Rhythm and blues pioneer Bull Moose Jackson was invited by Warner Bros. Records to play for a New Year's Eve party on the West Coast last year. The money was good, so Jackson, who works for a catering firm in Washington, took a band along with him. While in California, he bumped into his old friend Johnny Otis, who was then preparing to take his "Johnny Otis Show" to Europe the following summer.
"You're my man," Otis told Jackson then, and the two started making plans.
As it turned out, meeting with Otis was just the beginning of a very good year for Jackson, 66. He performed at Carnegie Hall with Otis, then the two toured Europe. Along the way Jackson renewed some old musical acquaintances -- including Fats Domino, Ray Charles and several members of the Count Basie band.
What's more, during the past year many of Jackson's classic R & B tunes from the late '40s, a period in which he had nine hit records (including what is widely regarded as the first R & B million-seller, "I Love You, Yes I Do") were reissued by a European label, rekindling interest in the veteran singer and saxophonist. "Moosemania," Jackson's first album in years, recorded with a young Pittsburgh septet called the Flashcats, was also released. And tonight Jackson will team up with a local band, the Uptown Rhythm Kings, at the Bayou.
"It's the best year I've had in a long time," says Jackson, who moved to Washington in 1964. "I've just had a wonderful time. I haven't played the sax in years, but my voice is in good shape and I still love to perform. The other day I went to rehearse with this band the Rhythm Kings , and after I sang a little and did my monologues, I got a standing ovation. That's all I ever wanted from music."
Even so, Jackson, born in Cleveland in 1919, admits his parents may have wanted a little more for their only child; each week his mother and father would put a little money aside for violin lessons. "They wanted me to become a concert violinist," Jackson says. "Even though in that time, back in the '20s, there were no openings for black people in the New York Philharmonic.
"Where they got the idea of me playing the violin, I'll never know. They weren't musical. My mother took care of the home and my father was a steelworker. But I always had the expectation of being a big-time musician."
As Jackson grew older he took up the saxophone, partially because of the popularity of big bands and partially because the violin seemed out of place among all the drums and horns his classmates were playing. While still in high school he and his friend Freddie Webster formed their first band, the Harlem Hotshots, and played around northern Ohio for a little spending money.
After high school Jackson worked in Buffalo briefly, but in 1943 he returned to Cleveland, where he was recruited by bandleader Lucky Millinder. "He came into the club where I was working and asked me to play and read a few things," Jackson remembers. "The next thing I knew we're on tour. We went to Wichita, Kansas, and then to Texas."
"Now, Texas, that's where my singing began. You know, in Texas they want to hear what they want to hear, and if you don't give it to them you're going to see a shower of whiskey bottles. They kept asking me to sing and I finally gave in and broke up the house, as they say. On the way back north we stopped in New York and that's when I started recording -- around 1945."
When Jackson first joined the Millinder band, his fellow musicians tagged him Bull Moose and thus displaced forever his given names Benjamin Clarence. "I really don't know why they came up with Bull Moose. But it sure has worked all right. When you hear the name Bull Moose, you won't forget it."
Working first with Millinder's band and later with his own septet, the Buffalo Bearcats, Jackson recorded virtually every style of popular music in the next five years -- R & B, blues, jazz, novelties, risque' numbers, even hillbilly tunes -- and with enormous success. In 1950 Esquire magazine estimated Jackson's gross income for the previous year at more than $200,000 and the figure no doubt would have been far greater if radio hadn't shunned some of his raunchier tunes.
But unlike many early R & B artists, Jackson has no quarrel with the way the record industry treated him. "In those days they didn't keep many books," he explains. "Now if you sell a million records, maybe you'll make a million, but not then. But the average guy like me back then wasn't that interested in making money. We were more interested in performing for people and seeing our name up in lights."
"Just being myself" is how Jackson sums up his success -- that and having the good fortune to work with some extraordinary jazz musicians over the years, including Tadd Dameron, Frank Wess, Benny Golson and Philly Joe Jones. "When I was coming up some of my favorite saxophonists were jazz people like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but I didn't want to sound just like them. I didn't imitate anybody. People compared me to [singer Billy] Eckstine and [saxophonist] Red Prysock, but I was different. I always had my own sound."
Jackson worked in clubs "up until the early '60s -- that's when it went kaput. The types of things I was doing didn't really appeal to the youngsters anymore. Now the kids are the ones that are bringing it back. They're falling into that same groove I had going 40 years ago."