This is not a tale about a great opera singer from the Lone Star State, but the story of Jean-Baptiste “Illinois” Jacquet and how his unique sound on the tenor saxophone influenced jazz, blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll saxophonists for generations to come. Born in Louisiana in 1922, his family moved to Houston, Texas when he was an infant. He was given the nickname “Illinois” because his French name was too difficult for Texans to pronounce. There are several accounts of how “Illinois” was selected, but whatever the genesis, thereafter Jean-Baptiste was known as Illinois Jacquet in Texas and eventually throughout the world.
A little history of the saxophone is in order. Invented in the early 1840s by Belgian Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax, a musician and inventor, it was initially utilized in classical music and military bands. The woodwind instrument was not widely used in jazz until the 1920 with Coleman Hawkins generally credited as the first important jazz tenor saxophonist. The “Hawk” as he was known had a distinctive sound on his tenor and when he came on the scene, jazz was evolving away from strictly an ensemble style of music to instrumentalists being allowed to solo. And the Hawk could definitely solo. Players began to develop their own distinctive sounds on their instruments and regional differences in the styles of jazz began to appear. You could distinguish between the jazz being played in New Orleans and Texas. Yes, Texas, with its large size and population and its affection for saloons and honkey-tonk joints, developed its own distinctive style and sound and Illinois was the one who would take that sound out of Texas and share it with the world.
Illinois began playing the alto sax as a child and by 15 he had become a professional. In 1942 at the age of 19, Illinois switched to the tenor as a condition to joining the world famous Lionel Hampton Orchestra. As fate would have it, his solo on the band’s recording of “Flying Home” would change the trajectory of his career and establish the sound of the “Texas Tenor” in jazz.
The recording became a huge hit due to Illinois’ solo, which captured for one of the first times on record the sound of a Texas Tenor. What is the sound of a Texas Tenor? The great Cannonball Adderley famously defined it as “a moan within the tone.” Others have described it using adjectives such as wailing, wild, honking, howling, raucous, screeching, squealing and guttural. Drenched in the blues, it generally emanates from the use of the upper and lower registers of the saxophone and is delivered with a raw power and rhythmic connection to the beat. Illinois is also credited with perfecting the technique of “growling” on the sax – humming while blowing into the horn.
Image a “tough toned” tenor player walking the bar with an arched back while playing the blues and lifting the audience to a frenzy. That was Illinois. His solo on “Flying Home” became the signature sound for Hampton’s band and long after Illinois had left the band in 1943 (joining Cab Calloway and then Count Basie before leading his own band), subsequent tenor players in the band immortalized the solo by playing it almost note for note, night after night. While Illinois was known for his Texas Tenor sound it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was capable of playing a ballad in a warm and tender manner. Illinois died in 2004 and was playing right up to the time of his death.
There have been legions of jazz players associated with the Texas Tenor sound with Texans Buddy Tate and Arnett Cobb, Illinois’ contemporaries, prominent proponents of the style. While the Texas Tenor sound originated in jazz, by the 1950s it was adopted by players that were pushing jazz and the blues into new directions. Curtis Ousley, known as “King Curtis,” started out playing jazz as a teenager in Hampton’s band, a decade after Illinois had left. A Texas native, he was clearly influenced by Illinois’ sound but he moved to NY and took his Texas Tenor with him, doing studio work (performing, producing and directing bands) with Buddy Holly, the Coasters (playing the very famous solo on “Yakety Yak”) and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few. His career was tragically cut short when he was stabbed to death at the age of 37, but while Illinois introduced the Texas Tenor to jazz, it was King Curtis who popularized the sound in the world of R&B, rock, funk and soul.
Another Texan Tenor player that did much to disseminate the distinctive Texas sound was David “Fathead” Newman, who had a career that spanned over 50 years. He recorded and played with the who’s who of jazz and blues, but is best known for his dozen years as a sideman with Ray Charles during the 1950s and 1960s playing R&B and soul with a raw, earthy sound that communicated a heartfelt cry when he was heard soloing on Ray’s mega-hits.
On Sept. 3 at the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort, as part of the Vail Jazz Party, the great tenor player Joel Frahm will pay tribute to Illinois and other great Texas Tenors in a captivating multi-media show combining a live performance with classic video performances of these great musicians in a once in a lifetime show.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.