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South Bend Tribune
October 28, 2007
Actual Story

Jazz saxophonist beboppin' up to 95


Tribune Staff Writer

Franz Jackson still loves to play, and jazz musicians such as Larry Dwyer say Jackson still plays very well.

In concert

"Still Swingin: Franz Jackson Celebrates 95" takes place at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at at the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center, 57072 Riverside Drive, Dowagiac. Tickets are $50-$25. For more information, call (269) 782-1115. 

When conversation turns to the life and music of Franz Jackson, it's hard to decide which number is more impressive -- his 95 years of life or his 79 years as a professional musician.

Jackson's family and about 20 musicians who have performed with the saxophonist will celebrate both during a birthday concert at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center.

Jackson, who turns 95 on Thursday, was 16 years old when pianist Albert Ammons hired him in 1928. The saxophonist would go on to play with such jazz greats as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Fats Waller.

Jackson displayed his mastery of Waller's jazz standard "Ain't Misbehavin' " during an Oct. 12 lecture for a music class at the University of Notre Dame.

Jackson played the song twice during the lecture. It was an accident, Larry Dwyer, the head of Notre Dame's jazz program, says.

Dwyer, who frequently brings Jackson in to speak to students, was playing piano and says the two men intended to play "Sweet Georgia Brown," but they got their signals crossed.

Still, hearing Jackson play "Ain't Misbehavin' " two times allowed the students to gain a deeper appreciation of the saxophonist's strengths as an improviser and a showman.

Jackson's solos on both versions were distinct, Dwyer, who first performed with Jackson in 1975, says.

"I've (always) found him delightful to play for because he knew all of these wonderful songs," he says, "and he played creatively and was an impressive improviser."

Dwyer says that Jackson was 63 when the two met after Dwyer was hired as a pianist for a combo that was the house band at a nightclub near Chicago.

Jackson poses with his saxophone in a photograph taken in the 1930s. Jackson, who will turn 95 on Thursday, is one of the few remaining jazz musicians who performed in the 1920s. 

"He seemed like a musician who was totally in his prime and in control of what he played," Dwyer says.

Jackson brought all of that history with him to his talk with the Notre Dame students.

Dwyer says he tried to educate the students before they met Jackson.

"I always tell them that Jackson is a legend, and I have them listen to (musicians) like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller," Dwyer says. "Then, I tell them that (Jackson) is one of the few musicians alive who actually played with those guys."

Still, Dwyer figures that some students might be skeptical that someone as old as Jackson would be able to play well enough to hold their interest.

Jackson, however, captured the students' interest with his stories about the people he shared the stage with, as well as his playing.

"He would play a song and (sing), and all of his vocals had little humorous (asides) that he put into his routine," Dwyer says.

Michelle Jewell, Jackson's daughter and organizer of the birthday concert, says her father enjoys talking to students.

"He has always been a strong proponent of music education," she says.

Jewell has been exposed to her father's talent, humility, joy and love for the music since she was a child.

That's one reason that Jewell loves jazz even though she grew up at a time when rock and R&B had supplanted jazz as the country's most popular music.

Jewell recalls touring with her father and meeting the musicians who performed with Jackson.

"The most enjoyable trips for me and my brother were the trips to a ski resort in Wisconsin," she says. "We would be there for two weeks, and it was a great resort with a lot of things for kids to do."

Bill Nicks, who will be one of the performers at Sunday's concert, has known Jackson for about 20 years.

Nicks is one of the people who is impressed by Jackson's musical legacy, which encompasses musical styles ranging from boogie-woogie to bebop.

The fact that so many people are willing to be a part of Jackson's birthday celebration, however, shows that Jackson also is a good person, Nicks says.

"He is also quite a gentleman," he says. "And to me, that counts as much as anything else."

Staff writer Howard Dukes

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