Milt Jackson Biography

1 January 1923, Detroit, Michigan, USA, d. 9 October 1999, New York City, New York, USA. Jackson’s first professional engagement, at the age of 16, was in his home town, playing the vibraphone alongside tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson (one year his junior). Jackson benefited from the 40s loose attitude towards band personnel, spending six years accompanying visiting musicians, as well as studying at Michigan State University. In 1945, Dizzy Gillespie heard him and invited him to join his band for a west coast tour. Later moving to New York, the brilliant young vibes player found himself much in demand, playing and recording with Howard McGhee and Thelonious Monk (including Monk’s classic 1951 session for Blue Note Records). A spell with Woody Herman (1949-50) and more work with Gillespie established him as the pre-eminent player on his instrument.

Jackson’s recording debut as a leader was for Gillespie’s Dee Gee label in 1951. He also had the depth of experience to play with both Ben Webster and Charlie Parker. In 1954, the Milt Jackson Quartet transformed itself into the Modern Jazz Quartet, with pianist John Lewis becoming musical director. For the next 20 years, Milt Jackson led a Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde existence, playing the consummately sophisticated music of the MJQ, all dressed in their famous tuxedoes, and leading his own dates in the swinging company of Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Thompson or Horace Silver. In 1961, Jackson accompanied Ray Charles on Soul Meeting, on which the soul singer restricted himself to electric piano and alto saxophone.

Sleeve note writers loved to debate how happy Jackson could be with the MJQ’s starchy charts. Certainly when he broke up the group in 1974, it was due to what he considered its financial exploitation rather than musical antagonism. Often the vibes were an instrument associated with the hot, swinging proto-R&B of big band leaders Lionel Hampton and Johnny Otis. By slowing the vibrato and giving the right-hand mallet sweeping lines like a saxophone, Jackson gave the instrument sensuality and soul. Not until the appearance of Bobby Hutcherson in the mid-60s did anyone come up with an alternative modern approach to playing it. Jackson’s harmonic sense was unerringly inventive and he also kept his ears open for new talent. He championed guitarist Wes Montgomery and recorded with him for Riverside Records (Bags Meets Wes). Jackson was a strong force in the reintegration of bebop with swing values and musicians, the very definition of what came to be known as ‘mainstream’ jazz. His own quintets included players such as Cedar Walton, Jimmy Heath and James Moody. The 70s were a hard period for jazz players, but even in the dated arrangements of Bob James on a record like Olinga (recorded in 1974 for CTI) his caressing, ebullient vibes playing shone through. The 80s jazz revival was reflected by the MJQ re-forming and appearing at countless jazz festivals. In 1985, Jackson toured Europe under his own name. The Pablo record label continued to document his music into the 90s. He died of liver cancer in October 1999.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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