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"Well, I'll tell ya," drawls tenor-sax great Illinois Jacquet by phone from his home on Long Island, "they say you always return to the scene of the crime."
Jacquet is referring to Fort Lauderdale, where he will perform with his big band on Saturday as part of the Bonnet House Jazz Fest. Fifty-four years have passed since he played here with another big band, one led by a certain vibraphonist name of Lionel Hampton. "The train didn't seem to make a direct stop," Jacquet wryly recalls of his transportation to Lauderdale. "It sort of slooooowed up, 'cause it was goin' to Miami. And I often wonder, 'Well, why didn't it stop and let us off properly?' Y'know, we had bags and instruments...." So the jump band jumped. "It was not an easy thing to do. We were young, though...."
Eighteen, to be exact (tenor sax compadre Dexter Gordon was just seventeen), and loving life. Born in Broussard, Louisiana, and reared in Houston, Jacquet was doing what he was born to do. Entertain. His pop was a bandleader, his older brothers accomplished horn players in their own right. He chased Count Basie's band to California, hooked up with Hamp, and began to make the music that would make his name.
At age 72, Jacquet is still making music, traveling the world with his own big band (he likes his current home because it's close to La Guardia, JFK, and Newark), playing concerts and festivals, and continuing to dazzle audiences with his high flying solos. Ironically, it was a stint as artist in residence at Harvard University, where he taught for three years, that convinced him of the viability of putting together a big band; for years he'd been performing with just eight or nine pieces. "When I got those students interested in playing my charts and whatnot, they begin to sound like a professional band. That's what gave me the idea to form a big band."
Unfortunately, it's still a big band without a recording contract: Negotiations with Sony fell through, but Atlantic, which released his most recent effort, 1988's Jacquet's Got It (with SoFla jazz drummer Duffy Jackson), remains interested. Increasing his stature -- only the recording industry would need more reasons to sign someone like Illinois Jacquet -- is his induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame, at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies this Sunday after his Fort Lauderdale appearance. Last year he was recognized with a similar honor by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Jacquet's impact is unquestionable, whether belching sooty riffs that practically set the standard for R&B and rock and roll, or blowing ballads creamier than vichyssoise. It was the former, however, that wrote large his name in the history books, his breath-defying, seemingly endless solo on Hamp's "Flying Home" inspiring generations of honkers and hooters to come. "We didn't do too many takes," the saxophonist recollects of the now infamous session. "They had to build me a little platform -- a little guy, eighteen years old, with a big tenor saxophone. When I got ready to go up there, I didn't know what I was going to play. Every night I'd sound like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, you know, I'd be playing like my peers. And the first saxophone player, Marshall Royal, he just reached over before I went to the microphone and he put his hand on the side of his mouth and said, 'Go for yourself.' And I said, 'Go for myself?' I didn't know I had a self I could go for. And that's when I created that solo."
With no inkling as to the sensation his solo would stir, Jacquet first heard the record of "Flying Home" during an engagement in Jacksonville. "We were playing a club there called the Two Spot -- it was a dancehall way out on the outskirts. And we were staying in the city at some local dump hotel, and all of a sudden, they had a truck -- a loud-speakin' truck -- goin' down the street playin' that record. I jumped up and said [voice raising an octave or two], 'Wait a minute!' and looked out the window, and the kids were running behind that truck. And that was the first time I heard that release." The dancehall that night? Packed to the rafters. "You couldn't even get in the parking lot," he says proudly.
The road experience with Hampton proved invaluable, building on the rep Jacquet had established jamming in the clubs of Los Angeles with cats such as Nat "King" Cole (who introduced him to Hamp), Jimmy Blanton, Charlie Christian, and blues legends T-Bone Walker and Charles Brown, who he knew from Texas. Never one to overstay his welcome, Jacquet jumped from Hampton's band to Cab Calloway's, making films with the Hi-de-ho Man, and then finally catching up with the band that had made him want to play jazz more than anything else in the world: the Count Basie Orchestra.
After a year, opportunity knocked again, this time in the form of Norman Granz, the producer of the Jazz at the Philharmonic sessions, who could pay Jacquet more than the Count could afford. Another historic side was cut, "Blues, Part 2," the record that was to launch Granz and the fledgling Verve label. Jacquet remembers the circumstances: "They had a race riot out in California in 1944. And Nat 'King' Cole asked me to play this benefit. We wasn't gettin' paid or anything. And we just started playin', and Les Paul started doin' things on his guitar, and he said, 'Where'd that come from?' and I started creating things, and I heard the audience going crazy." Recorded without the musicians' knowledge, the session was shipped overseas as a morale booster for the joes fighting Tojo. After the war -- and the resultant record ban -- "Blues" was released as a single stateside, and according to Jacquet it sold "like the daily news." And though he's now hesitant to admit it, he told Eddie Cook at Jazz Journal International in February that he never received royalties for the record ("That's still in question," he allows diplomatically), the success of which made Granz wealthy and enticed jazz stars such as Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald to record for JATP.
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.