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Milt Jackson: Elegant Vibrations

Some sounds in jazz come at you like a wise, warmhearted friend, with a characteristic voice particular to the musician and integral to the general definition of jazz. Case in point: the rich, supple sound of Milt Jackson at his vibes. Into the relatively slender ranks of important voices on the vibraphone, the venerable Jackson makes his distinctive presence known. It’s in the way he shapes a phrase, and his subtle use of the speed control on his instrument’s vibrato, giving his sound a vocal quality. In short, in the lineage of jazz history, Jackson is the guy who put the vibe in the vibes.

Two years back, he could be heard in an amicable dueling-vibes concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival, with Gary Burton, the titan from a later generation. It was a fascinating, revealing meeting of the minds and hands, Burton with his nimble four-mallet style and Jackson with his warm, amber-toned approach.

And now, in a music store or radio near you, the Milt Jackson sound is identifiable at a sonic glance, on the new Clayton-Hamilton big band album Explosion (Qwest). Jackson settles easily into his first big band recording in years, partly thanks to the smart surroundings, the assured arranging of John Clayton and the time-honed cohesion of the band. “That band has been together for 14 years,” Jackson says, from his home in New Jersey, just returning from Europe. “That’s one of the reasons the band sounds so good. When a band’s been together that long, they can’t help but sound good.”

To prepare for the recording, last summer the band and their honored guest played a few nights at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, where the band is based. The set list includes revisited, freshly arranged standards, from “Evidence” to “Since I Fell for You,” a Clayton original dedicated to Jackson, “Revibal Meeting,” and three Jackson originals.

As Jackson says of his original, which closes the set, “‘Recovery’ is a special dedication to my doctor who did my surgery, which was very successful. I loved that. ‘Major Deagan’ has to do with the Deagan Expressway, in New York. Also, that’s the company that made my instrument, the one I use all the time. It’s also dedicated to Dan Forte, more or less the publicity agent for the Blue Note. ‘Bags’ Groove’ is my all-time classic, I guess you could say. Oh man, the arrangement John did on that just blew everybody away.”

History is woven into the fabric of this album, right down to “Bags’ Groove,” the classic Jackson original opening the album. Bags is one of Jackson’s nicknames acquired in the line of musical duty. “The history of that goes back to 1944, when I came out of the service. When I came home, I went to every nightclub in Detroit. I’m playing catch-up here. I guess I developed these bags under the eyes, you know, the old-lady thing. I had a group called the Four Sharps, and the bass player was kind of a comedian, like Mickey Roker (Jackson’s drummer of long-standing). That bass player was actually responsible for that name.

“About twenty years later, I got a brand new nickname, the Reverend. That was coming from Jimmy Heath and Mickey Roker, because they thought that I needed a name to cover three special things: one is playing music, another is making pastry, and the third is billiards. Mickey is also a great pool player. That’s how those nicknames came about.”

Jackson’s musical background goes back to a Detroit youth spent trying out various instruments, including the oldest one around. “I was a singer in a gospel quartet, and also did gospel duets with my oldest brother, while I played the guitar. That was my first instrument. From seven to 16, that’s all I did, gospel music. In ’39, I got my first set of vibes, and just went from there.

“The reason I started to play that instrument, and deserted all the others-including the singing-was that I discovered that the instrument had a vibrato and a speed control. When I found out I could use that to match my voice, that was it. I was totally fascinated by that. I put all the other instruments down and concentrated on that one. I was also playing piano at the time.”

A helpful early skill was Jackson’s experience playing drums, enhancing his sense of stick coordination and rhythmic expression. “What stopped me back then from playing the drums is that I’m left-handed. Books and things written for drummers are basically written for right-handed players. Also, I tried to switch from left to right, which was a mistake. I didn’t have the coordination. The vibes was another thing. I just got so fascinated with that, I just more or less forgot about the drums.

“I still play the piano, for my own pleasure on occasion, or when I want to write something. But, having perfect pitch, I didn’t really need the use of a piano for that. It was only for myself and to keep my chops up, so to speak. I don’t play it now at all, actually. I just play the one instrument. My father always ‘if you’ve got one thing you really like, concentrate on that and don’t be a jack-of-all-trades.’ That’s a philosophy that I’ve always followed.”

There was also a practical matter of pursuing perceived opportunity. “See, in high school, there was less competition. Everybody wanted to play the saxophone, drums, and piano. I thought ‘well, I’ve got an open field here. I’ll get into this and be all by myself.’ I thought that was pretty smart.”

The swing era was wending to a close as Jackson was in his teens, so the work of early vibists Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo wasn’t much of an influence, except in terms of knowing what direction not to take. “I landed right in the middle of the bebop movement,” Jackson recalls. “I didn’t want to play like either Hamp or Red, but wanted to find my own style. I was locked into the style that Dizzy and Bird created, and that’s how I really got in on the ground floor of that movement.”

Like many musicians of the day and since, Jackson found himself entranced by the sound of Charlie Parker. “My first two recordings of Bird were ‘Hothouse’ and ‘Lady Be Good.’ I didn’t really have a good record player at that time, so I would put the record in the jacket, take it to the house of a friend with a good record player, and then I’d sit there all day and play it. I was so fascinated by that. That solo on ‘Lady Be Good’ is still a classic. I was just in heaven. I just couldn’t believe something so fascinating, at that time.”

Even still, if Jackson was the vibist-of-choice in the bebop scene, his heart wasn’t so much in the aspect of that music that embraces speed and complexity as he was onto something slow and soulful. That instinct also related back to his discovery of the throbbing sensuality of the speed control on the instrument, especially conducive to ballad playing.

He admits, “as I said, when I discovered I could make that sound, imitating the voice, I thought, ‘This is it.’ Even though we played all the fast music with Dizzy and Bird, my forte was still playing ballads. I love playing ballads more than anything, and when I found that sound, that was it.”

You can hear that balladic grace and cool on the new album, on his subtle reading of “The Nearness of You.” “There’s a real emotional content in playing ballads. And for me, being a singer and learning the words as well, that helps me in putting a concept together. Every time I’m playing the instrument, I’m really singing.”

Coming out of Dizzy’s band in the early ’50s, Jackson was to land in a group which had an uncommon longevity, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Except for a hiatus from 1974-1981, they plugged along, defining a ’50s-based sense of cool and sophistication, until their official retirement in 1996.

MJQ’s well-known scheme of blending jazz with classical influences wasn’t apparent at the beginning. It was an idea dear to the heart of the classically trained Lewis. “John had a game plan, but we didn’t know what it was at the time. He started writing music and shaping it through the influence of Bach the first two years that Kenny Clarke was with the quartet, and that was the reason he left. He did not want to conform to that style of playing, because he’s too much of a swinger. I don’t blame him. I mean, if I had really known what John was going to do at that time, I don’t think I would have stayed as long.

“My original roots are in gospel music and into jazz. I didn’t have that much knowledge about Bach, except from when I was a classical musician playing in the symphony orchestra. I played tympani. In that period, I did learn a bit of classical music. I stayed because I thought ‘well, this is a challenge. I’ll stick with it for awhile.’ And that wound up being 44 years. Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I have to give the Modern Jazz Quartet credit for weaving the classics and jazz together, the way we did. No other group could do that.”

Throughout the years, and alongside the MJQ saga, Jackson has maintained his solo career, on record and onstage. Before settling in his current label home on Qwest, for which he has made several fine projects in the ’90s, Jackson had worked for a wide spectrum of labels, covering the expanse of jazz history. “Riverside was memorable to me, because that was Orrin Keepnews’ label. I did a big band album with him, with Tadd Dameron and Ernie Wilkins. That’s one of my favorite albums. On Atlantic, I guess one of my favorite albums would be the first time I recorded with strings. The second time I did it was with the late Jimmy Jones.”

Even for the popularity of Jackson over the decades and a few others, including Burton, the vibes remain somewhat of a fringe tool in the jazz arsenal of instruments. The young wunderkind at the moment, who is helping to give the instrument a boost in public visibility, is Stefon Harris. “I like his concept,” Jackson says. “Steve Nelson is another one. Dave Pike is another. But that’s it. You mentioned those and you’ve covered the gamut of today’s young players.”

Venerable but vibrant, Jackson is going strong, continuing to tour, with his own small group and now the occasional big band date, and making plans for future projects. That classic Jackson sound is alive and well throughout the world. “This year, going back all the way to my gospel days, I’m celebrating 60 years of music. 60 years,” he stretches out the syllables in wonderment. Any retirement plans? “No, I’ve never thought about it, until I’m physically unable to perform. That’s when I’ll think about giving it up.”

Did he imagine, as a youth, carrying on with music as long or as successfully as he has thus far? “I had no idea how far I would go. I never really thought about that. I was just into playing music. Fate takes you in the direction that you should go.”

Originally Published