100 Jazz Profiles
1923 - 1999
Vibraphonist. One of the leading vibraphone players in jazz, Jackson grew up in a musical family in Detroit, and tried his hand at playing several instruments, as well as singing gospel music. Until the early 1950s he doubled on piano and vibes, but thereafter the vibes became his sole instrument. He played with territory bandleader George E. Lee and in various local bands, before joining Dizzy Gillespie's group in late 1945.
This band, with Charlie Parker on alto sax, went to California, and made some influential recordings. On his return East in 1946, Jackson remained with Gillespie, first in a small group and then in the pioneering big band that transferred the bebop style to larger forces. This was a very important stage in Jackson's career, as the rhythm section, with bassist Ray Brown, pianist John Lewis and drummer Kenny Clarke, played intermissions during the big band's concerts, eventually becoming a separate group in its own right - first known as the Milt Jackson Quartet and then the Modern Jazz Quartet.
The MJQ (as the group finally became known) was one of the longest-lived and most influential ensembles in jazz history, but it did not come into being as a regular line-up until 1952, by which time Jackson had played frequently with Gillespie on vibes and piano, and had also worked with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Woody Herman. The cornerstone of the MJQ was Jackson's inventive and bluesy vibes playing, which contrasted with the semi-classical piano style of Lewis, and this continued when bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay replaced Brown and Clarke.
In the 1970s, the MJQ broke up for a few years, but it reformed in 1981 and continued to tour regularly until 1997. In between, Jackson co-led a band with Ray Brown, fronted numerous of his own groups, (some with other co-leaders such as pianist Hank Jones,) and appeared as a guest star on dozens of festivals, concerts and recordings, all of them proving that until the last months of his life, he remained a supremely talented improviser, and a brilliant soloist. He wrote numerous pieces as well, of which Bag's Groove (named after his own nickname 'Bags') is the best-known.
Gary Giddins: The Modern Jazz Quartet (The First Forty Years) in Visions of Jazz (Oxford University Press, New York, 1998)
Modern Jazz Quartet Plays George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (Atlantic 1440)
Suggested track: Summertime
Milt Jackson at The Jazz Files
Biography and recommended recordings
on radio 3
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