retro record

LISTEN: This genius pianist was “openly, defiantly gay”, even in the 1800s

Pianist Tony Jackson sits at a grand piano in a black tuxedo with a bow tie.

Here, more than 100 years after his death, Tony Jackson is still recognized as one of the all-time great ragtime musicians. He ran the musical circuit of the Storyville section of New Orleans way back in the late 19th/early 20th century, influenced everything musical legends to pianist fashion, and was out and proud while doing it.

Darryl W. Bullock’s musical compendium David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music cites Jackson as “openly, almost defiantly gay” throughout his turn-of-the-century career. Bullock also recounts singer Alberta Hunter, who popularized a version of Jackson’s “Pretty Baby” standard and was a lesbian herself, as saying Jackson’s titular “pretty baby” was “a tall, skinny fellow.”

His talent was ubiquitously recognized by his peers; famed jazz composer Clarence Williams is quoted as saying “He was great because he was original in all his improvisations … We all copied him.” This was true in both his musical and his style, as his manner of dress became the standard for ragtime pianists of the era.

Even ragtime great Jelly Roll Morton, a man boastful enough to claim that he invented jazz, apparently cited Jackson as the only musician of the time more talented than himself.

“He was the outstanding favourite of New Orleans,” Morton said in Alan Lomax’s biographical Mister Jelly Roll. “Tony was considered among all who knew him the greatest single-handed entertainer in the world … He had such a beautiful voice and a marvellous range. His voice on an opera tune was exactly as an opera singer. His range on a blues tune would be just exactly like a blues singer.”

Then, matter-of-factly, Morton remarked that “Tony happened to be one of those gentlemens that a lot of people call them lady or sissy.” It seems neither his race nor sexuality kept Jelly Roll Morton or his contemporaries — the ones worth a darn, anyways — from idolizing the artist any less.

Though Jackson never made a physical recording himself, his incredible compositions like “I’m Cert’ny Gonna See ’bout That” live on:

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