Meet Jackie Jones and Her Famous Tap-Dancing Cat
Drop by the Saturday farmers’ market on Alemany Boulevard in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood and you'll probably see Jackie Jones, a slight woman in a plaid shirt and jeans entertaining an all-ages audience of shoppers with old-timey jazz music. But look closer, and you’ll see that she’s playing a homemade washboard guitar or an electric saw -– and she’s accompanied by a tap-dancing wooden cat.
We sat down recently with Jackie to find out more about her (and her cat).
Catster: All your instruments are handmade. Can you describe your one-woman-band setup?
Jackie: My guitar is made out of a washboard with a guitar neck and electric pickup. It has six strings, and I play it the same way as a real guitar. It sounds just like a full-body guitar.
I have played regular saws, but eventually I sent off for a musical saw. The only difference is they're two inches longer. I have gone in the hardware store to try them out to see if the saws have the right range, from the low notes to the high notes! I annoy the clerks doing it.
You studied electronics and electronic music.
I went to City College in the 1980s. I used the E-mu synthesizer, which was a bit like a Moog -- you could make any kind of noise with it. I got good at sounds -- vocals, gunshots, birdcalls, trumpets. I did one piece called "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing." In stereo, I had birds on one side, then gunshots on the other -- and then the birds all take off and fly from one side to the other.
What were your musical influences?
My influences are all early jazz, the hot dance music from the late 1920s and early 1930s. I had my grandmother’s records, so I’d go there to play them all on her phonograph. I still have all those old 78s. I have CDs as well, but they're mostly compilations or remakes of those old records.
I fall in love with old tunes all the time. My passion is [Irving Berlin’s] “Shaking the Blues Away,” probably from 1929 [1927 – Ed.]. The original words are considered a little racist, so it was rewritten. Ruth Etting sang it with piano. I also love Ben Selvin’s big band Novelty Orchestra. I’d be riding on the crest of a wave if some of these songs came back.
I've heard that the Humane Society of Marin complained about potential animal abuse when you were billed as "Jackie Jones and Her Dancing Cat." Even now, when we talk about you, people seem to expect a real cat.
Well, the Humane Society woman called, wanting to know if I was abusing a real cat with electricity in some way. So I told her, “No, it’s just made of wood.” I’ve never been picketed or protested!
It’s based on an old-fashioned toy where a little human person dances on a paddle. You hold it out with a stick. If you tap on the paddle, it hits the feet of the dancing figure. But then your hands are occupied, and I wanted my hands free to play the music, so I constructed it to play with my foot.
Does the cat have a name? How many versions have you made of your feline sidekick?
The cat’s name is Effigy, and she’s over 15 years old. She’s lavender -- well, she’s supposed to be, but the sun has changed the color and now she’s pink. I wanted a cat because it’s something fun to look at while I play, because the music can turn off some people. And I don’t have good diction, so I don’t sing.
If you notice, she’s wearing a striptease outfit! She has a tasseled fringe and pasties. She might need eight pasties if I was being anatomically accurate, but I’m not into being anthropomorphic.
Jackie Jones at the Alemany Farmers' Market, February 2012. Video by John Blackburn.
In a reader? Watch the video here.
Describe a typical Saturday morning at your farmers' market pitch.
I leave the house after 8 a.m. I hate getting up; I'm a night person, and the clock runs faster in the morning! I don't go if it's raining. I usually start around 9 or 9.30 with the saw, because the guitar comes from the warm inside temperature and it needs about half an hour to get used to the outside air so it doesn't go out of tune.
I don't have much energy these days, so I play until about noon, 12.30. If I get a big crowd, I'll play a bit longer. The kids are my bread and butter, as long as they're well behaved. If I can get them dancing, that's a plus. I have to keep an eye out, because some of them run up and hit or touch the cat. If I don't watch that, they could pull off her arm and take it home.
Someone at the market makes long skinny balloons, and the kids go to hit the cat with them, but I'm ready for them now. I put a thumbtack on the top of the cat's head! [Mimes small child's disappointment at burst balloon.] "Waaaaaah!"
I like to talk to people, though, so I'll go hang out for a bit with my friends at the market after I play. Then I go home and take a nap, you bet.
And I hear you and the cat are immortalized in one of the murals.
The cat is right by the entrance to the parking lot. The mural has been ruined a bit by people banging in nails and signs, some general wear and tear, but it's still there. It doesn't look like me -- it looks better than me! (laughs)
Have you had many cats in your life?
I had two cats that each lived to 18 years old, and it broke my heart to have them put down.
Dumbella was a Siamese who came to me pregnant and homeless when I lived on Duboce. She kept coming around and I’d say, “Oh, that dumb cat again.” She had five kittens that I found homes for through the pet store.
I found Tuxy in the Cala Foods parking lot. He was black with a white chest and paws. He was in bad condition, so I took him in too. He had everything wrong with him. Dumbella slept with me every night, but Tuxy wouldn’t. He was afraid of being covered up. I think he had a rough start.
Do you miss having a cat now?
I do, but I’ve got to look at it practically. I’m on a fixed income, and it costs a lot to give them the best of care and to get them treated well in their old age. And of course it would outlive me –- I’m 85! Suppose I had a stroke and the cat is hungry? They are carnivores, my dear! They would eat me.
Have you always been able to make a living as a musician?
Absolutely not! I had some of the worst day jobs, and I usually got fired. Now I don’t have to wait for musicians because I play singly. I record at home and then go out and play along with it. I did have a five-piece band, and in a way, it's like keeping kittens in a basket.
I'm the only one doing what I'm doing. I do play with other musicians, though. People come over and play music with me sometimes. I would love to find someone who likes the type of novelty music I like. I ran into Ralph Carney and played with him –- he plays with Gaucho, which is an excellent group. They play those old standards [by the likes of Django Reinhardt] from the era that I like.
Tell us how you met the Cockettes and ended up playing with them.
It wasn’t for very long. I met their piano player, Peter Mintun, who was rehearsing, and told him, “You really need a drummer to keep on the beat.” And I said, “Well, gee, I can play the drums.” So that’s how it started. I was just a supporting musician, but it was the kind of music I liked.
I played several shows –- the Palace Theatre in North Beach, a few midnight shows. I wore a mustache and a smoking jacket! The idea was to assault the culture but still play proper music. Sylvester was still with them then. Of course, lots of them are dead now, unfortunately. The movie [The Cockettes] didn’t do them justice. It made them look like idiots, men acting like children. The Cockettes scattered, or disbanded, and that was the end [in 1971].
Is it true that you once shared a boarding house with Morgan Freeman?
It wasn’t a boarding house, but the Wentley Apartments at Polk and Sutter. It was in the early 60s, maybe 1962. There were 70 one-room apartments with shared baths. There were musicians, painters, writers, and poets. I never liked poets -– I’m kind of a slob that way. Morgan was just one of us then –- he hadn’t broken into acting. He was poor, like all of us. He took over my old room. He played the guitar a bit, just a few chords. Then he traded it to the landlady for $20 to go out one evening.
Morgan and I didn’t really like each other. We were both after the same girlfriend, and I couldn’t stand guard all those hours! There were a lot of cool old pensioners who lived there too, and we all got along, but the oldies didn’t like the invasion. They went to bed at sundown, after all! The rooms kept getting burgled, so I had to leave.
Downstairs from the Wentley was Fosters Cafeteria. Allen Ginsberg would sit there with his entourage and talk all night. He came to town all square in a business suit and decided to go bohemian with his little satellites, reading poetry to one another.
If people can't see you at the Alemany market, are you available for shows, parties, or other performances?
I work for tips at the farmers’ market every Saturday, but I’ll play birthday parties and events if people want to pay!
Photo credits: All pictures and video by John Blackburn