Milt Jackson, 76, a vibraphonist whose wispy lyricism with the Modern Jazz Quartet made that group one of the most distinctive, tastefully textured bands of the 1950s to the 1970s, died of liver cancer Oct. 9 at a Manhattan hospital. He lived in New Jersey.
Mr. Jackson, whose innovative vibraphone technique brought him recognition as a premier bluesman, made hundreds of recordings with artists from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to pianist-singer Ray Charles. The Modern Jazz Quartet, which played a style known as chamber jazz because it fused jazz and classical structures, released dozens of albums. The quartet broke up in 1974, but the musicians reunited occasionally in the 1980s and 1990s.
Although the quartet's music was widely admired for blending musical styles, the group also was criticized for its occasionally antiseptic sound. The quartet tended to favor precision over raw emotion; and it hardly helped dispel the musicians' reputation that they were known for wearing formal attire onstage.
On his own, Mr. Jackson was known as a nonpareil blues interpreter with a delicate use of vibrato and bent notes. To achieve a softer, less hurried vibrato and a warmer sound, Mr. Jackson was one of the first musicians in the 1940s to reduce the speed of his vibraphone's oscillator to almost a third of the instrument of his contemporary, Lionel Hampton.
Mr. Jackson, who was born in Detroit, played guitar and piano but switched to xylophone and vibraphone as a teenager. He also sang tenor in a gospel group.
In 1945, after returning from overseas military duty, Mr. Jackson sat in with Gillespie in Detroit, and within a year he became part of Gillespie's sextet and big band. The vibraphonist recorded later that decade some of Gillespie's bebop standards, including "A Night in Tunisia" and "Anthropology."
During these years, Mr. Jackson also had dates with pianist Thelonious Monk, saxophonist Charlie Parker and clarinetist and big band leader Woody Herman.
In 1951 and 1952, Mr. Jackson and other members of Gillespie's big band--pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke--formed the Milt Jackson Quartet. In 1952, a new name stuck, the Modern Jazz Quartet.
By the mid-1950s, bassist Percy Heath had replaced Brown, and drummer Connie Kay sat in for Clarke. That was the lineup until Kay died in 1994.
Starting in the mid-1970s, Mr. Jackson played on tour with Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry and Oscar Peterson, among others. He was asked at the time whether he missed the Modern Jazz Quartet. "Not really," he said. "The precision and polish are things I miss, but in an overall musical sense, I don't miss it."
His reviews after leaving the quartet were not always stellar, with some critics remarking that his style was perfunctory. "Emotionally bloodless as it was technically flawless" was how one Post critic reviewed his appearance at Blues Alley in 1980. On other occasions, his musicianship was cited for its "uniquely personal voice."
More recently, however, the words "genius" and "legendary" appeared near his name in print. That gave him the authority to theorize about his art. "Most of the young players don't have the dedication," he told The Post in 1995. "And the big money goes to Madonna and Elvis. But if they're not in it for that, if they have the values, we can play together, and we swing. We learn."
In recent years, he recorded on the Qwest Label, owned by Quincy Jones. His last record for that label is "Milt Jackson Meets the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Explosive!"
Survivors include his wife, a daughter and three brothers.