Milt Jackson (1923-1999) defined the sound of the vibraphone for a half-century, influencing every vibraphonist who followed. “Bags” had a timeless and very accessible style that grew out of the bebop era and includes blues, ballads, soul, and standards.
Born and raised in Detroit, Jackson first played guitar when he was seven and piano at 11. In addition, he played a bit of violin and drums in addition to singing gospel with the Evangelist Singers, but he found his true calling as a teenager when he took up the vibes. His style and sound were different from that of Lionel Hampton, the dominant voice on the instrument, with a warmer sound and a more advanced solo style.
Jackson almost hit the big time in 1942 when he was offered a job with the Earl Hines Orchestra but he was drafted. After two years in the military, in 1944 he returned to Detroit where he led the Four Sharps and made his recording debut with Dinah Washington. The following year Dizzy Gillespie heard him playing in a Detroit club and immediately hired him for the sextet he had with Charlie Parker. So after the initial delay, Milt Jackson started out on top.
Bags recorded with Dizzy’s small group in 1946 and for a time was a member of his orchestra. He also worked during the bebop era with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, and Woody Herman’s Second Herd. Even at that early stage he was the pacesetter of his instrument. He can be heard on some rare early titles recorded in Detroit in 1947 and 1949 on In the Beginning with altoist Sonny Stitt and pianist John Lewis.
After working with the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet during 1950-1952, Jackson formed a group with pianist Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Briefly known as the Milt Jackson Quartet, it soon became the co-op group known as the Modern Jazz Quartet. The MJQ toured the world and recorded steadily during 1952-1974, with Lewis as its musical director and Jackson as the main soloist. The vibraphonist also recorded a steady stream of his own projects and among those is a 1955 date on which he used the MJQ but with Horace Silver in place of Lewis, a 1961 collaboration with guitarist Wes Montgomery (Bags Meets Wes), a pair of big band dates for Riverside (Big Bags and For Someone I Love), and two sets with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath (Invitation and Live at the Village Gate).
Feeling that the Modern Jazz Quartet had run its course, Milt Jackson retired from the group in 1974, causing its breakup since he was irreplaceable. He became one of the stars of Norman Granz’s Pablo label, recording very frequently as both a leader and as a sideman with other all-stars. At the Montreux Jazz Festival 1975 has him meeting up with Oscar Peterson in a stimulating quartet. The Big 3 is a pianoless date with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Ray Brown. At the Kosei Nenkin features Jackson jamming in a quintet with tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards and pianist Cedar Walton while Soul Fusion is with the Monty Alexander Trio. Montreux ’77 has Jackson utilizing Alexander, Clark Terry on flugelhorn, and tenorman Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Soul Believer is a rare vocal album by the vibraphonist while Bags’ Bag has Jackson interacting with pianist Cedar Walton.
As impressive as the quantity is of Milt Jackson’s output during his Pablo years is the consistent quality. Night Mist features trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, Lockjaw Davis, and altoist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Ain’t But a Few of Us Left has Jackson reuniting with Oscar Peterson. Mostly Duke and Memories of Thelonious Sphere Monk team Jackson again with Monty Alexander. Jackson, Johnson, Brown & Company has Bags joining trombonist J.J. Johnson and Ray Brown in a sextet. Soul Route features Jackson with the Ray Brown Trio which at the time included pianist Gene Harris. It Don’t Mean a Thing if You Can’t Tap Your Foot to It is another date with Cedar Walton while Brother Jim is a sextet session with Walton and saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Harold Vick. There are also quite a few Pablo albums featuring the vibraphonist as a sideman, and that is not to even mention Milt Jackson + Count Basie + The Big Band, vols. 1 and 2.
Throughout his solo years, Jackson was constantly in demand, but in 1981 he relented and rejoined the Modern Jazz Quartet. After drummer Connie Kay’s death ended the band in 1995, Jackson remained in his prime, performing, touring, and recording the music he loved up until the time of his death in 1999.