The Jerusalem Post
November 11, 2002
Sticking To Their Roots
From: Jerusalem Post
Date: October 11, 2002
Author: Barry Davis
Friday, October 11, 2002 -- Next Friday's appearance of 89-year-old Chicago-based reedman Franz Jackson at the Tel Aviv Museum will be something of a landmark occasion for our own small jazz community. It is not every day we play host to a musician who remembers entertaining young Charleston-dancing blacks on weekend Chicago-New Orleans round-trip train excursions back in the 1920s.
Over the years, jazz has not exactly gained a reputation for being the healthiest profession. Although the lifestyle of the average jazzman has changed significantly for the better in the past two or three decades, the specters of prematurely departed musicians, such as Charlie Parker - who died at the age of just 34 - and Billie Holiday, who made it to 44, still cast a pall of self-destructiveness over the jazz sector.
Then again, there have been some notable examples of longevity within the fraternity. Almost a nonagenarian (he turns 90 next month), Jackson obviously has a handle on staying the course. Ninety-five-year-old, still highly active fellow reedman Benny Carter is about the only other pre-swing era jazz musician still around, following the recent death of 93-year-old vibraphonist-drummer Lionel Hampton.
In an arts field rife with anecdotes and rich folklore, one of the most delightful stories is the one told about pianist Eubie Blake, who is quoted as exclaiming on his 100th birthday, in 1983: "If I'd known I was going to live this long I would've taken better care of myself." He died just five days later.
But, clearly, Jackson was not asked here as the opener of this year's Israeli Opera jazz series solely because of his advanced years. Over the past 70-plus years he has built up and maintained a reputation for energetic traditional/swing jazz, as well as an ability to go with the musical fashion flow.
"The style of music is not something I think about," said Jackson in a telephone interview from his Chicago apartment. "People ask for what they want and I play it."
Taken at face value, such a statement seems to suggest something of a sycophantic approach to his art. Nothing could be further from the truth. There may be a thin line between ensuring your audience is well entertained, and maintaining the highest standards of your chosen art form, but Jackson has managed that conundrum with ease for a long time.
"Louis Armstrong gives a pretty good idea of what was happening back then," he says. "He used to tell stories at his concerts. I used to catch his shows when he came to Chicago. A lot of people used to copy his style. I heard something I liked, listened to it, and memorized it."
THAT WORK ethic tells you a lot about Jackson. Despite starting out when jazz playing was a far less complex discipline - this was in the days before Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk developed the highly energetic, and sometimes frenetic, bebop style - Jackson has always been receptive to his colleagues' work, and incorporated other styles in his own playing.
"I liked guys like [pre-bebop but rhythmically complex saxophone legend Coleman] Hawkins. I took the principle of it, and extended it to the best of my abilities."
Most music lovers regard pre-bebop styles, such as ragtime, swing and trad jazz, as much simpler forms of improvised music. As far as Jackson is concerned (with apologies to Gertrude Stein) music is music is music, period.
"All these styles are just a matter of playing music that somebody asks for. People mark a style by the way certain people play. If I like what they're doing, I play it that way too."
That simplistic interpretation of jazz, surely, must stop short of the avant-garde or free jazz style played by the likes of pianist Cecil Taylor or saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler in the 1960s. Coltrane and Co. won kudos for their frontier-pushing artistic endeavor but, at that time, increasing numbers of music fans began to drift away from jazz in favor of eminently more palatable pop and rock material.
Simply put, Jackson is not a big fan of avant-garde jazz. "People have always wanted to hear songs," says Jackson. "When John Coltrane played 'My Favorite Things' [from The Sound of Music] it didn't sound good. I listen to what's going on now [in jazz], and I think some of the things they play are unnecessary - they don't say anything. It's just a bunch of notes. I've heard some stuff recently that I wouldn't ordinarily listen to - I've had a backache and I've been staying in one place for a while, listening to music. They take one theme and then they make something on top of that, and they keep that going through the whole tune. To me, that's monotonous."
Then again, as Jackson points out, you can play around with a number as much as you want. That is, after all, the whole principle of improvised music.
"You can take a tune and play it according to any style. Take [George and Ira Gershwin's] 'I Got Rhythm' for instance. You take a certain set of chords and you can make different tunes of that set. You can play it as a bop number, or a dance number, or anything you want. You make figurations that fit the tempo. That's more or less what swing was."
As far as Jackson is concerned, if art isn't user friendly it simply isn't going to catch on. He believes it isn't just a matter of a new art style, by definition, being different from anything the consumer has previously encountered. Bebop was very different - and more cerebrally challenging - from the swing and traditional jazz that preceded it. But it was, of course, eventually embraced by the mainstream.
"Most people didn't know what to make of bebop when it first came out because they couldn't hum it," Jackson declares. "I don't care what you're playing, how are people going to get that style in their mind if they can't hum it? That's all music is. That's what I don't like about some of the modern players. In order to make certain kinds of notes or noises, they're just not being artistic. The music is supposed to sound good and to make people feel good."
JACKSON HAS been making his listeners feel good ever since he secured his first professional jazz engagement in the Chicago area in 1926. It was an unsalaried, tips-only job playing dance music with a band on a boat that ran from Jackson Park to Navy Pier and back about half a dozen times a day. The first fixed-pay position he had was with famous boogie-woogie pianist-bandleader Albert Ammons. It was that job that encouraged Jackson to further his musical education. He was frustrated by the fact that his fellow players could not read music. Hence, whenever someone left the band it took a while until the new man learned the pieces by heart and the orchestra could resume normal service.
The young saxophonist then enrolled at Chicago Musical College and spent two years learning how to write music. He got his first opportunity to put his new skill into practice when he joined Casa Simpson's band, which was booked to play at a Mafia-controlled speakeasy in Chicago's Loop area. Jackson recalls getting paid on a nightly basis, "because the next day the place might be burned down by a rival group of gangsters or padlocked by revenue agents." Those were the days.
Jackson remained gainfully employed throughout the 1930s, doing stints with some of the top bandleaders of the day, including Jimmie Noone, Roy Eldridge and Fletcher Henderson. He traveled to New York with the latter and later made it to the West Coast with the Earl Hines Orchestra. He traveled extensively throughout North America until the mid-1950s before returning to Chicago where he formed his Original Jazz All Stars, which enjoyed a 20-year run of success.
Jackson now limits most of his live work to the Chicago area and records with his own Pinnacle label, his latest release being the 1997 CD I Is What I Is. The album contains 15 tracks of deliciously performed traditional jazz, with Jackson backed by trumpeter George Bean, pianist Joe Johnson, bassist Truck Parham and drummer Jim Herndon. This is not some post-modern band of youngsters on a retro trip but a collection of improvised roots music simply and succinctly delivered by musicians who know exactly where jazz comes from. Needless to say, you can hum all the tunes with ease.
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