New Orleans Roots

Discovering the origins of jazz in the city of its birth—New Orleans
Jelly Roll Morton on New Orleans Piano Players

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton was among the first important composers and recording stars in jazz, and the first to write down his remarkable jazz compositions in musical notation. In this excerpt from Mister Jelly Roll by Alan Lomax (University of California Press, 1950) Morton talks about the music scene in New Orleans when he was a teenager.

Tom Anderson Annex in the French Quarter

"So in the year of 1902 when I was about seventeen years old I happened to invade one of the sections where the birth of jazz originated from. Some friends took me to The Frenchman's on the corner of Villery from Bienville, which was at that time the most famous nightspot after everything was closed. It was only a back room, but it was where all the greatest pianists frequented after they got off from work in the sporting-houses. About 4 A.M., unless plenty of money was involved on their jobs, they would go to The Frenchman's and there would be everything in the line of hilarity there.

Jelly Roll Morton photo from his Mexican Visa

All the girls that could get out of their houses was there. The millionaires would come to listen to their favorite pianists. There weren't any discrimination of any kind. They all sat at different tables or anywhere they felt like sitting. They all mingled together just as they wished to and everyone was just like one big happy family. People came from all over the country and most times you couldn't get in. So this place would go on at a tremendous rate of speed--plenty money, drinks of all kinds--from four o'clock in the morning until maybe twelve, one, two, or three o'clock in the daytime. Then, when the great pianists used to leave, the crowds would leave.

New Orleans was the stomping grounds for all the greatest pianists in the country. We had Spanish, we had colored, we had white, we had Frenchmens, we had Americans, we had them from all parts of the world because there were more jobs for pianists than any other ten places in the world. The sporting-houses needed professors, and we had so many different styles that whenever you came to New Orleans, it wouldn't make any difference that you just came from Paris or any part of England, Europe, or any place-- whatever your tunes were over there, we played them in New Orleans.

Tony Jackson

I might mention some of our pianists...Sammy Davis, one of the greatest manipulators of the keyboard I guess I have ever seen in the history of the world...Alfred Wilson and Albert Cahill, they were both great pianists and both of them were colored. Poor Alfred Wilson, the girls taken to him and showed him a point where he didn't have to work. He finally came to be a dope fiend and smoked so much dope till he died. Albert Cahill didn't smoke dope, but he ruined his eyes staying up all night, gambling. Albert was known as the greatest show player that was ever in existence as I can remember. Then there was Kid Ross, a white boy and one of the outstanding hot players of the country.

All these men were hard to beat, but when Tony Jackson walked in, any one of them would get up from the piano stool. If he didn't, somebody was liable to say, "Get up from that piano. You hurting its feelings. Let Tony play." Tony was real dark and not a bit good-looking, but he had a beautiful disposition. He was the outstanding favorite New Orleans, and I have never known any pianists to come from any section of the world that could leave New Orleans victorious..."