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Nashville Scene Good Vibes

Mourning the loss of jazz great Milt Jackson

By Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  Bebop's greatest vibraphonist actually started out as a vocalist, and throughout his more than six-decade career, Milt Jackson frequently took a turn behind the microphone as a singer. But it was on the vibes that Jackson, universally known as "Bags," made his mark, emerging as the modern era's premier vibist. By the time of his death on Oct. 8 at 76, Jackson was acknowledged as a superb soloist, dynamic accompanist, and mentor to musicians as stylistically diverse as Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Karl Berger, Roy Ayers, Steve Nelson, Dave Pike, Walt Dickerson, and Stefon Harris.

He began playing guitar as a 7-year-old in his hometown of Detroit and later switched to piano, then vibes. Jackson's professional debut came as a gospel singer in a family group. In 1946, Dizzy Gillespie noticed him playing in a Detroit jazz club and immediately offered him a job, kicking off Jackson's long and colorful jazz career.

Jackson forged new ground on vibes from his earliest sessions. He applied the vibrato he'd learned from singing to his instrument, sometimes shifting to slower tempos in mid-song, other times coyly experimenting with time changes or rhythmic pace. He was a master soloist and song interpreter on ballads and intricate up-tempo compositions. He was among the few vibists at home on Thelonious Monk's most complicated fare, but he was also gifted at blues and boogie, making sensational LPs with Ray Charles and sparkling groove dates with Wes Montgomery and Coleman Hawkins. Jackson cut classic sessions with big bands and a remarkable date with John Coltrane; he also enjoyed accompanying vocalists and early on even worked in some Afro-Latin sessions.

Jackson was equally famous for his tenure with the Modern Jazz Quartet, the idiom's finest chamber ensemble. He initially recorded with pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Kenny Clarke in 1952, when they were the rhythm section for a larger band. Connie Kay eventually replaced Clarke, and the group became the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ); Lewis chose the name to signify his interest in forging links between classical music and jazz improvisation.

Though the group was immediately successful, there was frequently tension between Lewis and Jackson, mainly because the latter felt the former deliberately kept the band from swinging more in its compositions. Still, the MJQ stayed together until 1974, dissolved, then reunited in 1981. They did fewer dates in the '90s, mainly due to Kay's health problems; after the drummer's death in 1995, the MJQ worked only sporadically, utilizing Albert Heath in the rhythm section.

Jackson recorded or toured with virtually every major jazz figure in the bop and hard bop eras, among them Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, Sonny Rollins, and Quincy Jones. In his later years, he was criticized for cutting blatantly commercial LPs. Even if he never compromised on his swinging solos, he freely admitted that he included pop and R&B covers on such LPs as Sunflower and Olinga because he wanted to reach a larger audience.

He also avoided experimental and avant-garde material, even though several younger, more adventurous players claimed him as a major influence. Jackson never criticized free-wheeling stylists like Walt Dickerson or Bobby Hutcherson; he simply continued making swing and bop dates, working periodically with the MJQ and even doing occasional guest shots on other releases. He was on Jones' Qwest label at the time of his death.

Though he never considered himself in the vanguard, few instrumentalists were more advanced than Milt Jackson. He's another irreplaceable loss for jazz and American music.

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