Jackson, Jazz Vibraphonist, Dies at 76
By BEN RATLIFF
Milt Jackson, the jazz vibraphonist who was a
member of the Modern
Jazz Quartet for 40 years and was one of the premier improvisers
in jazz with a special brilliance at playing blues, died on Saturday
at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. He was 76 and lived
in Teaneck, N.J.
The cause was liver cancer, said his daughter, Chyrise Jackson.
All the best jazz musicians know how to take
their time, and Jackson was no
different. Originally a singer in a Detroit gospel quartet, he created a new sound in the 1940's by slowing down the motor on his Deagan Vibraharp's oscillator to a third of the speed of Lionel Hampton's; a result,
when he chose to let a sustained note ring, was a rich, warm, smoky
sound, with a vibrato that approximated his own singing.
"He came closer than anyone else on the
instrument to making it sound like the human voice," said the young vibraphonist Stefon Harris yesterday.
"It's a collection of metal and iron, and we
don't have the ability to bend notes
and make vocal inflections like a saxophone. But Milt played the instrument
in the most organic way possible -- with a warm, rich sound. He
set a precedent that this instrument can speak beautiful things, and that
it's not just percussive."
Jackson, who was born in Detroit, had become an
impressively broad musician by the
middle of his teen-age years. He had perfect pitch, and he
began teaching himself guitar at the age of 7, started piano lessons at 11
and in high school played five instruments: drums, tympani, violin, guitar
and xylophone; he also sang in the choir. By the age of 16, he had picked
up the vibraphone as well, encouraged by a music teacher, and sang
tenor in a popular gospel quartet called the Evangelist Singers as well as beginning his jazz career, playing vibraphone with Clarence Ringo and
the George E. Lee band.
Out of high school, he almost joined Earl
Hines's big band, but his draft notice
intervened. In 1944, back in Detroit after two years of overseas military
service, he set up a jazz quartet called the Four Sharps. (He admitted
that he got his nickname, Bags, from the temporary furrows under
his eyes incurred by a drinking binge after his release from the Army.)
Dizzy Gillespie saw the quartet at a Detroit bar on a swing through
the Midwest, and called upon Jackson in 1945 to join his band in New
Jackson's style, then and later, came from
Charlie Parker, rather than Hampton,
his most prominent precursor on the instrument; he not only tried
to achieve a hornlike legato with his mallets, but he adopted many of Parker's
rhythmic traits as well. He was the first bona fide bebop musician
on the vibraphone, and became one of the prides of Gillespie's own
Gillespie also brought him to Los Angeles to
fill out his sextet at Billy Berg's
club, hedging against the probability that Parker, who was in the band
and at the low point of his heroin addiction, would fail to show up.
Back in New York in 1946, Jackson recorded some
of bebop's classics with Gillespie's
orchestra -- "A Night in Tunisia," "Anthropology" and "Two
Bass Hit." Jackson, the pianist John Lewis, the bassist Ray Brown and
the drummer Kenny Clarke were the rhythm section of Gillespie's band.
"Dizzy had a lot of high parts for the brass in that group," remembered
Brown. "So he said, 'I have to give these guys' lips a little rest
during concerts, and while they're resting, you should play something.'
" The development of this rhythm section's relationship led to some
recordings for Gillespie's own label, Dee Gee, by a new band known
as the Milt Jackson Quartet.
Jackson left Gillespie and came back to him
again for a period in the early 1950's. And in 1951, with Thelonious Monk, he made recordings
that would further the idiom again, weaving his linear improvisations around Monk's abrupt, jagged gestures on pieces including "Criss
"Straight, No Chaser."
Lewis, the pianist, began to have ideas about
forming a new group, one that would go
beyond the notion of soloists with a rhythm section. He had
an extensive knowledge of classical music, had been involved in the sessions
with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan that would become known as
"Birth of the Cool," and he envisioned a more deliberately formal feeling
for a small band.
In 1952 the Modern
Jazz Quartet began, with Clarke as drummer and Percy
Heath as bassist. Connie Kay replaced Clarke in 1955. After a while,
Lewis became the group's musical director.
The group wore tailored suits and practiced
every aspect of their public presentation,
from walking on stage to making introductions to the powerfully
subdued arrangements in their playing. They wanted to bring back
to jazz the sense of high bearing it had been losing as the popularity of
the big bands was slipping and jazz became more of a music predicated
on the casual jam-session.
Through two decades of immaculately conceived
and recorded albums on Atlantic
Records, beginning in 1956, their vision was borne out. Initially,
they found that audiences were somewhat startled by the authority
of their quietness; eventually the group would be one of the few jazz
bands embraced by an audience much wider than jazz fans.
Lewis economized, playing small chords and
creating a light but sturdy framework
for the music, and Jackson was the expansive foil, letting his tempos
crest and fall, luxuriating in the passing tones and quick, curled runs
of bebop. It was often supposed that he grew frustrated with his role in
the band; in a recent interview Jackson said he felt that Lewis suppressed
the group's sense of swing. In 1974 he left, dissolving the band
until it reunited for the first of several tours in the 1980's.
Kay died in 1994, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, with Mickey Roker sitting
in for him, gave its last performance the following year.
Besides being widely acknowledged as one of the
music's greatest improvisers, Jackson
wrote a lot of music -- most famously the blues pieces "Bags'
Cylinder." He recorded widely. He
made small-group and orchestral records in the early 1960's, collaboration
albums with John Coltrane and Ray Charles, and a large number
of records on the Pablo label during the 1970's and 1980's with Brown
on bass, as well as Gillespie, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and others.
In 1992 he began a series of albums produced by Quincy Jones for the Qwest label; the most recent, from this year, was "Explosive!," recorded
with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. The last collaboration with Brown and Peterson, "The
Very Tall Band," was issued this year by Telarc.
In addition to his daughter, of Fort Lee, N.J.,
he is survived by his wife, Sandra, of
Teaneck, and three brothers: Alvin, of Queens, and Wilbur and
James, both of Detroit.