Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Remembering vibraphonist Milt Jackson for ‘always gorgeous’ bebop, blues

Local vibraphonists Steve Yeager, Dave Hagedorn, Steve Roehm and Levi Schwartzberg pay tribute to the late musician on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Milt Jackson in New York, with bassist Ray Brown, left, circa 1947.
Milt Jackson in New York, with bassist Ray Brown, left, circa 1947.
William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress

You know that classic scene from the movie, “Big,” when the man-turned-boy character played by Tom Hanks delights himself and other patrons at the mall by prancing on a huge keyboard that delivers notes with each step? 

Now imagine the nonpareil dancer Fred Astaire freelancing on that keyboard for five minutes at a time. You get a sense of what it is like to listen to the late vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose centennial birthday occurred this past New Year’s Day.

Like Astaire, Jackson dazzled with the speed, economy and flair of his movement, then dazzled again when he suddenly slowed and seemingly hung in the air, suspended in resonant equipoise, before starting anew. Dedicated practice honing his craft provided a greater array of reliable tools for his imagination to wield. He was renowned for a lyricism that was classic and accessible to the listener, yet immediately recognizable and his own original style. 

Some of this was God-given. “Milt is on record as saying he had both a photographic memory and perfect pitch,” said Steve Yeager, a longtime vibraphone player and teacher in the Twin Cities jazz scene. Each of those gifts — the ability to memorize music on sight and the ability to align music with any key being played without a reference point — is relatively rare. To possess both is phenomenal. It frees up brain space to concentrate on performance beyond the basics.

Article continues after advertisement

“You watch videos and everyone is looking at the music. Milt never had a chart up! And if anybody changed the key, he’d think, ‘I don’t care. I’ll play it in G-flat,” Yeager marveled. 

Back in 2000, Yeager released an album comprised of a four-song suite he composed, entitled “Suite MJQ — A Tribute to Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet.” Growing up, his parents had taken him to see one of the seminal vibraphonists in jazz, Lionel Hampton, whom Yeager regarded as “a great practitioner but more of a showman.” But a few years after gravitating from drums to vibes in high school, he saw Jackson with the Modern Jazz Quartet and was wowed by the music as well as the show. 

“Orchestra Hall, the tuxedos (on the band members), the elegance,” he fondly remembered. “But let’s face it; it was mostly watching Milt in performance. Nobody touches that lyricism and it really attracted me.”

Nevertheless, there was a time in the 1980s and early ’90s when Yeager was under the sway of vibraphonist Gary Burton, a more ethereal player who used four mallets instead of two. It wasn’t until Yeager hooked up with pianist Herb Pilhofer in the late ’90s that he had the chance and circumstance to delve deeply into what he calls his “lines, his phrasing, his vocabulary. Four (mallets) is a pianistic approach. Two is playing like a horn or vocalist, which is what said he was trying to do.

“Milt was a virtuoso. You can sit there and practice it, even get close to it, but man, he just had a touch. A genius.”

From military discharge to ‘Bags’

Along with his god-given talents, Jackson had an extraordinary work ethic. He was already making a name for himself when he was inducted into the military for two years at the age of 19. Once discharged, his great desire to make up for lost time (and celebrate his return to civilian life) had him frequently staying out all night playing, a schedule that earns him the lasting nickname “Bags” because of the puffy circles under his sleep-deprived eyes. 

By his death more than five decades later in 1999, Jackson had become the most recorded vibraphonist in history, with prolific catalogs as a solo artist, a founding member of hugely popular Modern Jazz Quartet, and a sideman to many of the premiere stylists in jazz.  

The two vibraphonists who put the instrument on the jazz map, Hampton and Red Norvo, were both reared in the swing era. But the mid-’40s was the blossoming of bebop and Jackson was in the thick of it, becoming a mainstay in the band of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and frequently gigging with other bebop icons such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and a young Miles Davis. 

Article continues after advertisement

The most influential album in the career of local vibraphonist Dave Hagedorn was “Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants,” an all-star bebop affair including Jackson and recorded on Christmas Eve of 1954. Hagedorn is an Artist in Residence at St. Olaf College who has a number of recordings out under his own name and membership in a variety of local ensembles, including the Good Vibes Trio with bassist Chris Bates and drummer Phil Hey. He was in high school in 1972 when he heard the Miles record, which included the Monk composition “Bemsha Swing,” the standard, “The Man I Love,” and some Miles originals. 

“Bags grew up in a sanctified church, so he definitely had the gospel thing underneath his harmony. His came up in bebop and the music is blues-drenched. He plays the type of music I gravitate to,” he replied, when I asked him what made Jackson so distinctive. 

Consequently, Hagedorn steeped himself in Jackson early, checking out what was available at the Hennepin County Library and local record shops near him. “I made feeble attempts to try and copy him; tried to phrase like him, use grace notes like him. The way he surrounds a melody note is very distinctive. 

“You know, a brass or sax player can bend a note by manipulating their instrument. You can’t do that on vibes. But he had a way of playing the grace notes so they just melted into the melody instead of sounding like percussive decoration.” 

‘A unique way of connecting the dots’

There were other ways, some purposeful, some organic, that Jackson defined himself in a unique way. He was naturally left-handed, which tweaked the force and influence of the mallets on the metal bars. And he had his mallets tailor-made according to preference, specifications not available to anyone else until later in his career. They were a couple of inches shorter than typical mallets, with a much larger head (the wound ball at the end). Both are conducive to a two-mallet rather than four-mallet approach and mitigated the tone and resonance as Jackson characteristically played with more force than most. 

Local vibraphonist Steve Roehm, perhaps best known for his membership in the New Standards, once taught a student, a retired lawyer, who tracked down the person who used to wrap the mallet heads for Jackson. 

“He got me a couple and I love them and use them all the time,” Roehm said. “They are like one of a kind.

“A mallet is like a drumstick; if you shorten it up, it reacts differently. Usually the handles of those things are made out of rattan, which is in the wicker family, and have a little more give. The shorter, heavier (Jackson style) mallet feels less wispy. When it connects with the bar it has a more leaden feel to it. It feels good in your hand, and you can control it a little better because you are weaning the variable out of it.”

Article continues after advertisement

Given those comments it is not surprising that Roehm originally set out to be a drummer. But in college, he was required to take a course on the vibes. He came across “Bebop,” an album that, despite its title was recorded in 1988, near the end of Jackson’s career, featuring a string of classic bop standards. 

Roehm fell in love with the vibraphone solos, to the point where, using a cassette-to-cassette transfer, he edited the album down to nothing but those solos from Bags, which provided the perfect length for his half-hour walk to and from campus every day. 

“Milt can play the line and then heavily ornament it, and it doesn’t affect the melody. He just has a really unique way of connecting the dots,” Roehm raved. There is a lot chromaticism — that’s the bebop stuff I love. There is not going to be another guy like him. He really had a voice — you can identify immediately.” 

Bebop, church, blues

Levi Schwartzberg would not be regarded as a natural Milt Jackson buff. Schwartzberg plays more with four mallets than two, and is in ensembles that are more “outside” and avant garde, such as Davu Seru’s No Territory Band and Adam Linz’s Le Percheron. 

But Schwartzberg echoes the chorus of praise for what has made the legacy of Bags so indelible. He, too, had a record that spun his head around — a live album from the early ’90s owned by his parents entitled “MJQ and Friends: A 40th Anniversary Celebration.” He, too, testifies to the notion that, “When you hear Milt Jackson, you know it. It can’t be anybody else.”

And as for the differences in mallet number and genre, Schwartzberg, replied, “That doesn’t matter. You can still learn from somebody who is an original. (Jackson) has always been one of my favorites to listen to for that reason. His phrasing has its own flow and style.”

There is a richness of character, an elegant panache, an abundant imagination and a sophisticated yet relaxed flow that Jackson developed early, persisted and honed but rarely, if ever, deviated from throughout his long, prolific career. 

“You’ve got bebop, the church, the blues. You’ve got the way he could make those notes melt,” Yeager said, capping his roundup with a sigh. 

Article continues after advertisement

“The last time I saw him was out at the old Dakota in Bandana Square. Like every one of his concerts, he would do a solo feature. Those were my favorite moments — just Milt, or Milt with a piano, breaking it down for us. There is not enough of that stuff out there. But what is out there will always be gorgeous.”