Milt Jackson - Biography

Vibraphonist Milt Jackson, member of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and the Modern Jazz Quartet, master blues player, and composer of such bop classics as “Bags’ Groove” and “Bluesology,” was right in the thick of the bop revolution from the minute he arrived in New York. With Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo his only precursors on the instrument, Jackson took most of his inspiration from hearing bebop. In a revealing interview with Lazaro Vega in 1989, he said “it became a challenge to me to play that instrument and to approach it the same way that Charlie Parker or Dizzy did their music. There's the whole picture.”

Milton Jackson was born on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1923, in Detroit, Michigan. Blessed with perfect pitch, he was a well-versed musician by his middle teens. Starting with the guitar, which he taught himself around the age of 7, young Milt began piano lessons at 11. In high school, he added tympani, drums, violin, and xylophone, and sang in the choir; the vibraphone came into his repertoire when he was 16. He started his professional career singing, first gospel and then jazz. When he discovered that the vibrato he used with his voice was similar to what he could coax out of the vibraphone, he told Vega that he “gave up singing plus four other instruments to concentrate on that one instrument...when I found I could simulate or imitate the sound I got with my voice then I got totally carried away with” the vibes. He found that setting the instrument’s oscillator to a much lower setting than that used by the extremely influential Hampton allowed for a more subtle and expressive vibrato effect.

Jackson’s earliest gigs were with Clarence Ringo and the George E. Lee band. He nearly became a member of the Earl Hines band, but received a draft notice and instead joined the Army in 1942. Returning to Detroit after two years overseas, Jackson formed his own quartet. He also acquired his life-long nickname of “Bags,” from the bags under his eyes after a drinking binge after being discharged. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie heard the band on a swing through the Midwest. Jackson told Vega that Gillespie “was impressed. He offered me a job in New York. In fact, he encouraged me to come to New York and then actually he offered me a job on top of it, so that's what really got me here.”

Jackson was first heard in Gillespie’s sextet in records for the Dial label in Los Angeles in February 1946 and with Dizzy’s big band later that month for Victor. These releases quickly established Jackson as a major new voice on his instrument, and his services remained in great demand for the remainder of his illustrious career. Jackson remained in the Gillespie organization until the fall of 1947. Jackson joined forces with trumpeter Howard McGhee, then freelanced around Detroit before returning to New York to record with Thelonious Monk for Blue Note in the summer of 1948. Jackson made his debut as a leader on record with Roll ‘Em Bags, a Savoy session in January 1949. Jackson worked with such stars as Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, and Woody Herman before rejoining the Gillespie sextet in 1951.

When the brassmen in the Gillespie big band had needed a break to rest their lips from the demanding charts, the rhythm section of Jackson, pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Kenny Clarke would take over to play a few numbers. The four men recorded as the Milt Jackson Quartet for Gillespie’s Dee Gee label in 1951. Because Brown was working in Ella Fitzgerald’s backing trio, Percy Heath replaced him in the quartet, which became known as the Modern Jazz Quartet when they recorded four songs for the fledgling Prestige label in December 1952. Connie Kay became the group’s drummer when Clarke decamped for Europe in 1955. That same year, Lewis became the quartet’s musical director and the composer of most of their repertoire. With a series of albums on Atlantic beginning with Fontessa (1956), the MJQ established itself as one of the top jazz ensembles of the era. Indeed, as noted by Ben Ratliff of The New York Times, “the group would be one of the few jazz bands embraced by an audience much wider than jazz fans.”

The Modern Jazz Quartet was known for its decorum, careful planning, and attention to classical forms like the rondo. These aspects reflected the personality of Lewis, a situation that Jackson described, in the interview with Vega, as “only natural ...” Jackson, who always maintained a separate band and recording career of his own, told Vega that only when he takes the stage does he “think about the first tune I want to play and then I take it from there. That's called spontaneity, o.k? That's my whole personal approach. So there you go: that explains all of it...”

During the nearly two decades that the Modern Jazz Quartet successfully toured, Jackson was involved in a number of significant recordings outside of the confines of the band. He teamed with a wide variety of all-stars, including saxophonists Coleman Hawkins on Bean Bags (1958 Atlantic), Cannonball Adderley on Things Are Getting Better (1958 Riverside), and John Coltrane on Bags And Trane (1959 Atlantic), guitarist Wes Montgomery on Bags Meets Wes (1961 Riverside), and pianist Oscar Peterson on Very Tall (1961 Verve).

Jackson left the MJQ in 1974, citing the lack of adequate compensation for the band given its stature and ongoing popularity. The group reunited in 1981, touring several times during the decade. Connie Kay died in 1994. The quartet gave its last performance the following year, with Mickey Roker on drums. Jackson had begun a fruitful recording relationship with Norman Granz and Pablo Records in 1975, appeared on dozens of Pablo releases during the Seventies and Eighties in large groups and small units with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Joe Pass, singer Joe Turner, and many others. The final MJQ recordings also appeared on Pablo. Along with the group’s earliest dates for Prestige, these were collected in 2003 on The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige & Pablo Recordings (Prestige), a four disc set.

In the Nineties, Jackson showed very few signs of slowing down. His 1995 Qwest date, Burnin’ In the Woodhouse, showcased him teaching a younger generation a thing or two, as he performed with guests Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, and Jesse Davis. He also recorded as a guest artist with The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra on Explosive (1998 Warner Bros.). Jackson’s final recordings, Live at the Blue Note and What’s Up? (both on Telarc) stem from a November, 1998 reunion with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown at the Blue Note in New York.

At the age of 76, the great vibraphonist died in New York of liver cancer on October 9, 1999.


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