Jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson is probably most recognized for his membership in the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), but he has also forged a long and formidable solo career spanning five decades. His articulate two-mallet attack and deep blues approach represents a stylistic departure from earlier jazz vibists; unlike swing vibist Lionel Hampton, Jackson is known for slowing down the motor of his vibraharp (an instrument that is larger than a vibraphone). “The result,” wrote Thomas Owens in Bebop: The Music and Its Players, “is that his long notes have a beautiful, subtle style instead of the nervous shimmy that originally was the norm of the vibraphone.” A performer and composer, Jackson serves as an inspiration to an entire generation of vibists who owe a tremendous debt to his inventive reinterpretation of his instrument.
One of six sons, Milton Jackson was born January 1, 1923, in Detroit, Michigan, to a devoutly religious mother and a musically talented father. (His brother became a professional drummer.) As a child, Jackson sang in church. He was later quoted in Jazz Masters of the Fiftiesas saying: “In my case, I believe that what I heard and felt in the music of my church … was the most powerful influence of my musical career. The music I heard there was open, relaxed, impromptu—soul music.” At seven Jackson took up guitar, and around age 11 he began to take piano lessons. At Miller High School, an institution reputed for producing a number of important jazz musicians, he played drums, timpani, violin, xylophone, and sang in the glee club. When he was 16, his high school music instructor, Mr. Goldberg, encouraged him to take up vibes. Around the same time, Jackson was also performing in a gospel group and a dance band.
Watching Hampton’s live shows at the Michigan State Fairgrounds and Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom further inspired Jackson to study vibes. Though he appreciated Hampton’s musicianship, Jackson did not seek to play in the same style; rather, as a member of a younger generation growing up in the 1940s, he received his main musical inspiration from innovative bebop jazz musicians, especially modern pianists and horn players.
Though Jackson had intended to join the band of pianist Earl Hines, he was inducted into the armed forces in 1942. Out of the service in 1944, Jackson returned to Detroit and formed a commercial based music group, the Four Sharps, which included pianist Willie Anderson, bassist Miller Clover, and guitarist Emmit Flay. In the quartet, he sang and played piano, guitar, and vibes. It was at this time that he received the nickname “Bags.” In the liner notes to Plenty, Plenty Soul, Jackson explained: “I did a lot of celebrating with a lot of late night
Born Milton Jackson, January 1, 1923, in Detroit, MI.
Sang in church; took up guitar at age seven and four years later began to study piano; at Miller High School, sang in glee club, played several instruments, and took up vibes; performed in gospel group and dance band; formed commercial group the Four Sharps in Detroit; joined Dizzy Gillespie, 1945; recorded with Thelonious Monk, 1947–51; performed in Woody Herman’s Second Herd, 1949–50; rejoined Gillespie, 1951–52; formed the Milt Jackson Quartet; founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, 1952; performed with group until its breakup in 1974; recorded extensively with prominent jazz musicians, early 1950s—. Military service: Served in U.S. Armed Forces, 1942–44.
Addresses: Record company —Qwest Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
hours, and so I had little bags under my eyes. The musicians called me ‘Bags’ and it stuck.” In Detroit, Jackson found a flourishing jazz community. “The environment of the ‘40s in Detroit was very similar to the environment of 52nd Street when I first came to New York,” he related in Jazz Talk. “In Detroit we had Al McKibbon, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards … [and] the Jones brothers [Hank and Elvin].”
In 1945 Dizzy Gillespie recruited Jackson for his West Coast engagement at Billy Bergs on 1356 Vine Street in Los Angeles. Added as a sixth member to Gillespie’s initial quintet, Jackson joined the ensemble as a possible replacement for the group’s chronically unpredictable saxophonist, Charlie Parker. In his memoir To Be or Not to Bop, Gillespie recounted how “Milt Jackson, on vibes, was someone new and coming up fast in our music, very rhythmic, soulfully deep, and definitely one of my most prized pupils.” Though Gillespie’s stint at Bergs has been viewed by music critics as a “disaster,” the stage performances and live radio broadcasts from the club did expose a great number of bebop fans and intellectuals to authentic modernist jazz.
In March of 1945 Jackson opened with Gillespie’s group at New York’s Spotlite on 52nd Street with pianist Al Haig, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Stan Levey.
Despite numerous personnel changes over the next months, Jackson remained a steady member of Gillespie’s quintet, which eventually became the core of the trumpeter’s second big band. In To Be or Not to Bop, Jackson paid tribute to his mentor: “He’s dynamic with a big band. I learned how to play good music, this particular kind of music, because he’s the father of it.… I love his philosophy of music, and his philosophy of life, modern progressive development.”
Two months after his debut at the Spotlite, Jackson played piano on Gillespie’s big band recording of Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight”; he also played vibes on the now-classic “Things to Come.” The next winter, Jackson joined the band on the Victor sides “Anthropology,” “A Night in Tunisia,” and “52nd Street Theme.” He later recorded for the Musicraft label with Gillespie’s alumni saxophonist Sonny Stitt and drummer Kenny Clarke, cutting the numbers “Oop Bop Sh’Bam,” “That’s Earl,” and “One Bass Hit.”
Leaving Gillespie in 1947, Jackson teamed up with pianist Thelonious Monk. Together, they recorded for the Blue Note label over the next two years. In 1948 Jackson and Monk, along with bassist John Simmons and drummer Shadow Wilson, produced the numbers “Evidence,” “Mysterioso,” “Epistrophy,” and “I Mean You.” Several years later, accompanied by drummer Art Blakey and bassist Al McKibbon, Jackson recorded such arrangements as “Four in One,” “Criss Cross,” “Ask Me Now,” and “Straight No Chaser.”
In 1949 Jackson joined the big band of Woody Herman and toured nationally. With Herman’s small ensemble, the Woodchoppers, he appeared at the Tropicana in Havana, Cuba. When the audience was unresponsive to the group’s modernist repertoire, Herman called upon Jackson to supply some popular standards. In the liner notes for Jackson’s Plenty, Plenty Soul, Herman described Jackson’s remarkable memory for arrangements: “He’s a fantastic musician. And one of the things about him that impressed me was his great knowledge of tunes. He was … a young man, but he remembers songs I’ve long forgotten. He remembers all about a song, the bridge, the right changes. That depth of repertoire is a long-lost quality with most young players, but not with Milt.”
Jackson rejoined Gillespie from 1951 to 1952. For Gillespie’s Detroit-based Dee Gee label, he recorded sessions with John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell. The rhythm section of Gillespie’s big band—pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke—soon broke off to form a group with Jackson. As the Milt Jackson Quartet, they recorded sessions for Dee Gee, Savoy, and Blue Note.
In 1952 Jackson’s quartet—with exception of Brown, who was replaced by Percy Heath—incorporated themselves as the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). The ensemble performed a format of jazz standards, classically-based originals written by Lewis, the group’s music director, and numerous blues compositions written by Jackson. As Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the liner notes to The Modern Jazz Quartet, “Milt Jackson remained the star of the rhythm section because he is a natural soloist and also because it was such a blindingly unique style of playing he brought forth.” This observation was shared by Lewis, who explained in Plenty, Plenty Soul, “Milt is not only a fine soloist improviser, but he is an excellent group player too. And he keeps on developing. In all areas.”
Throughout the 1950s Jackson performed with the MJQ and continued to record under his own name, collaborating with musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Art Farmer, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Jimmy Heath, and Ray Brown. A guest musician on the 1954 album Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, Jackson provided Davis’s LP with two takes of his classic minor-blues number, “Bags’ Groove” in a session that evoked the now-legendary controversy concerning Davis’s demand that Monk “lay out” during his trumpet solos. Five years later, Jackson co-led a session for Atlantic with John Coltrane, Bags and Trane, which brought together two powerful voices of the modern age of jazz.
The 1960s saw Jackson continuing his solo efforts. His 1958 collaboration with Ray Charles, Soul Brothers, for Atlantic, was followed by the 1961 release Soul Meeting. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler recalled the two musicians’ creative interaction: “Dialoguing like two long lost friends, Milt and Ray were soul brothers indeed— relaxed, chatty, honest, respectful of each other’s time, patient listeners with nowhere to go except further into the landscape of their pasts and sorrowful joys of their songs.” That same year, Jackson teamed up with guitarist Wes Montgomery to record Bags Meets Wes!, featuring pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
The breakup of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1974 enabled Jackson to pursue a full-time solo career. In 1975 he signed with Pablo Records and made several Montreux Jazz Festival appearances. Outside of performing, Jackson has devoted himself to lecturing on the history of music. The MJQ reformed in 1981 for a tour of Japan, and he has subsequently made several albums with the group. Featuring backup by Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins, Jackson’s 1994 release, The Prophet Speaks, is a testament to his timelessness. In a career that began with the birth of bebop and included collaborations with nearly every influential name in jazz music, Jackson has made substantial contributions to nearly a half century of African American musical development.
Milt Jackson, Blue Note, 1952.
Wizard of the Vibes, Blue Note, 1952.
What’s New?, Blue Note, 1952.
Milt Jackson Quartet, OJC, 1955.
Roll ‘em Bags, Savoy, 1955.
Jackson’s Ville, Savoy, 1956.
Plenty, Plenty Soul, Atlantic, 1958.
Bags’Opus, Blue Note, 1958.
Bags and Flutes, Atlantic, 1961.
Big Bags, OJC, 1962.
Olinga, CTI, 1974.
Mostly Duke, Pablo, 1975.
Brother Jim, OJC, 1976.
Feelings, OJC, 1976.
Fuji Mama, West Wind, 1976.
Montreux 77, OJC, 1977.
Sings and Plays “Soul Believer,” OJC, 1978.
Bags’Bag, Pablo, 1980.
Ain’t But a Few of Us Left, Pablo, 1983.
It Don’t Mean a Thing if You Can’t Tap Your Foot to It, Pablo, 1984.
Reverence and Compassion, Qwest, 1993.
The Prophet Speaks, Qwest, 1994.
Meet Milt Jackson, Savoy.
Opus de Jazz, Savoy.
The First Q, Savoy.
The Jazz Skyline, Savoy.
All Star Bags, Blue Note.
Memories of Thelonious Monk, Pablo.
With Modern Jazz Quartet
Fontessa, Atlantic, 1956.
The Modern Jazz Quartet, Atlantic, 1957.
The Modern Jazz Quartet and Orchestra, Atlantic, 1960.
A Quartet is a Quartet is a Quartet, Atlantic, 1963.
Blues at Carnegie Hall, Atlantic, 1966.
The Last Concert, Atlantic, 1974.
For Ellington, East West, 1988.
MJQ40 (Boxed Set), Atlantic, 1991.
Big Band Jazz: From the Beginning to the Fifties, Smithsonian Collection of Recordings.
(With Sonny Stitt) In the Beginning, OJC, 1948.
(With J. J. Johnson) Milt Jackson & J. J. Johnson: A Date in New York, Inner City, 1958.
(With Ray Charles) Soul Brothers, Atlantic, 1958.
(With John Coltrane) Bags and Trane, Atlantic, 1959.
(With Ray Charles) Soul Meeting, Atlantic, 1961.
(With Wes Montgomery) Bags Meets Wes!, Riverside, 1961.
(With Ray Brown) Ray Brown — Milt Jackson, Verve.
Dizzy Gillespie, A Night in Tunisia, Victor, 1946.
Dizzy Gillespie, Anthropology, Victor, 1946.
Thelonious Monk, Misterioso, Blue Note, 1948.
Cannonball Adderly, Things Are Getting Better, Riverside, 1958
Oscar Peterson, Very Tall, Verve, 1962.
Benny Carter, The King, Pablo, 1976.
Clancy, William D., Woody Herman: Chronicles of the Herds, Schirmer Books, 1995.
Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser, To Be or Not to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie, Doubleday, 1979.
Goldberg, J., Jazz Masters of the Fifties, Da Capo, 1983.
Owens, Thomas, Bebop: The Music and Its Players, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Rusch, Robert D., Jazz Talk: The Cadence of Interviews, Lyle Stewart, 1984.
Wexler, Jerry, and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Down Beat, May 19, 1977; August 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to The Modem Jazz Quartet by Ralph J. Gleason, Atlantic, 1957; the notes to Plenty, Plenty Soul by Nat Hentoff, Atlantic, 1958.
Jackson, Milt 1923–1999
Milt Jackson 1923–1999
The unquestioned master of the vibraphone in modern jazz, Milt Jackson exemplified the true jazz musician’s ability to understand the music’s duality of group thinking and individualism. While most players would have been proud to be present at even one of jazz’s great historical moments, Jackson played in groups that helped forge two innovative jazz styles: bebop and classical-influenced jazz. Versatile and skillful when playing as part of a group, Jackson also compiled an impressive record of accomplishments as a soloist over the course of his 60-year career, and his lyrical, soulful vibraphone style was unmistakable.
Jackson was born on January 1, 1923, in Detroit, a city with a vigorous jazz scene for much of the twentieth century. The second of five brothers, Jackson started out in gospel music under the influence of his very religious mother. By the age of seven, he was accompanying his brother A.J. on the guitar as the two sang gospel hymns. While still a youngster, Jackson had already become an experienced gospel performer, traveling across the Canadian border every Sunday with a Detroit gospel choir to broadcast on the Windsor, Ontario radio station CKLW. He began taking piano lessons at the age of eleven, but stopped twoyears later when his mother became unable to afford them.
In high school, Jackson quickly outstripped his fellow music students, mastering several instruments and finishing the material for one course before the semester was even half over. Jackson told Down Beat that his teacher, Luis Cabrera, came up with an unusual solution: “Why don’t you take up the vibes?” Jackson recalled Cabrera as saying. “That’ll give you something to do, plus keep you out of trouble.” Never a commonly played instrument, the vibraphone and its larger cousin the vibraharp (which was actually the instrument Jackson played) had just begun to be heard in jazz. The instrument’s leading performers were Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, and Jackson heard Hampton play at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom and Michigan State Fairgrounds.
Jackson took to the vibes immediately. “I was fascinated by the instrument,” he told Down Beat. Rather than following Hampton and Norvo, Jackson worked to develop his own style. He experimented with different settings on the instrument’s electronic oscillator,
At a Glance…
Born Milton Jackson, January 1, 1923, in Detroit, Ml; died of liver cancer in New York, NY, October 9, 1999. married to Sandy; Education: Attended public schools in Detroit, Military service; Served in U.S. Army, 1942-44.
Career: Jazz vibraphonist. Sang in church; took up guitar at age seven and piano at age eleven; played several instruments in high school music classes and took up the vibraphone; joined Dizzy Gillespie band, 1945; recorded with Thelonious Monk band, 1947-52; performed with Woody Herman big band, 1949-50; rejoined Gillespie, 1951-52; formed Milt JacksonQuartet, soon renamed Modern Jazz Quartet, 1952; performed with Modern Jazz Quartet, 1952-74; extensive solo recording career.
eventually settling on a slow speed that produced a trademark vocal-sounding vibrato. Jackson’s innovative bent stood him in good stead in the early 1940s, as the angular, revolutionary new jazz style known as bebop took shape. His jazz apprenticeship was interrupted by military service in 1942, but after he returned to Detroit he found work performing in the city’s club circuit. His was a round-the-clock existence in those years. From his fellow musicians, Jackson acquired the nickname “Bags” because of the bags that often formed under his eyes.
Jackson’s big break came when jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, then making giant strides forward in defining the musical language of bebop, heard him play in Detroit in 1945 and hired him for a series of West Coast dates. Jackson played vibes on some of Gillespie’s legendary recordings of the mid-1940s, including “A Night in Tunisia” and “Two Bass Hit.” He moved with Gillespie’s band to New York, the epicenter of the bebop revolution. The decision was a difficult one for the deeply religious young man, but it put him at the creative vortex of the jazz world. Jackson’s parents were leery of the move at first, but he won them over by bringing renowned vocalist Ella Fitzgerald home to dinner one evening. “And my mother went and called up everyone and said her son was playing with Ella Fitzgerald,” Jackson recalled to Down Beat.
Jackson made other valuable contacts in New York, and when he was ready to leave Gillespie’s group in 1947, he moved on to another ensemble that was both cutting-edge and top-flight: that of pianist Thelonious Monk. Jackson’s precise style suited Monk’s terse, minimalist musical landscapes well, and once again he was heard on recordings that became jazz classics: Monk’s “Misterioso,” “Epistrophy,” and others. Recording with Monk for the Blue Note label, Jackson impressed more and more jazz enthusiasts with his instantly identifiable sound.
Though identified with bebop, Jackson could adapt his talents to more traditional styles. In 1949 he joined bandleader Woody Herman’s big band, touring Cuba with an associated small ensemble, the Woodchoppers. Nourished by the Afro-Cuban rhythms within many of Gillespie’s crucial innovations, Jackson reunited with Gillespie in 1951, recording on Gillespie’s Dee Gee label with such future jazz superstars as John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell. With Gillespie’s rhythm section, he also cut a few sides under the name of the Milt Jackson Quartet.
Three members of this rhythm section—Jackson, pianist John Lewis, and drummer Kenny Clarke—went on, with new bassist Percy Heath, to form the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952. This group, with its unique mixture of styles, brought a new level of sophistication to jazz in the 1950s. Lewis’s cool playing, influenced by European classical technique and sometimes even drawing on classical compositions, provided the perfect foil for Jackson’s essentially bluesy style. Jackson remained with the Modern Jazz Quartet until the breakup of the group in 1974.
Jackson’s versatility kept leading him into other collaborations as well, with musicians of the most diverse styles and aspirations. Jackson played on Miles Davis’s Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants album of 1954, rejoined Coltrane for the album Bags and Trane, and, on an entirely different note, recorded two albums with jazz-pop pianist and vocalist Ray Charles. On one of those albums, Soul Brothers, Jackson returned for the only time in his recording career to his first instrument, the guitar. Jackson’s 1961 duet album with guitarist Wes Montgomery was termed “a stunner” by Ron Wynn of the All Music Guide to Jazz.
Jackson’s solo career flourished in the 1960s, and continued unabated for the rest of the twentieth century. He remained active as a musician until just before his death. Recording for Pablo and other labels in a great variety of styles, Jackson’s albums maintained a remarkable consistency. He essayed vocals on the 1978 Original Jazz Classics album Soul Believer, which ventured into modern jazz-pop territory with its synthesizer accompaniments, and toured and recorded in the 1980s with the reunited Modern Jazz Quartet.
Even in the 1990s, half a century after his first recording dates, Jackson released several widely acclaimed albums, notably 1994’s The Prophet Speaks. “The Prophet” had been a more serious nickname that had flourished alongside the familiar “Bags.” Jackson’s last album, a collaboration with pianist Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown entitled The Very Tall Band, was released on the Telarc label in 1999. On October 9, 1999, Jackson died of liver cancer in New York.
Bluesology, Savoy, 1949.
The First Q, Savoy, 1952.
Opus de Jazz, Savoy, 1955.
Pienty Plenty Soul, Atlantic, 1957.
Soul Brothers, Atlantic, 1957 (with Ray Charles).
Bean Bags, Atlantic, 1958.
Bags and Trane, Atlantic, 1959 (with John Coltrane).
Bags Meets Wes, Original Jazz Classics, 1961 (with Wes Montgomery).
Live at the Village Gate, Original Jazz Classics, 1963.
Sunflower, CTI, 1973.
Soul Believer, Original Jazz Classics, 1978.
Night Mist, Pablo, 1980.
Mostly Duke, Pablo, 1982.
Reverence and Compassion, Qwest, 1993.
The Prophet Speaks, Qwest, 1994.
The Very Tall Band, Telarc, 1999.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 15, Gale, 1996.
Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds., The All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1998.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits, Morrow, 1989.
Down Beat, November 1999, p. 24.
—James M. Manheim