A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Franz Jackson, 1930s
Franz Jackson, 1930s                                                                     Courtesy of Franz Jackson’s Family©2008

The first liner notes I ever wrote were for a Franz Jackson album.

That’s how I intended to start this column, after hearing that Franz had passed away in May of this year, age 95, because, for as long as I can remember, I believed that statement to be true. It seems like ancient history now, but I can picture myself sitting at my desk in the old down beat office on Adams Street, downtown Chicago, when the phone rang and Franz, whom I’d not yet met, asked if I’d be interested in annotating a new release on his own Pinnacle label. I assume he just wanted someone, anyone, with down beat credentials; anyway, I jumped at the chance. It turned out that vocalist Jeanne Carroll was featured on the album (and received top billing) along with The Jazz Entertainers; the music was straightahead blues like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” Lil Green’s “In the Dark,” and W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues,” along with a few more “sophisticated” swing items like Mercer/van Heusen’s “I Thought About You” and Billie Holiday/Herbie Nichols’ “Lady Sings the Blues.” Franz played tenor and soprano saxophone and clarinet, the quintet included pianist Joe Johnson and drummer James Slaughter. Can’t recall what I was paid, but it was enough at the time. I still have the LP, of course, and re-reading what I wrote, it’s a little corny, even for a first-timer, but I don’t think I embarrassed myself, or the musicians. The problem is, my memory is faulty (which I have long known to be the case, just not in this instance). Looking for the LP on my record shelves, I happened to glance at another of my earliest liner note efforts, a Barry Altschul Trio album for Sackville – and discovered the release date was well in advance of the Jackson album. Oh well. It’s a nice lead, and I got to use it anyway, but the important thing is to say something about Franz Jackson.

A fixture on the Chicago scene for over 50 years, where he resettled after WWII, Jackson was seldom out of work no matter how bad the times were for jazz because, as his quintet’s name indicated, he was of a generation that felt music was for entertainment. So he concentrated on playing “good time music” – what’s now known as trad jazz and Chicago-style swing – with the best musicians he could find, whether established groups like the Salty Dogs, or neglected peers like trumpeter Bob Shoffner (who was Louis Armstrong’s replacement in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band), banjoist Ikey Robinson, and trombonist Albert Wynn (who, incidentally, recorded six sides as a leader in 1926 and ’28, then waited 33 years for another session under his own name). In addition to his Pinnacle recordings he made several fine albums for Delmark and GHB (one contrarily titled No “Saints”), and one for Riverside with an especially thrilling clarinet soliloquy, “Blue Thursday,” in 1961. In later years – that would be his 80s and 90s – he sang, in a gruff but smiling voice a la Armstrong, as much as he played, but he could still hold his own with a tough tenor solo in fast company, be it Von Freeman or Ed Wilkerson, at one of the all-star jam sessions the Jazz Institute of Chicago frequently sponsored. If these years were all that filled his resume, he would have been known as a successful and popular jazz journeyman. But we shouldn’t forget the fact that Franz Jackson was an integral part of jazz history, as it was being written.

Jackson’s obituaries all cite the famous musicians he played with from the ‘20s through World War II, and it is an impressive list – including Albert Ammons, Jimmie Noone, Fletcher Henderson (he took over the tenor saxophone chair previously warmed by Coleman Hawkins and then Ben Webster), Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge, Red Allen, even Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton towards the end of their careers. But this wasn’t a case of fame by mere association, because, starting in the 1930s, Jackson was an active participant in inventing and refining the style that these musicians today represent. Born in Illinois in 1912, he didn’t have a New Orleans pedigree, so his trad jazz chops came from hearing Armstrong and Oliver in Chicago, and playing with Southern musicians during an apprenticeship on the road while still a teenager. Far more important, however, was Jackson’s role in the burgeoning Swing revolution.

Certainly not an innovative saxophonist like Hawkins, Webster, or Lester Young, he was already a professional musician, proficient on clarinet, alto and tenor sax, long before he heard either Webster or Young play. Given the overwhelming influence Hawkins had on tenor saxophonists as early as the mid- ‘20s, it’s no surprise that a similar brash attitude and burry tone quickly and permanently appeared in Jackson’s tenor playing. But true innovators are few and far between, and imitation is often a fast path to obscurity; in jazz, careers were sustained by the ability to adapt various influences and, crucially, put a personal stamp on them. Jackson eventually brought aspects of Webster and Young into his soloing, but for pragmatic reasons. Steve Voce, in The Independent, quoted him thusly: “Originally, I was going to be a clarinet player, but at that time all people wanted to hear was Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. So if you wanted anybody to listen, you played the tenor sax as they did.” Nevertheless, to thrive in bands alongside such powerful artists like Roy Eldridge and Red Allen, as Jackson did, or to have an expeditious eight or twelve-bar solo stand out in a crowded big band arrangement, a spark of individuality is required. Whatever he played, Franz Jackson’s personality illuminated the music like a beacon.

There’s striking evidence, however, that Jackson made a significant contribution to jazz in the form of his arrangements. He attended Chicago Musical College as a young man and studied arranging, and throughout the 1930s and ‘40s provided charts for the Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Cab Calloway, and Cootie Williams orchestras, among others. His first appearance in that role was a remarkably prophetic session. In December of 1933, though only 21 years old, he composed and arranged all four pieces recorded by Ruben Reeves and his twelve-piece band The River Boys. Reeves was an exceptionally talented trumpeter who recorded nineteen sides for Vocalion in 1929, mostly in the style of Louis Armstrong’s wildly successful Hot Fives and Sevens, six featuring Cab Calloway’s sister Blanche as vocalist. Apparently the records didn’t sell to the label’s satisfaction, and so Reeves didn’t return to the studio until the ’33 date, his last. (All of these are currently available on a fine CD: Ruben Reeves, The Complete Vocalions 1928-33, Timeless 1-039.)

What makes these four pieces so interesting is the modern feel of the music and a number of small details that Jackson incorporated into the arrangements. “Screws, Nuts and Bolts” is a 12-bar blues that opens with a jolting fanfare that sounds a little screwy, followed quickly by a parade of solos supported by sectional riffs and swells. Reeves’ aggressive trumpet solo, rich with tonal effects, makes the best impression, and since Jackson, Fred Brown, and Norval Morton are all listed as playing clarinet, it’s hard to tell who’s responsible for the swirling, show-offy solo here. The band builds a nice rhythmic charge throughout, fueled by Elliott Washington’s crisp banjo. “Maisie” is a well-constructed 32-bar tune that inspires better solos – the clarinetist (Morton?) still likes to run patterns, but Reeves’ burnished tone sells his theme statements convincingly, and there’s a tenor sax solo in early Hawkins’ mode that is likely Jackson himself. Though accomplished charts, especially for a 21-year-old, these are the more conventional items.

“Zuddan” and “Yellow Fire” are something else again, and Jackson showed his feelings for these two compositions by re-recording them 67 years later, albeit in scaled-down arrangements, on Yellow Fire (Delmark 237). “Zuddan” owes an obvious debt to Duke Ellington’s “jungle music,” but the simple, exotic melodic intervals and swooning background create effective drama, with thematic contrast provided by a bridge with a spiritual-like sincerity. The piece is a feature for (Fred Brown’s?) alto saxophone, but the way it soars and slides around the accompaniment seems as if Jackson had Johnny Hodges’ soprano saxophone in mind – speculation reinforced by the 2000 remake, where Jackson replaces the original alto lead with his own soprano sax. “Yellow Fire” became Jackson’s signature piece, thanks to the sizzling version that Earl Hines recorded in 1941, with top-flight solos – Scoops Carey’s alto sax? Is that Franz or Budd Johnson’s booting tenor? Plus the incomparable Hines piano, and a Krupa-inspired Rudy Taylor on drums. In the Reeves’ original, intense layers of activity – pointed brass over reed riffs atop Sudie Reynaud’s prominent, pulsating bass – pull the music along relentlessly, leaping and growling along the way. Reeves is limited to a lone bridge, though makes the most of it in hot Bunny Berigan-ish style. The same circuitous clarinet almost fits here, but honors go to Jackson’s gruff tenor sax, fitting the animated, tense mood perfectly. Though all-but-unknown today, both “Yellow Fire” and “Zuddan” qualify as minor classics in my book, and anticipate effects that arrangers like Eddie Sauter and Oliver Nelson put to good use decades later.

And to think, he had 75 more years of music to look forward to.

Art Lange©2008

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