Jelly Roll Morton in Houston

A jazz great's pimp hand punches his ticket to glory

In ancient cities like Jerusalem, you can literally see layers of ­history. In the old quarter, Israeli construction lies atop Ottoman atop Crusader atop Persian atop Roman atop Judaic.

There's nothing quite like that in Houston, but there are some places that remind you of such strata. One is Freedmen's Town, which as most Houstonians know, is the section of Fourth Ward settled by liberated slaves immediately after the Civil War.

What most Houstonians don't know, and won't find out from the sanitized official history, is that the northern section of Freedmen's Town — today's Allen Parkway Village — was once a city-authorized red-light district known as The Reservation. And for a time, The Reservation had a very famous musical denizen — Ferdinand LaMothe, a.k.a. Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans piano player who might well have invented jazz.

"In those days I had the bad habit, which I never broke entirely, of being a big spender when I had money. Well, the show stranded me broke, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. So when Sandy proposed that we accept an offer and go to the Pastime Theatre in Houston, I decided that since I was a straight man, I might as well be the best straight man on earth."

So related Morton to Alan Lomax, in Morton's 1950 memoir Mister Jelly Roll. [Full disclosure: Lomax was my great-uncle. I am not compensated on his book sales.] At that time, in addition to tickling the ivories, the twentysomething Morton dabbled as a pimp, gambler, pool shark and actor in comedies. He was, in the parlance of the time, "a sport," a sharp-dressed cat who dug the finer things in life.

And in the Houston of 1913, there was plenty of work for a man of his talents. Oil was leaping from the black East Texas soil. Houston, the malarial cotton port, woke with a start from a fitful, feverish sleep of seven decades and began transforming into the world's energy capital. Galveston had just been decimated by the great hurricane, and the freshly excavated Ship Channel was funneling most of Galveston's money and nearly all of its sin 48 miles northwest. Between 1900 and 1920, Houston's population mushroomed from 45,000 to 138,000, and by order of city council, The Reservation was created in 1908 in order to centralize and contain all the vice they brought with them.

Most of those migrants were easily bamboozled bumpkins who poured by the trainload into Union Station, and Morton, a sharp-witted veteran of New Orleans's ancient brothels and brawling streets, could lighten the wallets of these newly prosperous hayseeds any number of ways. He could entertain them at the brothels playing the piano, or he could arrange a little game of dice, cards or nine-ball. Or maybe they were interested in purchasing the favors of one of his women.

It's easy to see how women could have fallen under his sway. The sophisticated, handsome Creole sported a silk suit on his spare frame and had diamonds embedded in his teeth, and he was a smooth talker whose very nickname — Jelly Roll, or Mister Jelly Lord — referred to the copious female lubrication he claimed his suavity induced. Just about every rapper of today claims to be a pimp, but while they all talk the talk, few of them could stroll like Mister Jelly Roll.

For a time, Morton thrived here. As documented by Morton scholar Dr. Lawrence Gushee, he settled into a boarding house on Fuller Street, two blocks east of The Reservation proper, with a young woman named Rosa Brown. Don't bother looking for it — the whole neighborhood is long gone. My best guess is that Morton's abode stood just north of the West Dallas overpass on I-45.

According to Mister Jelly Roll, he quickly found work playing piano and singing raunchy songs in some of The Reservation's finest brothels. Alan Lomax, aided by copious whiskey, cajoled the reluctant Morton into recording some of these whorehouse songs in 1938, and Morton's version of the standard "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" and his own "Winin' Boy Blues" were so lewd they went unreleased until the late 1980s. "Throw your legs in the air like a great church steeple," runs a single verse of one, "so I can think about fuckin' all the people." (And that's one of the milder lines.)

Morton rolled the proceeds of his brothel work into an attempt at respectability. He tried to organize a stock theater, but scheming relatives somehow ruined those plans. (According to Gushee's research, Morton's three brothers were also in Houston at the time.) So he fell back on "the tenderloin trade" and opened up a tailor shop as a front.

And according to his account, he was doing pretty well. But unfortunately for Houston's musical history, Jelly Roll was not destined to linger. His pimp hand was a little too strong — and a scorned woman would punch his ticket out of here.

As he puts it in his book, one day he was kicking back in his tailor shop, a cigar in his mouth, a song in his head and his feet on his desk, when he heard a commotion in the street. In walked an actress of his acquaintance with Rosie, his girlfriend.

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