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Tenor saxophone titanby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Tenorman (and occasional bassoonist) Illinois Jacquet, who made jazz history in 1942 with his solo on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home" and went on to enjoy a six-decade career, died of heart failure in New York on July 22, 2004. He was 81 years old.
Jean Baptiste Illinois Jacquet was born in the Creole town of Broussard, Louisiana on October 31, 1922. The family moved to Houston when he was a child. The drums were his first instrument, but he moved to soprano and alto saxophones in high school. As a teenager he played alto in the California Playboy Band with his brothers, trumpeter Russell and drummer Linton, and also in Milt Larkins' territory band with reedmen Arnett Cobb and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. Russell and Illinois joined Floyd Ray's band in 1940, and two years later the saxophonist was hired by Lionel Hampton who was putting together his first post-Goodman band. Cobb had been Hampton's first choice for the tenor chair, but after he declined the vibist talked Jacquet into switching to tenor sax and coming on board. Among the other members were pianist Milt Buckner and the Royal brothers, trumpeter Ernie and altoist Marshall.
Jacquet was only with Hampton for a little over a year, just long enough to earn a place in jazz fame with his rip-roaring tenor solo on Hamp's 1942 Decca recording of "Flying Home", one of the most popular records of the year. Jacquet's improvisation was tagged as "Texas tenor style": blues-rich, energetic and marked by high harmonics and false fingerings. Although he didn't use such techniques all that frequently (despite the fact that Hampton had told him to just "play his style") Jacquet immediately became known as the archetypal "Texas Tenor" and inspired the impending legion of rock-and-roll sax honkers.
From 1943 to '44 Jacquet sizzled in Cab Calloway's sax section, then moved on to Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) organization. That same year he appeared in the film Jammin' the Blues, also financed by Granz. Aside from a year-long stint with Count Basie right after the war, Jacquet was a regular fixture of JATP for several years. In fact, legend has it he left Basie because more people were coming to hear him than the rest of the band! That notion was borne out by the public's wild response to his JATP performances.
In this period Jacquet distinguished himself on a number of recordings for the Aladdin and Apollo labels. His sidemen included a number of rising bebop starts: trumpeter Fats Navarro, baritonist Leo Parker, and trombonist J.J. Johnson. The Mosaic collection The Complete Illinois Jacquet Sessions presents the sides he recorded between 1945 and 1950. He continued to make excellent records throughout the decade, including Swing's the Thing (1957, Verve). Jacquet took up the basson in 1965 and recorded on it occasionally, including a famous, very unusual take on Monk's "Round Midnight". Bottoms Up (Prestige, 1968) demonstrated that he still had what it took to swing in the psychedelic era, and ballads like his "You Left Me All Alone" belied the idea that he was just a bar-walking honker.
In the 1970s Jacquet toured the world and formed the group Texas Tenors, with fellow saxmen Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate. He cut some albums for the Black and Blue label, among them On Jacquet's Street (1976) and God Bless My Solo (1978). He frequently duplicated his "Flying Home" solo note-for-note live and on record, expecting that people who listened to his music wanted to hear that famous solo as if it had been set in stone in 1942. As it is, the solo became so ingrained that many other saxmen have recreated it in their own performances of "Flying Home".
Around 1981 Jacquet was invited to speak at Harvard and was so embraced by the community that he was chosen as Kayden Artist in Residence for a year, the first jazz musician to receive the honor. Encouraged by his return to prominence, Jacquet formed a new big band in 1983 and began performing around New York and Europe. In 1992 he was the subject of the documentary Texas Tenor: The Story of Illinois Jacquet, and in 2000 he received the Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.