The Independent - London
May 24, 2008
Franz Jackson: Sax Player In The Golden Age of Jazz
By Steve Voce
The last survivor of the golden age of jazz when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong walked tall in the Chicago of the Roaring Twenties, the saxophonist Franz Jackson played with bands led by Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge and Fletcher Henderson, among others. Those bands were part of the spine of jazz in the first half of the last century.
Having played with Armstrong and with Jelly Roll Morton, whom he befriended late in Morton's career, Jackson became a legend in his home town of Chicago, playing there for more than 70 years. His gruff tenor sound lacked the niceties of his idols, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young, but he got to the top of the Chicago scene simply by outliving everyone else.
"Originally, I was going to be a clarinet player but at that time all people wanted to hear was Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young," he said:
So if you wanted anybody to listen, you played the tenor sax as they did. Well I went into the store to buy a tenor – I was about 14 or 15 – and the guy said "Man, you don't learn how to play on a tenor, you learn on an alto." So I bought an alto and tried to figure that out.
The boy particularly admired two of Duke Ellington's musicians, the alto player Johnny Hodges and the clarinettist Barney Bigard. Bigard was one of the many New Orleans musicians who had migrated up the Mississippi to Chicago.
Jackson played by ear, but lessons with an ex-Fletcher Henderson player, Jerome Pasquall, paid for by his mother, pointed him in an orthodox direction and he soon learned to read music. He got his first break at 17 when the Milwaukee bandleader Shuffle Abernathy came to Chicago and wanted a sax player. When he wasn't playing with Abernathy, Jackson joined some of the renowned émigré New Orleans players who travelled to Memphis and beyond to play jobs in the south:
We ballyhooed on a truck and would go to Memphis and then to New Orleans. We'd take an empty mail cart, put a piano in it and put it on the truck. Albert Ammons, later famous for his boogie-woogie playing, was the pianist and the New Orleans guys included trumpeter Punch Miller and trombonist Al Wynn. And there'd be a bar. When we stopped people would come up to the truck for a drink. We'd do that all the way to New Orleans. When we'd get [there] we'd give a dance, stay the night and come back the next day.
In 1931 he joined the band of Cassino Simpson, forgotten today but then an eminent musician, and worked in the ill-fated bands of Reuben Reeves, a fine trumpeter who never quite made it. When Carroll Dickerson, famous for leading the band that backed Louis Armstrong, came to Chicago in 1932 he took over a nightclub band that worked directly for Al Capone and the mob. "You didn't make a big salary," said Jackson:
But you got your money every night, because the next night the joint's liable to be burnt up or gone, or padlocked across.
You could pick up anything in tips in the Prohibition period, because you never knew who'd come in. There might be four or five parties during the night and you could pick up 17 or 18 dollars a night, which was good then, a week's salary for some people.
By 1936, Jackson was working for another of the New Orleaneans he admired, Jimmy Noone, the clarinet giant with the beautiful liquid tone. But in those days, Jackson was always a progressive player and when the chance came to join the innovative trumpeter Roy Eldridge who led the band at Chicago's Three Deuces, he did so.
When Ben Webster, chased by debt-collectors, left the Fletcher Henderson band in a hurry in the summer of 1938, Jackson got his job. But he returned to Eldridge in November that year and the two went to New York.
Jackson made his first records as a leader in 1940 and that year toured coast to coast in Fats Waller's big band. In October 1941 he toured again, this time in California with Earl Hines. Back in New York, he worked in Waller's small groups and as the clarinettist in the sextet led by the brass men Red Allen and Jay C. Higginbotham. Jackson played in the New York clubs with various leaders until, in 1946, he toured the Pacific playing for troops in the first of many USO (United Service Organisations) tours sponsored by the US military in the late Forties and early Fifties.
Returning to Chicago he formed his own band, the Original Jass All Stars in 1947. Although, having been familiar with Dizzy Gillespie's ideas in his younger days, Jackson was au fait with bebop, he chose to ride the tradition, and the Jass All Stars included the New Orleans veterans Bob Schoffner and Al Wynn. By now, Jackson was emphasising his Louis Armstrong-inspired singing and it added considerably to the band's popularity. The band was a colossal success and held various long residences in the Chicago area over subsequent decades.
The Jass All Stars visited New York in 1968 and undertook more USO tours to Vietnam and the Far East. Jackson formed another band, the Jazz Entertainers, in Chicago in 1980 and toured Europe as a soloist in 1981. A glutton for work, in 1990 he joined the band led by the younger Chicago trombonist Jim Beebe and continued to appear at festivals and jazz clubs throughout the world. He was scathing about the advent of rock, which, if anything, consolidated the appeal of Jackson's brand of jazz.
"Rock came along, where anyone can turn on the amplifier, pick up a guitar and make a big chord. Big deal. To play a jazz horn you've got to work six or seven years before you can even get a decent sound. But who cares? If anyone wants to listen to that stuff, that's their problem. "
Franz Jackson, saxophonist, clarinettist and bandleader: born Rock Island, Illinois 1 November 1912; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Niles, Michigan 6 May 2008.