Chubby Jackson

Flamboyant jazz bass player of extraordinary technique
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Greig Stewart Jackson (Chubby Jackson), bassist, bandleader, songwriter and television presenter: born New York 25 October 1918; three times married (one son, two daughters); died San Diego, California 1 October 2003.

Cheerleader, straw boss (road manager) and most importantly bass player with one of the greatest big bands in history, Chubby Jackson was an influential innovator and a hyperactive clown. With Ralph Burns, Bill Harris and Flip Phillips he formed the creative nucleus of Woody Herman's First Herd, an explosive 16-piece group that changed the sound of big-band jazz for ever.

On the face of it, the members of the Herd were master musicians, and they did form the finest team of soloists outside the Duke Ellington or Count Basie bands. But their technical abilities were disastrously limited, as they found out when the composer Igor Stravinsky arrived at a rehearsal to conduct the band in his Ebony Concerto (1945), commissioned for the Herd by Herman. Jackson said:

I'd received my parts a couple of weeks earlier and I was flabbergasted to see how simple the parts for bass were. The band came in and I got lost in the second bar. The reason for all this was that each member of the rhythm section had his own part that had nothing to do with one another. Usually the guys in the rhythm section leaned on each other for a successful sound.

Jackson was not alone. Only one member of the band, Ralph Burns, was able to interpret his part, for the piano, as Stravinsky intended. Flip Phillips, despite his renown, could not read music. Stravinsky stopped the band. "My good fellow," he said to Phillips, "what you are playing is very nice, but what I have written is much better." The musicians roared with laughter and the tension evaporated, but the band didn't succeed in getting to grips properly with the music. Jackson had had a bass built with a fifth high C string to add to the instrument's range. Stravinsky was much diverted by this, and took the instrument from Jackson and played a few notes on it.

By then, Jackson had developed an extraordinary technique and the extra string enabled the bass sound to soar with clarity over the rest of the band. It was the band's veteran drummer Dave Tough, a professional for 20 years before he joined the Herman band in 1944, who pointed out that, although Jackson's high-note work was impressive, it was usually better for the bass to stay low down and to work creatively within the same range as the rest of the band.

The Herman Herd would continually erupt with enthusiasm, best heard in the ceaseless enthusiastic cries from the bass chair (even on some of the band's recordings) as Jackson was transported by the other soloists or the incandescent brass ensembles. At its peak in 1944 and 1945, the band thrust out a volcanic and simplified version of "modern jazz" that was both new and exhilarating, to a public exulting in the impending defeat of the Axis.

Jackson marvelled at the sounds from the band and was more responsible than anyone for the powerful one-for-all comradeship that drove the music. The band recorded "Apple Honey", "Northwest Passage", "Caldonia" and Herman's biggest hit, "Woodchoppers' Ball". Herman had to play the latter every night for the rest of his life and it impinged on the sanity of many of the later sidemen. If ever there was music for its time, this was it, and Herman's band rode the tide of success, travelling relentlessly until 1946, when Herman was forced to come off the road to save his marriage and the band broke up.

"Chubby" Jackson was born Greig Stewart Jackson in 1918 in New York; his parents had been in vaudeville for decades, and it is no doubt from them that Jackson inherited his flamboyant talents as a comedian. Although he started as a clarinettist, Jackson switched to double bass in 1935 and became a professional musician in 1937 when he was 19. He played in the dance bands led by Raymond Scott, Jan Savitt and Henry Busse. In 1941 he joined the jazz-oriented band of Charlie Barnet and for a time formed a two-bass team in the band with Oscar Pettiford, one of the ultimate virtuoso players. Pettiford was to work in the Duke Ellington band, eventually succeeding the legendary Jimmy Blanton, who had been the main influence on Jackson.

Barnet, a playboy who had family money, was always a good friend to his musicians, and he was devastated when Jackson left to join Herman. Worse was to come, for Jackson eventually persuaded Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti and Frances Wayne, Hefti's wife and one of the best of the "girl singers", to leave Barnet for Herman.

When the Herman band broke up, Jackson worked for the tenor player Charlie Ventura in a quartet with Buddy Rich, and then formed a band of ex-Herman musicians, which he called the Crown Pilots, to tour Scandinavia in 1947. He rejoined Herman in 1948 as young musicians like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims were coming up through the band, but left to form his own short-lived band. Jackson returned to Ventura in 1951 and co-led a dazzling quintet with Bill Harris that for some time included Ralph Burns on piano. He also played for 10 weeks with Louis Armstrong's All Stars.

During the Fifties Jackson settled in Chicago, worked as a studio musician, made several returns to Herman, and produced and introduced a children's television show, The Little Rascals, which was broadcast for five days a week. With it he won "The Best Local Kiddie Show Award". He reformed his own big band in Chicago and made two classic LP albums for the Argo label, flying Bill Harris in from New York to be the main soloist. Meanwhile he was sent to work on the New York version of The Little Rascals and completed a total of 13 years with the show.

Continuing to appear with Herman when reunions came along, and touring with Lionel Hampton's band in 1978 and 1979, Jackson none the less regarded himself as being in retirement. But the tradition was carried on by his son Duffy, who became the drummer in the Count Basie band, and his daughter JaiJai, who sang with Buddy Rich's band and became a television producer.

In 1989 Jackson toured Japan once more with Lionel Hampton and, in his retirement in San Diego, became an organiser of the Older Adult Service and Information System (Oasis) to "provide upbeat cultural, educational and social services for seniors". He briefly hosted The Jazz Library, a monthly half-hour cable-TV programme produced by his daughter.

Steve Voce