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