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Illinois Jacquet Dies

Illinois Jacquet, a saxophonist in the broad and forceful “Texas tenor” style who recorded what is popularly considered the first R&B sax solo, and who played with big-band leaders Lionel Hampton and Count Basie, died Thurs., July 22 in New York City of heart failure. He was 81.

Besides being the major figure of the Texas-tenor school, which also included James Clay and Buddy Tate, Jacquet was responsible for two major developments in tenor playing. Building off brash, shouting sounds that had originally come from Lester Young’s saxophone, Jacquet further developed and popularized the “honking” method of playing, which might best be heard in Jacquet’s performances with producer Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. Jacquet also discovered the tenor’s high-pitched altissimo range, which extended the instrument’s range by two and a half octaves.

Born Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet in Boussard, La. in 1922, he grew up in Houston, Texas, where he started on drums, switched to soprano saxophone and later took up alto. In 1940 Jacquet and his trumpeter brother, Russell, moved to L.A., where a jam session with Nat “King” Cole eventually led the saxophonist to a job in vibist Lionel Hampton’s big band.

In 1942 Jacquet cut the solo on the hit recording of Hampton’s “Flying Home,” which made the saxophonist famous. This is the solo that is known as the first recorded R&B sax solo. He left Hampton shortly thereafter and went on to play in the bands of Cab Calloway and Count Basie, and he later formed a group with his brother and bassist Charles Mingus. He joined Jazz at the Philharmonic as a featured soloist in 1946 and stayed on for two years; he would return briefly in 1955.

Beginning in the mid-’40s Jacquet led his own groups, on record and on tour, and included among his sidemen players like J.J. Johnson, Cecil Payne and Wild Bill Doggett. Two of his most-loved recordings are Bottoms Up (1968) and The Blues: That’s Me! (1969), both made for the Prestige label.

Jacquet remained active on the scene well into his 70s. He became an artist-in-residence at Harvard in the ’80s, and performed on the SS Norway in 1997 for his 75th birthday. He is the subject of the 1991 film Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story.

Originally Published