Biloxi in Harrison County, Mississippi — The American South (East South Central)
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, this stretch of Main Street catered to the African American trade, and especially during the boom years during and after World War II, dozens of clubs and cafés 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. Biloxi’s musical culture was particularly influenced by and intertwined with that of New Orleans, and 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 godmother, reputed to be a voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, had a home in Biloxi. In 1907-08, Morton frequented a Reynoir Street gambling den called the Flat Top, where he used his skills as a pianist, pool player, and card shark to hustle customers, particularly workers who flocked to town from nearby turpentine camps to engage
Morton courted a Biloxi woman, Bessie Johnson, whose brothers Bill, Robert, and Ollie (“Dink”) were musicians. The Johnsons lived on Delauney Street and later on Croesus Street, just a few blocks west of this site. Bill Johnson’s touring unit, the Creole Band, introduced New Orleans ragtime, jazz, and blues to audiences across the country. Bessie later adopted the show business moniker of Anita Gonzales. Other early Biloxi musicians included minstrel show performers Romie and Lamar “Buck” Nelson; drummer Jimmy Bertrand, who recorded with many blues and jazz artists in Chicago; and William Tuncel’s Big Four String Band.
In the 1940s, as business on Main Street prospered, clubs featured both traveling acts and local bands, as well as jukeboxes and slot machines. Airmen from Keesler Field participated both as audience members and musicians; Paul Gayten, a noted blues and R&B recording artist, directed the black USO band during World War II, and Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who recorded for the legendary Sun label, served at Keesler in the 1950s. Both Gayten and Emerson got married in Biloxi. Blues/R&B producer-songwriter Sax Kari once operated a record
Erected 2010 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. (Marker Number 108.)
Marker series. This marker is included in the Mississippi Blues Trail marker series.
Location. 30° 24.076′ N, 88° 53.137′ W. Marker is in Biloxi, Mississippi, in Harrison County. Marker is at the intersection of Main Street and Murray Street, on the right when traveling north on Main Street. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: Main Street, Biloxi MS 39532, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Downtown Biloxi (approx. 0.4 miles away); Biloxi City Hall (approx. 0.4 miles away); Cathedral of the Nativity (B.V.M.) (approx. 0.4 miles away); The Magnolia Hotel (approx. half a mile away); High Water Mark (approx. half a mile away); Chris LeDoux (approx. half a mile away); Historic Downtown Biloxi (approx. 0.6 miles away); Biloxi City Park & Welcome Sign (approx. 0.6 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Biloxi.
Categories. • African Americans • Arts, Letters, Music • Entertainment • War, World II •
Credits. This page was last revised on June 16, 2016. This page originally submitted on November 15, 2015, by Robert M. Cook, Jr. of Biloxi, Mississippi. This page has been viewed 220 times since then and 21 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3. submitted on November 15, 2015, by Robert M. Cook, Jr. of Biloxi, Mississippi. • Bill Pfingsten was the editor who published this page.