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Memories of Illinois

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Apart from his powerful tenor on jam session that always electrified the crowd, Illinois played some very lovely ballads and blues with a touching intimacy that could rival Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Herschel Evans.
Just one day after my tribute/obit to the death of Eddie Green and Arthur Harper, Illinois Jacquet, perhaps the most exciting tenor sax of the glory years, died at 81 from a heart attack.

I was pretty much determined not to write another obit inasmuch as I had already done another in my prior column. Obits were the first stories I was assigned when I started my professional journalism life working as a daily newspaper reporter for the White Plains (N.Y.) Reporter Dispatch. So much for good intentions. Illinois was much to much a part of my jazz journey through life to ignore. Even network TV took notice of his passing with a segment on ABC news last week by Peter Jennings.

Illinois Jacquet, was born Jean-Baptiste Jacquet on Oct. 31, 1922 in Broussard, Louisiana to a Sioux Indian woman and a French-Creole railroad worker bassist. He dropped the French name when he moved to Houston, Texas six months later.

In his early years, Illinois played alto and soprano before switching to tenor sax. He worked with various bands through the 30's until joining Lionel Hampton in 1941 with whom, at just 19, he recorded a scorching tenor sax solo on Flying Home. This excited jazz fans from coast to coast and became a mainstay with the band. Overshadowing Hampton was no small accomplishment.

He worked later with Cab Calloway and Count Basie. It was at Jazz at the Philharmonic that he created fire in the field with solos that some critics called screeching, but fans loved for their primal force. His recording of Perdido where he exchanged choruses with Flip Philips is easily one of the most exciting jazz recordings ever made.

The November 1947 concert at Carnegie Hall where he first did this number was sold out with highly vocal fans of both Flip and Illinois anxious for what was later called the battle of the saxophones. When they started their respective solos, it was customary for fans to shout out to them to "blow, man, blow".

My high school buddy, Tony DePalma, and I adventuresomely took a trip across the river from New York to Newark to see them play there. We were in proverbial seventh heaven. It was one of the most exciting jazz experiences in my life. I even played the LP recording of that concert again just before writing this. After all these years I still found myself thrilled with the pulsating joy they created on the stage that night. It was, for jam session jazz, akin to the now-famed Benny Goodman 1938 concert in Carnegie Hall when as one musician put it, they made a lady out of jazz. Illinois worked variously though those years with Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Jazz at the Philharmonic and eventually with his own band. He recorded some 300 original compositions including his three most famous—Black Velvet, Robbins and Port of Rico.

Robbins Nest was named for our favorite N.Y. disc jockey, Fred Robbins, who later adapted the song as something of his theme song. It was beautifully done.

Apart from his powerful tenor on jam session that always electrified the crowd, Illinois played some very lovely ballads and blues with a touching intimacy that could rival Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Herschel Evans. In 1959, he was one of the featured players in the Academy Award-winning short, Jammin the Blues.

In later years, Illinois toured Europe and in 1983 became the first jazz musician to become an artist-in-residence at Harvard University where he served as a guest lecturer.

We used to catch Illinois at various New York gigs through the years, going from the huge barn-like bar club on Times Square called the Metropole to the major movie houses that then featured live performances including the Apollo in Harlem.

The last time I saw him was a few years ago at the Tavern on the Green in New York when I was visiting from Philadelphia. It made the visit a trip home in every sense of the word.

Eerily, almost ominously, my old high school chum sent me an e-mail photo of Illinois the day before his death notice appeared. In a way that's appropriate. Two life-long friends exchanging memories of the jazz giant who brought them joy through the years.

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