Blatant opportunism and racism have played too big a role in the history of jazz and R&B, and Jacquet certainly felt the stings of both. After the Lauderdale gig more than a half century ago, the Hampton band was booked to play Miami Beach; their accommodations, however, were not exactly walking distance from the ocean. "When I got to Miami, in that other side of town, I said, 'This is Miami? This is Florida?' Until I got onto the beach. It was like Heaven! This is Miami! We had a chance to see Miami Beach, but there weren't no colored people out there. They sent a bus to pick us up and carry us to Heaven...then back to Hell."
The road could also be hellish. Just ask WTMI jazz jock China Valles (the Mahj), who served as a driver and road manager for one of Jacquet's small bands in the Fifties. On the way from Denver to Omaha, the car Valles was riding in crashed, introducing the Mahj to the windshield at 70 mph. Unknown to the other band members, Valles had broken his jaw in eight places. They placed him on his back. "I lost teeth, and I was gagging like hell," Valles remembers. "I was just swallowing these teeth. They tell me it was Illinois who said, 'Turn him over on his stomach!' My doctor told me later that saved my life." Did Valles return to the road? "Heck no! That was the end of that! That's how I got into radio."
Pain and joy is the essential dichotomy that makes up the blues, the cornerstone of Jacquet's jazz. "If you can't play the blues, you're just pigeon-toed in a corner somewhere," he says. "But you got to have it in you. And when we were growing up, we heard that. We heard those guitars, goin' out on all those picnics, and you hear that T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner and Brownie McGhee.... You really hear the foundation. Then you start hearing all the greats in jazz: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Hot Lips Page, Louis Armstrong...it was such a great blend."
Although he doesn't say it, he means "great blend" of black music. "White people, they couldn't play that music," he says. "They loved it so much, it stopped Jim Crow to a certain extent. But the music was sort of like a gift to the black person in the South. And it's a special type of gift that lets you know that that kind of art was them."
The Illinois Jacquet Big Band performs Saturday at 7:00 p.m. at the Bonnet House, 900 N Birch Rd, Ft Lauderdale; 524-0805. Tickets cost $30 and $60.