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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?

MJ: Well, yes, you could say that. We, the group was actually formed inside of Dizzy's band. Three of the original four members, anyway: myself, John and Kenny Clarke, who was the original member of the quartet.

But, see, what happened, Ray never became a member of the quartet. He was a member of my quartet in Dizzy's band, but he never became a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet because when we formed that we couldn't get Ray Brown because he was with Ella, backing her up with a trio. He wasn't available so we had Percy. I always try to specify that because for some reason Percy's very sensitive about that. He feels that for some reason we couldn't afford Brown, and got him. Because we couldn't afford him. And that's not the idea at all. Really, I try to be very careful in saying that because he (Percy Heath) is the original member of the quartet and a lot of people think that Ray was the original member. That's what it is. I think he kind of gets a little uptight every now and then about it. I don't know.

LV: Well, you're the principal soloist in the group.

MJ: Yes. Yes.

LV: For a while, early on especially, it seemed there was criticism leveled at the MJQ where they didn't think you had enough room to blow.

MJ: Well, I don't pay that any attention. Because first of all the reason I do all the other things, in other words while they're (MJQ) on vacation I do all my other things, that gives me the outlet to do what I want aside from that. In fact, it enables me to do both. You know I'm a very active person, I always have been, and that's the way it is, you know.

LV: Do you think, then, that you've resolved within the MJQ any kind of musical tension that you've found? I mean, you've been together for so long and it's...

MJ: No man, it's 38 years, and I'm not going to talk about that! I hate that. You people always try to find dissension and shit! We can talk about the good things, man, there's no dissension. We wouldn't be together 38 years, you know what I mean, if we fought and all this, if there was dissension and stuff like that. There're always disagreements in any walk of life. But aside from that it's nothing. (Incredulous) There's no way a group can be that successful all those years if we don't like each other. I hate to have people ask me that question! It turns me off so bad.

LV: Well, I'm sorry Mr. Jackson, it's just part of the...

MJ: Yeah, I know: part of journalism, man, but that's the part that I avoid.

LV: I never thought that you and John didn't like each other as people, I just thought that musically.That's where I was coming from, but we can just.

MJ: O.K. let me explain it another way then so you won't be offended. Musically what it is, man, this group is a partnership legally, o.k? I'm talking about on paper. Therefore everybody has a specific function. In fact that's why I'm talking to you: part of my job is public relations, as well as being the financier. That's my job. John's job is The Musical Director. He determines the music we play and how we play it and so forth. O.K.? So therefore being that he is the musical director and he writes most of the music, it's his personality that's instilled in the quartet, which is only natural, right? O.K. There's the difference. Where if you've seen both groups, then you can compare these and understand better what I'm saying. John's personality is instilled in that quartet. Therefore it's really his direction in terms of what you hear.

When I walk out on that stage with my group I don't think about what I want to play until I get there. That's basically the difference. John, everything he does is planned, even the program. You know what I'm saying? If we have a performance tonight, he has a program he writes out. If it's not already written, if it's a new program, he'll write that down before we go to that gig tonight. O.K.? I don't write down nothing. I don't even think about what I'm going to play until I get there. Then when I get up on that stage, then I 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, or it should.

LV: Now, that quartet you've been working with includes Billy Higgins, Cedar Walton, and who was the bassist?

MJ: John Clayton.

LV: Oh, John Clayton.

MJ: Yes sir.

LV: I remember him from the Basie band.

MJ: Yes, right. In fact when I recorded with Basie he was with the band (Note: Milt Jackson + Count Basie + The Big Band Volumes 1 & 2, Pablo 2310-822, 2310-823). That's a record album. You know that's volume 1 and 2? We made that record date starting at 1 o'clock and at 4:30 we were all packing up to go. That's one of the fastest record dates in history.

LV: (Laughing) For two volumes.

MJ: I'm serious. That's right. We made about five or six just one-take tunes: "Lil Darlin,'" that was just one take; "Corner Pocket," which is one of my favorites, we did that in one take; "Lena and Lenny" I believe a tune Leonard Feather wrote, I think, (Note: it's by Quincy Jones), anyhow, we did that in one take. On several of the tunes we just did one take. Mr. Basie said, "that's it. Let's go. (Laughs) Next tune."

LV: Big bands and you are interesting -they really work. You were with Dizzy...

MJ: Oh yeah, man, big bands. I've been a lover of big bands all my life. That's the era I come up in as a kid now. Because this was before bebop and all of that. I guess they called it 'The Swing Era' then, you know, the '30's and the '40s. Coming out of the '20's and things when Duke's music started becoming prominent.

LV: I heard you worked with Woody Herman's band for a while.

MJ: For two years: '49 and '50. Sure.

LV: Did you make records with Woody Herman's band?

MJ: Only one: I played on a tune called "Spain," I believe. I played a few bars on it. I never actually made a whole date with him playing.

LV: Early on, when the vibes were first recorded technology didn't lend itself to fully capturing the subtleties found in your instrument. Even your records with Diz, "52nd Street Theme" and stuff like that...

MJ: Yes.

LV: Or even the big band sides. But today your sound is clearly in evidence. I was wondering if you would please explain your approach to the vibraphone?

MJ: Yeah, well that's easy. What happened was, get ready for this now I'm about to throw you a curve: what you don't, I don't' think you know, anyway, is that I started my professional career as a singer. Gospel, right. Then I moved over into jazz as well later that year. And the vibrato that I get on that instrument was very similar to the vibrato I used with my voice as a singer. This is what fascinated me and I gave up singing plus four other instruments to concentrate on that one instrument. That's what happened, actually, when I found I could simulate or imitate the sound I got with my voice then I got totally carried away with playing that instrument. And 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.

LV: How about a guy like Hamp, how do you feel about Lionel Hampton?

MJ: I told you, he was my first inspiration. Don't forget when I started he and Red Norvo where the only two playing. There were no vibraharpists playing jazz. It's not really a popular instrument. It still isn't today as far as jazz is concerned. And it's even worse with rock or fusion. If you've noticed. I don't know how many of those bands you've seen, but I bet you haven't seen any vibraharpists in one of them.

LV: Just one. David Samuels.

MJ: Who?

LV: A guy named David Samuels.

MJ: David Samuels? Oh yeah, well with what group? His own group?

LV: With Spyro Gyra.

MJ: Oh with Spyro, oh, o.k. I never saw him. And they didn't have him when we played together several years ago at the Hollywood Bowl. Let me tell you about that briefly. What happened was they sandwiched us in between Spyro Gyro and the Tonight Show Band with Doc Severensen. Man, before we could get on they were still screaming for Spyro. One of those revolving stages they have there at The Bowl, you know. And man, shucks, we had to wait until they quieted down before we could even start playing.

LV: How do you feel about that?

MJ: Well it was disastrous. It was the wrong—ah—whoever was in charge of production; it was just the wrong programming. We can never follow a group like that: we're too subtle. I don't care how great the people think the group is, it just never works. There's a psychological element attached to it. It's like a vocalist, that is a vocalist who's one of the bigger names, the Sinatras and the Bennetts and those kind of people, artists. Sarah Vaughn.

Oh, we did a very, very successful concert last Saturday with Ella in Tanglewood. 15,000 people. I mean a marvelous concert. We played the first half and Ella did the second half. Marvelous. The programmer was absolutely superb. See that has a lot to do with jazz music.

One of the problems that we have in the business and the reasons for a lot of the failures in our music and the presentation of it is we don't have very much to do with the planning of it. In other words it's not planned by (musicians). If we were able to plan our own music a lot of those things would be so much better to me. Because, man, who knows better how to program your own things than you do?

Who knows better how to write this article than you? You know what I mean? You're getting the information from me over the phone, and then you're going to sit around and have somebody else write it? You know what I'm saying? That's pretty stupid, right? You're the one getting first hand information, therefore why not you be the one to write it?

The same thing applies to the music we play. They think that we're too dumb to do anything except play the music. This has been a psychological belief with a lot of people, man, and I'm serious. I'm talking about experience. I'm not talking about any hearsay. I'm backing this with 50 years of my own personal experiences.

You know what they say in this business, man, 'Just make sure you spell my name right.' (Laughs) It doesn't matter what you write, whether it's good or bad. And that's also true. The fact is that you had drawn enough attention for something to be written about you. Whether it's good or bad that's not really the issue, you know, it's the fact that they're writing about you. It's always better when they write something good, of course. (Pause). That's the way it is in this business.

LV: I was going to say, for a period in the 1970's it seemed musicians would begin producing their own records and producing their own concerts.

MJ: It's difficult because what happens, man, when the promoters and people like that find out what you're trying to do they want to get involved. When they see that you've got your own production company getting ready to produce a record, they want to get in on it. So they'd say, 'Well yes, we'll give you the distribution, but give us a piece of it.'

So we're still not independent, we still have to rely on that, you see? It's a matter of control.

See jazz music is not bigger, man. I'll tell you two things. You're not going to like this what I'm going to tell you because it's a racial thing. It's black music, actually, the creation of it. The respect of that music would give us control enough to be independent and you know that in this country you can't have that. The government's got to be able to control everything.

Even as big as rock and roll music and disco music is today, they control it. Right? O.K. Because man I always reiterate in a way not to put people down, because that's not my place to put people down—each artist has an obligation in terms of professional respect to other artists, o.k? But man don't tell me that Elton John or Kenny Rogers or Elvis Presley, all those people make all that money because they play more creative music than we do. That's not true.

To prove it I'll throw you two more curves, which I think you may have caught them already. (Laughs) O.K., but I'll throw them at you again. First of all, man, Roy Clark is very big with "Hee Haw" and other things like that, right? But did you know he's a hell of a classical guitarist and violinist?

LV: No. Not classical.

MJ: See? That's right. I heard him playing classical guitar in the dressing room during one of Flip Wilson's shows that we both were on years ago for NBC. Man, I got the shock of my life. Then I turned around and saw him perform legitimate violin with the Boston Pops. I've seen that for myself, right.

That shows you another thing about the sabotage of this type of music, or that (classical) music. I bet you any amount of money if he made the same kind of money playing classical music that he makes doing "Hee Haw" I bet you he'd do it. You know what I'm saying? O.k.

Now, Phyllis Diller. Did you know that she played classical piano for 22 years?

LV: No.

MJ: See? See I, I go into all this research man; I got a lot of stuff for you that you don't even know about. But that's you, you gave me the clue when you said in front you're only 29. That's against 66.

But no man, these little things I point out in my classroom when I do teach, you know, because I do think it's important that people understand where we're coming from and what it's about, because people don't really understand our music and don't really know what it's about.

I'll give you the best clue of all. Of all the jazz concerts, man, we've never had a race riot at a jazz concert. Not yet. And then with the Woodstock, right, went to Max Yasgur's farm and tore it up; And that other place (Note: Altamont Raceway Park), right? I mean tore it up.

We've never had that. I think the government should look into that. There's a reason for that. That music is therapeutic, it's healing, it's soothing, it brings people together, it don't tear people apart. I bet you wouldn't be reading about people killing a 15 year old kid and that kind of stuff on the front page of the paper if we had more of this music to bring to the people. I bet you that.

The people in Japan love jazz music, man, and also in Europe, far more than they ever did here. And that always puzzled me until I went over there to really get into it for myself and find out what it is. It's their tradition and culture, man. We've gotten away from that in America. We live in a country of complete fantasy.

LV: You know, one of your old friends that you made The Jazz Skyline with, Lucky Thompson, I think he dropped out of the whole scene because of these things you're talking about.

MJ: That's it! It's funny you mention that. I just saw him two weeks ago. Well, he's not playing. He's out in Seattle. In fact, I'm trying to start a campaign—well, not a campaign—What would you call it?—To get him back here and record him again. Get him back into music. He got out of it. He just couldn't handle the media and certain things he just couldn't cope with. So you're right, he dropped out of sight. That was the first time I've seen him since he was teaching at Dartmouth in 1973.

He's not working. He's not playing. He's leading a rather obscure life. I won't even go into that because I don't like to, ah, you know.

LV: Well you don't want to blow the cover.

MJ: I'm in the process of writing a letter as a matter of fact. I told him when I got back to New York I'd write to him and find out his feelings about coming back and recording and what not. I'm going to do that before the week is out. Oh man, he's one of the greats left because all of those saxophone players are dead and gone. I'm talking about the great ones. We've got a few left, but man...

LV: Sonny Rollins. Sonny Rollins is 60 today. It's his birthday today.

MJ: Oh that's right! That's right. Ol' Newk. That's right. I know they're playing his music on WBGO and, probably, the Columbia station.

LV: Well, Mr. Jackson, we've been talking for a half and hour here.

MJ: Good, good.

LV: Is there something else you want to add about the MJQ?

MJ: No, other than we're looking forward to the concert there in Grand Rapids and hope that it will be a success.

Photo credit: Jos L Knaepen

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