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Remembering Milt Jackson

Lazaro Vega By

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This interview was first published at All About Jazz in November 1999 and is part of our ongoing effort to archive pre-database material.

This interview was conducted prior to a Modern Jazz Quartet performance at Hope College, Holland, Michigan in September of 1989. Broadcast at the time on Blue Lake Public Radio; portions of this interview appeared in an advance article published by the Grand Rapids Press. Jackson spoke from his home in Teaneck, N.J.

Lazaro Vega: Did you go to Michigan State?

Milt Jackson No, no, I didn't go. I had class there. They let me go because they wanted me to play in the band. They had a jazz band out there. I never actually attended college.

LV: So that's about in the mid-1940's, 1944?

MJ: No: '41, '40. Um-hum.

LV: When you were in Detroit where did you go to school?

MJ: I went to Miller High.

LV: In that period in the early '40's there, wasn't it Dizzy Gillespie who more or less discovered you?

MJ: Yeah.

LV: Would you talk a little bit about that?

MJ: Well, he had just left Billy Eckstine's band in 1944 and came through Detroit and came to a jam session, you know, and he heard me play. And he 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.

LV: At that time had you already been listening to Diz's records?

MJ: Oh yeah! I'd been listening to Charlie Parker at that time, and all of the big bands that came through.

LV: The Eckstine Band must have been a killer band.

MJ: Yes it was.

LV: Did you hear that band?

MJ: Yes I did.

LV: With Gene Ammons?

MJ: Yes, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt. Oh man. Fats Navarro. Miles was even in the band for a while. So was Dizzy. Oh man, it was a great band. But, to show you what happened with the media, when they found out they could capitalize on him just as a singer, that's when, they, well they actually separated him from the band. They told him that, you know, "You don't need a band." Because they had a hard time eventually getting bookings for the band. So he disbanded and just went on as a single. That's when he became a big hit, of course.

LV: What have you been doing with your summer?

MJ: I've been working all summer with the other group that I have with Cedar Walton, John Clayton and Billy Higgins. And we just finished a tour all throughout the west for the last five weeks.

And now the MJQ is off vacation and back to work, you see? This is the first tour coming up after vacation.

LV: Where are you going to be on your tour with the MJQ?

MJ: Well, aside from there, we're going to go to Detroit, and then we're going to Chicago for a week at the Fairmont Hotel. Then we're going to head out west after that, also, with a concert in Pasadena on the first of October, and then up to the Fairmont in San Francisco, in that area.

They have a chain of Fairmont Hotels. They have one in Frisco, one in New Orleans. The one in New Orleans is quite famous, also. I'll be busy right up until December.

LV: Is the MJQ going to make some more records?

MJ: Well, yeah. What happened was the producer (Nesuhi Ertegun) died.

LV: I just heard that.

MJ: Everything is on hold at the moment until, I think, his brother (Ahmet Ertegun) is going to take over. He was always the President of Atlantic, anyway. That's what I heard the other day when I called. So it will be, oh, sometime the first of the year, probably, the quartet will make another album. And I will, also.

LV: Are you going to make yours for Atlantic?

MJ: Well the same company, yes: East/West.

LV: So it will be Ahmet Ertegun taking over?

MJ: I think so, but I'm not sure because he was away out of the country. When he comes back we're supposed to sit down and get together. I'm supposed to find out exactly what's going on, you know.

LV: Would you like to say a few words about Nesuhi Ertegun? I know you worked together for a long time.

MJ: Oh yeah man, he was a very great producer. What I admired was the respect he had for the music. He had a very fond love for jazz. He was the one responsible for all of the jazz artists who came to Atlantic. Because, see, what happened was the brother Ahmet, he was more or less into the other part of it, the rock and roll era, with such great artists as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and people like that. Nesuhi was a little more concerned about jazz artists and he got a lot of the jazz artists recorded. Like the album I made, for example, with Coleman Hawkins. Things like that.

LV: Bean Bags with Kenny Burrell.

MJ: Yeah.

LV: ...and Tommy Flanagan.

MJ: Right.

LV: I like the "Get Happy" on that.

MJ: Oh yeah, right! Right! Right! Yes, I remember that. Sure.

LV: What was Hawk like?

MJ: Oh man, beautiful, beautiful. He was a very meticulous man in terms of the music and of himself. He was one of the few artists, man, that like anytime you saw him he was immaculate the way he dressed and all. He was never really sort of casual. He was always impeccable. That was just a quality to me that I greatly admired.

LV: He would have been like an older guy for you at that time, too, probably.

MJ: Oh yeah, he was one of the older musicians, but I got exposed to all of them at an early age. And then, ah, I ain't that far behind myself now. I'm 66.

LV: The Ertegun brothers got you together with Ray Charles, so they did it both ways. I'd like to get a copy of that.

MJ: Right. It's probably re-issued on CD. I'm sure it is. Because they've just put out a lot of things re-issued on CD. Because that's actually it, now: CD and cassette. Starting with next year, (LP) albums are almost obsolete, yeah, completely. Because everybody's into the new compact discs, the laser and all.

LV: So you have a CD player?

MJ: Oh yes, um-hum.

LV: When the MJQ broke up... there's so many things there, man, was that you who initiated the break up or was it a group decision?

MJ: Nah, it was me, really. I decided to leave, man. I was a little disappointed about the financial income of the quartet in terms of representation to the music world. And I decided to leave. And then they decided to break the group up as opposed to try to make a replacement or form a new group. That's what happened. Then we got back together in '81; we sat down and talked and what not. So, that's really what happened.

LV: Was it Norman Granz that brought you back together?

MJ: No, no: he had nothing to do with it.

LV: Well, I know you recorded with Pablo for a while.

MJ: Yes, I recorded with Pablo. I was still with Pablo when I went back to the quartet. Norman didn't have anything to do with that.

LV: I know all of those records on Pablo with Ray Brown. He's been a friend of your since way back.

MJ: Oh yeah, well, '45, same year: so 44 years. Yes.

LV: Wasn't the MJQ essentially your group at first?
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