Saxophonist Illinois Jacquet Dies
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page B05
Illinois Jacquet, whose roof-raising saxophone solos electrified an early generation of jazz fans and who later played alongside President Bill Clinton at the White House, died July 22 at his home in Queens, N.Y., of a heart attack. He was 81.
In his long career, which began when he was 3 and ended just days before his death, Mr. Jacquet combined a deep musical knowledge with the flamboyance of a born showman. He first soared to fame as a 19-year-old member of Lionel Hampton's band in 1942 with a blazing tenor saxophone solo on "Flying Home" that went on for more than a minute.
That exuberant, crowd-pleasing solo, often imitated by other musicians, would become his signature for more than 60 years, but there was much more to his music than honking pyrotechnics. Mr. Jacquet, whose named was pronounced "jack-KETT" but who was often known to musicians as "Jacket," was a sensitive ballad player, a graceful composer, a dedicated bandleader and an engaging raconteur whose life embodied almost the entire history of jazz.
"I was born in Louisiana, where this music came from," he once said.
Even though he became the subject of a film, was the first jazz musician to be an artist-in-residence at Harvard University and would play for three presidents -- famously lending his gold-plated Selmer saxophone to Clinton at a White House jazz gathering in June 1993 -- Mr. Jacquet never forgot the origins of his music or the raucous, hip-shaking clubs of the Southwest in which he learned to play it.
"If you can't tap your feet," he said, summing up his musical credo, "something's wrong."
Mr. Jacquet was one of the leading practitioners of a saxophone style called the Texas tenor sound -- big, robust, earthy and practically sweating with the blues. By biting on his reed, he could extend the upper range of the tenor saxophone two octaves.
Besides his skill on the saxophone and other reed instruments, Mr. Jacquet had an extraordinary ability to stir an audience. Always nattily dressed, he would end a performance with his suit sopping wet.
"He was Mr. Excitement," said Washington bassist Keter Betts. "You didn't sit back in your chair, you sat on the edge."
In his early years, Mr. Jacquet was sometimes dismissed as a mere applause-seeker. Punning on his name, critics dismissed his music as "ill noise." Mr. Jacquet accepted the complaints with an easygoing shrug.
"When something sounds good to me," he said, "I can't control what I might do, I love music so much."
In later years, as the depth of his musicianship was better understood, he became one of the most respected elder statesmen of jazz.
"He was a great balladeer -- I would say one of the greatest," said Houston Person, a saxophonist who patterned his style after Mr. Jacquet's. "He just never got the credit he deserved."
Jean-Baptiste Jacquet was born Oct. 31, 1922, in Broussard, La. He often said his mother was a full-blooded Sioux and that he was named Illinois because a relative of hers came down from Chicago to help deliver him.
By age 3, he was tap dancing in a family band led by his father. He moved at an early age to Houston, where he learned to play drums and alto saxophone. By 15, he was a featured player in local bands. At 17, he played in an all-night jam session in Kansas City with Charlie Parker that didn't end until noon.
After moving to Los Angeles, he joined Hampton, who in 1941 asked him to switch to the bigger, brawnier tenor saxophone. After the success of "Flying Home," Mr. Jacquet signed on with Cab Calloway in 1943, then replaced Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra in 1946.
In 1944, he appeared in "Jammin' the Blues," a short, wordless black-and-white film by Djon Mili that stylishly captured the spirit of a jam session. In the 1940s and '50s, when Mr. Jacquet was part of a traveling group of all stars known as Jazz at the Philharmonic, his dueling saxophone solos with Flip Phillips invariably elicited near-riotous applause.
Mr. Jacquet composed more than 300 tunes, the best known of which are "Black Velvet" (whose vocal version is called "Don'cha Go Away Mad"), "Robbins' Nest" and "Port of Rico." In the 1960s, he toured Europe frequently and experimented with the bassoon, most memorably on a 1969 recording of Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight."
In 1983, Mr. Jacquet was named artist-in-residence at Harvard, and in the same year he formed a big band in the mold of the Basie group of his youth.
In his later years, he was showered with the praise that had eluded him for so long.
He played at the White House for presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in addition to Clinton. In 1992, he was the subject of a documentary, "Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story."
Mr. Jacquet had one daughter and is survived by his longtime companion and manager, Carol Scherick.
"Jazz music is deeper than people think," he said. "It is a spiritual form of art. It's like a Picasso painting. There's no such thing as art going out of style."
He gave his final performance July 16 at Lincoln Center in New York.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company