by Rick Mattingly
The first time vibraphonist Milt Jackson tried to sit in with a bebop band at a club on New York's 52nd Street, the clubowner wouldn't even let him in the door.
"Dizzy Gillespie had called Charlie Parker up and told Charlie that if I ever came down, he should let me play," Jackson recalls. "Bird [Parker] was working at the Spotlight on 52nd Street. I went down to sit in and took this little set of vibes that looked like an ironing board. I could just fold it up, put a cover on it and carry it around. The manager of the club said, 'Man, what is that thing? Get that thing out of here!' He and Bird got into the biggest argument. Bird told him, 'Dizzy called up and told me to let this guy play. I want to hear him,' but to no avail."
Within a year, though, Jackson was performing at the Spotlight as a featured artist with Gillespie's big band, and in the years that followed, Jackson elevated the status of the vibraphone from novelty instrument to one that commanded respect in jazz clubs as well as concert halls.
Born in Detroit on New Year's Day in 1923, Jackson discovered at an early age that he had an affinity for music. "When I was seven, I could go to the piano and pick out tunes that I heard on the radio," he recalled in a 1987 Modern Percussionist interview with vibraphonist Dave Samuels. "I started performing gospel duets with my oldest brother and accompanying him on guitar, which was my first instrument. I moved to piano later on, and then to drums."
In high school, Jackson's band teacher encouraged him to learn marimba and xylophone. Then, in 1940, Jackson saw Lionel Hampton at the Michigan State Fair. "Seeing Hamp was what really inspired me to play the vibraharp," Jackson says. "He had people in his band like Illinois Jacquet, Joe Newman and Charles Mingus. I was so inspired by that band and by Hamp that I decided to play the instrument."
At that time, Hampton and Red Norvo were virtually the only two vibraphonists that a young musician could emulate. But Jackson says he was never inspired by their actual styles. "I was already into another direction, which was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I found that it was better for me to use a two-mallet format rather than three or four, because playing dynamics is very difficult using three or four mallets."
One characteristic that set Jackson apart was the slow speed of his instrument's oscillators, compared to the much faster speed used by Hampton. The more subtle vibrato added warmth to Jackson's long tones and generally made the instrument less nervous sounding.
Jackson served two years in the army, and when he got out, he returned to Detroit and tried to catch up on all the music he had missed. "From staying up until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, I had little bags under my eyes," Jackson remembers. "So the bass player in the group I had gave me the name 'Bags,' and it just stuck."
In 1945, while on tour, Gillespie heard Jackson at the Sound Station in Detroit and invited "Bags" to come to New York to play in his band. Soon he was working in New York with groups led by Howard McGee, Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins and others. He played in the Woody Herman Second Herd in 1949 and '50, and spent the next two years playing vibes and piano in Dizzy Gillespie's famous sextet that included Charlie Parker, Al Haig, Ray Brown and Stan Levy.
During that same time, he formed and recorded with the Milt Jackson Quartet with pianist John Lewis, drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Ray Brown, who had all worked together as the rhythm section of Gillespie's big band. In 1952, with Percy Heath replacing Ray Brown, the group became the Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1954 Connie Kay replaced Clarke, which was the last personnel change the group ever had. The tuxedo-clad quartet performed in clubs and concert halls throughout the world, and was regarded as a superior jazz ensemble.
Much of the group's music was in the conservative bop style referred to as "cool jazz," and Jackson was regarded as the group's primary soloist. (Many contended that MJQ rightfully stood for Milt Jackson Quartet.) The group also performed and recorded a significant amount of third-stream music, which combined techniques of European art music and jazz improvisation.
The MJQ broke up in 1974, largely as a result of Jackson's desire to perform full-time as a leader. But in 1981 the group reunited to perform in Japan, and have continued to perform together on an annual basis since that time, making them the only group in jazz history to have played together with the same personnel for over forty years.
Since the original breakup of the MJQ, Jackson has formed several small combos, and also toured alone, performing with local bands in various cities. His own music has a strong blues influence, which Jackson credits to his early gospel singing. His improvisations are characterized by dynamic contrasts and rhythmic variety in which long, legato phrases are punctuated by short, fast flurries of notes.
And he likes to play blues in D-flat. "One of my first gigs in Detroit was with a piano player who could not play in any other key than D-flat," Jackson says. "So that's what gave me the insight. Being such a difficult key, when I go to a town and pick up a rhythm section, the best way for me to find out what they know is to give them blues in D-flat. That tells me right away how far I can go and how far I can't go.
"Also, I learned from Thelonious Monk that certain keys have a better feeling and a better sound. He once sat down and played a certain tune in the key of D. I sat down at that piano and played it in every single key chromatically, and found that it didn't sound the same as when I played it in D."
He says his ability to play in any key was a big asset when playing in clubs early in his career. "Oh man, they'd have pianos half a tone or a whole tone out, so I'd have to transpose and play in another key to match it," he explains. "Also, part of that training came from going to Minton's Playhouse on Mondays when Dizzy and Bird would show up to jam. There was a lot of competition, and there had to be a way of getting people off the bandstand so you wouldn't have twenty soloists up there wearing out the rhythm section. So they'd play something like 'Cherokee' in B-natural. Fats Navarro loved to take the blues through every key chromatically. A lot of players could only play in standard keys like C, B-flat or F. When you got over to G-flat, A-flat or B-natural, that's when their covers would come off, so to speak."
Jackson is one of the five most-recorded jazz artists of all time, and is also a noted jazz composer. Several of his compositions have become standards, including "Bags Groove," "Bluesology," "The Cylinder" and "Ralph's New Blues."
In 1979, Jazzmobile, Inc. saluted Jackson's forty years as a jazz musician by presenting him in concert at Carnegie Hall. Among the many awards Jackson has won are Esquire magazine's New Star Award in 1947; the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame in 1980; the National Music Award and French Bicentennial Award both in 1989; a Lifetime Achievement Award from Trieste, Italy; and an Honorary Doctorate degree from the Berklee College of Music.
Jackson is also known for his outspokenness. "The reason I wound up being so political is because I had a black history teacher in high school," he told Samuels. "To have a black history teacher in 1938 was amazing. So I've been a rebel all my life. I never agreed with what the system dictated. Most musicians don't have to get involved in politics to make a living playing music, but you have to learn about the political structure in order to learn what's happening in the world.
"Some of the things that go on are unbelievable. I just got the copyright back to 'Bags Groove' after thirty years. I didn't realize what I was doing [when signing over the rights]. I thought I was just signing a piece of paper to get a twenty-five dollar advance. That's what I mean - it's that lack of knowledge. It cost me a lot of money to learn how things are done, because they're not going to tell you."
Despite whatever business or political problems he has encountered along the way, Jackson's music has triumphed. "Hearing Milt Jackson perform must be a bit like watching Picasso paint, Olivier act or Graham dance," said Don Heckman in The Los Angeles Times. "Like those illustrious figures, he is an authentic original who has invented his own voice. His capacity to bring fire and passion to what is little more than assemblage of metal bars and tubes is what makes him a Master."
Milt Jackson died October 9, 1999.