Jacquet, Jean Baptiste (“Illinois”)

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Jacquet, Jean Baptiste (“Illinois”)

(b. 31 October 1922 in Broussard, Louisiana; d. 22 July 2004 in New York City), jazz musician who pioneered the Texas tenor style of the tenor saxophone.

Born into a musical family, Jacquet was given the name Jean Baptiste, reflecting the local culture and the French-Creole roots of his father Gilbert Jacquet, a railroad mechanic. Jacquet’s mother Marguerite (Trahan) Jacquet, a homemaker, was a Sioux. In 1923 the family moved to Houston, Texas, and the parents changed their newest child’s name to Illinois, the French form of the Algonquian word Illiniwek (“superior men”). Although the family name was pronounced “zhah-KETT,” musicians often called Illinois “Jacket.” His father led the Jacquet Brothers band in his spare time, playing bass and sousaphone, and his mother was the vocalist. Of the couple’s six children, a daughter played piano and violin, one son played trumpet, another son played saxophone, and a third son played the drums. At age three Jacquet was added to the group as tap dancer, a veritable rhythm instrument in jazz, and in later years he sang.

Advancing to the drums, Jacquet received formal instruction at Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston, where a music teacher introduced him to the alto saxophone. Captivated by the alto and the soprano saxophone, Jacquet soon excelled in both. At age fifteen he began playing in the Houston orchestra of Milton Larkin. In 1940 Jacquet moved to Los Angeles, playing with the Floyd Ray orchestra. The next year Jacquet participated in a jam session in Kansas City in which he “battled” all night and the following morning with the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.

The bandleader Lionel Hampton hired Jacquet in 1941 on the condition that Jacquet switch to the fuller-sounding tenor saxophone. The result was Jacquet’s dazzling eighty-second-long tenor saxophone solo on the Hampton orchestra recording of “Flying Home” in 1942. A New York Times review called the performance “carefully structured, building its energy precipitously and cresting on a single note repeated 12 times in a row.” This hit record made Jacquet the star attraction in the band, but the solo also exhausted him because he repeated it at every gig. The solo defined Jacquet’s unique style, a wild, loud blues-inflected screeching and honking that immediately influenced other jazz tenor saxophone players and acted as a catalyst for early rhythm and blues and rock and roll musicians. Jacquet defined the big, full so-called Texas tenor style.

In 1943 Jacquet filled the vacancy left by the late Chu Berry in Cab Calloway’s orchestra. Jacquet’s sound drove the band but also revealed an equally impressive subdued sound, as on “Body and Soul,” which the music writer Gunther Schuller described as “elegant and moving, as he weaves enchanting garlands of notes around the original melody.” In 1944 Jacquet formed a trio with his brother Russell Jacquet on trumpet and Charles Mingus on string bass and appeared in Gjon Mili’s epic jazz film short Jammin’ the Blues (1944).

In 1944 Jacquet initiated a fourteen-year association with the traveling Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. In his initial appearance Jacquet achieved a recording hit that showcased his high-register blowing. Later concerts featured thrilling tenor battles with Flip Phillips. When he took over Lester Young’s chair in the Count Basie orchestra in 1945, Jacquet began to check his pyrotechnic style in favor of a more balanced playing, as on the 1946 hit recording “The King,” by which moniker Basie thereafter regarded Jacquet.

Beginning in 1947 Jacquet varied his activities between leading a small jazz combo and a big band. His blazing solos had already earned him the sobriquet “the Beast,” a name that also befitted his no-nonsense style as a leader. Jacquet received equal billing on American, European, and Asian tours with such singers as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and with instrumental stars such as the drummer Buddy Rich and fellow Texas tenor saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate.

Jacquet mastered the bassoon in the early 1960s. He led only small groups between 1953 and 1983, notably his 1970s trio with Milt Buckner on piano and Jo Jones on drums. From 1983 to 1984 Jacquet was the first jazz artist in residence at Harvard University. He used the occasion to form another big band, which included the swing-era saxophone stalwarts Eddie Barefield and Marshall Royal.

Jacquet composed and recorded approximately 300 songs over his lifetime. “Black Velvet” and “Robbins’ Nest” are among his greatest. The Illinois Jacquet Story (2002) is a boxed set of his recordings. Jacquet’s Got It! (1988) won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band. Also notable are Jacquet a la Carte (2002) and The Count with Jacquet, recordings of radio air checks from 1945 to 1946.

Jacquet married Barbara Potts, and the couple had two children. For the last twenty-three years of his life Jacquet’s companion was Carol Scherick. Jacquet performed at the White House on several occasions, in 1993 jamming with President Bill Clinton, who played tenor saxophone. The Juilliard School of Music gave Jacquet an honorary doctorate of musical arts in May 2004. On 16 July 2004 Jacquet’s big band, as it had done annually since 1989, closed the final concert of the Midsummer Night Swing Series at Lincoln Center in New York City. It was Jacquet’s last gig. He died of a heart attack six days later, on 22 July 2004 in New York City. Jacquet is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York City.

An account of Jacquet’s transition from swing to bop music in the 1940s is in Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser, To Be or Not—to Bop: Memoirs (1979). Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1989), describes Jacquet’s style of music. Obituaries are in the New York Times (23 July 2004), Washington Post (24 July 2004), and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (25 July 2004). Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story (1992) is a documentary film about Jacquet.

Clark G. Reynolds