Biloxi Blues market to be erected Thursday

The Mississippi Blues Trail will unveil its second marker on the Gulf Coast at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, at the corner of Main and Murray Streets in Biloxi.

The marker, titled “Biloxi Blues,” will salute the long history of African-American music on Main Street in addition to spotlighting pioneering figures Jelly Roll Morton and Bill Johnson, among others.

The blues trail hopes to place future markers in Bay St. Louis, North Gulfport, and Jackson County. The first marker, honoring blues radio in Mississippi, is located at the headquarters of the American Blues Network in Gulfport.

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, the stretch of Main Street between Division Street and the railroad catered to the African American trade. Especially during the boom years during and after World War II, when the population surged with thousands of incoming workers to fill the new job market, dozens of clubs and cafes rocked to the sounds of blues, jazz, and rhythm & blues.

Biloxi had been strutting to the rhythms of cakewalk dances, vaudeville and minstrel show musicians, dance ba nds, and ragtime pianists by the late 1800s, before blues and jazz had fully emerged. Situated along the Gulf Coast performing circuit, Biloxi was a stopping point for traveling bands and musical revues, and in particular for musicians from New Orleans.

Jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton and Bill Johnson stayed in Biloxi in the early 1900s before relocating to the West Coast. Morton’s seminal recordings, compositions, and recollections form much of the basis of what we know about the early days of jazz and blues, while Johnson’s famous touring unit, the Creole Band, introduced the music to audiences all across the country.

The concentration of entertainment venues on Main Street featured both traveling acts and local bands, as well as jukeboxes and slot machines. Among the many clubs on the street were the Little Apple, the Big Apple, the Shalimar, Beck’s Desire, the Blue Note, and Jackson’s Casino. Veteran blues and R&B producer-songwriter Sax Kari was one of several entrepreneurs who operated record stores on the street.

Airmen from Keesler Field participated in the Biloxi scene both as audience members and musicians; Paul Gayten, a noted blues and R&B recording artist and producer in New Orleans and California, directed the band at Keesler during World War II, and singer-pianist Billy “The Kid” Emers on, who recorded for the legendary Sun label in Memphis, served at Keesler Air Force Base in the 1950s. In fact, both Gayten and Emerson got married in Biloxi. Local musicians active in Biloxi clubs in later years include Charles Fairley, Cozy Corley, Skin Williams, and bands such as the Kings of Soul, Sounds of Soul, and Carl Gates and the Decks.

The Mississippi Blues Trail is still seeking more historical information and photographs related to music on the Gulf Coast, and anyone who has material is invited to contact research director Jim O’Neal (a Biloxi resident in his childhood) at or 816-931-0383.