Illinois Jacquet

Jazz tenor-saxophone virtuoso

Monday 10 October 2011 05:08

"I was born to play music. I heard music in my mother's stomach. And I knocked on the navel and said, 'Let me out, I want out, I want to play.' "

Jean-Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet, tenor saxophonist and bandleader: born Broussard, Louisiana 31 October 1922; married (one daughter); died New York 22 July 2004.

"I was born to play music. I heard music in my mother's stomach. And I knocked on the navel and said, 'Let me out, I want out, I want to play.' "

A frighteningly able technician and an unrepentant musical vulgarian, Illinois Jacquet wrought fundamental changes to the way the tenor saxophone was played.

"The jumping little tenor man from Houston, Texas, is the hottest thing since the Chicago fire, and there's a shambles of broken box-office records, wrecked ballrooms and astronomical record sales to prove their point." That was how the American jazz magazine Metronome reported the rise of tenor saxophonist Jean-Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet in September 1947.

Until the arrival on the jazz scene of Jacquet in the early Forties tenor-saxophone playing had fallen into two main schools, the first with Coleman Hawkins as a figurehead, the second dominated by Lester Young.

Jacquet blended together the methods of the two men, using the fast, light style of Young and with a unique agility blending in the more trenchant embellishments of Hawkins. At the same time he extended the range of the instrument upwards by two and a half octaves, using harmonics and false fingering to produce a new language of squeals that sounded like the death throes of a harpooned penguin. He also expanded a technique of full-toned honking on notes at the bottom of the instrument.

Paradoxically Jacquet was an imaginative and sensitive interpreter of ballads:

If I play a ballad I fall in love with it as if it was a woman. And I try to play the song as if I was caressing the woman and it comes out beautiful, see? You don't just play it; you have to be involved in it.

Born in Louisiana to an American Indian mother and a French-Creole father, Jacquet grew up in Houston and historically belonged to the group known as the Texas Tenors. This also included Buddy Tate and Arnett Cobb, both, like Jacquet, big-toned players on the rhythm and blues side of jazz.

He first appeared on stage when he was three, singing and dancing with his three brothers, and was tap-dancing in front of his father's big band by the time he was six. In high school he took up drums but then switched to the soprano and alto saxophone. It was on alto that, when he and his trumpeter brother Russell moved to Los Angeles in September 1940, Illinois sat in at a jam session with Nat "King" Cole, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton and Sid Catlett, all top jazz musicians of the day. Cole told Lionel Hampton of the new saxophonist and, joining the Hampton band, Jacquet switched to tenor saxophone.

When he was 19 he became internationally known for his solo on Hampton's 1942 recording of "Flying Home", a solo so powerful that it was ever afterwards incorporated note for note as part of the tune. Both Jacquet and Hampton played it nightly as part of their repertoires until their careers ended.

Jacquet left Hampton for Cab Calloway in 1943 and stayed for a year. In 1944 he played again with Nat Cole at an early Jazz at the Philharmonic concert that was recorded. He soloed at length with much of his high-note shrieking and honking and the records still sell to this day as one of the most potent examples of his work. Norman Granz, who presented the concert, also produced the classic film short Jammin' the Blues (1944), which had Jacquet as its star.

Joining Count Basie in October 1945, Jacquet stayed with the band until one night in Detroit in August 1946 he realised that the audience wanted to hear him more than it did the band. He left and formed his own smaller group and toured as a major soloist with the Jazz at the Philharmonic unit.

He came first to Europe in 1954 with Coleman Hawkins and Sarah Vaughan. The group visited Britain but, due to Ministry of Works rules, was allowed only to play for American servicemen. It wasn't until the Middlesbrough Jazz Festival of 1978 that he became a regular visitor. In demand for festivals worldwide, he toured with the organist Milt Buckner, the bassist Slam Stewart and a band called the Texas Tenors, consisting of him, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb and a rhythm section.

He spent the first years of the Eighties as an artist-in-residence at Harvard University, where in 1983 he formed his big band. He kept it together, appeared with it in concert at the Lincoln Center and in Carnegie Hall and whenever he could brought it to Europe. In 1992 he was the subject of the documentary film Texas Tenor: the Illinois Jacquet story.

Jacquet continued to play throughout the Nineties (he played at President Bill Clinton's inaugural ball in 1993). His last appearance was in concert with his big band at Lincoln Center 10 days ago.

Steve Voce

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