Milt Jackson: An Appreciation

Sometime in 1974, I caved in to a desire for music with more meat on it than the decaying bones of my
rock 'n’ roll could serve up. It was the age of burgeoning disco. I was married and retired from my schizophrenic college career as a student, semi-professional bassist and musical director of a blues-rock band based in Cambridge, Mass. So I took my business to another section of the record shop.

What delights I found there! In this corner, Dizzy showed me the endless melodic possibilities of established, and recognizable, changes that formed the blueprints of popular tunes, and he taught me about bop. In that corner, Trane ran me up and down jagged inclines and demonstrated the beauty of melodies built upon scales instead of changes. Back behind the cut-out bin, Monk held forth with his subversive quarter-tone implications and made me hear in a different way. And way across the room was Miles, putting it all together with a restrained canniness that proved silence is the canvas upon which all musicians paint. 

And among these greatest of treasures was an Atlantic release simply titled The Art of Milt Jackson. The record was a two-fer and it collected a lot of fugitive performances by Bags during the 1950s and '60s. I don’t have it anymore, but my most vivid recollection of that wonderful album is of two haunting cuts: "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set" and "The Night We Called It A Day." Here was meat, all right, and it was a fine Chateaubriand with champagne served up in an elegant setting of tuxedoes and evening gowns that nevertheless preserved the echo of that old gut-bucket that the best of blues-based players find as essential on the bandstand as reeds, pads, rosin, valve and slide oil.

Bags had a way of pulling his tone from the vibraharp. He didn’t punch and run. He coaxed his instrument, delivered his sound fully developed, mature. After his death on Oct. 9, I read an obituary that claimed he’d slowed the motor on his instrument. No matter how he achieved it, he was -- with the possible exceptions of his long-time colleague, pianist John Lewis, and the late but very, very great Bill Evans -- the least percussive of musicians who play percussion instruments.

Bags didn’t strike his instrument; he caressed it, made love to it. His touch was as delicate as ash; his sensibilities were as elegant as a Boston dowager’s. Yet, once he hit the groove that was his and his alone, he’d put a shimmy in your spine that made Sister Kate look like a nun approaching the confessional.

Bags was, of course, with the Modern Jazz Quartet all through its illustrious career. Along with Lewis, the unit was founded in 1952 with Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. Clarke was replaced three years later by Connie Kay, and there the monument stood for the next several decades. The common denominator in this almost telepathic ensemble was a blues-based elegance that is unsurpassed.

Kay’s death assured there could be no more MJQ. Now Milt Jackson’s passing at age 76 has eroded still further the foundation of that great musical monument of which both men equalled exactly half.

No, friends, when I hear the name "Jackson," I never think of Michael or Janet; for me, it’s either Mahalia or Milt.  And, since Oct. 9, I’ve been listening to "Bags’ Groove" over and over and over.