Cordelia Jones

Spread Eagle steamboat

The Spread Eagle steamboat. The Cordelia Jones Orchestra played regularly on the steamer’s excursion cruises in the mid-1910s. Printed notecard of a pen and ink drawing by Ruth Means. 1976.

In the early 20th century, people threw dance parties for entertainment. They would gather a hundred of their closest friends, book the hottest local musician, and dance all night. The best parties in Madison County had a live soundtrack by pianist Cordelia Jones.

The Jones family moved to Alton when Cordelia was small. Cordelia taught piano lessons and played area gigs by the time she turned twenty. If a venue required a bigger sound, she rustled up some fellow musicians to form a band.

In 1903, Jones wrote, produced, and starred in Jolly Octoroons. (The 19th-century word describes a person who is 1/8 black. The dated term is considered offensive today.) The play premiered at Alton’s Temple Theater. Jones was in her early twenties and expected the production to bring her fame and fortune.

Second Street in Alton

Postcard depicting the Temple Theater on Second Street in Alton, where Cordelia Jones’s Jolly Octoroons premiered in 1903. W.F. Hoppe, Alton Illinois. 1908. Courtesy of Hayner Public Library District Genealogy & Local History Library.

Although Jones didn’t achieve the fame she hoped for as a playwright, she dominated the local music scene for the first two decades of the 20th century. Her story as an African American woman bandleader is unusual in Madison County recorded history. The Cordelia Jones Orchestra provided dance music at private parties and office picnics. They played regularly on steamboat excursion cruises to St. Louis.

In the mid-1920s, when the public’s appetite for jazz music decreased demand for her waltzes and two-steps, Jones joined the travelling Pantages vaudeville circuit. But vaudeville too was on its way out. Competition from the motion picture industry gained momentum when feature-length “talking pictures” premiered in 1927.

Jones returned to Alton. She lived in her childhood home at 519 Easton Street until her death in 1930.


Alton city directories. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Alton Telegraph. Various articles.

Bell Telephone News, Volume 3, Number 4 (November 1913).

Edwardsville Intelligencer. Various articles.

Statt, Daniel. “Pantages, Alexander (1876-1936).” HistoryLink. essay 2999. Posted March 5, 2001. Accessed February 5, 2020.

“Motion picture (sound film).” New World Encyclopedia. October 25, 2018. Accessed February 5, 2020.

United States census records and other public records.