Indelible encounter with Illinois Jacquet

'Flying Home' was best thing yet to a teenage jazz fan


August 01, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Jazzman Illinois Jacquet played tenor saxophone with the big, brawny Texas style he pretty much invented. He was much imitated but, to my ear, never equaled.

Jacquet was the first jazz musician I ever heard in live performance. It was the late 1940s. I was maybe 16 or 17, and no doubt playing hooky from school. I'd been listening to Symphony Sid Torin broadcast bebop from New York's famed Birdland, "the jazz corner of the world," but Illinois Jacquet, live onstage at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia was electrifying.

I remember about seven players bathed in white light. I think of Jacquet wearing a white suit, maybe the whole band in white. His playing was the most exciting thing I had heard, seen, or felt in my life up to that time -- and, obviously, unforgettable.

He was 81 when he died of a heart attack at 2:30 a.m., a jazzman's hour, on July 22 at his home in Queens, N.Y., in the same neighborhood where jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald had lived. He had played his last gig just six days earlier. He'd led a big band since the 1980s, when he had been the first jazz musician artist-in-residence at Harvard University.

Jacquet, whose French Creole name was pronounced Ja-KETT, had been a performer for about 78 years. He first went on stage at age 3, singing and tap dancing in his father's band. He was born in Broussard, La., the son of a Native American mother and Creole father. The family soon moved to Houston, and by then he was playing soprano and alto saxophone with the band led by his father.

He got his first professional job at 15, playing with the Milton Larkin "territory" band, as the orchestras that played around the Southwest were then known. He moved to Los Angeles in 1940. There he met Nat King Cole, who recommended him to Lionel Hampton.

Jacquet would later play with Cole, too. He played with Cab Calloway, Count Basie and in Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, where his rocking, wailing solos ignited crowds wherever they played. But he also played a velvety, smoky, romantic sound on ballads. Probably the most famous of his 300 or so compositions was called "Black Velvet."

His 1942 solo on "Flying Home" with the Hampton orchestra was a classic that became known as the jazz national anthem because it was played and imitated so much. He was 19 years old, and when he left the Hampton band a couple of years later, every tenor player who came after him had to play the solo note for note.

By the late 1940s, he had his own bands, and that was when I heard him at the Earle Theater.

I'd been a jazz fan before, and have been ever since. And I've seen and heard inspired jazz musicians -- Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. But no one ever sounded better to me than Illinois Jacquet playing "Flying Home" at that afternoon matinee 50 years ago in Philadelphia.

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