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Chicago Jazz Magazine
July/August, 2008

By Lisa Roti

What a Wonderful....Man, Franz Jackson

Those of us even remotely related to the Chicago jazz scene over the past ten to seventy years are likely to have crossed paths with reeds man, Franz Jackson.  Whether we were aware of it at the time or not, he was the closest link to jazz history we would ever approach outside of a book or recording.  And if you were paying attention, every casual encounter was a lesson.

Franz Jackson was an exemplary representative of what it means to be a jazz musician.  He embodied the definition of it in his improvised life.  Not a negative stereotype to be found, those who encountered Franz Jackson soon learned that "jazz musician" meant the highest caliber of musicianship, plus giver, entertainer, and teacher - a respectable member of society.

Beginning his career as a teen with Albert Ammons in 1929, his ever-recognizable sound led him all over the world with Jimmy Noone, Walter Barnes, Roy Eldridge, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Ella Fitzgerald.  Though he traveled the globe, he always returned to our great city, a jazz center and his home, Chicago.

Franz was a great teacher because he walked the walk, he "Huffed and Puffed" and paid his dues.  His belief in the humanity of music and its unique gifts inspired him to encourage many to begin and pursue musical lives.  Many of the musicians who had the pleasure of playing with Franz believe his encouragement was what they needed to begin their musical journey, while others, even tenured players, can recount a specific suggestion or technique he gave them that they'll never forget.  And for those listening ears, he taught audiences that this was the time to pay attention, making them feel that something special was being offered to them.  Whether they were listening or dancing, Franz was interacting on a personal level with everyone in the room.

Never hardened by a life that may have seemed unfair in terms of financial reward or fame, he continued to practice what he preached by spreading love and joy through his music.  The love and respect he received in return was evident at his memorial service, where musicians and non-musicians alike shared how Franz inspired them to live more joyful lives - lives of passion - as led by his example.  Franz once compared his need to play jazz to our need for food:  he couldn't live without it, and luckily didn't have to for very long.  Even at age ninety-five, Franz continued to play until his last few months.

Those fortunate enought to have experienced Franz's music and warmth firsthand will not likely forget it; his many recordings will undoubtedly continue to provide joy for years to come.  Franz knew that his music could never die and so he lives his music, in our memories, and in our hearts.

Chicago jazz singer Lisa Roti first heard Franz Jackson as a young girl visiting Andy's Jazz Club.  She later became a singer with Jackson's band and recorded with him on her first album, Comes Love.
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