January 2023 Article

January 2023 Article

The first day of 2023 brought with it not only the start of a new year, but also marked the centenary of a pioneering figure in jazz, Milt Jackson.

Born on New Year’s Day in 1923, Milt Jackson was among the first jazz players to embrace the vibraphone as a solo instrument. Following Swing-era trailblazers Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, he took an all-encompassing view of music and embraced new trends as a matter of course throughout his 50+ year career. As Bud Powell did for the piano, Milt Jackson translated bebop idioms to the vibraphone, ushering the vibes into the modern era as a viable solo instrument.

Milt Jackson – also known to friends as “Bags,” a moniker bestowed by the bags under his sleepless eyes – got his first break when he introduced himself to Dizzy Gillespie during a jam session in his hometown of Detroit. Upon their introduction, Gillespie invited Jackson to move to New York City, promising the young vibraphonist a job in his band if he made the leap. Jackson made the move shortly after, and Gillespie remained true to his word, employing Bags first in his bebop big band, then his sextet. When Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker made their first visit to the west coast in 1945 for a now-famous stand at Billy Berg’s in Los Angeles, Gillespie again recruited Milt Jackson to come along, a move he made as insurance against Parker’s increasing unreliability. As a member of Dizzy’s sextet, Milt Jackson assisted with some of the first studio bebop recordings, made in 1946 by Dial Records. Bags also recorded that same year with vocalist Dinah Washington.

Gillespie also played a role in establishing one of Milt Jackson’s defining musical endeavors. While with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, Jackson was called on with his fellow rhythm section members to perform alone as a quartet, something that was standard practice for many big bands in the 1940s to give the horn players a break during lengthy sets. Featuring Bags on vibes alongside pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Kenny Clarke, the quartet was first introduced as the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1949. Soon after, the MJQ broke off to form their own act, rebranding as the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952, and with Percy Heath assuming the bass chair as Ray Brown had since moved on to tour with Ella Fitzgerald. The MJQ became one of the longest-running ensembles in jazz history, and a somewhat steady home for Jackson.

Though notable as a champion of the vibraphone, Jackson is often underrated for his musical advancements. Not only did he adapt the bebop language to the landscape of the vibes, but he was an exceptional blues player, noted for such compositions as “Bluesology” and “Bags’ Groove.” Perhaps even more underrated is his skill as a balladeer, an exemplary melodist as heard on tunes like “’Round Midnight,” “Django,” and the album The Ballad Artistry of Milt Jackson (1959), which was among his favorite albums.

In 2023, we doff our cap to “Bags,” the legendary vibraphonist and skilled artisan and ambassador of the music. Whether it’s with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, or his own projects, you can hear the superb sounds of Milt Jackson, all year long on Jazz 93.5.