Vibraphonist is helping keep jazz alive and well

March 21, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

Milt Jackson's music boils forth in great golden globes of sound: honey-sweet and bursting like ripe fruit but also light and merry, dancing like champagne bubbles.

The legendary jazz vibraphonist is a small man dressed in a gray suit and a conservative tie. He has slightly bowed legs and a receding hairline. He stands over his instrument, head down, mallets flying.

And the music he produces bubbles and dances and soars; it is mellow and joyful and sweet -- so sweet that you want to snatch notes out of the air and gobble them like candy.

Mr. Jackson was the featured performer last week at "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center" in Washington.

The program will be broadcast sometime this fall by National Public Radio as part of a series of 26 such concerts and lectures featuring Billy Taylor, his trio and a jazz artist such as Mr. Jackson. Future shows include the Turtle Island String Quartet appearing March 27 and saxophonist James Moody on April 10.

I was attracted to the series by the music. But just as fascinating to me are the "rap" sessions that take place in between the numbers. Last Monday, for instance, Mr. Jackson played classics such as "I Remember You," "There Is No Greater Love" and "In A Sentimental Mood," pausing between sets to chat with the audience about his career and his music.

"I usually dedicate this song to the nostalgists in the audience," said Mr. Jackson as he began to play Duke Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood." "And in case you're wondering, I call you 'nostalgists' instead of old folks."

Recalling his early career as pianist and vibraphonist with Dizzy Gillespie's band, Mr. Jackson said he once asked Dizzy for a raise, for playing two instruments.

"Son," growled Dizzy in response, "I think it's about time you got your own band."

Of course Mr. Jackson eventually did just that. He was one of the founding members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the premiere bebop groups in jazz history.

The host for the program was Dr. Billy Taylor, the jazz pianist from New York who has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts and who has made it his personal mission to keep jazz music -- which he calls America's classical music -- alive.

He has been the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz since last fall, and the present series is his first major project.

"Billy is very big on the education component," notes Mary Johnson, a Kennedy Center spokeswoman. "His big fear is that jazz is becoming a historical music. He doesn't want to see something he's worked so hard for, die."

This passion to educate the audience, and the public, about jazz was evident during the question-and-answer period after the Milt Jackson performance.

"Could you characterize the difference between bebop and straight-ahead jazz?" asked one member of the audience.

"Bebop is straight-ahead," answered Dr. Taylor. "One problem we have is that the people who put tags on the music aren't the ones playing it. Labels don't have a whole lot of meaning for musicians."

A proud father from Montgomery County said his son had just placed first in a music contest as a guitarist. "As a concerned father, should I encourage him to be a musician or pursue something like rocket science?"

"If he can't live without the music, he should be a musician," answered Mr. Jackson. "But if your son finds he can, he probably should go ahead and do rocket science."

And a young vibraphonist from Laurel asked, "I have a problem trying to explain to people exactly what a vibraphone is? Do you have that problem and if so, what in the world do you tell them?"

"Yep," answered Mr. Jackson, with a broad smile. "That's why I wear this pin [in the shape of a vibraphone] on my lapel. When people ask me what I play, I just point to my lapel."

For the record, my dictionary defines a vibraphone as "a musical instrument similar to a marimba [a type of xylophone] but having metal bars and rotating disks in the resonators to produce a vibrato; also called a vibra-harp."

The definition should have included a cross-reference to Milt Jackson because nobody plays it better.

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