Illinois Jacquet – An American Jazz Legend. JEAN BAPTISTE ILLINOIS JACQUET. On the very first recording of his career, Illinois Jacquet electrified the world of jazz music with an entirely new style and sound on the tenor saxophone. His solo on “Flying Home,” recorded at the age of nineteen with the Lionel Hampton band on May 26, 1942, set hearts ablaze and toes to tapping around the globe. Everywhere, people were humming from beginning to end this most universally known and beloved solo in the history of jazz music. Every band was playing “Flying Home” and tenor saxophonists were required to be able to play Illinois Illinois Jacquet’s solo, note for note, in order to qualify for a position in a band. All of the name bands recorded it and on Duke Ellington’s recording, all the instruments play Illinois Jacquet’s solo in unison. Duke remarked to Illinois Jacquet, “I’m glad I don’t play the saxophone.”
Two years later, Illinois Jacquet would permanently expand both the range and the role of the tenor saxophone with his incendiary solo called “Blues, Part II,” recorded live at the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles
In 1943, Illinois Jacquet’s “Flying Home” solo was going through the roof and dominating juke boxes. However, Illinois Jacquet had left the Hampton Band to join Cab Calloway, replacing Chu Berry. Illinois Jacquet inherited the features Chu Berry made popular, but he was not allowed a feature on “Flying Home,” because of its identity with Hampton. Understandably, much of the band’s repertoire featured Calloway’s many vocal hits, on which Illinois Jacquet was confined to doubling on clarinet.
On July 2, 1944, having just left the Calloway band, Illinois Jacquet, at the invitation of his close friend, Nat Cole, played a benefit concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, to help restore the damage from a recent riot. Inspired by the backing of King Cole’s genius on piano, and spurred on by the excited, wildly cheering audience that packed the hall, Illinois Jacquet uncapped the creative energy that had gone unexpressed during his year just ended with Calloway. As he poured his pent up feelings into his saxophone, he inadvertently applied clarinet fingerings, producing notes higher than the normal range of the tenor saxophone. By chance, Illinois Jacquet had discovered a formula for playing harmonic overtones. With this innovative use of harmonics, Illinois Jacquet had expanded the upper register of the tenor saxophone by two and one-half octaves. Punctuating these stratospheric notes with tones from the bottom of the horn, Illinois Jacquet established a blue print that future generations of saxophonists would follow. Through his startling new technique and delivery, Illinois Jacquet had pioneered what later evolved into “Rhythm and Blues” and “Rock and Roll.” An overwhelming clamor to play like Jacquet developed, and the tenor saxophone rapidly gained the distinction of becoming the most popular instrument in jazz music.
“Blues, Part II” exploded as a runaway hit single, generating excitement of such magnitude that it became the fire power for Norman Granz to launch Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), the entity that carried jazz music out of night clubs and honkytonks into concert halls throughout the world. Illinois Jacquet’s revolutionary solo had not only charted an energetic new direction for the tenor saxophone, but its seminal role in the formation of JATP served to expand this indigenous art form as a whole, as the “World Series of Jazz Music” excited sold out crowds in classical music venues around the globe.
As Illinois Jacquet’s new style and sound soared with unparalleled popularity, there were some critics who did not immediately embrace this unusual phenomenon. However, the avalanche of Illinois Jacquet could not be contained. Everywhere he went, he played to sold out, ecstatic audiences. Each record he made skyrocketed, and all major labels offered the music of Illinois Jacquet. The Philo (later to be Aladdin) label went into the record business with Illinois Jacquet as their first artist, and the overnight success of these recordings, as well as those he made for Apollo during the same period, quickly elevated both labels to major label status. These classic hit recordings of the 1940’s continued to be reissued sixty years later.
Illinois Jacquet broke records across America with his small band. On a tour he made with Ella Fitzgerald, an overflow crowd at Carnegie Hall had to be accommodated by placing extra seats on the stage, in back of the artists. Coleman Hawkins and Sarah Vaughn were featured with Illinois Jacquet and his band on his first trip to Europe, in 1954.
Illinois Jacquet’s stay in the Basie Band produced a number of hit records, most notably “The King,” a title conferred on him by the Count. His year with the Cab Calloway Band produced the film “Stormy Weather” and he appears with Lester Young, Jo Jones, and others in Gjon Mili’s award-winning classic film short, “Jammin’ the Blues.” Illinois Jacquet continued as a star attraction for JATP until its final concert in 1957.
The bassoon, with its haunting, incredibly difficult and intricate nature, became a target in the mid 1960’s for Illinois Jacquet’s continuous quest to conquer new heights. At a concert he attended of the Berlin Philharmonic during one of his European tours, Illinois Jacquet met the first bassoonist who encouraged him to take up the instrument, stressing that he had the perfect embouchure for it. Illinois Jacquet answered the challenge to master this complex double reed instrument on a Schreiber bassoon he purchased in Germany, with coaching from bassoonist Manuel Zegler of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Illinois Jacquet premiered the instrument on an engagement at the Embers West in New York City, and thereafter featured the bassoon regularly as a part of his live performances in the U.S. and Europe, and he included it on several recording dates. Jacquet had developed a new way to enthrall his audiences with yet another facet of his musical genius.
Illinois Jacquet toured and recorded as a trio with Jo Jones and Milt Buckner in the 1960’s and 1970’s to the delight of multitudes of adoring fans in Europe, Canada and the U.S. After Buckner passed, Illinois Jacquet formed a quintet with Slam Stewart on bass.
Harvard University’s invitation to Illinois Jacquet to lecture at a Jazz History class in1982 hastened his return to conduct a “Jamming with the Masters” class. In recognition of his outstanding gift as an artist and educator, Illinois Jacquet was then appointed Kayden Artist- in-Residence, honoring him with the distinction of becoming the first long term resident in Jazz Music at Harvard. He continued as Artist-in-Residence for two consecutive terms, and returned repeatedly in subsequent years to give master classes. Illinois Jacquet’s productive years at Harvard marked the beginning of the very fruitful final chapter of his career. Additionally, in keeping with the power he exerted in his early career to profoundly impact jazz music, Jacquet’s charismatic teaching skills and performances precipitated a permanent expansion of the Jazz Music Program at Harvard, and offered this revered institution of higher learning a deeper understanding of the importance of this indigenous art form that he so masterfully presented. Working with his Harvard students inspired Illinois Jacquet to form a professional big band in 1983, which he maintained until his death. “I wanted to recreate for the young people of today the sounds and excitement that I experienced growing up in the big bands.”
When The Illinois Jacquet Big Band appeared at New York’s historic Village Vanguard in 1986, owner Max Gordon presented Illinois Jacquet with a bonus, declaring that he had broken all records in the club’s 50 year history. Witnessing this performance, Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records was inspired to record the band, producing the Grammy nominated album, “Jacquet’s Got It.”
Famed Vogue photographer Arthur Elgort documented Illinois Jacquet and his Band in his award winning documentary film, Texas Tenor, The Illinois Jacquet Story. The film opens with Illinois Jacquet and his band at the Blue Note in New York City; it captures Illinois Jacquet the tourist in Paris; performing there at the Meridien Hotel; touring France with concerts in Bayonne and in an ancient castle in Salon; and on the Floating Jazz Cruise aboard the S.S. Norway. Elgort named his film in honor of Illinois Jacquet’s mastery of the big, full “Texas Tenor” sound that was propagated by and characteristic of saxophonists from Texas, where Illinois Jacquet grew up.
In the 1990’s, The Illinois Jacquet Big Band was showcased regularly in The Chestnut Room at The Tavern on the Green in New York City’s Central Park. The Band fulfilled a continuous demand for concerts and festivals throughout America, Europe and as far away as Rio de Janeiro, where they played on Illinois Jacquet’s 81st birthday.
In 1994, Illinois Jacquet and his Band played to a sold out Carnegie Hall, as many of Illinois Jacquet’s fellow musicians, including Lionel Hampton, came to perform with him for a Tribute to Illinois Jacquet, which featured Ray Charles as his honored guest.
President Bill Clinton, who admired Illinois Jacquet from the age of ten and learned to play his “Flying Home” solo, invited Illinois Jacquet and the Band to play at his first inaugural ball in 1992, jamming with them on “C Jam Blues” on Illinois Jacquet’s gold plated saxophone, a gift from the Selmer factory. Illinois Jacquet had been instructed in advance to bring along an extra saxophone.
Illinois Jacquet appeared as featured soloist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on the Great Performances documentary, “Swinging with the Duke,” to commemorate Duke Ellington’s 100th birthday. In 2000, Lincoln Center honored Illinois Jacquet as the fifth recipient of their Artistic Excellence Award. In May of 2004, The Juilliard School awarded Illinois Jacquet an Honorary Doctor’s Degree of Music, leading subsequently to the establishment of The Illinois Jacquet Scholarship in Jazz Studies at The Juilliard School.
Audiences around the world embraced Illinois Jacquet with love and adoration and Illinois Jacquet’s genuine love for everyone manifested as the magic in his music and the fire of his performance. Memories from countless engagements gladdened Illinois Jacquet’s heart, but Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing became his favorite engagement because it took him back to his roots, when dancers needed big bands and big bands needed dancers. Illinois Jacquet and his Big Band had enjoyed star status from the inception of this swing dance series, and closing it for the sixteenth straight year became the final performance of his life, only five days before his passing. “Swingin’ Live with Illinois Jacquet,” a double disc CD, commemorates this glorious ending to his brilliant, star-studded career.
Illinois Jacquet was ahead of his time, heralding what was to come, and highlighting the power inherent in jazz music. With his dynamic new style, he announced his credo, “I play music to express my freedom,” As the youngest of six children in a musical family, Illinois Jacquet found this freedom in early childhood, dancing in front of his father’s big band. His energetic delivery on the saxophone showed that he was still a dancer at heart, expressing the joy of the beat in song.
Illinois Jacquet’s key to freedom was his ability to create music from his soul. He was a skilled proponent of the art perfected by Black Americans as an escape from oppression. Illinois Jacquet easily accessed the wealth of love in his soul, poured it into his horn, and sent it to the world in his music. Every note that came through his saxophone resonated with love, making his unique tone a source of amazement to be admired by all. Fellow musicians continue to wonder at the distinct and unforgettable nature of Illinois Jacquet’s “sound.” His deep rich tones penetrated the hearts of listeners. After concerts, people often approached him with tears of joy, telling him how they had felt his low notes vibrating deep inside their chest, filling them with happiness. For Illinois Jacquet, this is what playing jazz music was all about. “To really play jazz music you have to love it. See, jazz was not created from a book, but from the soul.”
Illinois Jacquet taught his students that one’s ear is the most important tool for learning this vital element of jazz music. He encouraged them to listen tirelessly to the masters, absorbing the feeling and the beat, over and above concern with the notes. He assured them that notes without feeling were meaningless: “You have to tell a story.” Experience had given Illinois Jacquet total faith in the power of the music itself to help aspiring students develop and express their inner being.
Illinois Jacquet’s love shines through the priceless music he has left for us. It will be here forever, offering a source of inspiration for all who love Jazz Music.
Listen to an interview with Carol Scherick, his long-time manager, Pamela Jacquet-Davis, his daughter, and Joyce Hoffman, a past student at Harvard who was mentored by Illinois Jacquet.