This oral history was originally published in the Diboll Buzzsaw newspaper in August 1947, when Will “Professor” Jackson was 77 years old.
by William James Jackson (1870- 1972)
My musical career began when I was six years of age. A Dr. J. L. Tylon took me in his care with three other colored boys and taught us to sing, dance, and play all kinds of musical instruments from a Jews Harp to a Pipe Organ. He ran a medicine show and we furnished the entertainment for his audiences. During the winter months the Doctor had us all in school, then in the summer on the road. He manufactured his own medicines such as Herbs of Joy Tonic; Friend of Foot Ease Corn Salve; Oil of Gladness, Liniment of Leisure, and many others.
The first time I was on the stage I broke the “E” string on my mandolin in the middle of my first number. The audience laughed. I cried and trembled, and then the Doctor fixed the Mandolin and I went back on filled with confidence and was never scared again on a stage anywhere in the world. One time the Doctor’s medicine stock was getting low so he told us we were all going to South America to gather herbs. We were all very happy until we told our families and then we wanted to back out because the prospects of so long a journey made them very sad. But Doctor Tylon took us on to New Orleans where we boarded a ship for Rio de Janeiro in South America. Everywhere I looked there was nothing to be seen but water and it made my heart pump fast and tears come in my eyes. The first night out I didn’t sleep a wink and I had no appetite. The second day out the other boys were up on the deck looking for fish or something in the water. I was looking for land. The Doctor came up and got us to dancing and singing and we drew a crowd of everybody on the ship which made us forget our worries and on we went toward South America happy again.
One morning we all were thrilled to see something in the distance that looked like land. It was, and a sailor told us it was Brazil. When we reached the shore and landed, a great crowd of people met us there. They were jabbering something but we couldn’t understand what it was. The Doctor said they were speaking Portuguese. He could understand it but it sounded like just a lot of nonsense to me. After two weeks in Brazil we went to a place called Para in Brazil, also known as Belem. There we moved about from place to place and into the jungles to gather herbs for the Doctor’s medicine. There also we went to the banks of the Amazon River and deeper into the jungles where monkeys were numerous as were Boa Constrictors and other snakes; beautiful birds-many very rare-and other animals and thousands of varieties of flowers and plants of every description. All this was unusual sightseeing for four little colored boys who had never even dreamed of such a wonderful opportunity to see so much. But all this, plus the sight of trees they took sap from to make rubber; big coffee fields, and “Milk Trees” was nothing compared to what I was destined to see and encounter in Asia, Central America, Africa, and many other parts of the world, about which I will tell in next month’s issue of the Buzzsaw. I will also tell you about teaching a young white boy to play trumpet who later became well known as a musician. His name was Harry James.
In the last issue of the Buzzsaw I told you about my first trip to South America with three other little colored boys-the four of us furnishing entertainment for Dr. Tylon’s Medicine Show. It was quite an experience and the first trip any of us had ever made. But not the last.
When we returned from this particular journey we landed in New Orleans and were quarantined for 31 days because of a yellow fever epidemic, then were released and went to Milwaukee and home. It was the happiest day in the lives of the Four Wills as we were known-all our first names being the same by coincidence. Anyway, we started out again very soon and traveled all over the United States with the medicine show selling Dr. Tylon’s products. Then he said he was out of herbs again and we set sail for Central America, stayed there for six weeks, then took another boat for South America. We were there this time nine months and left as a result of Mrs. Tylon becoming suddenly ill. She died about five weeks later in MIlwaukee and the Doctor grieved so much we thought he would go too. One day he called the four of us together and said: “I’ve raised you four Wills up from little boys. Now, as a result of losing Mrs. Tylon, I am a wreck, but I want you to stay with me. We’re going to travel all over the world so that I can forget my sorrow and I want you all to stick together and come with me”. We left thirty days later for New York, then across the Atlantic to Liverpool England. We went all over Europe-France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the Balkans, and Italy-but the Doctor was still unhappy and still had a traveling mind. So we went on down to Capetown in South Africa, then to Asia where we travelled from place to place for many months, and all of us thought the Doctor was searching for the Spring of Youth or the Tree of Life because it seemed that he would never stop. But we finally made it back to the U.S.A. and then the Doctor died. The Four Wills got separated and were never again together.
I joined the Richard and Pringle Famous Georgia Minstrels with Billie Kersand and went to England for a six month stay. I left this show soon afterwards and joined the Black Patties Troubadours and spent two seasons with them, later joining the Fourteen Black Garzas out of New York and returning to Europe for three months with them. Then came association with several small minstrel shows and finally carnivals and circuses. I was with Lee Brothers Circus in 1925 when I met Mr. Everett James, the band master of the sideshow band. Mr. James had a little boy by the name of Harry who loved to come over and talk to me and listen to the music. He especially liked to hear me play the trumpet, so I soon began teaching him how to play it. After his father found out he had been spending so much time with me trying to learn to play the trumpet, he bought one for him. (Everett James took over trumpet lessons when Harry was 10). Little Harry would come over and ask me if he could rehearse with us and I would always let him. He loved his trump more than anything else in the world and caught on faster than anybody I had ever seen with it. Sometimes in rehearsal I would have a trumpet part and would let him play it. He tried so hard that sometimes his face would turn bright red, but he never gave up. In fact, the more difficult the part the harder he would try and he never quit a single time until he had mastered it.
After Harry James got a little older his father would let him out at night to go with us when we played for dances. He would always be there if he could, no matter where we went, and we let him play the trumpet all he wanted to because he was trying to get experience playing orchestra music. After five years with this show, Mr. Everett James, Harry, and I left and joined the Christy Brothers Circus where Mr. Everett was the bandmaster of the big show, and, like in the others, I was bandmaster of the sideshow. In this show Harry played second trumpet in his father’s band and was very proud of his job. By this time he was getting to be really good on the trumpet-and better and better as the days went by because he practiced constantly and talked to me about improving his technique all the time. He also thanked me often for teaching him music and getting him started of on the right foot. He was a kind man-both he and his father-and did many favors for me that I appreciated. They left Christy Brothers and I never saw Harry again, though I did meet his father in Beaumont while I was still with Christy Brothers in 1933. I wrote him for some music which I needed for my band and he came from Houston to Beaumont and brought music for the entire circus program and gave it to me free of charge. Harry James by this time had established quite a name for himself and his own orchestra. I know he didn’t forget me because I had several letters from him in which he told me he hoped to see me again some day and in which he again thanked me for my music teachings. I am naturally proud to have been instrumental in the development of so fine a musician. The fact that he became one of the great trumpeters was no surprise to me-he loved to play the trumpet so much as a child, and throughout his young manhood, that he couldn’t have been anything but the best. And incidentally, I can still recognize his playing after listening to only a few notes even when I don’t know it is Harry James. I can still distinguish the technique-and I feel good inside when I hear it. Because I helped put it there.