Milt Jackson, the jazz world's premier vibraphonist known for his complex improvisations and expertise in blues and bebop sounds, has died. He was 76.
Jackson, a cornerstone of the Modern Jazz Quartet for more than four decades, died of liver cancer Saturday in New York's St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.
Considered an authentic original, Jackson gave language and voice to the vibraphone--a totally touch-dependent assemblage of metal bars and tubes. Without him, the instrument would have remained a jazz stepchild with no capacity for the sort of bent tones and contrasting timbres essential to jazz expressiveness.
When Jackson arrived on the scene in the mid-1940s, the instrument was largely dominated by Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, who both treated vibes as a percussion instrument. But Jackson, influenced by the bebop innovations of Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, used larger mallets, slowed down the motor running the vibrato and added bop arcs and harmonies to achieve a softer, warmer sound.
What Jackson played was his own unique musical blend underscored with a remarkable ear (he had perfect pitch), a firm technique and the capacity to play anything in any key. Well schooled in blues and gospel music, he combined a sense of rhythmic swing with vocal-like articulation, establishing himself as one of the breakthrough players of the 1940s.
Bassist Ray Brown, who worked on and off with Jackson for more than 50 years, and whose latest recording, "The Very Tall Band," was one of Jackson's final studio outings, said Monday: "The thing that people don't mention much is that he was so lyrical. He played ballads to death and he just murdered the blues. There wasn't anybody like him, and there'll never be another."
Jackson did not seem a particularly appropriate choice for a role in the quartet. Somewhat out of sync with the spare, precise approach favored by the group's music director, John Lewis, Jackson at times chafed at what he saw as tight musical framing for his exuberant improvisations.
"There was a stylistic difference between us," said Lewis. "No doubt about that. But it was a challenge that we both took on. And I really believe that the contrast was what made it work. Creatively, if everything's the same, it sort of cancels things out.
"And Milt, who was a wonderful, joyful, life-loving person, with a tremendous ability to really invent something, always responded well to the challenge, taking each challenge to the limit."
The combination, despite occasional frictions, worked well enough for the quartet to remain together until the mid-1970s, and then reassemble in 1981. Jackson's passing, however, appears to bring the group's history to an end.
"I guess the key parts of the building were Milt and myself," Lewis said. "Take one of those away, and I guess it's over. I like to think that we helped people to think a little differently about jazz, about the music, than they had before."
Jackson, said Stefon Harris, the most highly regarded young vibraphonist of the past few years, "changed the vibraphone. After him, everybody played differently. . . . But the best lesson to be learned from him, the one he taught in his music and in his whole lifestyle, is simply to be yourself."
Born in Detroit on Jan. 1, 1923, Milton "Bags" Jackson taught himself to play the guitar at age 7, took piano lessons at age 11 and by high school played five instruments--drums in the marching band, timpani and violin in the symphony, guitar and xylophone in the dance band--and sang in the glee club and choir. He was soon singing on the radio and at weekend appearances with the Evangelist Singers gospel quartet. A high school music teacher introduced Jackson to the vibraharp, and he was immediately hooked.
After serving in the Army Air Corps Special Services during World War II, Jackson formed a Detroit group called the Four Sharps. Gillespie heard him and hired him for his New York sextet and big band. He also brought Jackson to Los Angeles for several weeks in 1946, during which they recorded "A Night in Tunisia" and other jazz classics.
Jackson wrote several jazz songs, among them "Bluesology," "Bags' Groove," "The Cylinder" and "Ralph's New Blues."
He won a Grammy in 1969 for "That's The Way It Is."
Among Jackson's other classic recordings are "Bags and Trane" in 1959 with John Coltrane, "Milt Jackson + Count Basie + the Big Band" in 1978 with Basie and "It Don't Mean a Thing if You Can't Tap Your Foot to It" in 1984 with Ray Brown.
Jackson's most recent Southern California performances included a 1998 engagement at Catalina Bar & Grill and in the 1998 Chamber Music in Historic Sites Concert at Union Station.
Survivors include his wife, Sandra, of Teaneck, N.J.; daughter, Chyrise Jackson, of Fort Lee, N.J.; and three brothers, Alvin of New York City and Wilbur and James of Detroit.