Then one day at the French Opera House, going there with my folks, I happened to notice a pianist there that didn’t wear long hair. That was the first time I decided that the the instrument was good for a gentleman; same as it was a lady. . . . All the French opera players were supposed to be from France. I remember the old building very well on Royal Street. . . . Well, they used to play numbers like Faust and tunes like that, you know — French numbers. And for an instant used to play this number and sing it. . . . Miserere from Il Trovatore.

For once Jelly Roll’s memory was not infallible. The French Opera House was actually located at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse Streets, not on Royal Street.  Royal is the next street on the riverside of Bourbon so he was in the right locality, even if he was in the wrong street. There is little doubt that Jelly Roll attended performances at the French Opera House because it was an institution among all sections of New Orleans: Creole, white, and African-American alike.

The French Opera House was not the first opera theatre in New Orleans, but it was easily the best known. It was preceded by the Théâtre d’Orléans on Orleans Street near Bourbon, which was originally built in 1813, but destroyed by fire the following year. Rebuilt on the same site by John Davis, the Théâtre d’Orléans reopened in 1819 as one of the most sumptuous theatres in the United States with two tiers of boxes, a gallery and supper rooms. Davis started a tradition in New Orleans opera performances by going to Europe each year to recruit his company of performers. Such grand operas as La Vestale (The Vestal) by Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851), rarely heard today, were regularly produced and taken to the larger eastern cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston, once the New Orleans season had finished. His singers and musicians were acclaimed wherever they performed. The Théâtre d’Orléans was destroyed by fire in December 1866.

The French impresario, Charles Boudousquié, wisely determined in 1858 that New Orleans needed another and more modern opera house, and promoted a stock company with a capital of $100,000 to build the French Opera House. The building was designed by James Gallier, the younger, a distinguished architect in New Orleans. Construction started in early 1859 and was completed in time for the opening performance on 1st December 1859 when Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (William Tell) was presented. The striking building occupied about three quarters of an acre on the site at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse, and seated around two thousand patrons. Built in the Greek Revival style, it consisted of a ground level hall and four encircling tiers of boxes and other seating accommodation.

The fourth tier or gallery was the Negro Gallery which was always well patronised from the earliest times. There is no doubt that Jelly Roll’s ancestors, from the Monettes to the Lamothes, attended the French Opera House on many occasions, taking in the charm of the music and the emotional intensity of the drama in the libretto. Rossini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Gounod and other masters of the art of opera all had their influence on the music of New Orleans for many decades.

It is interesting to read contemporary reminiscences of the French Opera House, especially those written by knowledgeable opera enthusiasts. One such was by René J. Le Gardeur, Jr., who attended performances from the very earliest years of the 20th century:

“The significant thing about this old opera, which distinguished it from any other opera association in the United States at any time, and certainly from any opera today, is that it was primarily a French institution, bound up very closely with the French (Creole) culture in the city. Except on rare occasions, and in the case of some visiting troupes, the operas were sung in French, and operagoers knew the words by heart, and understood everything that was going on. It was quite common at my house (and in many other Creole families too) to hear young and old sing the arias — quartets and choruses did not deter them either — from memory, and “just for fun,” with appropriate gestures and stage business. Faust was the favorite opera, and we often sang at home, the Garden Scene quartet, relishing particularly the ironic humor of Mephistopheles’s words.” (from the Albert L. Voss Collection, quoted in Leonard V. Huber. New Orleans: A Pictorial History, Pelican Publishing Company, 1991)

Many great artists sang at the French Opera House including the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). Caruso is said to have taken time off from his singing duties at the opera to avail himself of the services of Lizette Smith, one of the most popular Storyville madams, and her girls at 217 North Basin Street. But it was not the singing of Caruso at the French Opera House which is best remembered, but that of the French tenor, Léonce Escalais who played the role of Manrico in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in 1910. The opera was sung in French, in keeping with the tradition in New Orleans, rather than the original Italian. At one performance, in singing that vastly difficult aria Di Quella Pira (Supplice infâme, in French), Escalais hit fifteen High Cs in an aria less than three minutes long, a feat not reported as replicated in more modern times, even by such kings of the High Cs as Gigli, Bjorling, Del Monaco and Pavarotti. Needless to say, Escalais’ performance brought the house down.

With the coming of the First World War, European opera companies were not able to perform in New Orleans and the regular opera season was suspended. By 1919 the opera house building was in need of substantial repairs when it was purchased by an anonymous benefactor and given to Tulane University, together with a substantial sum of money for its restoration. Unfortunately, fate determined otherwise for, in the early hours of the morning of Thursday, 4th December 1919, the French Opera House burned to the grounds to the shock and horror of the people of New Orleans. The emotional account of the fire in The Times-Picayune echoed the sentiments of everyone in the city:

“The French Opera House burned early Thursday morning. Only the toppling walls remain, surrounding a heap of ruins. Gone is all the glory which marked the building for more than half a century — gone in a blaze of burning gauze and tinsel, a blaze more splendid and more terrible than Walpurgis Night, that long-famous brocken of the opera Faust.

“And into the hearts of the people of New Orleans there has come a great sorrow, a great mourning. For there are few women here who have not tender memories of their vanished youth, their debutante days, loves, heartburnings, joy — all intimately linked with the French Opera House. There are few men who have loved or been loved, who have not recollections of the nights when they sat in the dreamy darkness of the old building, listening to the voices of the great singers blending with the orchestra, and thrilling at the touch of a bit of gauze as it brushed their cheeks.

“Children, taken to the opera with their mothers, learned their first lessons in art and music, while watching the singers upon the brilliantly lighted stage. . . .

“Gone, all gone. The curtain has fallen for the last time upon Les Huguenots, long a favorite with the New Orleans public. The opera house has gone in a blaze of horror and of glory. There is a pall over the city; eyes are filled with tears and hearts are heavy. Old memories, tucked away in the dusty cobwebs of forgotten years, have come out like ghosts to dance in the ghastly Walpurgis ballet of flame.

“The heart of the old French Quarter has stopped beating.”
(quoted in Lyle Saxon. Fabulous New Orleans, Robert L. Crager & Company, New Orleans, 1928 at pp 280-281)

Although talked about much in civic circles, the French Opera House was never rebuilt. The university had only insured the building for $57,000 when its replacement cost was in the millions of dollars. That great writer about New Orleans people and places, Lyle Saxon, summed up perfectly the influence of the French Opera House on the city of New Orleans when he wrote in 1928 :

“It is to be noted that visitors to the city have always considered New Orleans music mad, even from the times when opera was given in the old Orleans Theater. There was no cutting of the great operas then; and people went to the performance at six in the evening, and left the opera to attend midnight mass at the Cathedral. It is doubtful if any one can be found who loves music to that extent now; but at any rate, one will hear boys in the streets and the Negroes on the levee whistling bars from some tuneful opera without slurring one liquid note.” (Lyle Saxon. Fabulous New Orleans, ibid., at pp 282-283)

© May 2005 Peter Hanley

Storyville characters


“No doubt one of the best paying places in the city”

The sporting house where Jelly Roll Morton got his start as a professor in Storyville was the mansion run by Hilma Burt at 209 North Basin Street.  The contemporary descriptions of these Basin Street mansions attest that they were all decorated and furnished with the most lavish and expensive taste imaginable for the period.  Basin Street was the elite area of the district and no house was more grand than that of Madam Hilma.  Alan Lomax transcribed Jelly Roll’s story about how he came to get the job at the Burt establishment:

“When I first got back to New Orleans from Biloxi, I had a bad run of luck. I felt sick and bad. Something seemed to be wrong with my hands.  One afternoon I was sitting around 25’s and wondering if my grandmother hadn’t been right after all, when old man Sona walked up to me. . . .

“I took Papa Sona past Hilma Burt’s house, which was one of the highest class mansions in the District, and did as he requested.  Three days later at two o’clock in the afternoon, I was sitting around 25’s and a maid from Miss Burt’s home walked in and said their regular piano player was sick.  ‘Would I like to make a few dollars?’

“Of course, I accepted and you never saw such a well man as I was that night when I sat down at the grand piano in Hilma Burt’s mansion.  Right away Miss Burt liked my style of music and she told me, ‘If you think you can come steady, I will be glad to have you.’

“In a week I had plenty money, but I never thought of paying Papa Sona for what he did, because I never really believed he had helped me.  I should have realized that he used some very powerful ingredients.  I should have been more appreciative, for I have lived to regret this ungrateful action.”
[MJR 46-47]

We do not know the exact date of this event, but it must have been well after his mother died in May 1906, but before he had been banished from the family home.  According to Jelly Roll’s version of the story, his great-grandmother, Mimi Péché, had ordered him out of the house. [MJR 25-26]  Frances Oliver, Jelly Roll’s sister, recalled a different version, and said that it was their grandmother, Laura Adams, who did the banishing. [OMJ 88]  Whatever was the truth of the matter, it seems most likely that 1907 was the year when Jelly Roll first played at the Hilma Burt mansion in Basin Street.

Not much is known about the early career of Hilma Burt and it is not clear when she arrived in New Orleans to take over the house at 209 North Basin Street, for she was not a native New Orleanian.  Al Rose, in his book on the Storyville District, puts it at 1900, but I suspect that it may have been a few years later.  She was not at that address or even in New Orleans when the 1900 United States Census was enumerated in June 1900.  The premises at 209 North Basin Street were not occupied at that time.

Hilma is a shortened form of Mathilda, and Hilma Burt was also referred to in the press as “Miss Hilda Burt.” The Blue Book, published in Storyville by Tom Anderson and edited by his amanuensis Billy Struve as a directory to the District, is not always a good source of fact, but it had its own distinct form of both rhetoric and hyperbole which could often be enlightening, despite the purple prose.  This is what the 1906 edition had to say about the career of Hilma Burt:


THIS palatial home was at one time the residence of Flo. Meeker, who was noted for keeping one of the best places of its kind in this section of the States.

Miss Burt, while very young, is of a type that pleases most men of today — the witty, pretty and natty — a lady of fashion.

Her managerial possibilities are phenomenal to say the least, and her success here has proven itself beyond a doubt.

Miss Burt has been with us but a short while but has won all hearts. Her palace is second to none.  It is good for one who loves the beautiful to visit Miss Burt’s handsome palace.  There are no words for her ladies — one can only realize the grandeur of feminine beauty and artistic settings after an hour or so in the palace of Helma [sic] Burt.

Miss Burt, aside from having two handsome homes here, has one in St. Louis and one in Kansas City, Mo., where, it is said, she is as popular as in New Orleans.

Don’t forget to converse with her, as she is very clever, jolly and cultured.


205 [sic] N. BASIN

The other house run by Hilma Burt was the Star Mansion at 1517 Iberville (Customhouse) Street, said to be one of the finest buildings in Storyville.  Hilma Burt is listed in the 1910 U.S. Census, which was enumerated in April of that year for a census date of “April 15, 1910.”  She was residing at 209 North Basin Street and was born in Canada of Canadian parents about 1881, aged 28 years at the date of the census.  The year of her immigration to the United States was not recorded. (U.S. Census 1910, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 2nd Precinct, 4th Ward, SD1 ED58, Sheet 7A, Line 25, as Hilmer Burt)

The premises at 209 North Basin Street were actually owned by Tom Anderson [AR 97] and rented by Hilma. Jelly Roll explains the relationship between the two and goes on to tell of the grandeur of the place:

“Such houses as Hilma Burt’s, next, next door to Tom Anderson’s saloon, corner Customhouse and Basin Street, was one of the mansions. Tom Anderson was supposed to be the husband of this Hilma Burt, was no doubt one of the best paying places in the city. . . .

“Well, I never made, never no night as I remember under a hundred dollars.  And it was a very bad night when we made under a hundred dollars.  It was very often men would come into the houses and hand you a twenty or hand you forty or fifty dollar note.  It was just like a match.

“Wine flowed much more than water did during those periods. Many of those houses, there’s more wine sold than beer.  I mean, the kind of wine I’m speaking about, I don’t mean sauternes or nothing like that, I mean champagne.  Beer was sold for a dollar a bottle, wine sold from five to ten, depending upon the type of wine that you bought.  Of course, they were all imported.

“Among the main ones were Clicquot, which is a . . . which is a French wine, and Mumm’s Extra . . . Extra Dry . . . that was an English wine.”
[AFS 1641-B]

The Sunday Sun of New Orleans put out a special Mardi Gras edition on Sunday, 25th February 1906 and Hilma Burt received several mentions.  The paper said that “Miss Hilda [sic] Burt, the loving proprietor of the Star Mansion, who took a flying trip to St. Louis, returned last Sunday.” It devoted more coverage to her on another page describing her as a young woman of great popularity who had only been in New Orleans for a short time.  It added that anyone visiting her famous establishment would be assured of a most enjoyable time as “her ladies are truly dreams.”

Al Rose acquired a photograph, from undisclosed sources, of Hilma Burt and her staff (including the professor) in her famous Mirror Parlour at 209 North Basin Street.  He published this now celebrated and intriguing photograph in his book on Storyville.
[AR 112]  The caption contains a rather vague statement that the pianist, who was sitting at the piano with his back to the photographer, was Jelly Roll Morton.  All that one can say is that it might be Jelly Roll.  The slender build and other features of the pianist certainly leave the possibility open. The photograph shows Hilma seated, second from the right. The elderly lady (with the look of a disapproving Sunday School teacher), on the extreme right, is probably her housekeeper, Lizzie Hamilton, from Missouri.

The date of the photograph is given as 1904, but this is probably only a guess on Al’s part, which fits in with Morton’s own assertions.  It has been reproduced in a number of other books including:
(Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. Jazz: A History of America’s Music) [JHAM 26] Ward and Burns ascribe 1902 as the date, but that is an assertion given without quoting an appropriate source.

Hilma Burt continued on as operator of the mansion at 209 North Basin Street until 1911 when Gertrude Dix (or Hoffmire) took over the management and ran it for Tom Anderson until the closure of Storyville in November 1917.  Hilma Burt seems to have left New Orleans about 1911 and perhaps returned to her other ventures in the Mid-West.  She was remembered by her fellow proprietors in Basin Street as a “fine lady” and her girls remembered her as a compassionate woman who provided both accommodation and an experienced midwife for their confinement to those girls who fell pregnant.

Author’s note: Jelly Roll remembered well, for the wines he mentioned are some of the most popular Champagne. I have drunk them both many times, and they are among the best produced in the region. “Clicquot” is better known as Veuve Clicquot (that is, the widow of M. Clicquot) and the “Mumm’s Extra Dry” was Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut, introduced by Mumm in 1873. Mumm has been the second best selling Champagne in the United States for many years, second only to Moët & Chandon.  In 1902 Mumm exported 1.5 million bottles of Champagne to the United States. The company is now owned by the giant Canadian Seagram Group, founded by Samuel Bronfman.

However, Jelly Roll did get one thing wrong.  Mumm is not English in origin. Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne district of northern France (centred around Reims and Epernay) and no wine can be legally called Champagne, unless it is made there under the strict conditions specified in the Appellation Contrôlée laws relating to that district.  G. H. Mumm & Co. Ltd., has its head office in Reims and owns vineyards throughout the Champagne region. The only thing non-French about it is that it was founded by an expatriate German, Peter Arnold Mumm, in 1827 and controlled by his descendants until 1920.

© 2003 Peter Hanley


“The Country Club girls are ruining my business!”

One of the most flamboyant owners of a mansion in Storyville was the redoubtable Willie Piazza, universally known as Countess Willie V. Piazza. Jelly Roll Morton recalled in his autobiographical notes, given to Roy Carew in 1938, that he and Tony Jackson worked alternately at times at the Countess’s establishment in Basin Street. [OMJ 44]  Her mansion was the scene of her gift for showmanship and her ability to attract the unusual and the dramatic.

This is how Countess Willie was described in the third edition of the Blue Book, the directory of the Storyville red-light district of New Orleans, by its editor, Billy Struve, in 1906:

Countess Willie Piazza

Is the one place in the Tenderloin District you can’t very well afford to ‘pass up.’ The Countess Piazza has made it a study to try and make everyone jovial who visits her house. If you have the ‘blues,’ the Countess and her girls can cure ’em. She has, without doubt, the most handsome and intelligent Octoroons in the United States.  You should see them; they are all cultivated entertainers.

If there is anything new in the singing and dancing line that you’d like to see while in Storyville, Countess Piazza’s is the place to visit, especially when one is hopping out with friends — the women in particular.

The Countess wishes it to be known that while her maison joie is peerless in every respect, she only serves the ‘amber fluid.’

Just ask for Willie Piazza.

Phone 4832 Main.

317 N. Basin

Of course, Willie Piazza was not a real Countess, but she undeniably had real class.  She was, in fact, from Mississippi, and was born in December 1872, probably in Bay St. Louis; about 60 miles from New Orleans, of an Italian immigrant father and a mulatto mother from Mississippi. (U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 3rd Precinct, 4th Ward, SD1 ED36, Sheet 15A, line 38, at 319 North Basin Street)  Other primary source material which I have uncovered, discussed below, indicates that she may have been a few years older than she told the census enumerator on 9th June 1900.

Madam Piazza was considered by many to be a cultured lady, fluent in English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian, and well read with an excellent personal library.  Her library contained such diverse volumes as works by the great Arabist and explorer, Sir Richard Burton; 1821-1890, and many by her favourite author, the French novelist and short story writer, Alphonse Daudet; 1840-1897.  One of her fellow Basin Street proprietors said of her: “Willie Piazza was an elegant lady.  Did you know that she wore a monocle? She wasn’t pretty — in fact she had a kind of horsie look. She could have passed. Lulu and Piazza were the only Negro owners on Basin Street.”
[AR 158]

In addition to these accomplishments, she was a leader in fashion in New Orleans, and it is said that many of the St. Charles Avenue matrons followed her around with their dressmakers, when she appeared at public events, just to copy her ultra fashionable creations.  Despite her elegant good looks, she was not known to have any romantic attachments during her time in New Orleans, but the 1900 census recorded that she was the mother of one deceased child.  Willie Piazza was also the first of the Storyville landladies to recognise the talents of the great pianists, Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton, and was musical enough to keep her enormous white upright piano in tune, according to Jelly Roll’s recollections. [AR 53]

It is said that the Countess had the distinction of having a revolution planned in the parlour of her mansion when Lee Christmas, a soldier of fortune, Guy Molony; later chief of police in New Orleans, and Manuel Bonilla, who afterwards became Honduran President, plotted the Honduras revolution of 1910.

Willie Piazza’s mansion was located at 317 North Basin Street, but she was operating from the building next door at 319 North Basin Street in 1900 while renovations were being carried out to 317.  She ran the establishment there until the closure of the district. Storyville itself was in steady decline by 1915, mainly because social attitudes towards pre-marital relations were changing. Willie Piazza summed it up very succinctly when she made her often quoted statement at this time: “The country club girls are ruining my business!”
[HA 343]

The City of New Orleans passed Ordinance 4118 C.C.S on 7th February 1917, which stipulated that the old downtown district of Storyville was to be for white prostitutes only and a newly created uptown district was to be for black prostitutes only.  This meant that the Octoroon houses run by Lulu White and Willie Piazza, as well as the black houses, would have to move uptown. The Countess sought an injunction, in the Second Recorder’s Court of New Orleans, against the City of New Orleans to restrain it from enforcing the ordinance.  The Court refused to grant the injunction and the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which dismissed the appeal. (Willie V. Piazza v. City of New Orleans, No. 22,624, 1917)

Before the segregation ordinance could be enforced, Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War, ordered that open prostitution be banned within five miles of any United States Army installation, and the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, made a similar order with respect to United States naval installations.  The Mayor of New Orleans, Martin Behrman, resisted for a time, but was told by Secretary Daniels that the armed forces would close the establishments in the district if the Mayor did not.  The final closure of Storyville came at midnight on 12th November 1917.

Countess Willie Piazza was said to have later moved to France, but it seems as though she continued to live in New Orleans without consequence, for she died there on 2nd November 1932.
(Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 204, page 179, as Willie V. Piazza, age 67 years) Despite her death in 1932, Kay C. Thompson, a writer on ragtime and jazz in the 1940s and 1950s, claimed to have interviewed Willie Piazza in 1947.  The article was published in the Record Changer of February 1951, but one of the former girls in the Piazza mansion must have assumed her late employer’s identity; or perhaps it was one of those “country club girls” who helped to ruin the Countess’s business.

© 2002 Peter Hanley

The professors


“Perfect perfection of passing tones and strange harmonic’s”

Of all the great Storyville “professors” mentioned by Jelly Roll Morton in his Library of Congress recordings, Albert Carroll has been the most difficult to track down in primary source documents of the era.  It was easy to understand why, when I finally located the information I was looking for, because he was not born or raised in New Orleans.  Despite this, his importance in the early Morton saga, and in the development of jazz piano in the first decade of the twentieth century, should now be recognised. Clarence Williams, who was playing in Storyville by about 1906, said that he himself was influenced by Tony Jackson, and also by Jelly Roll, but Jelly Roll was more influenced by Albert Carroll than anyone else.  [HMTY 60]

Albert Carroll was born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana on 24th November 1879, the only child of Madison (also known as Cyrus) Carroll (born in Louisiana in 1855) and Julia Bennett (born in Louisiana in December 1857).  Donaldsonville, the seat of Ascension Parish, is a small city on the west bank of the Mississippi River at the river’s junction with Bayou Lafourche, about 50 miles west of New Orleans and 25 miles south of Baton Rouge.  Donaldsonville is only a small city but it was the capital of Louisiana from January 1830 to January 1831.  Its population has changed little over the last one hundred years, growing only from 4,105 in 1900 to 7,615 in 2000.

The 1880 census is the only census which caught the Carroll family together, because Albert Carroll had left the family home in Donaldsonville before 1st June 1900, the date of 1900 census.

Name (Sex Race)

Cyrus Carroll (M M)
Julia Carroll (F M)
Albert Carroll (M M)


7/12 Nov
Place of birth


Farm laborer
Keeping house
At home

(U.S. Census 1880, Louisiana, Ascension Parish, Claiborne Street, Donaldsonville, SD1 ED94, page 84, Census date, 1st June 1880)

Madison and Julia Carroll continued to live in Donaldsonville, and were recorded in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses.  Albert’s musical ability seems to have come from his father who, later in his life, earned his living as a musician.  Nothing is known of Albert’s early life, but he moved to New Orleans around the turn of the century and was one of the earliest pianists of note in Storyville.  However, Storyville was only a base for him, and he toured extensively with vaudeville companies throughout the south and mid-west, both as a pianist and as musical director.

The Indianapolis Freeman, dated Saturday, 23rd April 1904 published an article about the activities of the New Orleans Minstrels in the Indian Territory (which became part of the State of Oklahoma in 1907) and Kansas.  Although not mentioned by name in the article, Carroll was said to have been the musical director of this troupe.
[TAPR 172]

A few months later The Indianapolis Freeman, dated Saturday, 23rd July 1904 reported that Albert Carroll was with the Whitman Sisters’ New Orleans Troubadours in Birmingham Alabama:

“The Whitman Sisters New Orleans Troubadours opened Jefferson Theater, Monday night July 11, to standing room only, benefit boys reformatory of this city. This is the first time in the history of Birmingham Ala., that the colored people have been allowed seats in the dress circle and parquet.  Credit is due, however, to the clever management of Mabel Whitman, who can safely say that she is the only colored woman managing her own company and booking them continously [sic] in the leading southern houses.  The program was of a high class vaudeville nature, consisting of comedy first part arranged especially to show the genuine comedy of Willie Robinson, the “Little Georgia Blossom”, and it was really funny. The singing of Tony Jackson was much appreciated, and Baby Alice the child prodigy, stormed the house.  Mabel, Essie and Alberta Whitman are decided favorites throughout the Southland, and it would be useless to say that each specialty by these celebrated vocalists made more than good, and was encored many times.  The choruses, in fact the entire show was good under the musical direction of Albert Carroll, of New Orleans La.  We played all the leading parks South, and after playing Bessemer and Easley, Ala., you will reach us at home, by mail, at 250 Hilliard St., Atlanta, Ga. indefinitely. Albert Carroll sends regards to Tom Logan, Webster Williams, Florence Hines, Russell and Price, Dennis and Jones, Buddie Glenn and Fred Johnson. . . .”

Although New Orleans was his place of residence during the first decade of the 20th century, the documented recollections of Albert Carroll at this time are but few.  Nevertheless, we are able to get a picture from them, shadowy though it may be, of the man and the musician.  Joseph “Fan” Bourgeau (1891-1972) told Bill Russell in 1970 that he hustled lottery tickets in the District at the time, and frequented the Big 25 Saloon (owned by John T. Lala) at 135 Franklin Street, the first street parallel to Basin Street.  He remembered Jelly Roll, Louis Wade and Manuel Manetta playing at Big 25.  Another piano player he recalled was Albert Carroll, saying that “he was a great big fellow who lived at Bienville and Claiborne.”  Sammy Davis recalled for John Heinz, when they became friends in Albany, New York in the late 1940s, that Carroll was the only coloured pianist who worked at Lulu White’s famous Mahogany Hall at 235 North Basin Street, one of the most lavish bordellos in Storyville.  Lulu fired him for sampling the merchandise, and Sammy commented that “those girls really went for Albert.”

There has been some confusion about the spelling of the surname “Carroll,” which Jelly Roll pronounced as “Carroll” but wrote as “Cahill.”  Albert Carroll and Albert Cahill are one and the same person.  Jelly Roll encountered all the early New Orleans pianists in The Frenchman’s, and, never one to give undeserved praise, spoke of Albert Carroll’s ability in the highest terms, calling him a “great pianist.”
[AFS 1642-B]

He also wrote about Carroll and other New Orleans pianists in a second Fragment of an Autobiography written in 1938 and reproduced in part in facsimile in Roy Carew: Let Jelly Roll Speak for Himself. [RC12 1952] and [OMJ 42]

“My reason for trying to adopt something truly different from ragtime, “was,” that all my fellow musician’s [sic] were much faster in manipulations I thought, than I and I did not feel as though I was in their class.  Of course they all seem to classify in the No. 1 class, men like Alfred Wilson, (won piano playing contest St Louis exposition 1904).  Tony Jackson (world’s greatest single-handed entertainer, could play and sing from opera to blues in its correct formation, knew everything that probably was ever printed).  Albert Cahill, with his (so soft, sweet, non-exerting perfect perfection of passing tones and strange harmonic’s [sic] cool and collective style) Sammy Davis, (with his original ragtime idea, four finger bass and speed like the electrified streamline etc).”

Carroll was on the road again in 1912.  He was reported in The Indianapolis Freeman, dated Saturday, 12th October 1912 as the pianist at the opening, on 5th October of that year, of the Pekin buffet in the Pekin Theatre, which was located at 2700 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois.  It was about this time that he developed a heart condition which may have curtailed his activities in the entertainment world.

Very ill in early 1916, Albert Carroll went home to his parents in Donaldsonville, Louisiana where he died of valvular heart disease early in the evening of 28th March 1916.
(Ascension Parish Death Records, Volume 6, page 2820)  The informant on the death certificate was his father, Madison Carroll.  His occupation was described as a musician in the theatre, and he was married, although the name of his wife was not given. He was buried in Donaldsonville cemetery the next day.

It is a great loss to the world of jazz music that Albert Carroll died too early to record, and left no published compositions. The only music of his left to us is a unique little piece, often referred to as Crazy Chord Rag, played by Jelly Roll in a generous tribute to a long dead fellow traveller.
[AFS 1688-B]

Albert’s parents lived for many years after his death, no doubt grieving the loss of their son. Julia Bennett Carroll died in Donaldsonville on 24th July 1933, while his father died there on 27th February 1942, at about eighty-seven years of age.

© 2004 Peter Hanley


“One of the greatest manipulators,
I guess I’ve ever seen in the history of the world on a piano”

New Orleans produced many fine pianists in its Storyville years during the first two decades of the twentieth century, because the sporting houses and saloons provided regular employment for piano players, which enabled them to develop their technique and knowledge of music. These professors, as they were called, had to win the approval of the patrons of the many establishments in the District to get the best jobs. Their repertoire ranged from the well-known arias from the great operas performed at the French Opera House, to light classical pieces, popular songs, ragtime and the blues.

The first generation of these pianists included Mamie Desdunes, Albert Carroll, Kid Ross, Alfred Wilson and Tony Jackson, who either died at an early age or drifted into obscurity before the magic of their musical talents was widely recognised or preserved for future generations to enjoy. The second generation of Storyville professors fared much better, and three of them became famous or at least well-known in the music world through their recorded and published music: Jelly Roll Morton, Richard M. Jones and Clarence Williams.

The New Orleans pianists all went to The Frenchman’s saloon after working hours to relax and also to test their skill at the piano against each other. These early morning sessions at The Frenchman’s were as clear in Jelly Roll Morton’s mind as if they had happened just the morning before, when he related his story at the Library of Congress in May 1938. One of the more obscure great pianists he mentioned was Sammy Davis when he said:

“Among some of these great pianists, I may mention some that I remember very well. Sammy Davis, one of the greatest manipulators, I guess I’ve ever seen in the history of the world on a piano. And the gentleman had a lot of knowledge in music. . . .  He was a coloured boy. . . . He was from New Orleans, born and reared in New Orleans. He was a Creole. [AFS 1641-B]

I will see if I can imitate him just a bit. . . . Well, I don’t know the name of this tune. It’s . . . I only remembered a little bit of it. Of course, it’s been years since I’ve seen Sammy . . .” [AFS 1642-A]

Sammy Davis, or Sam Davis as he requested everyone to call him, was born in New Orleans on 8th October 1889 (Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 98, page 271, World War I Draft Registration Card, Social Security Death Index) although, for some unexplained reason, he said that he was born on 8th October 1885.  His father, whose name was also Samuel, died when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather whose name he said he did not remember. Although naturally talented, he took piano lessons at Straight University in New Orleans until his mother died, about 1904.

Like Jelly Roll, Sam travelled widely as a young man with excursions to Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi, Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Beaumont and Houston in Texas. Back in New Orleans by about 1907, he worked at the saloons of Pete Lala and Billy Phillips before moving into the bordellos of Storyville. There he worked for Fanny Lambert at The Phoenix, 1547 Iberville Street (formerly Customhouse Street), Countess Willie Piazza at 317 North Basin Street, Bertha Golden at 1504 Iberville Street, and May Tuckerman at the corner of Conti and Franklin Streets.

It was during these Storyville years that Sam developed his style of playing very fast ragtime. Jelly Roll, as sparing in his praise as he was accurate in his judgment, wrote of Davis as “Sammy Davis, with his original ragtime idea, four finger base and speed like the electrified streamline.” Al Rose interviewed one of the “girls” who had worked in Edna Hamilton’s bordello at the corner of Conti and Franklin Streets during the last year of Storyville’s existence. This Storyville survivor, referred to as “Violet,” told Rose: “I only remember the name of one piano player, Sammy Davis.  He was colored and he played the piano faster than anybody I ever heard.  All the piano players was colored fellows.”
[AR 149]

Davis left New Orleans early in 1910 with the Burns-Russell Stock Company for an extended tour of Texas, which lasted over fourteen months. The Indianapolis Freeman, dated Saturday, 1st April 1911 caught their show at the Peoples’ Theater in Houston:

“The Burns-Russell Stock Company are offering to their patrons this week the two-act Western comedy-drama, “Arizona Dick” and “Montana Jack,” by Sandy Burns, music by Prof. Sam Davis, who is now making Texas his home for the purpose of studying cowboy life, so he will be able to compose Western songs.  Prof. Davis is introducing two of his latest songs this week “The Roundup,” sung by our funny little comedian, Sammy Russell, and “Texas is My Home,” sung by that dainty soubrette, Miss Alma Hughes.  “The Roundup” is one of the few Western songs I have heard that have that catchy music to it we call rag-time. Burns and Russell are the same two funny boys, and the people here are certainly enjoying their work.  They have an excellent company to support them.  They have been here fourteen months. Everyone is pleased so all I can say is “smile on.”  Kelly and Kelly are the same two, they don’t sing very much, but oh, how they can say their lines they do their share of the work and look for more. Anna May (Mae) Fritz is with us again after an illness of several weeks, but she has not lost her voice and we are all thankful.  Alma Hughes, that tantalizing kid of ours, certainly can sing “Lovey Joe.”  Oh, yes, last, but not least, Miss Carrie Huff, our prima donna, is some singer and can certainly sing these Spanish songs, and Tommy Hicks he is here too.  Pet does anything, good old Chicago boy.  Hicks, he didn’t like the cold weather, so he came to Texas. Prof. [D]avis is our musical director, but he leaves for New York May 1st.  Ira Releford is at the traps.”

In New York, Sam joined a vaudeville act, called Drake and Walker, and they played in theatres in Oklahoma City and St. Louis, as well as the Monogram Theatre in Chicago before touring the Midwest. From there they played in Philadelphia, then in New York City at the Lincoln Theatre for a long run, and through New York State. Around 1915, Sam stayed at the same rooming house as Jelly Roll in Chicago, Dallas and Detroit, and also made a trip or two back to New Orleans.

He registered for the World War I Draft in Chicago on 5th June 1917 as “Sam Davis”.  His draft card shows that he was born in New Orleans, married with no dependents, and living at 3127 Federal Street, Chicago at the time. His physical appearance was described as tall and slender. Sam was drafted into the army and spent the duration of the war playing in a fifteen-piece army band, but did not serve overseas. After the war, he joined Drake and Walker again in New York City.

In the late 1920s, he travelled with one of King Oliver’s bands from Chicago to New York City. The Pittsburgh Courier dated Saturday, 22nd February 1930 reported him as playing in the pit band at the Elmore Theater in Pittsburgh for “Pickings From Dixie,” a show organised by Mack and Mack (William and Mary McBride), early associates of Jelly Roll Morton.

Sam Davis moved permanently to Albany, the capital of New York State, in the early 1930s, lured by the lucrative band jobs there and in Saratoga Springs. He was discovered in Albany in 1948 by John Heinz (1914-1993), a jazz enthusiast, who communicated the news to Rudi Blesh, and Sam was mentioned in They All Played Ragtime.
[TAPR xii]  Heinz also recorded Sam playing three sides of piano solos at a local radio station, his only known recordings. Sam Davis died in the Veterans Home in Albany in July 1980, (Social Security Death Index, SSN 054-16-1418, as Samuel Davis) the last, although unknown and neglected, survivor of those heady, glorious days of the Storyville professors.

© September 2006 Peter Hanley


“One of the outstanding hot piano players in this country”

According to Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans was “the stomping ground” for piano players from all over the United States, principally because of the abundance of work available for “professors” in the Tenderloin District of Storyville.  One of these itinerant pianists, who arrived in New Orleans shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, was a young white man known as Kid Ross.

That great chronicler of Tony Jackson and New Orleans musical happenings in the first two decades of the last century, Roy Carew, recalled his brief acquaintance with Kid Ross in the winter of 1904-1905 on the sidewalk, outside premises at the downtown corner of Villere and Iberville (Customhouse) Streets, in the Storyville district.  The building was the residence and business address of Antonia P. Gonzalez, Female Cornetist and bordello proprietor.

Carew had stopped to listen to the professor playing and singing in Madam Tonia’s parlour, in what he described nearly forty years later as the most remarkable playing and singing he had ever heard.  He noticed another listener standing on the edge of the sidewalk and asked him, “Who in the world is that?” The listener, who was also a piano player, Kid Ross in fact, replied, “Tony Jackson, he knows a thousand songs.”  
[RC2 1943]

Kid Ross was not known by his Christian name in Storyville, but it was known that he was not a native New Orleanian. He was born Edward Ross in Ohio in 1880.  Both his parents were born there also, or so he told the census-taker on 23rd April 1910, at the boarding house for men, where he was living at the time, at 204 Bourbon Street, near Iberville Street, a short four or five block walk to the mansions in the 200 block and the 300 block of North Basin Street.


Hal Vaughn
John Vaughn
. . .
Edward Ross
James Tennyson
. . .






Marital status




Clerk — Store


(U.S. Census 1910, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, 204 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, 1st Precinct, 4th Ward, SD1 ED54, Sheet 8B, Line 93, Census date 15th April 1910)

Jelly Roll was the first to recall his name for the history books in 1938 when he said, “And we had . . . Kid Ross, a white boy.  Kid Ross was one of the outstanding hot piano players in this country, no question about it. . . . Kid Ross, he was the steady player at Lulu White’s, one of the big mansions in New Orleans, and one of the big sporting houses there.”  He also told Dave Stuart in 1941 that when Kid Ross was not available to play at Lulu’s Mahogany Hall, his place was taken by Lulu’s porter, a young Creole by the name of John Vigne (1887-1915).  Although he could not read a note of music, Vigne could play anything perfectly.  Jelly Roll remarked that Vigne could play rings around Kid Ross, but preferred to remain the porter at Mahogany Hall. [OMJ 142]

Storyville was not noted for its women pianists apart from Mamie Desdunes, immortalised by Jelly Roll in his recording of Mamie’s Blues, and Rosalind Johnson (born about 1890 in New Orleans).  Rosalind knew Kid Ross and sometimes relieved him as pianist at Lulu White’s.  She was interviewed by Bill Russell in 1970 and had this to say about him:

“Kid Ross and Jimmy Williams, both white, were the ones who played for Miss Lulu. . . .  He (Kid Ross) was from Chicago, not New York.  I never did know his real name, just Kid Ross, but he was a great pianist.  He used to play a piece If the Folks Down Home Could See You Now, I Wonder What in the Hell They’d Say. . . .

“That’s the piece (When the Pale Moon Shines) Kid Ross would play when Miss Lulu was comin’ down the stairs.  She didn’t come down her spiral stairway until eleven-thirty or twelve o’clock at night.”
[OMJ 150]

Kid Ross played in Storyville until the District was closed down in November 1917.  He probably moved to California along with the minor exodus of New Orleans musicians and those associated with New Orleans: Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Bill Johnson, Dink Johnson, Frank Amacker, Ed Garland and others. Rosalind Johnson said that she last saw Kid Ross in Boston in 1942. Nothing more was heard of him in his drift into obscurity.

© 2004 Peter Hanley


“Once in the dear dead days beyond recall”

The story of jazz in New Orleans in the earliest years of the 20th century is both a triumphant story and a story heavily tinged with nostalgia.  The nostalgia is born of a yearning for the past, those “dear dead days beyond recall,” when Tony Jackson and young Ferdinand Mouton tossed off some newly conceived masterpiece at the piano in the Frenchman’s, or in one or other of the famous Basin Street mansions.

Those days were, indeed, beyond recall when Jelly Roll Morton went to Coolidge Recital Hall at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. on Monday, 23rd May 1938.  When he first sat down at the Steinway grand piano with Alan Lomax’s recorder going, Jelly Roll played a chorus or two of Alabama Bound and proceeded to speak about some of those fine early musicians whose contribution to music no doubt contained many treasures that are lost to us forever. One of those musicians he spoke about was Alfred Wilson:

“When I was down on the Gulf Coast in nineteen-four, I missed going to the St. Louis Exposition to get in the piano contest which was won by Alfred Wilson of New Orleans. I was very much disgusted, because I thought I should have gone. I thought Tony Jackson was going to be there, and, of course, that kind of frightened me. But I knew I could have taken Alfred Wilson. So then I decided that I would travel about different little spots.” [AFS 1638-A]  

To my knowledge, no one has yet discovered the details of that piano contest in St. Louis in 1904. Blesh and Janis mention it and state that Charlie Warfield of Tennessee came second to Alfred Wilson. [TAPR 75] Warfield was interviewed by the authors, and told them that he was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1883, but was raised in Nashville, Tennessee.  He said he was the composer of I Ain’t Got Nobody (1916), but had to allow Spencer Williams and Roger Graham credit as co-composers to get the song published.  He also wrote Baby Won’t You Please Come Home (1919), with the ubiquitous Clarence Williams credited as joint composer.

The only piano contest in St. Louis in 1904 that has been verified was a pre-World’s Fair ragtime piano contest sponsored by Tom Turpin and the Rose Bud Club. Details were discovered in the 27th February 1904 issue of the St. Louis Palladium, a black Republican newspaper published in St. Louis from 1893 to 1907. Louis Chauvin won the contest with Joe Jordan and Charles Warfield a tie for second place.
[RAR 102-103]  The St. Louis World’s Fair (also referred to as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) opened on 30th April 1904.

Alfred Wilson was born in New Orleans on 27th July 1882, the son of Daniel J. Wilson and Susan Minor, a widow née Robertson.
(Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 79, page 190) Daniel Wilson, born in Louisiana of parents from Virginia, and Mrs. Susan Minor were married in New Orleans on 1st May 1880. (Orleans Parish Marriage Records, Volume 8, page 49)  Susan Wilson was also born in Louisiana where her father was born, but her mother was from Kentucky. She was the mother of four children, but Alfred was the only one who survived to adulthood.

Nothing is known of Alfred’s early days, but the family is recorded in the 1900 census as living at 208 Broadway Street, New Orleans.
(U.S. Census 1900, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 3rd Precinct, 14th Ward, SD1 ED132, Sheet 12B, lines 55-58)  The details from the census records are:

Name (Sex Race)

Daniel J. Wilson (M B)
Susie Wilson (F B)
Alfred M. J. Wilson (M B)
Henrietta Lambert (F B)

Adopted daughter

January 1860
March 1862
July 1882
February 1881

Cotton Roller

Music Teacher

There is no evidence when Alfred started learning the piano, but he was obviously at an excellent standard by 1900. The fact that his adopted sister, Henrietta Lambert was an organist, probably at some church, meant that music was a high priority in the Wilson household.  I do not think that Alfred’s occupation, listed as “music teacher,” was a euphemism for a Storyville professor.

Just when Alfred Wilson started playing piano in the Storyville bordellos is not known, but the recollections of George “Pops” Foster (1892-1969) were recorded by Blesh and Janis:

“The great New Orleans bass-player George (Pops) Foster describes Alfred Wilson as a handsome Creole nearly six feet in height, of a light copper color with smooth, wavy hair. Before he died in 1905, at about twenty-five years of age, he was a ‘real big shot,’ says George, ‘a bigger man than Jelly at that time.’  George says he was famous for his honky-tonk blues and his ragtime, and his singing too, and that he had for a time the choice job at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall.” [TAPR 178-179]

The rise and decline of the career of Alfred Wilson, as one of the leading piano players in New Orleans, is well told by Jelly Roll in his Library of Congress recordings, and it is best to let him finish the Wilson story:

“Because, you see, in the Frenchman’s we had Alfred Wilson and Albert Carroll, they both great pianists, both of those boys were coloured.  And we had Kid Ross, a white boy.  Kid Ross was one of the outstanding hot piano players in this country, no question about it.  In fact, all of these men I mention were hard to beat.  Kid Ross was the steady player at Lulu White’s, one of the big mansions in New Orleans, and one of the big sporting houses there.

“Tony Jackson, he used to play at Gypsy Schaeffer’s, one of the most notoriety women I’ve ever seen in a high-class way.  She was a notoriety kind that everybody liked. She spent her money and she didn’t hesitate about spending it. And her main drink was champagne. And if you couldn’t buy it, she’d buy it in abundance.

“Alfred Wilson didn’t care to work very much, neither did Albert Carroll.  Sammy Davis was good and he knew it, and he didn’t care to work.  Well poor Alfred Wilson, the girls taken to him and showed him a point where he didn’t have to work, that he could have as much money as he needed without working.  He finally become to be a dope fiend.  He got, got on hop, that’s the plain name that they call it, ordinary name which is taken for opium. . . .

“Yes, many of them, many of them, the higher class ones even.  The higher class ones always used opium, and the lower ones, they resorted to cocaine, crown, heroin and morphine and so forth and so on. . . . Crown is some kind of a powder form, drug that you can, that you could at that time buy in most all the druggists in New Orleans. There wasn’t nothing prohibitive about it.  It was some sort of a thing like cocaine.
[AFS 1642-B]

“I can plainly say this for Tony Jackson.  I don’t remember at anytime that anybody ever stated that Tony used any dope.” [AFS 1643-A]

Time ran out swiftly for poor Alfred Wilson, for he died in his parents home at 208 Broadway Street, New Orleans on 23rd October 1908 at the age of twenty six years of “shock peritoneal” (peritonitis, probably as a result of a ruptured appendix). He was described as a professional musician, and unmarried, on the death certificate. (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 145, page 148, as Alfred M. Wilson, and medical opinion from Dr. John See, M.B., B.S., F.R.A.C.G.P., Brisbane, Australia)

Author’s note: For those readers interested, the quote at the beginning of this portrait is from that beautiful and well-known song, Love’s Old Sweet Song, published in London in October 1884, with words by G. Clifton Bingham and music by the Irish lawyer and song-writer James Lyman Molloy (1837-1909). The song was a great favourite of the Irish novelist James Joyce, perhaps the most influential writer of the 20th century. Joyce was himself a fine singer, regarded as the second best tenor in Ireland in the early 1900s. The best tenor in Ireland happened to be John McCormack (1884-1945), who was later often referred to by his friend and rival, the great Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), as the “world’s greatest tenor.”

                         Once in the dear dead days beyond recall,
                         When on the world the mists began to fall,
                         Out of the dreams that rose in happy throng
                         Low to our hearts Love sung an old sweet song;
                         And in the dusk where fell the firelight gleam,
                         Softly it wove itself into our dream.

© 2002 Peter Hanley

The musicians


“The blowingest man that ever lived since Gabriel”

The story of Buddy Bolden, generally regarded as the first jazz musician, was steeped in legend. His life and music were surrounded by myth, fantasy and hearsay, perpetuated by both early and later writers on the history of jazz.  Much of the myth, fantasy and hearsay has been cleared away by the research of the New Orleans writer and historian, Donald Marquis, culminating in the publication of his fine book In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz. (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1978, 176pp) However, there were only limited records available to the author during the period of his research so that some questions about Bolden remain unanswered, waiting for later researchers to pick up the trail and find answers to those questions.

Three of those questions relate to more finite information about Buddy’s ancestors: where they were born, were they born into slavery, and how much African blood they carried.

Many musicians and writers (none of whom had ever seen Bolden or heard him play) described Buddy Bolden as a black Baptist from Uptown New Orleans.  Jelly Roll Morton was, without doubt, the best and most accurate chronicler of musicians, sports, and events in New Orleans in the early years of the twentieth century, and, fortunately for us, his recollections were documented by the late Alan Lomax for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington D. C.  In response to a question by Lomax whether Buddy Bolden was a Negro and dark, Jelly Roll had this to say:

“Buddy Bolden was a New Orleans boy . . . as far as I know. . . . He was a Negro, yes. Right in New Orleans. . . . No, no . . . he was light complected.  He was what you call a light brown skin boy.” [AFS 1658-B]

Don Marquis discovered that Buddy was born in New Orleans on 6th September 1877 as Charles Bolden, the son of Westmore Bolden and Alice Harris.  As is the case of many children born in 19th century New Orleans, whether black or white, there are no official birth records for Bolden. Details of his birth were recorded on 7th March 1884 in the Baptismal Register of the First Street Baptist Church, which was also known as the St. John the Fourth Baptist Church, in uptown New Orleans.

Buddy’s father, Westmore Bolden, was the son of Gustave Bolden and Frances Smith.  On the strength of a rather peculiar statement on Gustave Bolden’s death certificate issued in the name of “Augustus Bolen” on 4th August 1866 that the deceased was “a native of the United State of Louisiana,” Don Marquis incorrectly assumed that Gustave Bolden was born in Louisiana.  In actual fact, both Gustave and his wife were born in the state of Virginia.  Their three children, however, were born in Louisiana but not in New Orleans.  I have certified copies of the birth certificates of the three children whose births were registered in Orleans Parish on the same day, 31st August 1868, many years after their birth.  I quote from the birth certificate of Westmore Bolden, which provides the necessary proof where the family came from:

“Mrs Frances Bolden born Smith a native of Virginia residing on Calliope Street No. 354 in this city who hereby declares that on the twenty second day of February eighteen hundred and fifty one (February 22nd 1851) at Tensas Parish (Louisiana) was born a male child named

Westmore Bolden

lawful issue of deponent with Gustave Bolden a native of Virginia.”  

(Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 50, page 214)

The other children were Thomas who was born on 4th July 1848  (Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 50, page 214) and Cora who was born on 23rd December 1853. (Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 50, page 215) Thomas and Cora were also born in Tensas Parish.  For some unaccountable reason, the clerk at the office of the Recorder of Births and Deaths wrote “Thomas Belden” on the birth certificate and Frances Bolden signed her name as “Frances Belden.”

The earliest documentation of the Bolden family in New Orleans or elsewhere, was the death certificate of Gustave Bolden in 1866,
(Orleans Parish Death Records Volume 32, page 525) which stated that Gustave died “at the residence of Mr W Walker on Caliope Street near the R R Depot.” Frances Bolden and her three children continued to live on at the Walker property at 354 Calliope Street where they were employed as domestic servants. (U.S. Census 1870, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 2nd Ward, page 87, lines 1-6, and Westmore Bolden’s birth certificate quoted above) All the members of the Bolden family were recorded as mulattoes in the census.

It seemed to me to be obvious that the key to the background of the Boldens was tied up with William Walker, a white person, and this proved to be correct.  At the time of the 1870 census, Walker was the proprietor of a successful carrying business, but his activities before he came to New Orleans in the 1860s would give the answers sought.

William Wallace Walker was born in Virginia about 1812, according to his death certificate, or about 1814, according to the census records.  He made his way to Louisiana sometime before 1840 for he was listed in the 1840 Federal census as a resident of Concordia Parish, Louisiana, which is located in the north east of the state, bounded by the Mississippi River on the east. Walker was a cotton planter and owned eight slaves including a male about the same age as Gustave Bolden and a female about the same age as Frances Smith.
(U.S. Census 1840, Louisiana, Concordia Parish)  By decree of the Louisiana State Legislature on 17th March 1843, the northern part of Concordia Parish was incorporated into Tensas Parish, regarded by some as one of the most beautiful and fertile parts of the United States. Tensas Parish, sparsely populated but with an area of about 414,000 acres (647 square miles), is bounded by Madison Parish on the north, the Mississippi River on the east, Concordia Parish and Catahoula Parish on the south, and Franklin Parish and the Tensas River on the west.

Walker married a Kentucky girl by the name of Eveline, and the couple had two children, a daughter, Mary, in 1842, and a son, William Wallace Walker, known as Wallace Walker in 1845. By 1850, he was a successful planter with a plantation worth $20,000 and twelve slaves listed under his ownership in the Slave Schedule for Tensas Parish.
(U.S. Census 1850, Louisiana, Tensas Parish, Western District, page 298, lines 1-4)

Prosperity continued for the Walker family so that by 1860 William Walker was a wealthy man with real property valued at $56,000 and personal property of $51,000 which consisted mainly of 47 slaves. (U.S. Census 1860, Louisiana, Tensas Parish, St. Joseph Post Office, page 31, lines 14-18 and Slave Schedule for Tensas Parish, page 47) The Walker Plantation was called “Glen Wild” with over a thousand acres of land. It was located in the Western part of the parish just over the Tensas River near the road from Winnsboro (the seat of Franklin Parish) to St. Joseph (the seat of Tensas Parish), which is situated near the Mississippi River in the eastern part of the parish.

But the Civil War and emancipation ensured that such prosperity did not last for long.  The residents of Tensas Parish foresaw the troubles ahead and formed two home guard units in the early part of 1860 for the protection of both the people of the Parish and their property.  William Walker served as a private in the Tensas Rifles while his son, Wallace Walker barely 17 years old, rode with the Tensas Cavalry.

Although there were no battles fought in Tensas Parish, it became a key area in the struggle for control of the fortified city of Vicksburg, situated on a strategic bend of the river, the last stronghold on the Mississippi River controlled by the Confederacy. By March 1863, the attempt by General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee to take Vicksburg from the north had stalled. Grant conceived the bold and brilliant plan to deploy 30,000 troops from his army north of the Yazoo River, transport them across the Mississippi at Milliken’s Bend and march south through Madison Parish and Tensas Parish in Louisiana to the area around Lake St. Joseph and Lake Bruin. A small fleet of the Union Navy would sail down the Mississippi past Vicksburg, rendezvous with the army, and ferry them across the river at Grand Gulf, enabling Grant’s forces to move on Vicksburg from the south.

When the Union soldiers swept through Tensas Parish, some plantations were destroyed and many slaves deserted their masters. In turn, plantation owners set fire to their cotton crop rather than let it fall into the hands of “those damned Yankees.” The Union Navy fleet with its accompanying transport barges, under the command of Admiral David Porter, ran the barricades at Vicksburg with only minor losses but the guns of its ironclads could not force the small fort at Grand Gulf into submission. Rather than expose his men to the Confederate artillery, Grant decided to make the crossing a few miles to the south. An old Negro, who worked in the area, told Grant that there was a good landing at Bruinsberg about ten miles to the south on the eastern side of the river. The historic crossing of the Mississippi on the night of 30th April and the morning of 1st May was the largest amphibious movement of troops known up to that time.

Grant’s forces won a decisive battle at Port Gibson and disarmed the fort at Grand Gulf on 1st May before pushing north east, with another victory against the Confederates at Raymond on 12th May, and taking Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, on 14th May. The Union forces then turned westwards to Vicksburg defeating the Confederates at Champion Hill on 16th May and the next day at Big Black River Bridge before making the first assault on Vicksburg on 19th May. Grant lay siege to Vicksburg for the next six weeks until the Confederate commander, General Pemberton, formally surrendered on 4th July 1863.

When Vicksburg surrendered on 4th July 1863, the old life in Tensas Parish had gone forever. William Walker sold his plantation to one of his neighbours, S. C. Montgomery, and made his way to New Orleans about 1865 where he bought a carrying business, which he ran from 354 Calliope Street near the Rail Road Depot. Montgomery had little success with the Walker plantation, which was sold for non-payment of taxes by the Collector of Taxes, Louisiana, on 6th July 1872.  By the turn of the century, re-growth of trees had turned the property back into a wilderness.  Known as the Walker Place, no one remembered its previous owner when it was acquired by McKinney and Trimble Oil Company of Eldorado, Arkansas in the early years of the twentieth century and restored to profitable production.

Gustave Bolden, Frances Bolden and their three children went to New Orleans from Tensas Parish with William Walker and lived in a small house behind the Walker residence at 354 Calliope Street. They made the transition from trusted slaves to trusted employees and continued to live at the Walker property for over a decade.  It is quite probable that Frances Bolden, described as a mulatto in later census records, carried Walker blood in her veins. The 1870 Federal Census lists Walker’s wife as Jennie Walker, age 31, who was born in Mississippi.
(U.S. Census 1870, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, 2nd Ward, page 4 (218), lines 1-6)  It is not known what happened to Walker’s first wife, Eveline, or his two children, Mary and Wallace. William Wallace Walker, whose name suggests a strong Scottish ancestry, died in New Orleans on 23rd April 1875. (Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 63, page 437, age 63 years)

The rest of the history of the Bolden family is well documented and needs no further comment from me. Suffice it to say that Jelly Roll Morton was absolutely correct when he described Buddy Bolden as “a light brown skin boy.”  The surviving portrait of Buddy as a young man and the only photograph of the Bolden band taken about 1905 give added testimony to that statement. The Bolden family could never have imagined how famous Buddy and his music would become. The jazz music he played could be heard all over New Orleans in early years of the 20th century. Within 20 years of 1907 when “he went to the crazy house,” as Jelly Roll said, it echoed around the world and has continued to do so ever since.

© October 2004 Peter Hanley


“Joe Oliver is still King”

The story of King Oliver is one both of triumph and of tragedy. The triumph began in his years as one of the great jazz cornet players in New Orleans in the 1910s and later in Chicago when he formed and led his famous Creole Jazz Band to national prominence, becoming the first great jazz band to record a significant volume of work. The tragedy began to unfold about 1930 when Oliver’s accumulated savings, held in accounts in two Chicago banks, were lost when the banks were forced into bankruptcy after the collapse of the stock market. From then on, misfortune followed misfortune until his tragic and lonely death in Savannah, Georgia in 1938.

There are many parallels between the lives of King Oliver and his friend and admirer, Jelly Roll Morton. One of these parallels is the factual information about the date and place of birth of these two pioneers of jazz. Recent research has now established documentary evidence that Ferdinand (Jelly Roll) Morton was born in New Orleans as Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, almost certainly on 20th September 1890. Research has not been so kind to Joe Oliver, and there is still much doubt about the identity of his parents and his date and place of birth.

Joseph Nathan Oliver was probably born on Salsburg Plantation, near Aben, about fifty miles from New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River, on 19th December 1884. Aben is about three miles east of Donaldsonville, and both places are in Ascension Parish. Salsburg Plantation is only about two miles south east of Aben, but is situated across the parish boundary line in St. James Parish. Some publications about King Oliver have incorrectly spelled Aben as “Abend” and Salsburg Plantation as “Saulsburg Plantation”. Joe was the natural son of Nathan Oliver and Virginia Jones. His mother, generally referred to as Jinnie Jones, was born in Florida in September 1854, and died in New Orleans on 13th June 1900.
(Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 122, page 721) His father may have been Nathan Oliver, a labourer, who died in New Orleans in February 1909 at the age of 64 years; or Nathan Oliver, a travelling preacher born about 1850, who generally resided in De Soto Parish, which joins the southern boundary of Caddo Parish where Shreveport is located, in the north west of Louisiana.

The documents so far discovered, together with additional information from his wife and relatives, which support some of the above conclusions, are:

1900 U.S. Census

1910 U.S. Census

Marriage Certificate

World War I Draft Card

1920 U.S. Census

Death Certificate

Born December 1885, resided at 1105 Nashville Avenue, New Orleans in the 14th Ward (Uptown)

Age 30 years on 15th April 1910, resided at 1433 Religious Street, New Orleans in the 1st Ward (Uptown) as a boarder

Age 26 years on 13th July 1911 (Orleans Parish Marriage Records, Volume 33, page 360, see below)

Born 19th December 1881, resided at 5973 Vernon Street, Chicago at date of registration, 12th September 1918

Age 35 years on 1st January 1920, resided at 3004 Prairie Avenue, Chicago

Age 52 years on date of death, 10th April 1938, at 508 Montgomery Street, Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia, Certificate 8483

Several years ago I obtained certified copies of the documents relating to the marriage of Joseph Oliver and Stella Dominick (or Dominique) in 1911. Because of their historical significance, the contents of these three documents (Marriage License, Marriage Certificate and Certificate of Officiating Party) are reproduced in their entirety below:

Office of Recorder of Births, Marriages and Deaths
P. HENRY LANAUZE, Deputy Recorder

Municipal Office Building, CARONDELET AND LAFAYETTE STS.

New Orleans JUL 13 1911

License is hereby granted to                             Rev. G. W. Toney
to join in the BONDS OF MATRIMONY           Joseph Oliver
aged      26      years, a native of                        La                        Son of
Nathan Oliver                          and                           Virginia Oliver
And           Stella Dominick        aged       23      years, a native of
La                                daughter of                           Walter Dominick
and             Christine Dominick               on complying with the
formalities required by law.                                                                      

Applicant:      Joseph Oliver     (signed)

Witnesses:     Eddie Atkins        (signed)
                               B. A. Simmons   (signed)

P. Henry Lanauze
Deputy Recorder of Births, Marriages and Deaths

This is to Certify That it appears from the Records of this office, that on this day, to wit the Fifteenth of July in the year of our Lord, one thousand nine hundred and Eleven and the one hundreth and 36 of the Independence of the United States of America. (July 15 1911) was registered a marriage, celebrated in the City of New Orleans, La., by Rev G. W. Toney on the 13 day of July 1911 between Joseph Oliver ( 26 ) years, a native of   La  son of  Nathan Oliver  and  Virginia Oliver and Miss Stella Dominick ( 23 ) years, a native of La daughter of Walter Dominick and Christine Dominick    The celebration of the marriage was performed in the presence of the witnesses B. A. Simmens   ·   Gustavia Legard    The License was issued on the 13 day of July 1911 by P. Henry Lanauze in the presence of the witnesses  Eddie Atkins   ·   B. A. Simmens

P. Henry Lanauze
Deputy Recorder of Births, Marriages and Deaths

                                                 1931 Fourth St

I do herby certify, That on the        13 Day of July 1911,       after
having received the mutual consent of the Contracting Parties in presence of the undersigned Witnesses, I have Celebrated the MARRIAGE of the within named parties.

                                                 Joseph Oliver
native of                                            La                                                  Son of
                                                Nathon Oliver      
and                                          Jinnie Oliver         

                                             Stella Dominique
native of                                            La                                           Daughter of                                           Christy Willians
and                                 Augustin Dominique

             Contracting        Joseph Oliver            (signed)
             Parties:                  Stella Dominique   (signed)

             Witnesses:           B. A. Simmons          (signed)
                                                 Gustavia Legard      (signed)

             Party:                     Rev. G. W. Toney     (signed)

The recent discovery of Oliver’s World War I Draft Registration Card confirms the day and month of his birth as 19th December, but the year he gave of 1881 is in direct conflict with what he told the census-taker just over a year later on 15th January 1920. Oliver said there that he was 35 years of age on 1st January 1920, which clearly meant that he was born in 1884. The draft card also confirms that he was in Chicago by 1918.

The 1920 U.S. Census entry for Joe Oliver records that he was a musician employed at the Dreamland Café, where the band consisted of the nucleus of the famed Creole Jazz Band of 1923. History records that the Oliver band also doubled at the Pekin Cabaret on State Street, Chicago until heading for the West Coast in May 1921, where they stayed for almost a year. The band created a sensation almost everywhere they played. Sid Le Protti (1886-1958), a pianist of excellent reputation who led a conventional orchestra at Purcell’s popular dive on the Barbary Coast in San Francisco, invited Oliver and his gang to Purcell’s for a social visit. When they arrived with their instruments, Le Protti felt constrained to ask them to play a number or two. The results were electrifying, as no one had heard such music before. Many years later, Le Protti vividly recalled the impact of the Oliver band to Rudi Blesh: “When the noise stopped, I looked around for my boys. One or two crawled out from under the tables with their violins under their arms and I said, ‘Throw those cigar boxes away and get some horns.’”
[ST 223-224]

Although the Oliver band was popular wherever it played, work became intermittent by early 1922, and Lil Hardin returned to Chicago to be replaced by Bertha Gonsoulin, born in New Orleans in 1891 and a former protégé of Jelly Roll Morton. “Ragtime” Billy Tucker, Los Angeles correspondent for The Chicago Defender, reported that when King Oliver “came to Los Angeles a few days ago Jelly Roll Morton entertained him at Wayside park and I’ll “chirp” to the whole continent he set Los Angeles on fire. The public says that he is the greatest that has ever been in Los Angeles, and some mighty “hot babies” have had the good fortune to visit Los Angeles in the past year. You’ll have to hand it to King Oliver. He’s there and he needs no introduction . . .” [CD 29422]  It is not known whether Joe and Jelly Roll knew each other in New Orleans, or whether their introduction was through Bertha Gonsoulin.

Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band were back in Chicago by late May 1922, and opened at the re-decorated Royal Gardens at 450 East 31st Street, which was re-named the Lincoln Gardens, on 17th June to set the pace for jazz in the entertainment area of Chicago. The twenty one year old Louis Armstrong joined the band in early August 1922 and the rest of the story is history. Unfortunately, the recordings of the Creole Jazz Band only date from 5th April 1923 to 24th December 1923, towards the end of the pre-electric era of records. Nevertheless, enough of the music remains on these acoustic records to show how great a band the Oliver Creole Jazz Band was. The late Eddie Condon once said that there was so much music in the air in Chicago at that time that all you had to do was to hold your horn up and it would play itself.

Jelly Roll Morton left Los Angeles late in April 1923 and went back to Chicago to protect his interest in Wolverine Blues, which the Spikes brothers had sold to the Melrose Bros. Music Co. publishing firm. Morton renewed his friendship with Joe Oliver with the tangible result of two surviving tracks being recorded by a very early electric process for the Marsh Laboratories in Chicago and issued on Autograph 617. Jelly Roll’s sister, Frances, was in Chicago in 1925, and she talked about a night out with her brother at the Plantation Café, at 35th Street and Grand Boulevard, in an interview with Bill Russell in 1969:

“The only place he took me to was the Plantation, where Albert Nicholas, Barney Bigard, and Paul Barbarin played. I had known them in New Orleans and my brother took me there to hear them with King Oliver’s band.

“At one time, some of the Creole people in downtown New Orleans believed in class and caste, but my brother wasn’t prejudiced against dark people. He was crazy about King Oliver, and King Oliver was a great big black man.”
[OMJ 91]

The great New Orleans clarinettist, Albert Nicholas, spoke about other incidents around the same time:

“I remember one Sunday night. We had been together four or five months and we were really blowing. Jelly came in, all sharp, and sat down in a corner while we were playing. Joe saw Jelly and we played a couple of his tunes — Milneburg Joys and something else. We got to bouncing and swing and Jelly he came up and said, “Now, now you fellows are playing. He didn’t ask Joe’s permission; he got up on the stand. He told Luis Russell, ‘Get up from there, you don’t know what you’re doin’.’ He sat down and got to ridin’, and the band, with all respects to how good it was, it sounded better, for this man had something. Jelly got in there, man, and the people started screaming. And on the floor the people stopped dancing, rushed to the bandstand and started listening, and Jelly played a whole set. Joe was all smiles when he got off the stand and Jelly told Joe, ‘Now you got a band, now you got a band — just keep on playing my tunes.’ Oh Jelly was funny.” [OMJ 321-322]

New York was a different proposition, however, for both Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll. Neither was able to find a regular job in the city after 1931, and both had to rely on arduous tours, which usually provided little income in the hard times of the early 1930s. Neither seemed able to allow their pride to accommodate themselves to the requirements of the New York entertainment world, with the nightclubs and booking agencies largely controlled by gangsters or dishonest entrepreneurs. Oliver drifted into almost complete obscurity, ending with his tragic and lonely death in Savannah, Georgia on 10th April 1938. Morton fared better, with a brief revival in 1938 and 1939, leaving a monumental testament in the Library of Congress recordings and some fine commercial recordings, which were to ensure his lasting reputation in the world of jazz.

© November 2007 Peter Hanley

Some prominent New Orleanians


“The Mayor of Storyville”

Of all the characters in Storyville during the years of its legal existence from 1st January 1897 to midnight on 12th November 1917, Tom Anderson was the best known and best liked person in that small cosmos of humanity, which made up the District in New Orleans, so dear to the hearts of those who have learned to admire and appreciate America’s greatest contribution to the arts — jazz. Celebrated as a self-made gentleman with a practical approach to life and all its ironies, there was little that Anderson could not do to help solve a problem for one of his constituents in Storyville, which was often referred to by the locals as Anderson County.  His largesse extended not only to fellow business proprietors, police, and politicians, but also to patrons, visitors, musicians, and workers, especially the madams and their girls.

Thomas Charles Anderson was born in New Orleans in November 1858, the son of immigrant parents. Although there is conflicting information in the census records, his father was apparently born in Scotland, and his mother in Ireland.  Al Rose, in his fine book on the history of Storyville, gave the date of birth as 22nd November 1858 without quoting any source, and also recorded Anderson’s middle name as Christopher.  However, his death certificate recorded his name as Thomas Charles Anderson.

The Anderson family were poor and lived in the Irish Channel district, at the time a tough Scottish and Hibernian settlement in uptown New Orleans.  Although he received little formal education, young Thomas was smart, forever looking to improve his position, and advance himself on the way to economic success. By the time he was twenty-one Anderson had become a bookkeeper with the Louisiana Lottery Company and had married nineteen year old Emma Schwartz, a New Orleans born daughter of Dutch immigrants.
(U.S. Census 1880, Louisiana, Orleans Parish, SD1 ED37, Sheet 12, residence at 253 Saint Louis Street (old numbering) A search of the Orleans Parish Marriage Records, which were commenced in 1870, indicated that there was no official marriage record registered for the couple. Their only daughter, Irene, was born in New Orleans on 13th May 1880. (Orleans Parish Birth Records, Volume 75, page 982) The marriage seems to have broken up about 1890.

Soards’ New Orleans City Directories for 1890 and 1891 record Thomas C. Anderson as a clerk residing at 112 Prytania Street (old numbering), but by the next year Anderson had embarked on his first known business venture by opening a restaurant and bar at 12 North Rampart Street (112 under the new numbering system introduced in 1895).  The restaurant was an immediate success, for Anderson provided a number of private booths where politicians, police and businessmen could hold private conferences, and arrange assignations in strict confidence. Tom was a good listener and knew the benefits that would accrue from keeping a closed mouth about his customers’ affairs, both business and private.

At about this time, Anderson acquired a financial interest in a bordello at 172 Customhouse (Iberville) Street run by a young madam known as Josie Lobrano (1864-1914) who later went by the name of Arlington.  It has often been said that he was Josie’s lover, but the facts do not seem to bear out this assertion. Josie had been involved in a lengthy and violent relationship with Philip Lobrano (1847-1909), which ended late in 1890.  Soon after she began to live in open concubinage with John T. Brady (1862-1930), and continued to do so until her death.  However, there is no doubt that a strong friendship existed between Anderson and Josie Arlington.

In 1895, Anderson met a young police reporter on the New Orleans Daily Item by the name of Billy Struve, and the pair became lifetime associates.  Their first venture was the successful Astoria Club in the Negro section of the city on South Rampart Street.  By 1900, Struve was working full time for Anderson who had branched out into the oil business founding The Record Oil Company with a refinery in St. Bernard Parish and a depot in New Orleans.  The 1900 U.S. Census recorded him living at 2131 Canal Street with his daughter, Irene, and listed his occupation as President, Record Oil Company.  He later had major interest in the Protection Oil Company and Liberty Oil, which was subsequently acquired by Standard Oil.

He acquired the freehold of the Fair Play Saloon at the corner of Basin Street and Customhouse (Iberville) Street in 1897 and had rebuilt into one of the landmarks of the Storyville District when it opened for business in 1901.  Renamed the Arlington Annexe in 1905, it employed many jazz bands over the period of the next twenty years, and it has generally been referred to as Tom Anderson’s.  In all, Anderson ran three restaurant-saloon bars catering to the sporting trade in the early years of the twentieth century: The Stag at 712-714 Gravier Street, The Arlington at 110-114 North Rampart Street, and the famous Arlington Annexe at Basin and Customhouse.

Anderson acquired the lavish bordello at 209 North Basin Street, next door to the Arlington Annexe, about 1904 and installed the young Hilma Burt as the resident proprietor.  According to Jelly Roll Morton, Tom and Hilma were lovers and she continued to run the bordello until 1911 when she appears to have vacated the Storyville scene.  209 North Basin Street was taken over by an enterprising and cultured lady from Ohio by the name of Gertrude Dix who also stole Tom’s heart.

In addition to all these activities, Tom Anderson represented the Fourth Ward in the State Legislature from 1904 to 1920.  He served the legislature as a member of the Ways and Means Committee and also as a member of the Committee on Affairs on the City of New Orleans.  In his electoral district, he dispensed favours, and was both lord and prophet.

With the passing of Storyville in 1917, Anderson’s power in the Fourth Ward declined rapidly, and he was no longer able to help his constituents in the ways he formerly had. On 3rd February 1920 he was tried on a charge of knowingly conducting an immoral resort within ten miles of a military camp.  The case ended in a mistrial, and it was Anderson’s swan song in the sporting district.

Tom Anderson was a wealthy man, but he was also yesterday’s man in New Orleans.  He retired from business activity and acquired a home at 4630 St. Charles Avenue in the Thirteenth Ward where he lived quietly with Gertrude Dix.  After a serious illness in 1928, he repented his former ways as many sporting people did, and became a regular churchgoer and benefactor to religious charities. Approaching seventy, he married Gertrude in September 1928, and lived with her and her niece in St. Charles Avenue until his death on 10th December 1931.
(Orleans Parish Death Records, Volume 202, page 2962)

Tom Anderson left his wife, Gertrude, his entire estate, which was admitted to probate at approximately $120,000. It seems as though he had become estranged from his daughter, Irene, who had married one of his bar managers, George Delsa (1877-1924), on 21st April 1902. (Orleans Parish Marriage Records, Volume 23, page 936) George and Irene Delsa had 4 surviving children, Irene (born 1905), Marion (born 1908), Dorothie (born 1909), and Thomas (1915-2001). Twin sons, George Gottleeb [sic] and Thomas Cornelius, died a few hours after birth and a daughter died at three months of age.  Irene Delsa contested the will on the grounds that Tom and Gertrude lived in open concubinage.  Under the concubinage laws in Louisiana, a concubine could not inherit real property but could inherit up to one tenth of the movable property of the deceased.  The court held that the concubinage laws were not applicable because the deceased had legally married Gertrude Dix. However, Gertrude Anderson generously settled a substantial portion of the estate on Irene as she felt she was entitled to an inheritance as Tom’s legitimate daughter.  Tom Anderson’s great-grandson, Timothy G. Schafer, is the current owner of much of the surviving Anderson memorabilia.  He lives in New Orleans with his wife, Judith K. Schafer, the noted author, historian and lawyer.

© September 2005 Peter Hanley


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