The State of Illinois

Basie, Ellington, Hampton: They're all gone, and some say that means swing is dead. Don't you dare tell that to eighty-year-old Texas tenor Illinois Jacquet.

November 2002By Comments

ON A WARM JULY NIGHT, an overflowing crowd has gathered at New York’s Lincoln Center plaza. Music lovers of all ages and races, dressed in everything from shorts and T-shirts to full swing-era regalia, are milling about as the band members take their positions. Conversations cease, however, when a golf cart, mobbed by eager fans, pulls alongside the stage and delivers a frail musician who slowly makes his way toward a padded swivel chair. With the crowd on its feet, he shouts, “Let’s swing!” as a warm metallic wall of sound rises from his sixteen-member big band. The dance floor immediately jerks to life.

Illinois Jacquet, the jazz impresario on the swivel chair, celebrates his eightieth birthday on October 31. During a career that has spanned more than seventy years, the former Houstonian has stood side by side with the jazz elite, from Count Basie and Lionel Hampton to Dizzy Gillespie and Lester Young, and etched into vinyl one of the most exciting and influential saxophone solos of all time. But he’s more than an accomplished performer; simply by outliving nearly all of his peers, he is one of the last links to the time when jazz dominated the American musical landscape. Which, ultimately, is what has brought me to New York: When Jacquet (pronounced “Jah-kett“), who rarely gives interviews, finally relented and agreed to meet with me last summer, I jumped at the chance.

I had interviewed him by phone in 2000 and knew him as a real character who did not prize modesty as a virtue. (When asked who should be in a Texas Jazz Hall of Fame, he answered without hesitation, “Illinois Jacquet!”) In person, I expected the same affability. Yet a few hours after arriving in New York, I walked into Jacquet’s afternoon sound check just as he was letting his band have it. “What was that?” he snapped, pointing at a visibly shrinking player. The saxophonist said he hadn’t heard his boss’s previous instructions. Jacquet erupted, “Well, you can hear me now, goddammit. You want to be out here all day?” The sixteen musicians, ranging from veterans to fresh-scrubbed faces with earrings, squirmed and fidgeted with their music.

It was an intimidating performance, but a few days later, when I knocked on the front door of his home in the Addisleigh Park neighborhood in Queens—the same area that once housed Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson, among others—I was relieved to find the gruff bandleader replaced by a gracious and talkative host. Jacquet settled into his favorite chair in his memorabilia-stuffed living room and flashed me an impish grin. “Musicians would knock on my door at four in the morning and fall in my bed. I had to get away from all that,” he said, by way of explaining how he ended up moving here from Harlem in 1947. They would still find him in the ‘burbs. “Ben Webster would go straight to the ice Frigidaire when he walked in and say, ‘What you got?'”

What Jacquet had—a home, money in the bank, and a disciplined lifestyle—was something that eluded many jazz musicians of his era. Though he was born into the generation of bebop, the bold complex music Charlie Parker and his peers played at hyperspeed while they expanded the boundaries of jazz beyond swing, Jacquet stuck to his musical roots and maintained a clean lifestyle. “[People] were making money off the music on Fifty-second Street, supplying drugs for these musicians,” he says, describing the New York bebop scene. “But I wouldn’t be in this house if I was going to go that way.” Jacquet would flirt with modern music, but he always returned to his unique brand of swing.

Not that he had much choice. His father, Gilbert, and three older brothers—Julius, Linton, and Russell—were all swing musicians, and the music was in his blood. Born Jean Baptiste Illinois Jacquet in Louisiana in 1922 but whisked to Houston before he was one, he started his career at age three, singing on Galveston’s GULF radio to promote his brothers’ vaudeville show. Over the next decade, he worked relentlessly, dancing in front of his father’s band, learning the drums, and picking up the soprano and alto saxophone. “I was the hottest thing in town,” he boasted. At fifteen, he joined The Milton Larkin Orchestra, Houston’s most popular dance band, on alto sax. Jacquet admitted that the novelty of his age helped earn him notoriety. “Every band that came through heard about this young guy and would want to jam with me. It was inspiring because they weren’t doing too much that I wasn’t doing.”

Through high school Jacquet’s career was thriving, but his hometown, like all southern cities at the time, was still segregated. Although he eventually had the confidence and the clout to fight it—told to use the back door for a show at the Rice Hotel, Jacquet refused and paraded the band through the front—by 1939 he’d had enough, and he struck out for the West Coast. Things didn’t get much better in Los Angeles. He joined up with a mercurial bassist named Charles Mingus, and while setting up in a bar for their first gig, a patron called out, “What are you niggers doing here?” Mingus cracked the guy over the head with his bass. “There went that job,” Jacquet recalled.

Still, the move to L.A. proved to be fortuitous. Jacquet struck up a friendship there with Nat Cole, who recommended him to vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in 1940. Hampton was assembling his own band and agreed to make room for the precocious teen—with one catch: He would have to switch to tenor saxophone. Jacquet relented, calling on his ample stage experience, and it wasn’t long before he was getting frenzied responses from crowds.

In 1941 Hampton finally brought Jacquet along to record. He remembered the session fondly: “This was the first time I was going to record,” he said, “and I didn’t know what I was going to play or what I was going to sound like, or who I was going to imitate. I prayed to God to let me sound like myself.” During the track “Flying Home,” Jacquet laid down an eighty-second solo that would change the face of music. At its peak, a spontaneous moment of pure, electric energy, Jacquet screamed a single note in syncopation twelve times in a row. Then, making sure you noticed, he did it again. It was raw, lascivious, embodying the worst fears parents had about jazz. America’s popular music had never sounded so arousing. For years afterward, nearly every saxophonist under contract had to be able to play Jacquet’s solo note for note, and it laid the foundation for hundreds of R&B and rock and roll shouters who followed suit. “That solo swept the nation,” bragged Jacquet.

It also drove him into exhaustion. After “Flying Home” was released, Jacquet discovered that audiences expected him to bring down the house every night. He was overwhelmed, and he left the band in 1943. “Sometimes you have to quit to save your life. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘You’re dying and [Hampton is] getting rich.'”

Jacquet spent the next year touring with Cab Calloway’s band before returning to L.A., where he performed for movie stars with brother Russell and Mingus at clubs on Hollywood Boulevard, recorded the first of his superb small-group recordings, and began spending his Sundays hamming it up with Lester Young and others at informal jam sessions organized by promoter Norman Granz. In 1944 Granz rented L.A.’s Philharmonic Hall for an all-star concert to raise money for Mexican youths arrested in the Zoot Suit riots. On his rambunctious rendition of “Blues (Part 2)” from that event, Jacquet drove his tenor into dog-whistle range, putting on a powerhouse performance that made him a star all over again. He says he fed off the audience: “You knew you were doing good because you could hear applause. If you get through and you don’t hear nothin’, you’re dead.” The successful benefit show became the first of the long-standing Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.

In 1946 Jacquet moved to New York and began recording with Count Basie’s band. He then went on to gain fame for churning out wild Jazz at the Philharmonic performances alongside the likes of Young and Dizzy Gillespie. When the series went on tour, Granz booked a 1955 date in Houston, setting up Jacquet’s triumphant homecoming. The promoter insisted that all the “Whites Only” signs be removed, and eliminated pre-sale tickets to ensure an integrated audience.

Yet between sets at the sold-out show, plainclothes policemen broke into Ella Fitzgerald’s dressing room with their guns drawn. “Passing the time,” explained Jacquet, “we were shooting dice, and I was winning money. They took us down to jail. Guy asked Dizzy what his name was. He said, ‘Louis Armstrong.’ Dummy wrote that down.” After being booked for gambling, they were released in time for the second show, though not before some of the cops had the temerity to ask for autographs. Humiliated, the great Illinois Jacquet wouldn’t perform in Houston again for another twenty years.

He never stopped working, yet by the late sixties, new American releases of Jacquet’s music were rare. He spent a lot of time in Europe and seemed to be slipping into the annals of obscurity. But after a positive experience teaching music at Harvard University, in 1983, Jacquet reemerged, at age sixty, to start the Illinois Jacquet Big Band. The economics of such an endeavor had long stopped making sense. Swing music, which had once filled the nation’s airwaves and dance halls had, like all of jazz, been mostly marginalized as an intellectual curiosity. Nonetheless, Jacquet’s band has somehow managed to last nearly twenty years. It has recorded sporadically, played throughout Europe, entertained at the White House—where Jacquet loaned his sax to President Clinton—and even made it to Houston in 1999. Perhaps it’s because on any given night, more than seventy years after his first performance, Jacquet can still connect deeply with an audience and erase decades of shifting cultural tastes.

I saw this happen at Lincoln Center. Two hours into the concert, the band and the audience alike were bathed in sweat. Jacquet, pacing himself all night, had produced some sublime soloing, but there was still one more song to go. Rising once again from his swivel chair, he began to blow the opening notes of “Flying Home.” The audience erupted in appreciation as the air filled with the solo that became a musical blueprint, no longer from a brash nineteen-year-old but from a true jazz hero carrying on in an all-but-dead language.

Proud of all he’s accomplished, Jacquet told me, “No one came out of Texas and did what I did.” Damned if he isn’t still doing it.

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