Although he became especially well known for his fiery work with Jazz At The Philharmonic, where his playing reflected his breakthrough with Lionel Hampton in the early 1940s and his solo on Flying Home in particular, Illinois Jacquet was a thoroughly accomplished tenor saxophonist with a richly varied repertoire.
He was born in Boussard, Louisiana, on 31 October 1922, but was raised from the age of one in Texas and would thus later be welcomed by those who established what became known as the ‘tough Texa’ style of playing the tenor saxophone. Jacquet was born into a very musical family, his father, Gilbert, leading a band that included Illinois’s brothers Julius, Linton and Russell; he boys’ sister and their mother were also accomplished musicians. While still at school, he danced as a member of the Jacquet Brothers dance team and also played drums. Later, he switched instruments, taking up alto and soprano saxophones. As early as 1938, while still at school, Jacquet sat in with various visiting bands, including that led by Milt Larkins. After graduating from high school, he left Texas to look for musical work in California. There, he worked with Floyd Ray and chanced to meet Nat Cole and was introduced to Lionel Hampton who was in the process of forming a band. Hampton happened to want a tenor player and offered Jacquet a job on the condition that he switch to tenor. Jacquet set out to master the instrument and in 1941 became a key figure in Hampton’s entourage. The recording session that produced the legendary Flying Home was on 26 May 1942. Jacquet’s solo was outstanding and became so inextricably intertwined with Hampton’s composition that it was later integrated into the number and Jacquet’s successors were expected to use it as the basis for their own solos. Deceptively simple, the riff-based solo set a standard and helped establish Jacquet as a major figure in jazz.
In 1943, Jacquet joined Cab Calloway, staying for about a year before moving on to play with various small bands and also to lead his own group in which brother Russell appeared as did Charles Mingus. A brief but telling appearance in the 1944 Gjon Mili-Norman Granz film, Jammin’ The Blues, was followed by regular dates with Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic and he was also with Count Basie’s band. Much of his mid-1940s to mid-1950s work is presented on The Illinois Jacquet Story on Properbox Records. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Jacquet toured with his own small groups and with JATP, becoming in the process a welcome figure on the international jazz club and jazz festival circuits. In some ways, his time with JATP, while valuable and lucrative, was somewhat limiting to his enormous talent. On the JATP bandstand he acquired a reputation as a wild man of the tenor, performing honks and high-note squeals on up-tempo rafter-raising numbers and while these demonstrations of his remarkable technical ability cannot be denied, they were always balanced with exquisite ballad performances as can be heard on many live and studio recording sessions, several on Verve Records, not only in these years but ever afterwards.
Meanwhile, Jacquet continued to form his own groups for club dates, tours and recording sessions, along the way working with many leading jazz instrumentalists and singers. His recordings included the very popular Robbins Nest and Black Velvet. He made a brief instrumental departure by playing bassoon in a jazz context and also from time to time he returned to the alto saxophone on which he displayed his admiration for Charlie Parker. For several years through the late 1960s and into the following decade, Jacquet fronted a trio with Milt Buckner and Jo Jones and worked also with Slam Stewart and Buddy Rich. From time to time he would return to Hampton for concert appearances, and he also worked in several all-star ensembles. His European tours with a Texas Tenors band, along with Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate, was very well received by audiences and critics alike.
After having been artist-in-residence at Harvard in the early 1980s, Jacquet formed a big band for occasional concerts and recording sessions, including Atlantic Records’ Jacquet’s Got It!. He continued to form occasional big bands through the 1990s, a time when he was also a regular visitor to European jazz festivals. A fine example of the Texas tenor style, indeed one of the prototypes of the genre, Jacquet should not be overlooked by those who seek to delineate the history of the tenor saxophone in jazz. He was an important transitional figure in the development of the instrument, retaining a lifelong affinity for the blues while keeping himself attuned to the changes taking place in the bop and post-bop periods of jazz. An admirer of Charlie Parker and Lester Young, he successfully became his own man and set standards for others to follow. Late in life, Jacquet was a dignified on-stage presence as an elder statesman of jazz, while his playing always impressively combined the earthy swing of his Texan upbringing with the melodic grace of an impassioned balladeer. In all that he played, Jacquet sought and found the emotional heart of the material, playing solos that are intense in their fire and rhapsodic in their elemental command. And throughout his career, at the warm heart of his playing there was always the blues.
In 1991 came the release of Arthur Elgort’s documentary film, Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story, which captures all that was good about this exceptional musician.
Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet, died in New York City on 22 July 2004. Of his playing on that 1942 version of Flying Home, he would remark, ‘God bless my solo.’ To which his many fans might well chorus, ‘Yes indeed!’
The foregoing has been adapted from a piece written a few years ago for Jazz Journal.