For this week’s History Hunt, I’m featuring another brilliant African-American musician and composer from the early 1900s: Tony Jackson!
Antonio Junius Jackson was born on October 25, 1882 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He loved music right from the beginning of his life, but unfortunately, his family was too poor to afford a piano. So what did he do? He built a harpsichord (a relative of the piano) out of junk he found lying around when he was only ten years old! It wasn’t pretty, but it was in tune, and once he finished it, he started playing the hymns he heard at church. As soon as his neighbours found out about this incredible feat, they offered him use of their pianos and organs, and from there, Jackson was on his way to being a star.
He started working as a musician at age thirteen; by the time he was fifteen, he was considered one of the best pianists in New Orleans. When he got a little older still, he was then considered the best. He also sang beautifully and could even dance while playing the piano! It was considered impossible to make a request for a song that Jackson didn’t know, whether it was for pop or blues or classical music.
One of my all-time favourite quotes about music is actually about Tony Jackson. Whenever he walked into a room while someone else was playing the piano, apparently people would say “Get up from that piano. You hurting its feelings. Let Tony play.” High praise for Jackson indeed (although not that nice for whoever was playing the piano before him)!
However, in spite of his tremendous success, Jackson didn’t stay in New Orleans. He was gay, and though it was not a safe time to be anything but straight, he refused to hide who he was. Later in his life, he moved to Chicago, where people were more willing to look the other way, even if there was still serious prejudice.
Unfortunately, there are no recordings of Jackson playing the piano or singing, so all we can do is imagine his genius. But his compositions still survive, including “Pretty Baby,” which was a hit in 1916. And in 2011, he was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, being recognised for his influence as a performer, a composer, and a mentor to important figures in jazz history.
To listen to “Pretty Baby” as sung by Billy Murray (in an original 1916 recording!), check out the video below.
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To Learn More (sources):
Tony Jackson at All About Jazz
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men who Made it by Nat Shapiro on Google Books (Note: References to mature content are made in the excerpt. Outdated and offensive language for the Romani people is also used.)
“2011 Chicago G/L Hall of Fame to induct 11 people, 4 groups” on Windy City Media Group
Tony Jackson (pianist) at Wikipedia