7 minute read

Illinois Jacquet Biography

Changed Name to Illinois, Appeared at Jazz at the Philharmonic Concerts, Re-formed Swing Band


Jazz saxophonist

Jacquet, Illinois, photograph. Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images.

When 19-year-old Illinois Jacquet stepped to a Decca Records microphone in May of 1942 to take his solo on the Lionel Hampton Band's "Flying Home," he was a young saxophonist with tremendous ability but no clear identity. It was the first or second time he had made a recording, and he had recently switched from alto to tenor sax at Hampton's instruction. "I didn't know what I was going to play or what I was going to sound like, or who I was going to imitate," he told Texas Monthly. One of Hampton's sidemen told him to try to find his own style. And then Jacquet delivered one of the two or three most influential solos in all of jazz history, an 80-second masterpiece that began with a quotation of an obscure operatic melody, suddenly gathered energy, and climaxed in a screeching, honking, thrilling repetition of a single note.

Nearly every tenor player who followed made it a priority to learn that solo, note for note. But "Flying Home" marked neither the beginning nor the end of Jacquet's seven-decade career. He was one of jazz's great survivors, thought of as an outrageous musician when he was young but hailed as a classic figure in old age. He was as effective with romantic jazz ballads as he was with the explosive performances with which he made his reputation.

Changed Name to

Of French-Creole ancestry on his father's side, Jean-Baptiste Jacquet (pronounced JaKETT) was born in Broussard, Louisiana, on October 31, 1922 (one researcher has argued for a 1919 date). He moved with his family to Houston when he was young and, finding that his French name caused difficulties for Texans, began to use the name Illinois instead. Jacquet's mother was a Native American of the Sioux tribe, and his two versions of how he came by the new name were both connected to her: he said variously that the name was derived from a Siouxan word "Illiniwek," meaning "superior men," and that he was named for a friend of his mother's who came from Chicago to help out when was born.

The family was a musical one; Jacquet's father and three older brothers were all musical professionals, and he made his debut at age three, singing on the radio in Galveston, Texas, to promote a stage show mounted by his brothers. He was a tap dancer at first, but he soon learned to play drums and the soprano and alto saxophones (he eventually mastered the bassoon, an unusual jazz instrument, as well). Jacquet was something of a prodigy, joining the Milton Larkin Orchestra at 15 and finding that he could keep up with the best players he encountered. "Every band that came through heard about this young guy and would want to jam with me," he told Texas Monthly. "It was inspiring because they weren't doing too much that I wasn't doing." But he became depressed by the realities of Southern segregation and set out for Los Angeles in 1939.

The talented teenager quickly made friends in the L.A. jazz community, and a young singer named Nat Cole steered him toward a big band being formed by the popular vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Hampton hired Jacquet late in 1941 but insisted that he switch to tenor sax. The move proved a smart one on Hampton's part, for the more guttural sound of the tenor instrument fit Jacquet's style. The bandleader noticed that crowds responded strongly to Jacquet's solos when the new Lionel Hampton Band appeared live.

So Hampton took Jacquet with him into the studio in May of 1942 for the famed session that produced "Flying Home." Jacquet's solo was brilliantly structured, hovering and twisting around bent notes for much of its length, building up energy that was released in a torrent with the sequence of repeated notes at the end. The recording became a hit, covered even by country musicians. After Jacquet, exhausted by playing the solo night after night, quit Hampton's band in 1943, Hampton demanded that his replacements learn to reproduce it exactly, and Jacquet's solo eventually became part of every good saxophonist's advanced education.

Appeared at Jazz at the
Philharmonic Concerts

Jacquet quickly signed on with bandleader Cab Calloway and appeared in several films, including Stormy Weather and a musical short subject called Jammin' the Blues. As promoter Norman Granz put together his Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944 to raise money for Mexican men arrested after the Los Angeles "Zoot Suit riots," Jacquet was a natural choice. The opening concert at the city's Philharmonic Hall produced a live Jacquet recording, "Blues (Part 2)," on which the saxophonist bit his reed while playing to drive the instrument to the very top of its range. Jazz purists were cool to Jacquet's flamboyant style, with its screeches and honks, but what they missed was that Jacquet had forged a style that drew strongly on the blues music of his native Texas. Jacquet's playing influenced rhythm-and-blues and later rock saxophonists, and some writers have even claimed "Blues (Part 2)" as the first rock and roll recording.

After the end of World War II, Jacquet moved to New York and took the place of saxophonist Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra, with which he had already often appeared. He formed a sextet of his own in 1946 and continued to tour with various Jazz at the Philharmonic groups, recording for the small Aladdin and Apollo labels and later, more prolifically, for Granz's Clef label. As the large swing bands declined, Jacquet revealed other facets of his style in addition to the explosive aspect that had made him famous; he cultivated a smooth ballad style and sometimes took solos on the mellow-sounding and extraordinarily difficult-to-play bassoon.

The composer of several jazz standards, including "Blue Velvet," "Robbins Nest," and "Port of Rico," Jacquet occasionally reunited with bands led by Hampton and Basie. Recording more sporadically after a disagreement with Granz in 1958, and perhaps feeling trapped by the stylistic mold the concert-going public expected him to fit, Jacquet spent much of the 1960s and 1970s touring in Europe. A stint as artist-in-residence at Harvard University in 1983 (he was the first jazz musician to serve in that position) brought Jacquet back to the United States and stimulated a new burst of creativity in his career.

At a Glance …

Born Jean-Baptiste Jacquet on October 31, 1922 (one researcher claims 1919) in Broussard, LA; took name Illinois; died on July 23, 2004, in New York.

Career: Musician, 1930s-2004; joined Milton Larkin Orchestra at age 15; joined Lionel Hampton Orchestra, 1941; played in Count Basie's band, 1945-46; formed own sextet and recorded for various small labels, late 1940s and 1950s; Harvard University, artist-in-residence, 1983; formed Illinois Jacquet Big Band, 1985.

Selected awards: Award for Artistic Excellence, Jazz at Lincoln Center, 2000; Julliard School of Music, honorary doctorate, 2003.

Re-formed Swing Band

"I made up my mind that if I could make students at Harvard sound that good, it was time for me to come back to New York and pick the best musicians I could find and form my own big band," Jacquet told Jazz Times. Full-sized swing bands were rare by the mid-1980s, but the Illinois Jacquet Big Band shattered attendance records at the prestigious Village Vanguard club. Jacquet moved into a house in Queens with companion Carol Scherick and took his place among New York jazz royalty. The album Jacquet's Got It! documented this phase of the musician's career and was nominated for a Grammy award. The documentary film Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story also lent new prominence to the saxophonist's work.

The nation as a whole was reminded of Jacquet's talents in 1993 when he shared the stage at the White House with President and fellow saxophonist Bill Clinton. Jacquet kept up a full concert schedule into his old age, receiving the Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence in 2000 and honorary doctorate from the Julliard School of Music in May of 2004. He played his last concert with his big band at New York's Lincoln Center on July 16, 2004, one week before his death from a heart attack at his home. A funeral at the city's Riverside Church was attended by dozens of jazz musicians who admired Illinois Jacquet and had been creatively shaped by his meaty, immensely influential music.

Selected discography

(With Lionel Hampton) "Flying Home," 1941.

Illinois Jacquet Jam Session, Atlantic, 1951.

Port of Rico, Clef, 1956.

The Blues: That's Me, Prestige/OJC, 1969.

Jacquet's Got It, Atlantic Jazz, 1988.

Flying Home (recorded 1947-67), Bluebird, 1991.

Flying Home: The Best of the Verve Years (1951-58), Verve, 1994.

Jazz at the Philharmonic, Verve, 1994.

Illinois Jacquet All-Stars 1945-47, Blue Moon, 1994.

The Complete Illinois Jacquet Sessions 1945-1950, Mosaic, 1996.



Contemporary Musicians, vol. 17, Gale Research, 1996.


Boston Globe, July 23, 2004, p. 16.

Daily News (New York), July 26, 2004, p. 35.

Down Beat, October 2004, p. 24.

Houston Chronicle, July 30, 2004, p. A2.

Jazz Times, January 1985.

Jet, August 9, 2004, p. 61.

New York Times, July 23, 2004, p. A4.

Newsday (New York), July 24, 2004, p. A18; July 30, 2004, p. A17.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 25, 2004, p. B5.

Texas Monthly, November 2002, p. 142.

Times (London, England), July 26, 2004, p. Features-25.

Washington Post, July 24, 2004, p. B5.

—James M. Manheim

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal