Indianapolis / Chicago Examiner
November 13, 2009
Actual Story

By Neil Tesser

Saxophonist Franz Jackson Remembered
by The Salty Dogs in Third Annual Celebration

Looking for someplace to go Saturday night? What about Dowagiac?

Dowagiac, Michigan is about two hours’ drive from downtown Chicago. That’s 115 miles or so by road – maybe 75 miles as the crow flies (but the crow gets to fly over Lake Michigan, and you don’t) – and far enough to land you kind of in the middle of nowhere. I know this only because two years ago, I drove there to emcee the concert celebrating saxophonist Franz Jackson’s birthday.

Franz had moved to Dowagiac some years earlier, although “moving” certainly did not mean “retiring”: up until his late 80s, he would still drive himself to Chicago to perform, at festivals and at his regular weekly gig at Andy’s on Hubbard. (When you get your black belt in Tae Kwan Do at the age of 76, the perils of I-94 don’t seem quite so daunting.) At his birthday concert, it was hoped that Franz might join in on three or four tunes; in fact, I recall, he played on every tune but one over two sets, and blew hard and well. He set the pace for the rest of the musicians, some half his age or younger.

Franz died the following spring, but that only intensified the efforts of his daughter Michelle to make the event an annual affair. It comes up again this Saturday, when the Salty Dogs – one of the few authentic trad-jazz bands of our time, and an awfully good one for any time – perform at Franz’s latter-year haunt, the Wood Fire Trattoria in “downtown” Dowogiac. (You might not expect a town of 6,200 or so to have an excellent Italian restaurant, but you’d be wrong.) The music starts at 7 and goes till 10, and even with the drive back to Chicago, you’re home by 1 AM.

Because of his age and the fact that he began his career so early, Franz Jackson enjoyed a career that spanned nine decades – from the 1920s to our own century. He was a walking talking jazz-history book. Born in Rock Island, he played as a teenager with the boogie-woogie savant Albert Ammons in Chicago; he worked in clarinetist Jimmie Noone’s band, and spoke of the young Benny Goodman dropping by to pick up pointers on clarinet. He starred in bands led by Roy Eldridge, Fats Waller, and Earl Hines, and fought tenor battles with the likes of the legendary Kansas City player Chu Berry.

Jackson belonged to the generation that brought jazz out of the cradle and shepherded the infant music into its wild adolescence, a.k.a. the Swing Era. And like most of his contemporaries, he never adopted the music’s later developments. In fact, as his career developed and his fame increased, he actually stepped back: by the end, he was playing an essentially unreconstructed brand of traditional jazz, rough and ready and leaving the Swing Era’s spit-and-polish in the dust.

As I said, he was still going strong at the birthday concert at which I served as emcee. Actually, I wasn’t so much emcee as traffic cop. Franz’s daughter, the concert organizer, had gone to considerable lengths to make sure everyone who had to be on stage was on stage; that meant everyone important to Franz (and vice-versa). The program called for a different grouping of musicians on almost every song. Thus, my job largely entailed coming out after each tune, announcing the musicians who’d just played, and introducing those set to play next. (None of us could really keep it straight; since I had the only copy of the stage notes, my introductions served more to alert the musicians than the audience as to who was playing next.)

Earlier that day, I had complained about the long drive up and back on a Sunday afternoon and evening; then I ended up working a lot harder than I’d expected to. And I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The lovingly maintained Franz Jackson website features great photos and info, up-to-the-minute postings about his legacy, and a slew of great performance videos.

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