Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Jacquet, Illinois ( Jean-Baptiste)

Illinois Jacquet’s full-bodied sound expanded possibilities for the modern saxophonist. The original "Texas Tenor," Jacquet could rock the house with crowd-pleasing rhythm 'n' blues, but he was also one of the first jazz musicians to dare to play the bassoon and to explore the saxophone's higher, or altissimo, register.

Illinois Jacquet

Jacquet’s incorporation of swing’s unbridled energy, bebop’s sophisticated melodic design and the blues’ powerful phrasing brought him to the forefront of the jazz scene in the 1940s. With bandleaders Lionel Hampton and Count Basie and as well as singer Ella Fitzgerald, Jacquet showcased the saxophone's expressive possibilities.

Jean-Baptiste Jacquet was born in Broussard, Louisiana on October 31, 1922. His father Gilbert was of French-Creole descent and was a railroad mechanic as well as a part-time musician and bandleader. His mother was of Sioux Indian decent and was a housewife. Jacquet's family, along with his five siblings, moved from Louisiana to Houston, Texas while Illinois was still a boy.

Upon moving to Houston, Jacquet began to go by the name “Illinois” because of the difficulties in pronouncing his French name caused some Texans. Illinois told two different versions about how his name was changed. One version is that the name “Illinois” is derived from the Algonquin word “Illiniwek,” which has often been translated to mean “superior men.” The other version is that he was nicknamed Illinois to honor a friend of his mother who traveled from Chicago in order help the family out when he was born.

Jacquet’s family was musical, and the boy was encouraged in music by both his father and his siblings. Brother Russell Jacquet played the trumpet and his brother Linton Jacquet played the drums. At the age of three, Illinois made his professional debut singing on a radio show in Galveston, Texas to promote a show that was being performed by the brothers.

By age six, Illinois began to perform as a tap dancer in front of his father's big band. By the time he entered high school, he began to play drums in the marching band before moving onto the soprano and alto saxophones. He quickly gained experience as a performer with his father’s band, as well as with local bandleader Bob Cooper.

During his junior and senior years of high school, Jacquet joined the Minton Larkin Orchestra, where his older bandmates were surprised by his advanced technique. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities in the racially segregated south Jacquet and his brother Russell moved to Los Angeles, California in September of 1940.

Not long after their arrival in Los Angeles, both Russell and Illinois found work with bandleader Floyd Ray. Illinois also played at a jam session held after the Local 767 Labor Day Parade. At the session, Illinois received the opportunity to perform with pianist Nat “King” Cole, guitarist Charlie Christian, bassist Jimmy Blanton and drummer Big Sid Catlett.

Cole then recommended the young saxophonist to vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to join his big band. Hampton hired Jacquet, on the condition that he switch to the tenor saxophone.

On May 26, 1942, Hampton booked a recording session to record the song “Flying Home.” The session was the first time that the then nineteen-year old saxophonist had set foot in a recording studio. He learned shortly before the session that he would be expected to solo, something he did not feel entirely comfortable doing because he felt at that time that he did not have his own style.

When Jacquet shared his reservations with Hampton, the bandleader told Jacquet to “play your style,” and and so he did. The eighty-second solo, recorded on the first take, bristles with energy which climaxes with a single high note, repeated twelve times. The record was a hit, in large part thanks to Jacquet's memorable solo; Hampton's band played the song every night, and Jacquet was expected to reproduce the now-famous solo note for note. The sheer energy of Illinois’ melodic design and his use of honking and playful sounds has led some to call this one of the first rock-and-roll records.

Jacquet quit Hampton's band in 1943, citing physical exhaustion: "Sometimes you have to quit to save your life," he later told an interviewer for Texas Monthly magazine. "I looked in the mirror and said, 'You're dying, and Hampton is getting rich.' " Jacquet's replacement in the Hampton band, Arnett Cobb, continued to play Jacquet's solo note for note, and memorizing this solo has become a mainstay of every tenor saxophonist's education.

Jacquet, along with Cobb and Buddy Tate, were the founders of what came to be called the “Texas Tenor” style, which favored honks, rhythmic play and a bluesy feel over the dense harmonic exploration preferred by beboppers. The "Texas Tenors" also used non-standard fingerings to explore the overtone series above the saxophone's natural range, which extended the tenor saxophone's range more than two octaves higher. The "Texas Tenors" used altissimo effects in part to produce a more biting sound which would stand out and could be heard over a large ensemble.

Jacquet was a natural crowd-pleaser, and his use of altissimo effects served a different musical purpose than the more controlled exploration of the altissimo range of Sigurd Rascher and other classical saxophonists, which influenced John Coltrane and his disciples. But the fact that Jacquet chose to honk and wail did not mean that he was any less technically proficient as a musician, as his mastery of the bassoon, a notoriously difficult instrument to play, later proved. Jacquet "could assume the role of entertainer, rather than artist, screeching for two or three choruses," tenor saxophonist Benny Golson told the New York Times' Ben Ratliff in 2004. "But he was a cutting-edge saxophone player. He knew that horn."

Upon leaving the Hampton band, Jacquet became a member of bandleader Cab Calloway’s ensemble in 1943, replacing one of his idols, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, who died in a car accident on his way to a Calloway gig in northern Ohio. The same year, Illinois appeared in the musical film Stormy Weather, which featured singer Lena Horne.

In 1944, Jacquet returned to California, where he formed a trio with his brother Russell and a young bassist named bassist Charles Mingus. Jacquet appeared in director Gjon Mili’s short film Jammin’ the Blues along with Big Sid Catlett, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and others. The film showcased a highly stylized visual of what jazz is and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Jacquet formed a relationship with producer Norman Granz, and became a mainstay of his "Jazz At the Philharmonic" (JATP) roadshows. On July 2, 1944, Illinois performed with Nat Cole, guitarist Les Paul trombonist J.J. Johnson and others at Granz's inaugural JATP concert. Recorded live at Los Angeles’ Philharmonic Auditorium, the concert produced a live recording of the song “Blues, Part 2.” The recording features several of Jacquet’s signature ornamentations including biting the reed in order to hit the altissimo range of the saxophone and then contrasting with sudden dips in the lower register. These effects later became a strong influence on rock and pop saxophone styles.

In September of 1944 while still living in Los Angeles, Jacquet first sat in with Count Basie’s orchestra. In October of 1945, Illinois moved to New York City and took the place of Lester Young in Basie’s orchestra. On February 4, 1946, he recorded the song “The King” with Basie. The song is an excellent example of his work with the orchestra.

The arrangement of the song is heavy on the brass section, but Jacquet’s young, yet refined tone breaks through the sound. The shear power of his timbre brings life to the woodwind section making their intensity on par with the brass section. His solo shows a masterful understanding of the melody by reworking parts of it during the solo and enhancing it with original material.

In August 1946, Jacquet left the Basie group in order to tour and record as a chief soloist with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He also formed a sextet with Russell Jacquet, J.J. Johnson, saxophonists Leo Parker and Cecil Payne, pianists Bill Doggett and Sir Charles Thompson and drummer Shadow Wilson.

On April 1, 1947, Jacquet recorded the song “Illinois Blows The Blues” with Thompson, Wilson, guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Al Lucas. After a lengthy introduction by Thompson and Wilson, Illinois enters the arrangement with a few short bursts before expanding his idea with a few melodic devices. Jacquet supplements these ideas with growls and other artificial sounds to make his horn sound more primal. What’s most noteworthy about the track is the relationship between Jacquet and Thompson, who at times have a call and response relationship adding a dramatic effect to the song.

In 1948, a disagreement with Granz over financial issues bruised Jacquet’s confidence, which made him question his style and sound. The disagreement affected his recording and performance output during this time. In 1951, Illinois and Norman put aside their differences when he signed to his label Clef Records. The signing also led to Jacquet touring once again with Jazz at the Philharmonic.

For the next several years, Jacquet occasionally reunited with ensembles with Hampton and Basie. In the autumn of 1954, Illinois made his first European tour in the “Jazz Parade” show alongside singer Sarah Vaughan and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins as guest soloists with his band. Throughout this time, he performed at several festivals including the Monterey, Nice and North Sea Jazz Festivals.

In 1955, Jacquet performed on the album Krupa & Rich, an album co-led by drummers Gene Krupa and Max Roach. Released on Granz's Verve Records, the all-star session included trumpeter Thad Jones, pianist Oscar Peterson, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and several others. In July 1957, Jacquet released the album Swing’s the Thing. Released on Verve Records, the album featured such luminaries as bassist Ray Brown, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, guitarist Herb Ellis, pianist Jimmy Jones and drummer Jo Jones.

The same year, Jacquet appeared with Basie on the album Count Basie at Newport, a live album from Basie’s set at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Two year later, Illinois released the album Illinois Jacquet Flies Again, which featured contributions from guitarist Barry Galbraith, bassist Al Lucas and others.

In 1962, Jacquet released the album Illinois Jacquet on the Epic/Legacy label. In December 1965, Illinois began to incorporate the bassoon into his music making his New York debut on the instrument at the Embers West club at 224 West 49th Street. Throughout this time, he toured all over Europe with pianist Milt Buckner until the pianist’s death in 1977.

Jacquet closed out the 1960s with the album The Blues; That’s Me! for Prestige Records. The album features the standard “’Round Midnight” and the original “The Galloping Latin.” Illinois spent the 1970s recording for several record labels, including Black Lion and Black and Blue.

During the early 1980s, Jacquet began to perform with Jo Jones and bassist Slam Stewart. Shortly after, Illinois began to perform in a group called the Texas Tenors alongside Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate. In 1982, he was invited to address a jazz history class at Harvard University. The success of this lecture led to an invitation for Jacquet to become the first jazz musician to serve as an artist-in-residence at Harvard, a position he held for three years. The residency marked a new creative period for Illinois, finding inspiration to start a big band.

In the mid 1980s, Jacquet and his companion Carol Scherick moved to the Addisleigh Park neighborhood of Queens and formed the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, which performed at concert halls, festivals and clubs throughout the United States and Europe. Illinois documented this phase of his life and career on his 1988 album Jacquet’s Got It!, which was nominated for a Grammy Award.

In 1991, director Arthur Elgort filmed the documentary Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story. Featuring interviews with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and bassist Milt Hinton, the film helped tell the story of his life and his dedication to jazz as an art form.

In 1993, Jacquet shared the stage with President and fellow tenor saxophonist Bill Clinton on the White House lawn where they played the standard “C Jam Blues” during Clinton’s inaugural ball. The following year, Illinois joined The Modern Jazz Quartet on their album Celebration, an album where they invited friends and colleagues of theirs in celebration of the group’s fortieth anniversary. Two years later, Illinois was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

During the mid to late 1990s, Jacquet maintained a prolific concert schedule, performing throughout the world as well as taking residency at The Chestnut Room at The Tavern On The Green in New York City. For his seventy-fifth birthday in 1997, Illinois have a concert in Salzburg, Austria. The same year he performed on the floating jazz festival held on the SS Norway.

In July 1998, Jacquet performed for thousands of fans at an outdoor concert at Lincoln Center. The following year, Illinois was invited as a featured soloist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to commemorate bandleader Duke Ellington’s one-hundredth birthday. The concert was recorded for the PBS television program “Great Performances.”

In 2000, Jacquet was awarded the Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence. To celebrate his eightieth birthday in 2002, Illinois brought his big band to the Jazz Standard in New York City. On May 21, 2004, he was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School of Music.

On July 16, 2004, Jacquet performed his last concert at the Midsummer Night Swing Series at Lincoln Center. Six days later on July 22, 2004, Illinois passed from a heart attack at his home at the age of eighty-one. His funeral was held at the Riverside Church on 122nd Street with several musicians present to pay respect including Clark Terry and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Jacquet was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

Subsequent to his death, Juilliard School of Music established The Illinois Jacquet Scholarship in Jazz Studies.

Select Discography

As a leader

Swing’s the Thing (1957)

Illinois Jacquet (1962)

The Blues; That’s Me! (1969)

God Bless My Solo (1978)

Jacquet’s Got It! (1988)

With Count Basie

Count Basie at Newport (1957)

With Lionel Hampton

Flying Home (1942)

With Gene Krupa

Krupa & Rich (1955)

With The Modern Jazz Quartet

Celebration (1994)

Contributor: Eric Wendell