Chicago Daily Herald
November 8, 2002
By Steve Zalusky
The Mount Rushmore of Jazz Legendary reedman Franz Jackson still going strong at 90
Urban renewal and civic neglect have swept away virtually all visible traces of Chicago's glorious jazz past.
Gone are the Vendome and Regal Theatres. The same for the Lincoln Gardens and the Dreamland Cafe.
Some stubborn remnants survive, such as the hardware store on 35th Street that once called itself the Sunset Cafe, where Louis Armstrong reigned as king of the trumpet in the 1920s.
One flesh-and-blood monument, however, remains: the seemingly indestructible force of nature that is reedman, composer and arranger Franz Jackson.
Undoubtedly the last living working Chicago jazzman left from the 1930s, Jackson celebrated his 90th birthday with two weekend parties, one Friday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St., Chicago, and another Saturday at Pops Highwood, 214 Green Bay Road, Highwood.
Jackson works regular gigs at both clubs, demonstrating his mastery of the tenor saxophone and clarinet, while playing a varied repertoire of traditional jazz and swing standards, as well as his own compositions.
For the hard-core jazz buff, just being in Jackson's presence provides a thrill. It is tantamount to witnessing one of the figures at Mt. Rushmore speak.
"He's one of the only guys that goes back to the beginning of jazz," said jazz historian Paige Van Vorst.
It is one thing to hear a clarinetist play Jimmie Noone's "Apex Blues." But the tune takes on another dimension when a listener realizes that the clarinetist actually played with Noone. Jackson was part of the clarinet giant's band at the Platinum Lounge in the 1930s. In fact, Jackson remembers Benny Goodman listening to Noone play.
It is hard to believe Jackson is only 10 years shy of the century mark. He still drives himself around, lugging his instruments to and from gigs and traveling between his apartment on Chicago's South Side and a second home in Niles, Mich. And he still tours, having recently played a concert in Israel.
His apartment contains the expected artifacts of a long career, including a 78 rpm recording of trombonist Jack Teagarden and his Orchestra playing a Jackson composition "Blues to the Dole."
"He could play the hell out of the blues," Jackson said of Teagarden.
But his dwelling also reveals that Jackson's feet are firmly planted in the 21st century, with a computer occupying a corner of the living room.
He wanted a horn
Like himself, Jackson's musical philosophy stands the test of time. For Jackson, improvisation is important, but it must stay in touch with the basic melody and enhance it.
"You've got to have people know what you're playing. You don't say, 'I got something better to play here.' You do have something better, but you're doing it according to (the tune). You have something to offer to add to that particular tune and make it interesting."
The Rock Island native discovered his calling not long after his widowed mother moved to Chicago, where she worked as a dressmaker.
"I heard a fellow blow a horn and I said, 'Mom, I want one of them.' "
Van Vorst, in the notes to Jackson's Delmark album "Yellow Fire," said Jackson studied harmony and counterpoint at the Chicago Musical College for two years.
But Jackson's musical laboratory was Chicago's South Side.
In the mid-1920s, he often visited the Vendome Theatre to hear Erskine Tate's Orchestra, which included Louis Armstrong, and played symphonic music in addition to jazz (Jackson, who retains an interest in classical music, later played bassoon with the Community Symphony of Chicago).
Armstrong influenced the man Jackson used as the model for his technique, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. By the early 1930s, Hawkins had developed an advanced harmonic and melodic approach, combined with a gruff tone and smooth phrasing that later incorporated a tender, sensuous treatment to ballads like "Body and Soul."
Of Hawkins, Jackson said: "He made people see that a piece could carry intricacy ... a lot of melody and still be broken up and still you know what he is playing. That's what I liked about him. I think his style will last forever."
A time to boogie
Jackson's early career began rolling, quite literally, in the late '20s, when he played with boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons and a small group on a train heading from Chicago to places like Memphis and New Orleans.
After sharpening his technique in Prohibition roadhouses, many of them run by gangsters, Jackson was ready to make his mark on South Side club life.
One of his significant early jobs involved playing with pianist Cassino Simpson's band in the early 1930s. Virtually forgotten, Simpson, along with Earl Hines and Teddy Weatherford, was one of the pioneers of the modern jazz piano. His public career was cut short by mental illness, but that didn't keep him from making recordings while a permanent resident at an Elgin mental health facility.
Jackson launched his recording career in 1933 as a sideman with trumpeter Reuben Reeves. The tunes included his composition and arrangement of "Yellow Fire," which he would later record with Earl Hines and then re-record with the Salty Dogs, one of the great traditional jazz bands.
In 1940 Jackson recorded for Decca under his own name, with Franz Jackson and his Jacksonians performing "Summer Rhapsody" and "Boogie Woogie Camp Meeting."
By that time Jackson had established himself as a sideman with such bands as the one led by pianist-arranger Fletcher Henderson at the Grand Terrace in Chicago.
Jackson's talents as a composer and arranger were allowed to shine with pianist Earl Hines' outstanding 1940-41 band. The feverish "Yellow Fire" and the buoyant, brassy "Southside" are among the highlights of a great band whose leader's octave-based "trumpet style," modeled on Louis Armstrong's, had supplied an alternative to the accepted "stride" piano technique.
Riding the train
Jackson continued to work in big bands through the 1940s, including a stint with Thomas "Fats" Waller, who hired Jackson in the early 1940s, prior to the pianist-composer's untimely death.
Jackson remembers Waller's strong rhythmic presence.
" (Playing with the band) was like riding a train. It was that steady," said Jackson, who contrasted Waller's solid beat with Hines' more elusive approach to playing rhythm. "You didn't really hear (Hines) until he took his solo."
Following World War II, Jackson toured with a USO band, spending some time in Europe. But his musical career abruptly changed when he returned to Chicago in the '50s.
In the liner notes to "Yellow Fire," Van Vorst wrote, "(In 1957), George Lewis' New Orleans band was playing the Red Arrow (in suburban Stickney) and Lewis became ill. Franz was hired as a last- minute replacement. He said, 'I was amazed. The music was fun to play and really went over with the audience.' "
Surrounding himself with 1920s vintage musicians, including trumpeter Bob Shoffner, one of Louis Armstrong's successors with the King Oliver group, Jackson embarked on a long-standing gig at the Red Arrow. The job mandated switching from saxophone to clarinet to adapt to the more traditional New Orleans instrumentation.
The band proved a success with musicians as well as audiences.
"He had one of the greatest bands I heard in my life," said tuba player Mike Walbridge, who was in the studio when the band recorded its first album, "No Saints." He later had the chance to play with Jackson on the album "Yellow Fire" as a member of the Salty Dogs.
Billing itself as Franz Jackson and the Original Jass All-Stars, the group played at the Red Arrow until 1967. It recorded such classic albums as "A Night at Red Arrow."
After the Red Arrow closed, Jackson continued playing and recording on clarinet and soprano and tenor saxophones, as well as vocalizing in a light-hearted, sometimes raspy style.
His recording career came full circle when he recorded two songs he did with Reuben Reeves, "Yellow Fire" and "Zuddan," for Delmark in 2000 with the Salty Dogs.
Jackson's current gigs are steady, although not nearly as frequent as he might like. You can still find him playing regularly at clubs like Andy's Jazz Club and Pops Highwood.
Without a doubt, he is the most active jazz musician of his age. And he seems to get more popular with each passing year.
Scott Chisholm, who owns Andy's Jazz Club, said Jackson regularly brings young students to the club, not only to listen to the music, but also to get up on stage and jam with him.
"Too many players of his caliber have gone into the high sky," Chisholm said. "And it's a style of music that's really fading away. Nobody plays this style anymore."
"When he stops playing, nobody is going to take Franz Jackson's place," said Pops Highwood owner Tom Verhey.
Jackson did what he loves on his 90th birthday: play jazz
The party may have been in his honor, but Franz Jackson did most of the entertaining.
On his 90th birthday, Jackson played tenor saxophone and sang with a group that included saxophonist Eric Schneider before a packed house Friday evening at Andy's Jazz Club in Chicago.
Jackson regaled the crowd, which included Jackson's daughter, Michelle Jewell, son-in-law, David Jewell, and nearly 2-year-old granddaughter, Jade, by belting out the vocals on such standards as "St. James Infirmary" and "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and blowing swinging saxophone on tunes like "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Later, Schneider led the crowd in a non-jazz rendition of "Happy Birthday."
"I've played with Franz on and off for longer than 20 years," said Schneider, himself a veteran of the Chicago jazz scene, who has played with such luminaries as Earl Hines. "I love his energy, I love his drive. And he swings like crazy."
Among those in the audience was WBEZ radio jazz DJ Dick Buckley.
"Franz has always been a good player, and you can't say he improves with age, because he's always been good.
"It all has to do with improvisation. He seems to have an endless supply of ideas. He just goes on and on."
"I was actually planning a surprise birthday for him," Michelle Jewell said, "and three nights ago he told me, 'I took a job,' so we decided to come here and help him celebrate. I can't imagine he would be happier anywhere else on his birthday."
Jewell said it was a privilege to have grown up in an environment where she was able to follow her father's career and meet such musical figures as Ella Fitzgerald.
"I wouldn't have traded it for the world. It has been such an enriching experience. I've seen things and heard things that will stay with me forever."
- Steve Zalusky
Check out these Jackson recordings
Franz Jackson can boast a recorded musical legacy spanning nearly 70 years.
Much of it is available on CDs and cassettes that can be found at the Jazz Record Mart, 444 W. Wabash, Chicago.
The highlights include:
"Reuben Reeves and Omer Simeon: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order 1929-33," (RST)
Jackson's career began with four 1933 sides with Ruben "River" Reeves and His River Boys, on which Jackson played clarinet and alto saxophone and wrote the arrangements.
The session features such Jackson compositions as "Zuddan" and "Yellow Fire."
"Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra, 1938," (Jazz Unlimited)
Jackson's work as a sideman is documented on these two broadcasts from Chicago's Grand Terrace.
"A Night at Red Arrow," (Pinnacle)
This album gives a pretty good idea of what it was like to sit at a table in this suburban club. It contains splendid examples of Jackson's fluid clarinet work and his band's driving ensemble style on such numbers as "Weary Blues." The band also had its humorous side, heard on "St. James Infirmary" and "Mack the Knife."
"Snag It," (Delmark)
This 1991 release features Jackson on tenor and soprano saxophone and clarinet, as well as vocals. He is backed by Jim Beebe's Chicago Jazz for a series of tunes that mix traditional and swing tunes, including Jackson's simultaneously swinging and poignant composition "Southside" and a sensitive Hawkinsesque rendition of "Sophisticated Lady." In addition there is a version of "What a Wonderful World" that compares favorably with Louis Armstrong's performance.
"Yellow Fire," (Delmark)
Jackson's recording career came full circle with this album, recorded in 2000 with the Salty Dogs. The band reaches back to both the Reeves and Hines years with new versions of "Zuddan" and "Yellow Fire." It also plays the intriguing Jackson march "Bud Billiken."
- Steve Zalusky
A living legend: Franz Jackson
-He was born on Nov. 1, 1912, in Rock Island, Ill.
-He played with boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons in 1929.
-In the 1930s, he played with Cassino Simpson, Carroll Dickerson, Reuben Reeves, Jimmie Noone, Roy Eldridge and Fletcher Henderson.
-In the 1940s, he worked with Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Frankie Newton, Eldridge and Wilbur De Paris.
-He performed in USO tours in the late '40s and early '50s.
-Jackson returned to Chicago in the late '50s, beginning a decade-long engagement at the Red Arrow in Stickney and recording with his band on his own Pinnacle label.
-For the past two decades, he has appeared in several Chicago jazz clubs, including Andy's, Joe's BeBop Cafe, the Green Mill and Pops. He has also toured such countries as Sweden, Israel and Canada