Jelly Roll Morton in Houston
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.
"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.
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