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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 438

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This is the grave of Jean-Baptiste “Illinois” Jacquet.

Born in 1922 in Louisiana, Jacquet and his parents moved to Houston when he was young. His father was a bandleader, though he didn’t make enough at it to not have to work otherwise. So Jacquet grew up around music and he and his brothers played in his father’s band from a young age, in his case, alto saxophone. He was very good and moved to Los Angeles in 1939 to make it on his own. There, he met Nat King Cole. They played together occasionally, but more significantly, Cole introduced him to Lionel Hampton, who hired him on the condition that he switch to tenor sax. He played the solo on Hampton’s huge 1942 hit, “Flying Home.” That song became the closure for Hampton’s shows and it made Jacquet famous too. He quit Hampton’s band in 1943 to join Cab Calloway. They played together for about a year, when Jacquet started his own band that included one of his brothers and a young Charles Mingus. His own band didn’t do all that much, but he remained an important jazz figure of the period. In 1946, he joined the Count Basie Orchestra when Lester Young quit. He also fought against Jim Crow as a bandleader. When his band was to play in his hometown of Houston, the venue invoked segregation to force the band to enter a side door. He set an ultimatum: the band would enter the front door or not play at all. The venue relented.

Jacquet’s trademark screeching tenor is one of the most recognizable sounds in jazz. By the mid-50s though, jazz was changing. Jacquet, though still a quite young man, moved toward a more senior figure in the music. He played in Europe through much of the next couple of decades, with moderate success. He often switched to bassoon in this period, an instrument used too rarely in jazz. In 1983, he became the first jazz musician to be named as an artist in residence at Harvard. Bill Clinton invited him to his inauguration and they played a little sax together. He led his own big band during the 80s and 90s and finally made a decent amount of money, frequently playing sold out shows at the Village Vanguard in New York, where he lived. He died of a heart attack in 2004, aged 81.

Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

Let’s listen to some Jacquet.

If you would like this series to visit other jazz legends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Count Basie is in East Farmingdale, New York and Nat King Cole is in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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