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Milt Jackson: 1923-1999
Milt Jackson
Vibraharp, vibraphone, piano, composer, bandleader

Born: January 1, 1923 in Detroit, Michigan
Died: October 9, 1999 in New York City, New York

Great Innovator on the Vibes

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Jackson, Milt Milt Jackson was the first musician to work out a viable approach to playing bebop on his favoured instrument, the vibraharp, a slightly larger variant of the more familiar vibraphone. He took a distinctly different technical and expressive route to those established by Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, developing a linear, rhythmically inflected line which owed more to the example of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie than either of his two great predecessors on the instrument.

He was a hugely gifted soloist with a musical conception which was steeped in the earthy pragmatism of gospel and the blues, but dovetailed beautifully within the intricate classicism of John Lewis's compositions and arrangements for the Modern Jazz Quartet, a group he was associated with throughout much of his professional life.

Jakson's exhuberant solo flights provided a sharply contrasting flavouring within the MJQ's palette, and although he later said that he had felt restricted by Lewis's rhythmic experiments, it proved an enduring partnership, and provided many of his most memorable moments. The vibraphonist never really developed as an innovative leader in his own right, and profited from Lewis's firm sense of direction and purpose, even where the settings ran contrary to his natural instincts.

His trademark style was augmented by his manipulation of the actual sound of his instrument. He slowed down the speed of the oscillator (the rotating vanes which sustain the sound of a note) on his instruments, an adjustment which provided a richer, warmer sound when he allowed a note to ring. When combined with his penchant for subtle shadings of dynamics and a rhythmic accentuation much influenced by Charlie Parker's example, it gave him an instantly recognisable signature, and pushed the possibilites of the instrument in a different direction to that explored by Hampton and Norvo.

In an interview with jazz critic Nat Hentoff in 1958, Jackson explained his allegiance to the older adjustable instruments by noting that the single-speed vibraphone which became popular after the war failed to provide "the degrees of vibrato my ear told me I had to have. Having the right vibrato makes a lot of difference in the feeling. It's evident in a sax player, and to me it's something a vibist can have too. My own vibrato tends to be slow."

He was born Milton Jackson, and began learning guitar at the age of seven. He added violin, piano, drums, tympani, xylophone and vibes to his accomplishments before leaving school, and sang in a gospel group called The Evangelist Singers while simultaneously playing jazz with local groups on the Detroit scene, including working with saxophonist Lucky Thompson, an association which enabled him to make his recording debut with Dinah Washington.

He almost joined the Earl Hines band in 1942, but instead was drafted, and served two years in the army. On his return to Detroit in 1944, he set up a jazz quartet called the Four Sharps, which Dizzy Gillespie heard while touring in the mid-West. Suitably impressed, Gillespie encouraged Jackson to move to New York in 1945 with the offer of a place in his band. By this time, Jackson had acquired his familiar nickname 'Bags', derived from the pouches under his eyes (the vibraphonist claimed the specific origin of the tag had been after a heavy drinking session to celebrate his release from the army).

He accompanied Gillespie and Charlie Parker to Los Angeles in 1945, partly as insurance against the notoriously unreliable Parker not turning up for gigs, to fulfil a famous engagement at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles, the first time that New York bebop had been featured on the West Coast. On their return (minus Parker) to New York, he remained part of Gillespie's Sextet, playing both piano and vibes at that time, before choosing to concentrate on the latter instrument.

When Gillespie put together his first ground-breaking bebop big band in 1946, he unwittingly laid the foundations for the group which would occupy much of Jackson's career. The rhythm section in that big band included Jackson, pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke. That quartet were regularly featured within the big band's set to give the hard-working brass players a breather, and eventually evolved into the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951.

Ray Brown opted to work with his then wife, Ella Fitzgerald, and was replaced by Percy Heath in 1952. The band took the name the Modern Jazz Quartet that year, and began one of the longest associations in jazz history. Clarke left the USA to live in Paris in 1955, and was replaced by Connie Kay to complete the familiar ensemble, which only changed again with Kay's death in 1994, when Mickey Roker and later Albert "Tootie" Heath, the brother of Percy Heath, took over the drum chair.

Jackson had already made several crucial contributions to the developing bebop style, not only with Dizzy Gillespie, but also in seminal recordings with pianist Thelonious Monk (notably in classic sessions for Blue Note in 1948 and 1951), trumpeters Howard McGhee and Miles Davis, and the Woody Herman Orchestra. His association with both Monk and Davis included the definitive version of his most famous composition, 'Bags Groove', laid down in a productive recording session for Prestige on Christmas Eve, 1954, and released on LP under the trumpeter's name as Bags Groove .
Those years established a pattern which Jackson would follow for much of his life, working on the one hand with the MJQ, and on the other either as a leader in his own right, or in collaborations with other stellar names, including albums with Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson, among others. His primary identification, though, remained with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and provided a shining example of the way in which creative tension -- and even creative differences -- can produce positive results.

Many jazz fans at the time (and since) felt that the MJQ's rather austere formal style of dress and presentation were inimical to the jazz spirit, and blamed Lewis for inhibiting Jackson, an accusation which the vibraphonist occasionally stoked with remarks in interviews, complaining in particular about the lack of a full-blooded swing feel in the music.

The aural evidence, however, presents a different aspect of the story. Lewis's light, ornate structures provided more sympathetic settings for Jackson than has often been allowed, and the sense of exhuberant release when the vibraphonist was set loose from some passage of intricate group interplay to spin one of his dazzlingly inventive flights often gave the resulting solo even greater impact than if it had emerged from a driving bop setting.

The MJQ became one of the most popular jazz groups of all time, and drew a following from well beyond the usual jazz audience. The band remained a potent (if still controversial) force for over twenty years, until Jackson chose to leave in 1974, citing both the limitations on his playing freedoms and the constant touring schedules as his reasons, although financial considerations in a period where jazz was not a big draw also influenced his decision.

His departure precipitated the break-up of the group. He freelanced and led his own groups for several years, but the lure of the growing jazz festival circuit saw the MJQ reform in 1981, and they continued to play on a more occasional basis well into the current decade, even after the death of Connie Kay.

Jackson had remained busy while the MJQ lay in abeyance, and continued to be so even after its reformation. He led his own small groups, toured extensively as a soloist playing with local rhythm sections, and co-led a band with bassist Ray Brown for a time in the late 80s. He recorded a number of albums for Norman Granz's Pablo label from the mid-70s, and a series of records at the behest of Quincy Jones for his Qwest label in the 90s.

Although he was forced to cancel a number of engagements through ill health in 1998, Jackson was able to return to playing. He was reunited with Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson for an enagagment and live recording at the Blue Note club in New York at the end of 1998, and recorded with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra earlier this year, a final coda to an extensive and hugely important recorded legacy.

Even in these late recordings, Jackson's deep roots in the blues remain evident, and if they do not have the excitement which marked him out in his prime, they still possess the greatness of both feeling and invention which characterised his playing, and made him not only a truly major voice on the vibraphone, but also one of the great jazz improvisers, irrespective of instrument.

He continued to play until shortly before his death from liver cancer. He is survived by his wife, Sandra; his daughter, Chrysie; and three brothers.

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