Concert honors Jazz legend

Published 7:31 am Wednesday, October 17, 2007

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC – Other than it will start with a video slide show encapsulating his amazing career and end with a jam session, it's hard to know what to expect in between at the gala concert planned for Sunday, Nov. 4, at the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center to commemorate the 95th birthday of Chicago jazz legend and tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson. He was born Nov. 1, 1912, in Rock Island, Ill.
"It will be fairly structured in the first half," according to his manager and daughter, Michelle Jewell of Niles. "I'm going to pair up (the 18) musicians in different groupings for specific selections. But at the end, we're going to just turn everybody loose and let them do their thing."
It will be video and audio recorded for a possible DVD or CD.
"It's going to be memorable," she said. "He saw the article in the (Oct. 1) Dowagiac Daily News before I told him because somebody at the Council on Aging gave him the paper. I was trying to keep it as quiet as possible and not let him know too far in advance because the enormity of it might make him anxious. I just want him to know how important he's been to so many people. I've learned so much since I took on the role of his business manager, and here he's my dad. I've always thought that what he did for a living was the coolest thing on earth, I've always bragged about him and it's always been fun to hear him play and be a part of that. I don't think it really sunk in the amount he's accomplished in his life and seen and done until I started researching it as a point of contact. I took it upon myself to learn about him as a musician. Even if he wasn't my dad, I would be blown away. I couldn't ask for a better gift.
"There are a lot of musicians coming from all over the country who are coming to perform in honor of my dad that also gives an opportunity to local residents to see talent they might not normally have the opportunity to see," Jewell said Friday.
"Musicians get the chance to see what this little community is like and what it has to offer. There's more to it than a concert. There's going to be a great collection of talent in one spot that might never happen again. It certainly won't happen again in Dowagiac, unless he lives to be 100."
Plus, the gala benefits the Union High School Jazz Band, Encore Dance Company, the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which Jackson helped found, and and Dogwood Fine Arts Festival.
The event is sponsored by Dogwood and Wood Fire Italian Trattoria. Tickets range from $25 to $50 and may be purchased online at or by calling (269) 782-1115.
"We think it's important that people of all ages come out and see this," Jewell said. "As Larry (Seurynck of Wood Fire) points out, it's a great opportunity for people who know little or nothing about jazz or who have preconceived notions about jazz. Hear the real thing played by guys who helped make history. It may change some opinions, enlighten people and get some converts."
Jackson "probably wouldn't be here today if he didn't have the stamina and strength from blowing his horn all those years," she said. "It's incredible to me every time I watch him perform. I can be battling with him in the car about taking his medicine, but when he puts that horn in his mouth, he turns back the clock 40 years. My husband shakes his head at the way he puts the horn in his mouth, closes his eyes and he's gone to a completely different place."
Jewell, who has a younger brother, "loves music" and played clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon in school band, "but it was hard to try to live up to his reputation. My passion was for dance. My mom (Virginia) didn't work. She was a stay-at-home mom. If we had a break at school, we had a motor home and we'd pack up the family and the dog. We went up to Wisconsin almost every Christmas because he played at a ski lodge up there for a festival. It was great for us as kids, getting to see different parts of the country, while he was working and doing what he loved. My brother is two years younger and never played anything. He has a son who played saxophone for a while in school. He's still musically inclined and is in a garage band."
Jewell doesn't ever remember being left with a babysitter growing up.
"Never," she said. "If he was playing, she'd take us and he'd fight with the owners because little kids are not supposed to be in a bar. I distinctly remember one argument: 'That's my family, and they're staying right here or I'm not playing.' And we stayed."
Michelle said Franz was about 12 when he heard a man blowing tenor sax in his building and said, "Mom, I want one of those." Jackson's mother and step-father (his dad died before he was 3) bought him an alto sax. "He had a couple of lessons from a musician at the Savoy, where he went down every week to listen to the pit band playing for movies." Then his parents split up and he had to get a job to help out his family, ending his lessons.
"It was almost kismet," Jewell said. "He kind of instinctively knew he had the basics and it was his job to expand on that and figure out where to go from there. He started playing with records."
Jackson grew up in Chicago. How did he happen to end up in Dowagiac?
"The silver round house on M-51 South is my grandmother's house," Jewell said. The Jackson family still owns the rental property.
"He had been commuting from Chicago to Dowagiac," Jewell said, "for probably 20 years before we actually moved here as a family. Eventually, they owned the land across the street and decided to build a house to sell, but they gave it to Franz and Virginia. Schools were better here and it was a more peaceful environment than Chicago, where we were basically right on the Dan Ryan. It was not the best place to raise a couple of kids. It was going downhill even when I was little. We kept the apartment building in Chicago for a long time, so he lived there and managed it. He decided to sell that after his mother died and moved in with his sister, who had a house in Chicago," so Jackson could continue to commute between playing in Chicago and being with his family in Dowagiac.
For a 94-year-old man, Jackson keeps a surprisingly rigorous schedule, including his monthly gig at Wood Fire, periodic lectures at the University of Notre Dame – including one Oct. 12 – and performances back-to-back weekends in Chicago in late September for Albert Ammons' centennial.
The pianist who pioneered boogie-woogie gave Jackson his first job when he was about 16.
"I'm most frustrated with the lack of recognition," she said. "People don't know about all that he's accomplished and the contribution he's made to jazz history. I was very disappointed that he didn't get the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Jazz Masters grant. I thought he was a shoo-in for that when he got the nomination. How much longer is he going to be here? I want people to know about him while he's still here, and can take advantage of his talent and expertise, because when he's gone, that's gone, too, except on recordings" he started making in 1931.
"That's one of the reasons for this gala, is for people who don't a lot about him to hear him and for him to get back all the joy that he's given out to other people. Not only does his musicality touch people, his humanity and the way he treated people was even more profound, which is an incredible gift. He had an opportunity to play with Louis Armstrong, but to hear my dad tell it, he didn't want to because he considered him a showman, a stage hog, if you will. If Louis was performing, nobody else was supposed to jump out there and try to do their thing. It was all about him. Dad wasn't like that. He much preferred playing with Roy Eldridge, who included the entire band. I remember meeting Dizzy Gillespie. That was the cool thing about being his daughter. I met so many famous people that, now, looking back, I was too young to appreciate it, but I met Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. Roy Eldridge used to come over to the apartment and hang out."
Jackson "judges a performance by audience reaction," according to Jewell. "If he has pleased the audience, he's cool. He absolutely enjoys what he's doing, but he does it to make somebody else happy. He likes to tell a story with his music and gets very annoyed listening to modern day musicians who 'just blow notes. There's no melody or flow, just who can play the most notes' the loudest, the longest and the highest. That's not jazz or what it started out to be."
Jazz "started out as party music," Jewell said. "You played it in a club while people danced and talked and had a good time. The music was a backdrop to that. Now, I think, people tend to go to a jazz club and sip a martini" as they "analyze" this "cerebral" sound.
Jackson, who "hired and fired" Miles Davis in New York, wrote a number of his own tunes. Four compositions appear on a CD Jackson recorded with the Salty Dogs.
Jewell said in the late 1940s Jackson made his first USO tour to the Pacific. "He ended up in Sweden, where the tour ended. He had married his first wife, who was a singer, and wanted to stop touring and spend some time with her. He played in a band in a hotel. They spent a year in Sweden, went to New York for 10 years and returned to Chicago. His most extensive USO shows came in the late 1960s and early '70s because I remember him being overseas and sending back movies of Vietnam. He was fascinated with people and took hours of home movie footage. I put a collection on videotape for their 30th anniversary."
Jewell said the Swedish hotel management didn't think the light-skinned Jackson was "black enough" to be a real jazz man, so pictured a darker-skinned African American on the marquee next to his wife's, even though he was playing inside. "That hurt me," Jackson confided to his family.
"He has lots of stories about the gangster era" since he was active in Chicago at the same time as Al Capone. "In fact, he was on that Geraldo special when Geraldo opened the vault. They interviewed him because he used to play at Al Capone's places," Jewell said.
"Some of the racial things he went through" were as segregated as the color line which divided the major leagues from the Negro leagues pre-Jackie Robinson.
"I played at the same time" as prominent white musicians, "but there was a white band and a black band," Jackson told his family. "The white guys did their thing, then at intermission, they'd roll the white band off and roll the black band on. We never crossed paths" except "they were in the same realm, at the same talent level," Michelle said. "I know a lot artists who prefer to live in Europe, which has been more progressive than the United States for a long time in terms of race relations."
Besides his main weapon, tenor sax, Jackson's "arsenal" included clarinet and soprano sax. For 10 years at the Red Arrow, a nightclub in Berwyn, Ill., he didn't play tenor at all, which seems unthinkable, but he focused on clarinet. He can play flute, taught himself guitar, plays piano and played first bassoon with the DePaul Symphony for 14 years "because he wanted to see what it was like to play classical music." He played command performances three years for the king of Sweden and in Israel.
Jackson's day-to-day life is "boring," his daughter said, "because he'd much rather be playing five nights a week, even though he's tired when he's done with a three-hour set at Wood Fire. He goes out to the Council on Aging. He drove until he was 92. His mother lived to be 90. His sister lived into her 80s. My mom lived to be 86. Some of his health problems are directly the result of all that second-hand smoke" he breathed in clubs.
"He gave up smoking when he was a teenager so he could play," she said, "and he never was a drinker, except socially, with his fans. His philosophy has always been, personally and professionally, 'Everything in moderation.' Don't overdo or underdo exercise, food, wine, beer, whatever it is. Stay in the middle of the road. If it ever comes to the point where my dad cannot pick up his horn and play, he'll be gone very soon. Why stick around? That's what's been in his heart his whole life. He tears up when he hears his old Red Arrow CDs because he'll say, 'None of them are around anymore.' "