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Jelly Roll Morton in Houston

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

"Anna Mae and I had an argument and I slapped Rosie in the mouth, and said I would murder her if she didn't do like I told her," he said. What he wanted her to do is lost to history, but it's fairly easy to imagine that the words "Get your ass back out on the track" were involved.

Rosie's revenge came swiftly. "Later that day Detective Peyton came into my place and threatened me. I pulled the big gun I kept in my drawer and told him not to come any closer to me. 'I heard you say the Chief of Police can get you out of any­thing,' I told him, 'But he can't get you out of where I'm going to put you, because I'm going to put you in the ground.'"

Morton won the opening skirmish, but he was destined to lose the war. "Peyton backed on out my tailor shop, but he was a tough guy to beat (I always heard he was the instigator of the famous Houston riot), and he laid for me." [Morton is referring to Houston's worst racial incident ever — the notorious Camp Logan race riot of 1917, four years after the tailor shop episode took place. I could not verify Peyton's involvement, but the affray was sparked by the arrest of a black woman by two white officers in Fourth Ward.]

"[Peyton] ordered two very promi­nent pimps, Black Dude and Macbeth, friends of mine, to get on out of town because they didn't have a job," Morton continued. "They came to me for help and I turned my supposed-to-be tailor shop over to them...so that when Peyton saw them they could say they were in business. Peyton worked them over until they told him I had made those arrangements.' Next day Peyton came in my place and all he said was, 'Jelly, you've got to shut this place and blow town.'"

Which is just what he did, but not before bashing Houston's primitive music in the time-honored tradition of New Orleans jazz musicians. "I was tired of Houston anyway," he said. "There wasn't any decent music around there, only Jew's harps, harmonicas, mandolins, guitars and fellows singing the spasmodic blues — sing a while and pick a while till they thought of another word to say. So I said, 'Okay, Peyton, goodbye to you and your ratty town. I'm going north.'"

And he did, and eventually became widely known as, if not the inventor of jazz, then certainly the first great jazz composer.

Nothing remains of Jelly Roll Morton's Houston. A historical marker on West Dallas, about two hundred yards south of his former home, ignores The Reservation, instead dwelling on a worthy-if-tedious institutional history of the many churches in Freedmen's Town.

The Reservation was bulldozed in the 1930s. Today I-45 slices through the eastern boundary, and Allen Parkway devoured its northern fringe. San Felipe Courts — erected as housing for poor white assembly-line workers in World War II — sprang up over the district's core. Eventually, it would be renamed Allen Parkway Village, the boyhood home of Kenny Rogers. Blacks would reclaim the area in the 1960s and hold it until the 1990s, when the Inner Loop boom would dot the area with high-end condos and swanky nightclubs.

Tony's Corner Pocket, a gay pool hall, stands on West Dallas, and it's likely Morton might have done some sharking there. His sporting milieu was never far from that era's gay underworld, and many of the finest piano players of his day were gay. That was one of the reasons Morton sang such raunchy songs — he told Lomax that he wanted to preempt questions about his masculinity. But he spoke highly of the musical talents of many of the gay pianists and recorded some of the era's gay anthems, such as "Call of the Freaks," the chorus of which runs like this: "Stick out your can / here comes your garbage man."

"City growth and urban renewal later in the 20th century changed the boundaries and character of Freedmen's Town," the historical marker notes dryly. Well, it certainly did change the boundaries, but I don't know about the character. People kept right on running game there — it was only the scale of the swindles that changed. No doubt the hustler Jelly Roll would have appreciated the shenanigans of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, whose ill-fated headquarters practically shades what used to be The Reservation.

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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