Illinois Jacquet plucks a laurel 

>From the pantheon of great saxophonists it is easy to pluck a top ten or twenty who move me -- John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Joe Henderson, Paul Desmond, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Cannonball Adderley, Sidney Bechet, Gerry Mulligan, Harry Carney, Lucky Thompson, James Moody ... shall I continue?

But I always seem to omit Illinois Jacquet, and I am not certain why, because he is one of those who has pleased me consistently over the years and has, in certain periods of his career, freed jazz from its rather closed fraternity and made it accessible to listeners who are usually searching for their music in the middle of the dial.

I don't have many Jacquet recordings, but the ones I've gathered have never failed to please. It is an anomaly of my own listening habits that I don't pull them out more often. I have no excuse for it and I probably ought to have my ears spanked, because Jacquet is responsible for one of the monumental solos in all the history of jazz.

In 1942, when he was only 19, he stepped up to the microphone for Lionel Hampton's big band and delivered a tenor solo during "Flying Home" that is unrivalled to this day, despite the fact that Hamp himself has recorded the tune many times over during his long and illustrious career. Of those many versions, the one with Jacquet is definitive. The solo also later was released as "Blues, Part Two."

It is one of the most famous and arresting solos ever to issue from the tenor. I recently read that Jacquet was among the jammin' musicians who gave birth to the first Jazz at the Philharmonic recording in 1944, significant because JATP brought us the first live recordings ever made for commercial issue.

And now, nearly 60 years later, Jacquet has been honored with the 2000 Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence. The award was conferred in October and was, in hindsight, long overdue, for Jacquet was among the first to bring what then must have seemed an eccentric use of harmonics to improvisation, foreshadowing later, more popular work, by Charlie Parker, who built on the harmonic foundation laid by Jacquet, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and others to give birth to bebop.

No small achievement, that, and Jacquet enjoyed almost instant acclaim for his turn during "Flying Home." But, somewhere along the way -- around 1960, I'd guess -- he seems to have been wrapped in the cloaks of the cult hero whose facility and taste were appreciated by an estimable but largely invisible cadre of admirers.

Nevertheless, I have many older friends who remember a kind of "Illinois Jacquet heyday" during the late 1940s and through the 1950s, during the years when the blues was the common denominator for much popular musical fare and before there was such a thing as rock 'n' roll to distract from its prominence as a malleable form that lends itself easily to the improvisational impulses that drive the best of jazz. And Illinois Jacquet proved that he has it all.

During those years, the JATP road shows were still going strong, and Jacquet, who had been one of the originals in the ever-changing lineup of greats, continued to tour with the shows after stints in the early to mid-1940s with Hampton, Cab Calloway and Count Basie.

Even after he caught the small ensemble bug, he continued to turn out innovative work, even though he'd toned down some of his earlier, nervous, desperate performances. Once he found the golden mean in his playing, he could blend the hip acumen that Coltrane later assimilated with the soulful silkiness he'd inherited from Lester Young, whom he replaced in Count Basie's band. Among his small group hits after Basie were "Robbins' Nest," "Black Velvet," and "Port of Rico," all of which were issued between 1947 and 1956.

And now, Jacquet has been lauded by Jazz at Lincoln Center. During the early 1980s, he even climbed the craggy promontory of academe and became artist-in-residence at Harvard University and, it is said, found the inspiration to return to big band settings. May God bless him. At age 78, he is a long way from the 19-year-old who turned big band fans around. I regret to say I haven't heard any recent recordings.

But, no matter. My New Year's resolution will require obtaining more Jacquet for my music library. Why don't you join me?