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Interview with Illinois Jacquet
DR. LOUIS J. MARCHIAFAVA And CHARLES STEPHENSON
JUNE 1, 1990
LJM: Today’s date is June 1,1990, and I am Louis Marchiafava conducting an interview for the Texas Jazz Heritage Archive component. I’d like to begin the interview by first having you give your full name.
IJ: My name is Jean Baptiste Illinois Jacquet.
LJM: I’d like to get some background information on you: where you were born and something about your early family life.
IJ: Well, I was born in Broussard, Louisiana, in 1922, and my family moved from Broussard when I was about six months old to Houston, Texas.
LJM: What brought them here?
IJ: They were looking for a better life and a better way to raise their children by getting out of the rural areas. Thus, my mother felt that she had children that deserved a better break than what she was seeing in Louisiana at the time. And when we moved to Texas we were speaking French: patois; parlez-vous francais;come ci, come ca; connais tu la sois ici. It was sort of like a brogue in French because we didn’t learn that in school. We just learned how to speak French from the French heritage where we were born in Louisiana. Then we moved to Texas. We started going to public school here, and everybody was running from us because we had that different brogue.
LJM: Where did you settle in Texas?
IJ: At sixth ward. Now, everything was wards and still is.
GH: Was fifth ward there?
IJ: Right. And we started going to Catholic school.
LJM: Which one was that?
IJ: Saint Nicholas, which was out in the third ward. I think that was probably the only Catholic school that was available at the time, so I was in school when I was four years old. And I was going to Catholic school in the third ward at Saint Nicholas. I used to ride the street car there from the fifth ward to the third ward. Then the school started expanding, and we started going to public school. And they didn’t understand our language because we were speaking patois French and English, and it was broken. Of course, soon we knew we head to learn the English language because we were now in Texas, not in Louisiana. And my father was a bass player and a violinist, and he formed a big band here. In fact they were playing music in Louisiana before we came to Texas, but I was too young to know about what they were doing until I grew up and found out the background of it. And he formed a big band here in Texas because he was working at the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was called, like, a helper. A helper is someone who helps build the engines that makes the train run. And they knew that he had a band, so they made him form a band called the Southern Pacific Railroad Band.
LJM: Before we get too far removed onto this because I want to talk to you in more detail. Was he playing music in Louisiana as well?
IJ: Yes. My grandfather played all instruments. His father, Jean JeLevais Jacquet. As me to spell JeLevais, I’d have to get the deed.
LJM: Now that’s your grandfather?
LJM: What was your father’s name?
LJM: And you mother’s name?
LJM: So, he was playing music already in Louisiana?
CS: Did your father receive training in Europe?
IJ: Not all. You see, my grandfather was also a musician. His father and he played all instruments. I don’t know what kind of training he had because I wasn’t even born, but this was handed down to me what an excellent musician he was. Sometime in Louisiana, you know, jazz came from there. White people was just give that. That was a gift to them to pick up instruments and play them. That is why jazz music is misunderstood today because it’s such a difficult profession. It’s a difficult, unique type of form of music. Most of it is played from the head and how you feel. And later on, you cultivate that. That was cultivated into scores. So, when it started, it just started from the gift. If you got the blues you just pick up a guitar, and you just start to strumming it. How you feel and the way your fingers go. The way your fingers go, that a tune. You start creating like that.
CS: That became part of your heritage.
IJ: Right! And so that’s how this music came about in Louisiana. Jazz music was not nothing that you just go to school and learn. You just pick that up and play from the heart. And from there you, like, go to school and learn to cultivate that. Now you can write it out what you learn and make a score out of it, but all of that comes from training and learning what you’re actually doing: analyzing yourself by in school you get a teacher, and he teach you what you’re doing. Then you know what you’re doing. Some will learn that way and some will remain not knowing. But I think that’s what my mother saw in her children. That’s why we moved from the rural areas of Broussard and Lafayette and come to Texas. I think she was trying to go to California but the ticket ran out in Texas.
LJM: That’s good, actually, because it certainly gave Texas some distinction.
IJ: When we got here, that’s when he [my father] formed his band. There was three brothers, and I was the fourth brother. I was the baby in the family. And we all was dancers plus they were musicians before I was, but I was the baby. And we used to have a team called The Four Jacquet Dancing Brothers, although my older brothers played instruments before I did.
CS: What instruments did they play?
IJ: Well, my oldest brother, Julius, played the saxophone. He played the alto and the tenor. He first started on the alto and then he played tenor saxophone. He played them both. My brother next to him, his name was Linton. He played drums. And my brother, Russell, played trumpet. I was too young to play any instrument, but I knew I was eventually going to play something. I didn’t know what it was going to be because I was dancing. They quit dancing with me and left me out there dancing in front of my father’s big band, and now they were sitting up there playing instruments. So, I couldn’t wait to get an instrument in my hand. So, when I entered Phyllis Wheatley High School, the school would furnish the instruments. So I couldn’t wait to get to that school, and my first year I met Mr. Percy McDavid who was head of jazz band here in Houston just like my father’s band. And he became a teacher there. He taught mathematics and music. And so everything he taught, I was in all his classes: mathematics and music. Whatever he taught I was in that class. We just like him because he was an excellent musician. He knew how to teach the students everything about music: the development of it, and how you had to have discipline to play it. And so now we were beginning to cultivate this music into my family into manuscript and to read the reading part of it; how to write and know the chord changes and the development of it, and you add that to your gift. And then you begin to sound like the Louis Armstrongs and Duke Ellingtons, who was far advanced than we were. And so, that’s when we learned about the music be being in Phyllis Wheatley High School. I asked the teacher could I play one of the instruments. Well, there was no instrument available. The were all taken. There was a snare drum sitting in the corner of the dressing room in the mathematics class. I wasn’t too interested in mathematics. I was interested in trying to get an instrument because, you know, he taught mathematics, but he was also Head of the Music Department. So I said I’ll just stay in this mathematics class, and when they have an instrument available I’ll ask everybody. So, I asked him about that drum sitting in the corner. He said, “Yeah. It’s available.” So I said, “May I start on that?” “Yeah, take it home. Sign up first.” So I started playing in the marching band, in the parades, the Armistice Day parades that they have every year here. Do they still have it?
IJ: Oh, no! They cut that out? That was great for the children!
CS: Did McDavid teach you the drum?
IJ: No. He didn’t teach me the drum. Well, see, by being a dancer, what I was doing on my feet I started doing with my hands. Dancers always made the great drummers. All the great drummers in the world today were dancers some way or another: Buddy Rich, Joe Jones and all of them, they used to dance. I didn’t know that till later on, but whatever I was doing with my feet, now I could do it with my hands. See? On the snare drum. When they say “b-r-r-rup, b-r-r-rup, b-r-r-rup, bup, bup (imitating a snare drum), by the time I got through with that I would add a foot-step to that, and they would look around and say, “Hey, I didn’t know you were going to do all that.” I would be adding to that march step and I would throw them a little bit, and then they got so they liked that. You know, it was the rhythm part of it that delight and people start marching better. But later on there was a little B-flat sax soprano. One of the graduates had graduated from school. He was a friend of mine. We knew him, and I guess I must have been waiting for him to graduate, but he did graduate and left that B-flat soprano saxophone.
CS: Isn’t that an E-flat saxophone?
IJ: No. It was B-flat.
GH: This little soprano’s the type that put down like the regular saxophone. No sopranos now are straight like the clarinet, but this was that little one that came here.
CS: Okay. Sopranino.
LJM: Would you please identify yourself?
GH: George Haynes.
IJ: He is also a drummer.
GH: He started me on drums. I was playing violin.
IJ: That’s right.
GH: I was playing violin, and he was playing drums, and Jacquet said, “When school opens I’m going to play saxophone.”
LJM: We are going to have do an interview with you, too.
IJ: Oh, please do.
LJM: Let me ask you about your training at home. Did you receive any musical training from your family?
IJ: Oh, yes. I was taught by my older brothers. I had a lot of teachers. I had teachers all around me. My oldest brother took me everywhere with him, and he taught me things that he knew. And all my brothers chipped in because we played music all day, all night and wherever. There was nothing but music. We didn’t have no time to rob no banks or nothing like that. It was all music. From there it was church. We had a good religious background, and that kept us on the music because in the church they learned music, too, you see. In the Catholic church they participated in jazz. They would have dances Sunday nights at St. Nicholas Arena Auditorium in the school, and they would raise a lot of money. You know the Catholic Church always liked money. You know, they liked to raise money for their churches. Then, my father’s band, they used to play for them, and we got our training being around that..
LJM: But you are a Catholic, obviously.
IJ: I was born Catholic. Yes.
LJM: That’s interesting. You are the first jazz musician who is a Catholic. You know most of them have been from the Protestant faith.
IJ: I don’t know too much about that part.
LJM: Well, I do, from these interviews.
IJ: From your interviews. Yes. That’s interesting. I didn’t know that.
CS: Thus far.
LJM: Yes, thus far. Let me pursue that just a bit more. You made a couple of interesting statements about the influence there. Generally, the Catholic church, particularly, in the time when you were growing up, they were not, to my knowledge, into that type of music.
IJ: No. Now you’re wrong there.
LJM: Well, that’s what I am asking for.
IJ: Well, the Catholic Church in Louisiana . . . . When the territory bands would come through Louisiana, they were trying to get to new Orleans like they did to Kansas City or to Texas, and that would be like a long jump on a bus with a band. And the Catholic Church would always give them a stop, like in Lafayette, and put on the same type of dance they would put on at St. Nicholas, and they would be a big draw. And everybody would profit by that dance. That helped on their way to get to New Orleans. And this was before my time, so they had played a big role in jazz music which probably had never been recorded in history what role they played in jazz in Louisiana.
LJM: That’s extremely interesting.
IJ: You know, people don’t know!
CS: I think this is a very important point to pursue.
IJ: Yes, if we can. Father Shepherd, who was head priest at St. Nicholas here in the Third Ward, he insisted that they have these dances on Sunday night. They wasn’t just interest in the money. They were interested in the congregation getting together, and they didn’t care who come. It was a mixed audience all the time, and people wanted to hear good music, and they knew they would go to the Catholic Hall on Sunday night when they would have a dance, and they would pay their admission, and the would enjoy themselves. We were kids, and we saw all that happening. And I grew up under that influence, but knowing this: what I’m talking about, I know. I witnessed this as a child, you know.
LJM: You said “a mixed audience.” Do you want to specify that you mean?
IJ: Well, the white people want to come. They want to hear the music. There was no one going to stop them, and they, if they wanted to come, they would come.
LJM: Was this a predominately a black church?
IJ: Yeah. Yeah. When I was here I didn’t even know there was a segregation in Houston until I would leave school or something and go down town and I’d see the signs because Phyllis Wheatley was such a school until there was so much happening in school. With football, they were winners in football team, basketball team, track. We had the best band at Phyllis Wheatley, the better-looking girls, and they were light, jut like white girls. They were black. They were all kinds. We didn’t think about segregation at that time. We didn’t realize that was really happening because we had such a great band, you know. As you grew up you started noticing things around you at that time, but it was not a plentiful way that was affecting you as learning how to play music or learning to get an education. And at one time I thought Texas had the greatest administration for education anywhere because they were first in instruments in the public schools. The curriculum was great! The teachers were great! Here I just heard the other day that they disqualified the geography from the public schools. Why, that is a crime! That is devastating! I don’t know if you remember this: it was the biggest book you carried in school. We called it the geography, and everything was in this geography.
LJM: I’m old enough to remember that.
IJ: Do you remember that? And in that geography was an education in itself, and I heard yesterday that they disqualified that book. But, getting back to the Catholic Church, they supported jazz ‘way before my time as I knew and during the time that I was qualified to know what they were doing, they were doing it then. And some of these things has disappeared from the face of tht knowledge because a lot of those people are dead, those priests. You’ve got new people that don’t know nothing about this.
LJM: You were playing the drums.
LJM: When did you go on to another instrument in school?
IJ: The moment that horn was available. The next day!
CS: What grade were you in at that time?
IJ: (to George Haynes) Well, what grade were we in in 19 . . . .
GH: About the ninth.
IJ: Ninth grade. Ninth grade, yeah, because there was a Junior High and a High. I guess when I was there I right in high school. I started right there with him (George Haynes). And when that instrument became available, I just don’t remember that there was any period of time between that I switched because I still can play the drums now so it wasn’t like I would forget that. So, when I picked up that saxophone, the next day I was playing Lazy Bones that evening.
LJM: But you already knew how to play the horn at home. Right?
IJ: No, no. That was the first horn I . . . . My brother used to teach me with that horn, but he was so busy with his horn that he had no time to teach me because I didn’t have no horn. See, if you want to play the saxophone [or] any instrument you’ve got to have your own instrument. You’ve got to break it up your own self. You’ve got to mess it up. That’s the only way you’re going to learn how to play it so you will learn what’s wrong with it. So I took that horn from the classroom and by the time I got home I was playing Lazy Bones. (singing) “Lazy Bones. Sleepin’ in the sun . . . .” Do you remember that song?
CS: (singing) “How you gonna get your day’s work done?”
IJ: Yeah! “How you gonna get your day’s work done?” Well, I was getting it done on that horn.
CS: I still like (that song).
IJ: I do, too. I started playing that. I could play it slow. I could play it fast. Pretty soon the Four Ringers said, “We need a saxophone player.” And my mother said, “Who are you?” These were elderly people, but they heard about me playing all these songs on that soprano (saxophone). So she said, “Well, you’ll have to come and pick him up, and get him here before twelve o’clock. I don’t care what time you get home, but you get my son here before twelve o’clock because he’s got to go to school in the morning.” And they used to pick me up, and I’d go on these little jobs, and I’d take that little B-flat soprano (saxophone). And I didn’t have no training. I was just playing it, whatever came to my mind. And we had some musicians there, they were playing funny keys, you know, except they didn’t know nothing about keys. They just played a song in any key, and if you were working with them, if you want that job, you’d have to learn how to play in that key, which was off-record keys: keys that you don’t play.
GH: All accidentals: F-sharp.
GH: B-sharp minor! You’re not kidding!
LJM: Where did they take you to play?
IJ: Well, in Houston at that time they had root beer stands.
GH: That was Pig and Whistle.
IJ: Well, they had root beer stands in all the wards. They would be like on the edge of these wards. You know, the edge of town where the music wouldn’t wake up people, and the people would drive in there with their cars, with their dates, or whatever, and they would request a song. So we passed the box. “You want to hear this song? Here’s a box that’s in front of you.” A cigar box. Do you remember them big old cigar boxes? Prince Albert or Prince George. You could smell the tobacco in there, and there was no tobacco cigar there. It still had the scent in the box, and they would put the tip in there and request a song. And we had an old man that played trumpet that we called Sydney. He knew all the songs. He couldn’t read no music. He knew all the songs. He didn’t know what key they were in. But I was playing with him, see? He’d play the first chorus. That’d mean I’m next. So I’m learning all these out-of-bounds keys. See, you’re learning all the time. That was an education there. Either you don’t know it, but you were getting educated in how to play in keys that professors couldn’t play in.
CS: In other words, what you were really learning were all of the tonalities.
IJ: Yes. That’s exactly right. And all the keys. See, whatever that trumpet player started in, he didn’t know what key it was in. But I better know! And by being trained at Wheatley I knew if he was in F-sharp; if he was in D-natural, A-sharp, B. I’d say, “Man, does he know what key he is in?” And the piano player would have to lay out because he couldn’t get in there. You know, he couldn’t get in there, and only there’s a trumpet, a drummer and a saxophone. So we were getting good in those keys. So I go to school, and I’d say, “Hey man, can you play this?” “Get off, man, it’s now in that key! Put it in B-flat!” I’d say, “I can play it in B-flat, but let’s change keys sometimes.” So we started changing keys. That would bring someone else to school, too.
GH: Haywood. Jacquet may not share with you, but he had an excellent piano player in town by the name of Cedric Haywood, and they’d have jam sessions, and after Jacquet introduced that in Wheatley with some music, Cedric started taking you what they call “around the world”: start on one key, and go around the keyboard and come back. They used to do that thing up there at the Harlem Grill. As I say, I wouldn’t want you to miss it.
IJ: I’m glad you reminded me of that. So, here we are at Wheatley, we went on all the football games. We went on all the basketball games. We was winners. The school was a winner, and we’d dare any school that come in town that was better than us till we ran into Beaumont. There’s a school there called Charleston High . . .
GH: Charleston Pollock [phonetic]
IJ: That had a girl trumpet player named Bessie Como (phonetic). I’ll never forget her name, and they had a hell of a band, and they kind of shook us up ‘cause we wasn’t expecting it. Out football team played their football team, and they all would bring the band to battle. The bands were going to battle just like the football team. But Beaumont kind of shook us up because they were sort of like a musically-inclined school, too, because, I think, the school was named after the father that played music and all his sons played music. And that school was sort of built around music also. And so the next time we played them we waited for them. We were laying for them, and we got ‘em that year! We rehearsed for them. Out teacher believed in rehearsing his band, and he would rehearse it during the class: like, we would have one class for the band, one period for the band and one period for the orchestra. Phyllis Wheatley had an orchestra and a marching band. It is one of the only schools that came up like that, and they were great! I mean, some of the greatest musicians in the world came out of that band, Arnett Cobb, he came from that same teaching, from that same school and from that same band. And there were Tom Archie, William Looper (phonetic).
CS: Eddie Vinson?
IJ: No, Eddie Vinson was from Yates. They had a good band, too, but not as good as our band.
CS: Milton Larkin?
GH: Larkin was at Washington.
IJ: Yes, he was at Washington. We was playing on when we joined his band. See, we hadn’t go to that yet. So this band just developed into a good band. [It had] a good relationship with music, and we began to learned how to write right there in Houston. And then I started taking private lessons from R. S. Lewis. He was another trumpet player, but he was a private music teacher. A music teacher, he taught you how to read. Now, you’re getting to read and get into progressions. And that was a little different from the school, because school ain’t got no time to go into the fundamentals, into the theory of music. And now you’re getting into the heavy stuff. That’s private. R. S. Lewis taught me private lessons for about two years after school at his house. And that was one of my toughest assignments because now you’re confined to progressions and chord changes and things like that because now you are getting into the heavy stuff.
CS: Did he tell you to go from one key to any other key?
IJ: No, no. All he was interested in was you reading the notes on the manuscript paper. See? There’s a lot of musicians, they learn how to improvise, but they don’t know how to read the newspaper. See? Because then you do a television show you ain’t got time to practice. They are going to put that music right in front of you, right like this, and you’re on CBS and when the conductor comes down you better know what you are doing. See? Because when you’ve got to learn how to read because you’re on TV, and they got a stand-by right there. Now you can’t make it, they stand you up, stand-by Texas.
CS: You only make one mistake!
IJ: And you’re gone!! You can’t make mistakes. You make them when you’re young and crawling, but as you grow and develop you have to be perfect! So, my parents knew about that, and McDavid knew about that. He knew where to send us, and he spent all the time he could with us. And we developed our careers from the education in music and in school. And that discipline went parallel together. So, when I left here . . . . Before I left here I joined Milton Larkin’s band. Now I was playing alto sax.
LJM: How old were you then?
IJ: Oh, I guess I was in my junior year at fourteen-fifteen, around in there. But that was a little stick in me. I was doing a lot of things. I was dancing. You asked about the year that I joined Larkin’s band. It was, maybe, like in the junior year. I had played in Robert Cooper’s band. That was a band! There was a pianist. He didn’t read no music at all, and this was a big band. This was one of the most phenomenal episodes in my life with that band because we used to sit down and rehearse after school at the Harlem Grill. In Robert Cooper’s band, you know, he was the leader, and he didn’t read no music, and he used to sit at the piano and pick the notes out and say, “You take that note, and you take that note and take that note. How’s that?” I thought that was great, and he could compose arrangements for the big band just like that. It took us all day, you know, but it would be great!
CS: That takes tremendous talent.
IJ: Yes, and the music was more original because you weren’t confined to the manuscript. See? And that was a great learning because I don’t think people would ever learn music like that because you would have to have a leader that was confined in that way. That was his assignment. That’s the way he made a living, and I was fortunate to get in a band like that even before I joined the other local bands: people like William Looper (phonetic) who was in Wheatley, a great trombonist, at least one of the greatest I’ve ever heard. We were all in that band. We learned a lot about sound; about tuning up your instrument by learning that way because he’ll give you that note, [saying] “You hit A; you hit C; you hit C or you hit a b-flat seven. On the saxophone it would be C, E, G, then B-flat.” See? And he hit that chord, he come down and he hit that and it sounded like . . . oh, you know. . . .so brilliant, you know, because he’d give you those notes. And then, at night he would play a dance at the Harlem Grill with his band with us learning these head arrangement. And, man, they were fantastic! And I didn’t know music could be played like that, you know, and so, here I am getting another education in music that didn’t have nothing to do with school or the books. You know, this was something else. And he was like a genius with that, and we loved him because he was an elderly person, and he learned all that without learning how to read. Some of us had pity for him. And then you could see the genius in him: all that pity and love molded into what we were playing. At that time musicians loved each other. You know, they loved each other so that they loved to play with each other, to hear the sound and the sections. So, that was an episode in my life I’ll never forget. It was something that really helped me dearly in tonation of an instrument. An instrument takes a while when you are playing in a big band and all the ensemble is there. It takes about and hour just to tune a band up. You go to hear the symphony, many hours are spent tuning those instruments. For hours! You say, “When are they going to play?” You see, McDavid who taught us at Wheatley was also a classical pianist and a saxophonist, and this is why I learned how to play correctly. You see, my sound is like the sound of a man weighing about three hundred pounds. Because most people when they’re playing didn’t learned the technique how to play into the instrument, you know, where the sound goes directly from your heart into that instrument. You embouchure. Your embouchure is the way you grip your instrument with your lips. Some people play instruments with the jaws out. Some play with one jaw out. A lot of teachers taught us how to play right in the center of our mouth.
CS: That’s the way it should be done.
IJ: Yes, because he played that way, and he was our teacher so he taught us how he played. So we learned how to play right. See? People say, “Oh, man, I hear you on record, and I thought you was as big as Joe Louis. How do you get a sound like that?” It is not the size. It’s the technique to how you learn how to blow into the instrument to get the sound to come out of there right. So, learning all that, I joined Milton Larkin’s band in my senior year. Now, this is a professional band with Arnett Cobb, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Clifford Mitchell, Johnny Walls, Henry Sloan. You had Willie Lott who was probably today still the greatest trombone player I had ever heard, and still I have heard no one who really topped him. He’s still walking around here in Houston now. I understand he’s not well, but this is one of the greatest jazz musicians I had ever met. And he was in that band. He’s still here in Houston. He could write arrangements while the band was playing, and when he got through with that arrangement he would pass that out on the stands, and we would say, “Hey, we ain’t got through with this one yet!” He would say, “Wait a minute. You will look fine with this new arrangement.” And all that was in Milton’s Band. Cedric Haywood was the pianist. We had Charles “Dumpus” [phonetic] Gordon on drums, Lawrence Cato on bass and George Lane was the singer, and Milton Larkin was playing the trumpet and leading the band. I joined those boys. I was the youngest in the band. I had come out of Wheatley, and they left this old guy on alto. And Cedric heard me playing. Cedric was like a radio. He was a self-taught musician, and the man was really a genius, because when you’re self-taught and you’re right, that means you’re ‘way ahead of the game because you can create something that nobody does. Cedric could write arrangements that would sound like the band was bigger than it really was. He could take five saxophones and make it sound like there was eight people playing the way you voice, and he could take four trumpets and make it sound like it was eight trumpets; four trombones, the same thing. Of course he voiced the music so deep until when the would hit, you’d be looking around and saying, “I didn’t know this band was that big.” You’d be looking for the other people, and they weren’t there. It was just the way he wrote the music, you know, and we started getting wise to this little guy. He reminded you of the Hunchback of Notre Dame: he had a little band in his back. He’d walk around disguising his movements with that Hunchback of Notre Dame. And when you couldn’t play his music he would laugh. That would knock him out to write something you couldn’t play. That’d really burn him up. I’d say, ”What are you laughing about. I’m having a hard time with this music,” and he’s laughing until we would get it right, you know. We had to get it right. However, he was just fantastic. So, the band began to sound like a Duke Ellington band or something. We were really proud of this band. And when the bands would come in town, like these were the top bands like Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie. Any band that come from anywhere would hear this band, and their bus would run out of gas waiting for them to come out from where they were listening to us. They’d run out of gas waiting on these guys. Once they come up to the Harlem Grill to hear this band, they couldn’t leave. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. One day he wrote an arrangement of Sweet Georgia Brown, and there were some passages in that arrangement, and I never forget, that was just eatin’ me up. I couldn’t get the fingering on the passage he was writing. So, it didn’t look like I was ever going to get that part together, too, so, what I did, I took they arrangement, and when they had intermission I put it behind the piano. I hid it. So when he would call it, if they couldn’t find all the parts they wouldn’t play it. I hid that arrangement for about six months. I went back there and found it, and I learned it because I didn’t want to get fired. (laughs) I like best. I say if I don’t learn this thing they’re going to let me go, so I’m going to hide the music behind the piano. They’re still doing that. In my band they hide some of my music. So, I wouldn’t know what to do with that, see? So I learned the part, and it was a featured spot for me in the band on that part. I didn’t even give them a chance to find out where I was featured on that. And things started progressing as we went along, and Milton’s Band became one of the best bands in the world right here in Houston, Texas.
LJM: How long did you play with him?
IJ: Oh, about a year-and-a-half.
CS: Do you think it was because of Milton’s leadership?
IJ: Well, you could say that. You could say that, too, because we didn’t have any trouble with him. He was leading the band well. Mostly it was the music, and it was the arrangements by Cedric Haywood. That music that he was writing was like . . . . Every band that came through town wanted him. They wanted to take him out of here. See? In fact, they wanted to take us all out of here. They drove a bus in front of my house, and my mother walked out there and looked at that bus and say, “Oh, no!!” Lucky Millinder’s Band, they came up in front of my house with a bus and said, “We’re going out and get that kid.” And I wanted to go because I wanted to get to New York where all the music was coming from, you know. But I know that was just wishful thinking with her here. So they brought that bus up in front of the band (house?) . Some of the glass windows was broken and replaced with pasteboard placards, and she said, “Oh, no! You will never get in that band in that bus. You pull that bus away from here!” So, there goes that chance, you know. But general offers came through Houston and all the famous bands come through, and they had to stop and hear this band. I remember one night Jimmy Lunceford came, and Milton’s Band was playing opposite Jimmy Lunceford’s Band.
CS: Is that a band battle?
IJ: Yes. And Cedric took his fountain pen and got some manuscript paper and copied everything that they did on record note for note.
And we played first, and we played all their arrangements. And, when they got there they didn’t have nothing to play. And they played a few of them, and they didn’t sound as good as we did.
LJM: And they didn’t sound so good?
IJ: They didn’t. We had them first rate! They was tired from coming from Dallas. By the time they got to Houston they were tired and half-sleepy and didn’t have no rest. We were at home and had our rest and me eating meals at home and………….(not clear)……….. We started first at the Pilgrim Temple on . . .
GH: 303 West Dallas.
IJ: West Dallas and Heiler? Heiler was where? The Harlem Grill?
GH: No, that wasn’t Heiler. That was . . .
IJ: Oh. Right across from Booker T. Washington High School. The Pilgrim Temple. I’ll never forget it.
IJ: They had battle of the bands up there. So he (Haywood) copied all the things they had on record because they was all on the jukebox. We wasn’t making records. And the place was packed. They were going to see the local band battle the big band. So, we played everything that they played so it was better or just as good, you know, and next we saw them set up. “Now what are they going to do?” And they played the same numbers that we had already played, and there [was] a few or not a whole lot of hands. It was not too plausible. They’d heard it already. Houston had a very well-educated audience of listeners.
LJM: How long did you stay in Houston before you moved out?
IJ: Oh, it wasn’t long. At senior year I was gone. My father had a railroad pass, and it went from Houston to New Orleans and back to Houston and went to Los Angeles. And I’m trying to get to New York because I’d heard Count Basie’s band. When I heard Count Basie’s Band, I had to leave. I had to go somewhere because it didn’t look like Milton’s Band was ever going to leave at that time. And I was ready to go because I had to get it out of my system, you know.
LJM: What year was then when you pulled out?
IJ: This was ’39.
LJM: Okay. So, in ’39 you headed west.
IJ: Yeah. I went to Los Angeles, California. This was the winter of ’39. And I went to Los Angeles, and Count Basie’s Band came out there. I saw them again with Lester Young and Herschel Evans, and they just blew me apart! And I couldn’t get a job in Los Angeles because I was too good. And I didn’t realize you could be that good and can’t get a job. I say, “How could you get an education and get everything all prepared to play in a city like Los Angeles and you can’t get a job?” The musicians was jealous of you, and they wouldn’t tell you where they were working at because if I go out there and they hear me play one song they were gone. At that time you called it “cuttin’ heads.” We came up like you get your head cut off. So we learned how to play so we wouldn’t get cut. See? You didn’t want nobody to be better than you. You had to learn that way if you wanted a job ecause you couldn’t get no job in Houston. They wasn’t paying no money here. Everything was like cowboys with spurs on their heels and cowboy hats. They was not jazz conscious at that time. I saw all that, and I said, “I got to get out of here because they don’t realize what they got here.” See? Houston still don’t realize the potential of the jazz musicians on the State and these musicians here in this city. Some of the greatest musicians in the world came from here, and, if I may say, I’m one of them.
CS: I would agree with that.
IJ: And I’m proud of this city, but they have neglected some of the talent that is recognized all over the world and is not recognized in their own home town. That is a crime. That is a mistake. I don’t know what happened there, but when I went to California I was equipped. And if Houston hadn’t been like it was I never would have left here because this is a great city. I will always say that! And one day they are going to wake up to what this is all about. It’s got the potential of being any city; compete with any city in any department. Now, you know, they got the baseball team. Pretty soon they’ll win the World Series, you know. And those Oilers, if they hadn’t got rid of that coach, they would probably win [with a football team]. They got winners here.
LJM: Who did you eventually work for in California?
IJ: In California? Well, as I was saying, I couldn’t get a job in California when I first arrived there so one of the managers of Floyd Ray’s Band who put me in the union. I joined the Local out there. I caught myself getting away from segregation. They had segregation Locals out there: Local 767 and Local 747. Where can I go to get rid of all this because I want to play music? So I joined the Colored Local out there. Still couldn’t get no job. Well, I got a job with T-Bone Walker, a blues singer, I think, from Fort Worth or Dallas.
CS: Fort Worth.
IJ: Fort Worth? Right? T-Bone walker is one of the greatest blues singers in the world in the history of this music. And he heard me play, and he said, “Man, come on! Play with me!” We played a little place in Los Angeles called Watts. The Brown Sisters, two black girls had a place called The Brown Sisters. They were twins. They didn’t get along with each other, but they had a hell of a club. They hated each other. The place would be packed every night. But they didn’t like each other. The club would be swinging every night with T-Bone Walker. And by me coming from Louisiana and Texas, I fitted right in his shoes, with T-Bone Walker. And so, after I got tired of that because I knew I had to expand. I say, “How am I going to get out of Los Angeles? I’ve got to get out of here now!” I’m trying to get to New York but I went further away, and I was really away! So Nat “King” Cole had his trio out there working out in Hollywood, and he was quite popular with his. . . (That’s before he became a singer). . . . one of the most fantastic trios you ever heard in your life.
CS: He was a fine pianist, just great!
GH: He was terrific.
IJ: Ah!!! The Black Local would give a picnic every labor Day and invite all the musicians, no matter who they were, to come and participate in this parade. They would put you in trucks: different bands and groups. And there would be truckloads going down Central Avenue parading and playing music. Everybody was playing everything, and they would end at Local: Local 747. Then they would have a jam session. So, Nat “King” Cole had heard about me in town. He said, “Man, I’ve heard about you. I’d like to hear you play. If I set up a jam session, would you set in with it?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’m going to have Jimmy Blanton, who was the world’s greatest bass player, who was with Duke [Ellington]. He had Sid Catlett. He had Charlie Christian [who had] come out of Oklahoma City and was with Bennie Goodman who was the greatest. He invented the guitar! And Nat “King” was at the piano. And I picked up that alto [saxophone] and I didn’t even have to play it. God played it for me! It was the greatest experience I have ever had in my life. I just held the horn and God played it for me. It was the greatest experience I have ever had in my life. Believe me! This may sound like a joke, but this is the God-given truth! I realized then where my talents came from. He played that horn for me, and I did everything right! You could hear a pin drop in the Union. It was packed . . . people breathing down their throats. The place was packed, and Nat “King” Cole said, “Look. I want you to come out to Hollywood and sit in my trio after what I heard today. I want you to come out there tonight, and you just tell them you’re my guest, and you come on in at the “421” in Hollywood. When I walked in there, there was Humphrey Bogart [and] Bette Davis. Now the place is getting real prissy here now. I couldn’t even get a job down there since outsiders are not allowed here, and there I am shaking hands with Humphrey Bogart. He didn’t even know me ‘cause I was there, you know. He hadn’t heard me yet. That was an inspiration! I sit in and played with them. And the actors and movie stars, it was inspiring. “What’s your name?”, you know, people talking to you. It was just like night and day out here. It was like ice cream and pie, you know what I mean? I say, “Where has this been?” So I started jamming with Nat Cole, and we became fast friends. I was seeing him every day, and we’d go to jam sessions when he’d get off his job. We’d go to jam sessions and play, day and night. And then he said, “You know, Bennie Goodman is coming to town to Catalina Island, and he’s going to disband his band. And Lionel Hampton, who was with him, was going to form a band, and he wanted me and my trio to be his rhythm section. I’d like for you to meet him.” Nat “King” Cole was talking to me! Well, I was ready to meet anybody at that time. I needed a job, and I needed to get out of there. I needed me to make some money, you know. And Texas was along ways. Mamma was a long ways. My school was a long ways, and they couldn’t help me. So I say, “Yeah, I’d like to meet him,” you know. So he [Cole] invited Lionel Hampton to come and sit in with his trio and invited me to set in with that!
CS: I think that is a tremendous compliment.
IJ: Oh, man! I mean the pot was really boiling then! I got on the stage with Lionel Hampton, Nat “King” Cole, Wesley Prince and Oscar Moore. We were right on Sunset and Vine, right in the heart of Hollywood. Nothing but actors and actresses. They was the crowd! That’s all they drew out there then. And the stage got so hot! Hamp got carried away with what everybody was playing. He eats music, you know! His vibes fell off the stage, and he just walked down the steps, and he finished out the song sideways. He said, “This is a phenomenal band here!” His clubs was out and he was still playing without the clubs. So, he called me off in a corner, and he said, “Hey.” You know how he talks: “Hey, hey, hey. Hah-hah-how w-w-would you like to join my band?” I said, “Yes, Mr. Hampton. I think that would be a good idea.” My English was perfect, you know. We talked first that night. And he said, “But I would like for you to switch from the alto to tenor [saxophone], and I’ll give you a featured spot in my band.” Well, that was like a low blow. Have you ever been hit by Joe Louis with one of his short jabs? That was like a low blow that hit me. It almost knocked me out of the club. You know? But I thought about it. I said [to myself], “ If you know if you want to get out of here, and if you want to get to New York and want to make some money, you’d better think about that switch.” But the alto saxophone isn’t a tenor saxophone. So I said, “Nat, what do you think about that?” Nat had a way of scratching his jaw, you know. That was his character, and he said, “Well, I don’t know. I think if you want to go, you’d better make up your mind.” So, I say, “Okay, Mr. Hampton. I’ll try to make that switch.” And that’s how I switched from the alto to the tenor saxophone. Although I could play it, but that was not my instrument, because once you play a saxophone, you can play them all, you know, but you always have the one you feature, like baseball players can play all positions, but short-stop might be his main position. See?
CS: Was there an embouchure problem with the change?
IJ: Well, there was just a little bigger mouthpiece you had to get adjusted to. That comes from practicing.
CS: It has a wider reed.
IJ: Yeah. Everything is bigger, but still a saxophone, so you have to adjust, you know. If you are going to play, then you have to woodshed and start practicing and develop into that bigger mouthpiece, that bigger reed, you know. And when I join the band and started traveling I started playing it more. And by the time we got to Chicago, we had a location, and we set in Chicago for four months in the Grand Terrace. And we were playing the same songs every night because there was a record strike band and there was a publisher’s strike ban, and we were broadcasting every night from the Grand Terrace. You couldn’t change. You couldn’t play new tunes. We had to play the same songs every night.
GH: James Petrillo.
IJ: They was having all that strike and everything. I was practicing on that same song every night on that tenor. See? And I was getting myself together ‘cause I could play like everybody. Any saxophone player that lived, I could play like him, if he was a known saxophone player because I admired them. And we had that technique. I could just switch and put my frame into that other man, and I could sound like him. I can still do that today. One day I’ll make a record like that. But on the tenor I had to get something on my own. See? I didn’t want to sound like Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Don Bias, Ben Webster because they going to say, “Aw, he sounds just like him.” So that ain’t you. See?
CS: So, you had to develop your own style.
IJ: I had to develop my own style
LJM: How would you describe your style?
IJ: My style is me! That’s the way I play, and let them follow me. I didn’t want to follow nobody. So, when I left Texas, I learned here to become something. I had to become something because I was leaving Mamma. I was leaving school. I was leaving my friends. I was leaving my town. So, I really wanted to make sure that I was going to do something that was me. We used to play the songs every night on a broadcast, so now when we got ready to make a record on Decca Records, the first recording was Flyin’ Home. And I didn’t know if I was going to play and what style was on it; if I was going to imitate or what I was going to do. But Marshall Law, the first saxophone player, he knew my capabilities. He knew what I could do. Just as I got up to go do that and he reaches and say, “Go for yourself.” That’s all I needed to hear, because now when he said, “Go for yourself,” because if he hadn’t said that I might have played something in somebody else’s place. When he said that, I got up therein front of the mike and created a whole new style of tenor saxophone on Flyin’ Home, and today is still is the biggest thing that I played; the biggest thing I have played; the biggest thing that anybody plays in the jazz world of music.
LJM: In musical terms, what makes you different?
IJ: Well, it’s because you’re original.
LJM: I know, but if you had to describe it in terms of whether it is a heavier sound, a lighter sound or a stronger sound, is there any distinction?
IJ: Well, no. The only distinction that I can really say is every time I play on the stage I’m thinking that God is with me, and he’s got it! And that’s about the only way that I can explain it. I’ve always been religious in what I do, onstage, or what I do anywhere because I believe in looking you straight in the eye and telling you, “That’s the way I play.” I want to be the truth. You may not like me today, but when you learn about me you’ll know who I am. If I am great, you will say it, not me, and that’s my motto. I always ask God, “What should I do?”, and God tells me what to do.
LJM: Has your sound changed over the years?
IJ: It got better. It gets better as I age.
CS: Wouldn’t you say that the harmonic discipline the you had undergone through those early years gave you the freedom which freed your mind to create your own style?
IJ: Yes. We might say, “God” because what you just said, I did not have time to go into the fundamentals is what you said, because, if you stick to what your beliefs are, you can make the goal, but you have to be firm with that belief. Don’t be denied of your belief. I knew that I would make it where I am today, but I don’t believe I have completed where I am going. And I don’t ever let my head get swelled because I got so many things to do. So, I don’t operate on an ego. It may sound that way, but I don’t think an ego will carry you nowhere. I think you have to produce. You can’t rely on yesterday. It is today!
CS: You have to continue.
LJM: Just to complete the chronology, you went with the Hampton Band.
IJ: Yeah. I played with Hampton Band; Cab Calloway’s Band after Hampton and Count Basie’s Band, and I created Jazz at the Philharmonic with one solo, which was the World Series of Jazz around the world.
LJM: What year was that?
IJ: 1944, at Philharmonic Auditorium. The place recorded Jazz at the Philharmonic, Part II.
CS. We have it in the Texas Jazz Archive.
GH: He was playing up the rhythm sounds. I don’t know if Jacquet even knew this or not, but I was up in my youth, and I was walking up Eighth Avenue. Somewhere in there was going toward the real Philharmonic. He was up playing the blues, and I could hear the entire auditorium sing simultaneously his solo. It sounded like a choir! (To Jacquet) You were playing. You didn’t even know that. I guess you weren’t aware.
IJ: I am flattered. Well, the day I left the Hampton Band, the record we made, Flyin’ Home, was so popular on the jukeboxes all over the world, we were playing at the Golden Gate Theater. When I got through playing that solo, the balcony, you could see it falling, so many people were up there and they were so happy. And the applause never did end, no matter what came after that. You could still hear the applause. Hampton didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to put on next. See? You couldn’t hear him because his vibes was so weak. He brought some dancers out. They didn’t want to see them. His solo was just that much of an impact, you know. It’s like that right now. We are getting ready to make a world tour right now with the band, and the same thing happens with the big band. My ambition is to come to Houston, right where it started. They should hear what they have created.
LJM: Obviously, I would like to a follow-up interview with you at some date, and I hope I have that opportunity. (To GW) And since you participated in this, too, I need your signature too.
IJ: You should talk with him sometime.
LJM: I will.
IJ: See, he lives here.
GH: Maybe you will need a biographical sketch, too.
IJ: This is my manager, Carol Scherick. She is an accomplished musician: bassoonist; pianist; arranger, and she guides my career.
LJM: Also, you know we’d like to receive some photographs or anything that we can add to the collection in your name because this will start the collection.
IJ: Sure. This is in the Library here?
CS: It is downstairs.
IJ: I’m glad to know that.