Jean Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet

Sep 8, 2017

Scott Hamilton, the great tenor saxophonist and keeper of the flame, posted concert footage of Illinois Jacquet playing “Blues for Louisiana” on Facebook on September 6. 

Scott’s find was ringed with enthusiastic comments by music masters Michael Hashim, Duke Robillard, and Mike LeDonne over what Scott called, “[One of the] very few videos that show Illinois the way he was at his very best. This one comes a little closer than most.”

Once I took a look at Illinois playing what he calls “blues jazz,” I spent the next few hours immersed in footage of the legendary Louisiana-born Texas tenor.

That's William “Wild Bill” Davis taking a bow and playing organ with Illinois. I saw Wild Bill with Duke Ellington in 1971 in one of the rare times when the Ellington orchestra used an organist. I was 17 and knew nothing of Davis at the time, that he’d first played with Jacquet in Milt Larkin's legendary territory band in Texas in the early '40s. He went on to work as the pianist and arranger in Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five between 1945-'47, when Jordan was "King of the Jukeboxes." He was also the arranger, and was reputedly supposed to play organ on Count Basie’s classic “April in Paris." And he was Jimmy Smith’s main man as the pioneering master of the Hammond B-3 in jazz. Shortly after seeing him with Duke, I heard him featured with Johnny Hodges on "Blues for New Orleans," the opening movement of Ellington’s new album, New Orleans Suite. And what I’ll never forget is how he and Paul Gonsalves floored me with their performance of “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’” with Ellington at the Webster, Mass. Town Hall. 

Illinois Jacquet, circa 1955

As for Jean Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet, he was born on Halloween in 1922  in Broussard, Louisiana, and raised in Houston. Jonah Jones, trumpet star of Cab Calloway’s orchestra in the '40s, said of his tenor playing colleague, “No one set me on fire like he did.” As cocksure as any saxophonist in history, Jacquet got off to a fast start with his soaring, two-chorus solo on Lionel Hampton’s Swing Era classic, “Flying Home,” and went on to build a career on such launching pads as “Port of Rico,” “Boot ‘Em Up,” and “Illinois Flies Again.” Jacquet's uproarious style was not only perfectly suited to the riffing big bands of Hamp, Cab, and Count Basie, but it earned him a starring role in Jazz at the Philharmonic from its inception in 1943, and when Norman Granz began Clef Records, Jacquet was an early recruit.

Jacquet's work in the mid-'40's is often credited as the prototype for the honking, bar-walking tenor solos that were ubiquitous in early r&b and rock'n'roll. Jean Bach, who later produced the documentary A Great Day in Harlem, was married to trumpeter Shorty Sherrock at the time of JATP's launch. In Tad Hershorn's biography of Granz, The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice, he quotes Bach: "It was a success, a milestone in jazz history. But the thing that really got me was Illinois Jacquet, well, he shrieked a lot. I think he's wonderful. But, boy, the thing that got through to the crowd was the shrieking, and I developed this terrible headache, and it became my 'Jazz at the Philharmonic headache'." Hershorn adds, "The typically immodest Jacquet described his JATP pyrotechnics differently: 'My high notes are inspired by the Lord'."

I remember Jacquet being mentioned somewhat dismissively by the more purist of the mentors who guided me when I began listening to jazz in the late '60's. But my appreciation for him grew from reading Charles  Mingus’s liner note essay for his 1971 recording Let My Children Hear Music. Mingus was returning to the scene after a long hiatus, and he took the opportunity to write a new manifesto declaring, “Let my children hear music—for God’s sake—they have had enough noise.”

One of the things Mingus lamented was the declining number of well-crafted solos that were memorized by their creators and played back for audiences who knew them by heart. Mingus credited improvising masters like Jacquet and Coleman Hawkins with “taking the place of the composer,” but wondered if “today…most jazz musicians can even repeat their solos after they’ve played them once on record.”

Here’s Jacquet in 1993 with a swinging big band and his solo intact.

That, of course, was not the case with Jacquet. Only 20 at the time of his debut with Hampton’s big band in 1942, his solo on "Flying Home" became one of the most imitated of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and it remained a favorite as he revisited the tune for the next 50 years. Jacquet's legions loved it, along with his ballad specialties “Don’t Blame Me,” “Ghost of a Chance,” and “You Left Me All Alone;” lyrical swingers like “Robbins’ Nest” and “Blue Satin;” and his luxuriant “Black Velvet,” which Frank Sinatra later sang as “Don’t Cha Go ‘Way Mad.”

Here's Jacquet leading a performance of "Flying Home" with fellow tenors Budd Johnson, Dexter Gordon, Arnett Cobb, and Buddy Tate; that's Tate playing the bridge, followed by the great, though rarely filmed Johnson. Dexter pays elegant homage to Jacquet as he begins his solo with a direct quote from the original, but stops in mid-phrase with a sweep of his arm in deference to its creator.

And here's the concluding performance from the "tenor battle" at The Hague, a blues in C that opens with a couple of choruses by the ever remarkable Hank Jones.

Jacquet is the subject of the documentary Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story which we screened a few years ago in the Jazz a la Mode Film Series at Amherst Cinema.  Directed by the renowned fashion photographer Arthur Elgort and filmed in shimmering black and white, the film opens with stunning close-ups of Jacquet’s embouchure and finger work, includes numerous performance clips of the photogenic saxophonist,  Jacquet recalling the advice he was offered by Marshall Royal on the day he recorded “Flying Home,” and witty observations by colleagues Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Dorothy Donegan, and Harry "Sweets" Edison.  The most telling is spoken by John Grimes, who says, “I don’t know anyone who could get to the people better than Jacquet.”