Wednesday, May 26, 2010

BILOXI BLUES -- Jelly Roll Morton and Main Street

The city of Biloxi joins the Mississippi Blues Trail on May 27, 2010, with the dedication of a “Biloxi Blues” marker on Main Street. Researching the history of blues, R&B, and jazz in towns like Biloxi has been the most eye-opening experience I’ve had while working with the Mississippi Blues Trail. Blues fans are familiar with the blues lore of Clarksdale, Indianola, Greenville, Greenwood, Jackson, and other towns in the Delta and central Mississippi, but blues scenes usually developed wherever there was African American community, and there have been more of those in Mississippi than anywhere else. The Mississippi-Alabama Gulf Coast scene is of special interest to me since I lived most of my pre-college years in Biloxi and Mobile and often visited relatives in Hattiesburg and Gulfport, unaware of the music that lay just “across the tracks.” There is much more history to investigate, but, for now, better late than never, here is a little bit of the Biloxi Blues story. This is an expanded version of the text that appears on the Mississippi Blues Trail marker.


The Mississippi Coast, long a destination for pleasure seekers, tourists, and gamblers, as well as maritime workers and armed services personnel, developed a flourishing nightlife during the segregation era. While most venues were reserved for whites, the small stretch of Main Street between the L&N Railroad and the Division Street intersection in Biloxi was one of several districts that catered to the African American trade. Especially during the boom years during and after World War II, dozens of clubs and cafes here rocked to the sounds of blues, jazz, and rhythm & blues.

Biloxi was strutting to the rhythms of cakewalk dances, vaudeville and minstrel show music, dance orchestras, and ragtime pianists by the late 1800s, before blues and jazz had fully emerged. Situated along the Gulf Coast performing circuit between the Florida panhandle and Houston, Biloxi was a stopping point for traveling bands and musical revues, and music here was particularly influenced by and intertwined with that of New Orleans. Crescent City jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) and Bill Johnson (c. 1874-1972) lived in Biloxi in the early 1900s before moving on to California, Chicago, and other distant locales. Morton's seminal recordings, compositions, and recollections form much of the basis of what we know about the early days of jazz and blues; he in fact promoted himself as the “Originator of Jazz.”

Morton’s name at birth in New Orleans was Ferdinand Lamothe. He sometimes stayed on a Biloxi strawberry farm owned by his godmother, Laura Hunter, who was reputed to be a voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, where she went by the name of Eulalie Hecaud. In Biloxi, c. 1907-08, Morton recalled, “I used to often frequent the Flat Top, which was nothin’ but a old honky tonk, where nothin’ but the blues were played. There was fellas around played the blues like Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete . . . Old Florida Sam and Tricky Sam, and that bunch. Why, they just played just ordinary blues — the real lowdown blues, honky tonk blues.”

At the Flat Top, in the old Biloxi Electric Light Company building at Reynoir Street north of the railroad tracks, Morton used his skills as a pianist, pool player, and card shark to hustle customers, particularly workers who flocked to town from the turpentine camps in the woods north of town. Morton and other local African American musicians were also often hired for white social affairs and dances, and he played at the posh Great Southern Hotel in Gulfport (where a golf course built in 1908 earned it the title “home of golf in Mississippi”) and at parties for seafood magnate and theater owner W. K. M. Dukate. As he told Alan Lomax:

“Why I happened to be in this little bitty city of Biloxi, which was quite a prosperous little city — at the time — because it was a great summer resort. Had a lot of millionaires, they used to make kind of a headquarters during the winter season because the weather was fine. Fine oysters and fishing and so forth and so on. And golf and different things. Many times I have played for a lot of big parties and so forth, for the Dukates, the oysters and shrimp owners, and so forth and so on.”

Morton courted a Biloxi woman, Bessie Johnson, whose family lived on Delauney Street and later on Croesus Street, both just a few streets west of Main Street. At least three of her brothers, Bill, Robert, and Ollie (“Dink”), were musicians; Bill Johnson’s famous touring unit, the Creole Band (also known by various names including the Original Creole Orchestra and the New Orleans Creole Ragtime Band), introduced New Orleans’ ragtime, jazz, and blues to audiences all across the country. Bessie, who adopted the show business moniker of Anita Gonzales, was commonly known Morton’s wife, although they may have never legally married. Other early Biloxi musicians of note included brothers Romie and Lamar “Buck” Nelson, both acclaimed minstrel show performers; drummer Jimmy Bertrand, who played on many classic blues and jazz recording sessions in Chicago, and his uncle, Alphonse Farzan (or Ferzand); and William Tuncel’s Big Four String Band.

Biloxi prospered during World War II as the population surged with incoming workers to fill the new job market, joined by thousands of airmen stationed at Keesler Field. By 1943, seven thousand black troops were stationed at Keesler – about three times the town of Biloxi’s black population at the time. The Keesler airmen participated in the Biloxi scene both as audience members and musicians; Paul Gayten, a noted blues and R&B recording artist and producer in New Orleans and California, directed the black USO band during World War II, and singer-pianist Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who recorded for the legendary Sun label in Memphis, served at Keesler Air Force Base in the 1950s. In fact, both Gayten and Emerson got married in Biloxi. Main Street developed a concentration of entertainment venues that featured traveling national acts, New Orleans performers, and local bands, as well as jukeboxes and slot machines. African American MPs from Keesler patrolled the district to keep the peace. Among the many clubs on the street were the Little Apple, the Big Apple (later the Shalamar, among several other names), Paradise Garden, Club Delisa, Club Desire, Beck's Deck and Beck's Nest, the Blue Note, the Odd Fellows (G.U.O. of O.F.) Lodge, the Cocoanut Grove, and Jackson’s Casino; on nearby streets were the Rum Boogie and the “Black Elks” (I.B.P.O.E.W.) lodge. Blues/R&B producer-songwriter Sax Kari later operated a record store, Sax Music Service, at 726 Main Street, and rock ‘n’ roll star Bo Diddley’s brother, Rev. Kenneth Haynes, came to Biloxi to pastor at the Main Street Baptist Church (soul singer Lattimore Brown was a recent member of his congregation). Local musicians active in Biloxi clubs in later years include Charles Fairley, Cozy Corley, Skin Williams, and bands such as the Kings of Soul, Sounds of Soul, and Carl Gates and the Decks. While other performing venues, white and black, along the coast opened up to the sounds of rhythm & blues, Main Street’s once-vibrant business and social community began to fade out. By the 1980s only a few nightspots were still open (including the Little Apple, which stayed in business for more than forty years, the Blue Note, and Sachmo’s Lounge), and they too finally closed. Hurricanes and periodic civic campaigns to clean up illegal activities took their toll over the years, too. Local entertainment perked up again in the 1990s as legalized casinos and the Gulf Coast Blues and Heritage Festival brought a new wave of blues and southern soul stars to Biloxi.

The Mississippi Blues Trail is still seeking more historical information and photographs related to music on the Gulf Coast, and anyone who has material is invited to contact research director Jim O’Neal at or 816-931-0383. Future blues trail markers on the coast are planned for North Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, and Moss Point.

Research assistance and sources: Rip Daniels; Jamie Bounds, Biloxi Public Library; Lynn Abbott, Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz (Ragged But Right); Renee Hague and Sherry Owens, Pascagoula Public Library; Mark Coltrain, John D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi; Brenda Haskins; Lawrence Gushee (Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band);; Charles Fairley; Johnny Rawls; Cozy Corley; Odile Gayten; Billy Emerson; Sherry Bishop; Preston Lauterbach; Allan Hammons, Hammons & Associates; Biloxi city directories and census records; Biloxi Daily Herald articles; Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress interviews with Jelly Roll Morton.


In tribute to the Biloxi oyster trade, here is the label of Jelly Roll Morton's Vocalion recording, "The Pearls," courtesy Chuck Haddix, UMKC Marr Sound Archives:

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