1876 - 1921

Ragtime legend Tony Jackson was born into poverty in New Orleans. At age 10 he constructed harpsichord out of backyard junk, tuned it, and used to reproduce hymns he heard in church. At 13 he got his first job playing piano off hours at a honky-tonk. By 15 he was considered one of the best musicians in town – it is said he could play any tune after hearing it only once – and was soon the most sought after entertainer in Storyville. Seeking greater freedom as an openly gay black man, he went to Chicago in 1912, playing venues like The De Luxe and Pekin Cafés. One of his show stopping tricks was to dance a high kicking cakewalk while playing. His voice was also exceptional – he could sing ballads, blues, and even opera from soprano to baritone. Jackson wrote many tunes – most he sold the rights to for a minimal amount and many were stolen outright from him. Indeed, some well-known Tin Pan Alley pop tunes of the era were actually written by Jackson. His songs include ‘Michigan Water Blues’ and ‘The Naked Dance.’ One of the few songs published under his name was ‘Pretty Baby’ (1916) which was written for his gay lover. His personal style soon came to define the archetype image of the ragtime pianist - pearl gray derby, checkered vest, ascot tie with diamond stickpin, and garters on his arms to hold up his sleeves. It was said, “If you can’t play like Tony Jackson, at least you can look like him.” Sadly, Jackson’s musical virtuosity was never recorded, but his influence can be heard in the recordings of the younger musicians he inspired, like Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, and Steve Lewis. He died of alcoholism in 1921 at the age of 44.


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity African American Black

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Progressive Era (1890-1920)

Field(s) of Contribution


Commemorations & Honors

Featured in WTTW-PBS's Out & Proud in Chicago (2008)

Posthumous Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame Inductee (2011)


Original Biography Author
Victor Salvo
Biography Edited By
Owen Keehnen
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell