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Jacquet and Granz: Class Acts

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Especially beautiful is his recording of his own composition 'You Left Me All Alone'- one of the most beautiful tenor ballad performances ever...
The recent passing of jazz impresario Norman Granz brought to mind his Jazz at the Philharmonic series of concerts, and that brought to mind the person of Illinois Jacquet, who was a popular fixture at many of the JATP concerts.

Jean Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet was merely 19 years old when, as a member of Lionel Hampton's band, he blew a tenor solo on "Flying Home" that became a classic and oft-imitated solo. It was so popular that Jacquet was called upon to play the same solo in live performances rather than improvise a new one. He continued to play in the best big bands around, including those led by Count Basie and Cab Calloway, toured as part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, and led his own popular jump bands when the big band era began to wane. He is one of the architects of what is commonly referred to as the "Texas tenor style," and his playing is supremely musical, swinging, and gutsy. But somehow, Jacquet has not been accorded the place in jazz history occupied by tenor players like Ben Webster, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, and Johnny Griffin.

Born in Boussard, Louisiana in 1922, Jacquet began as a drummer, later switching to alto saxophone. He grew up in Houston, playing in Milt Larkins' territory band that included the likes of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Arnett Cobb. The territory bands were local bands that traveled extensively, but generally did not play the large cities, like New York and Chicago. They were well known and popular within a limited geographical region. In 1941, Lionel Hampton was putting his band together after leaving the Benny Goodman group, and he invited Arnett Cobb to join. Cobb declined, electing to remain with the Larkins band, so Hampton took on Illinois Jacquet, persuading him to change to the tenor saxophone. Hampton's 1941 band included Dexter Gordon, trumpeter Ernie Royal and his altoist brother Marshall, and pianist Milt Buckner. It was this band that recorded the legendary "Flying' Home," a rollicking, raunchy workout that seemed to redefine the big band sound, with Jacquet's visceral tenor solo stealing the show.

Arnett Cobb agreed to join Hampton's band in 1942, though the band didn't record again until the end of the Federation of Musicians recording ban in March of 1944. He replaced Jacquet, who moved on to play with Cab Calloway and then Count Basie. The story goes that Jacquet quit the Basie band one night in Detroit after realizing that people were more interested in his playing than in hearing the band. He recorded a number of sides from 1945-50 for the Aladdin and Apollo record labels with a seven piece band that featured, at various times, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, Leo Parker, and Sir Charles Thompson. These sides have been made available in a tremendous Mosaic Records 4 CD set The Complete Illinois Jacquet Sessions.

Jacquet became associated with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, becoming known as a tenor wildman because of his raucous wailing and penchant for high note riffs that would drive audiences into frenzy. This reputation is somewhat undeserved, as Illinois has always had a way with the smokier, more romantic tunes as well, such as "Black Velvet." In the 1960's Jacquet took up the bassoon, a notoriously difficult instrument, featuring it in his recording of Monk's "Round Midnight." Since then he has done a fair bit of recording. One of the best introductions to his music is the Prestige 1968 date Bottoms Up , on which Jacquet revisits earlier tunes, like the title track and "Port of Rico" with only a rhythm section to back him. The results demonstrate that Jacquet is in the major league of tenor players. Especially beautiful is his recording of his own composition "You Left Me All Alone"-one of the most beautiful tenor ballad performances ever, with the exception of Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul." There is not an R&B tenor saxophonist, a blues, rock, or jazz tenor man who does not owe something of his sound or his bag of sonic tricks to Illinois Jacquet.

Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (the name came about when the printer of the original concert poster left the final word, "Auditorium," out and Granz decided it worked OK) shows were often criticized as pap for the masses. Since the audience was largely not an educated jazz audience, the musicians could sometimes lay back and rely on "tricks" to get them applause—hence, Jacquet's reputation for squawking and hitting high notes. This, of course, is one of the problems encountered when attempting to bring art into the marketplace. I mean, once Monet discovered all anyone wanted was water lilies, he barely bothered to paint anything else. Still, Granz rescued jazz from being seen as a nightclub-only music, which certainly kept it in play longer than might otherwise have been the case. Add to that the fact that the JATP shows toured Europe, spreading American jazz and exposure to some great players following WWII and Granz's insistence that black musicians be treated the same as whites, receiving the same pay and patronizing the same restaurants and hotels, and you can see that a lot was accomplished through his work.

Eventually, of course, Granz started Verve records, a consolidation of the labels he'd set up to release the JATP concerts and other projects. Verve quickly became a very prolific label, releasing LP after LP of classic jazz recordings. In addition, the label became very prestigious, signing the best artists and recording them in seemingly endless variations. Granz always had something new up his sleeve—recording Charlie Parker with strings, for example, or the only Harry Carney-led sessions, or the Ella Fitzgerald American songbook collections. By 1960, when jazz was no longer America's preferred popular music, Granz sold Verve and moved to Switzerland, where he continued to promote tours.

In 1973 he was back, launching the incredible Pablo label which featured a catalog of new recordings by Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others. Some of these artists recorded their last albums for the Pablo label, and Granz was often able to record them in unusual settings (such as the Basie small-group sessions that are indeed a jewel in Pablo's crown). In 1987 he sold Pablo to Fantasy Records, who continue to remaster and release the Pablo catalog for distribution on compact disc.

Verve records threw a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1994 to celebrate Granz's fiftieth anniversary in the music business. Never one for ceremony or accolades directed his way, he didn't attend. Granz once said of trumpeter Roy Eldridge: "He's a musician for whom it's far more important to dare, to try to achieve a particular peak—even if he falls on his ass in the attempt—than it is to play safe. That's what jazz is all about."

Guys like Granz and Jacquet have spent their entire lives daring, trying to achieve a particular peak, and not giving a damn about the current fashion. I wish there were more like them.
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