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David and Art - Happy Birthday, Milt

When New Years Day rolls around, it’s also the birthday of an American jazz legend that too few people know about.

Today, January 1, is the birthday of a jazz giant named Milt Jackson. If you’ve not heard of him—and if you haven’t, you’re not alone—let me start the new year by introducing you to him.

He was born in Detroit 101 years ago today and like so many other jazz and R&B players he grew up with the music he heard in church being the most formative influence on him. “Everyone wants to know where I got that funky style,” Jackson said in some liner notes to one of his later albums. “Well, it came from church. The music I heard was open, relaxed, impromptu soul music.” His first instrument was guitar, which he started playing at age 7. When he was 11, he started in on piano. Once he got to high school he started playing drums and even sang with a Detroit area gospel quartet when he was 16.

But it’s none of those things with which Jackson became one of the fixtures of American jazz. When he was 16, which would have been 1939, he heard a concert by the Benny Goodman sextet and was captivated by a man named Lionel Hampton who was playing an instrument called the vibraphone and that would become Jackson’s instrument. Six years later he was, as the saying goes, discovered by a touring combo leader named dizzy Gillespie and Jackson joined his sextet playing vibes.

A vibraphone is sort of like a marimba which, if you’re not keen on marimbas, is like a giant xylophone played with mallets. The keys—the part that you hit with the mallets—are laid out like a piano and are mounted over resonance tubes that magnify the sound. A vibraphones keys are metal and at the top of each tube there’s a spinning disc that causes the sound to have a shimmering quality. It also has a damper pedal like a piano to control the sustain enabling it to be an effective solo instrument.

For several decades he fronted a group called the modern jazz quartet and was a much sought after sideman, joining his distinctive sound with that of Miles, Dizzy, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Cannonball Adderley, Quincy Jones, Horace Silver, and many others. Probably his most famous composition is entitled “Bag’s Groove” because his nickname was Bags.

He died in New York in 1999 at the age of 76. Putting some Milt Jackson into your playlists for 2024 would be a good New Year’s resolution.