Tony Jackson

Tony Jackson

:"This article is about the United States composer. For the UK bass guitarist see Tony Jackson (bass player). For the former St. John's standout see Tony Jackson (basketball player)"

Anthony (Antonio) Jackson, best known as Tony Jackson (June 5, 1876 - April 20, 1920) was an American pianist, singer, and composer.

Jackson was born to a poor African American family in Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana on June 5, 1876. He showed musical talents at a young age. At about the age of 10 he constructed a type of crude but working and properly tuned harpsichord out of junk in his back yard, since his family lacked the money to buy or rent a piano. On this contraption young Tony was able to reproduce hymns he heard in church; news of this accomplishment soon spread around the neighborhood and he was offered use of neighbors' pianos and reed organs to practice on.

Jackson got his first musical job at age 13, when he began playing piano during off hours at a Tonk run by bandleader Adam Olivier. By age 15 was already considered by many musicians the best pianist in town.

Jackson became the most popular and sought after entertainer in Storyville. He was said to be able to remember and play any tune he had heard once, and was hardly ever stumped by obscure requests. His repertory included ragtime, cakewalks (one of his show stopping tricks was to dance a high kicking cakewalk while playing the piano), popular songs of the day from the United States and various nations of Europe and Latin America, blues, and light classics.

His singing voice was also exceptional, and he was said to be able to sing operatic parts from baritone to soprano range. Fellow musicians and singers were universal in their praise of Jackson, most calling him "the greatest", and even the far-from-modest Jelly Roll Morton ranked Jackson as the only musician better than Morton himself. Jackson also wrote many original tunes, a number of which he sold rights to for a few dollars or were simply stolen from him; some of the old time New Orleans musicians said that some well known Tin Pan Alley pop tunes of the era were actually written by Jackson.

Clarence Williams noted "He was great because he was original in all his improvisations . . . We all copied him." More than Jackson's music was copied. Jackson dressed himself with a pearl gray derby, checkered vest, ascot tie with a diamond stickpin, with sleeve garters on his arms to hold up his cuffs as he played. This became a standard outfit for ragtime and barrelhouse pianists; as one commented "If you can't play like Tony Jackson, at least you can look like him". [Rose, Al (1978) "Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District", University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-4403-9] Jackson moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1912. One of the few tunes published with Jackson's name on it, "Pretty Baby" came out in 1916, although he was remembered performing the song before he left New Orleans. The original lyrics of "Pretty Baby" were said to refer to his male lover of the time. Jackson was resident performer at the De Luxe and Pekin Cafes in Chicago, although in his later years his voice and dexterity were impaired by disease, probably syphilis. He died in Chicago on April 20, 1920.

Jackson unfortunately never recorded, but portions of his style are no doubt to be found in the recordings of younger musicians he influenced, like Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, and Steve Lewis.

Fictional portrayals

The play "Don't You Leave Me Here" by Clare Brown, which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 27 September 2008, deals with his relationship with Jelly Roll Morton.


Further reading

* "New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album" by Al Rose and Edmund Souchon

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