Perennially hip, cynically postmodern ears may hear Franz Jackson’s music as outdated. Others will listen and be grateful for an eighty-year career spent playing exactly the notes the clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist and arranger wanted (which is pretty much the definition of “hip”).
For Jackson artistic liberty was expressed through swing, a clear melody and the blues, not to mention such important musical fundamentals as a distinctly warm tone and a sense of humor. Jackson’s role as one of the last surviving voices of jazz’s pre-swing era only added to his musical toolkit, without miring that voice in nostalgia. For example, “reed popping” was in some ways out of fashion by the late twenties, but Jackson uses it for some percolating counterpoint behind John Thomas’ trombone lead on “Mack the Knife” in 1961. Jackson’s sandy, rhythmically liberated vocal and clarinet (with some delicious chalumeau trills) evidence a player who had been listening and absorbing but also remembering and reshaping ideas for decades:
That sense of knowing exactly what he wants to say (mixed with an underlying sense of joy at being alive to say it), similarly colors Jackson’s playing on the Jimmie Noone warhorse “Sweet Lorraine.” Here it’s clothed in a subtle small group swing arrangement, with Jackson in turn using Coleman Hawkins-esque heft to clothe his own coy approach on tenor sax:
Jackson’s clarinet on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” pays uncanny tribute to George Lewis’ ensemble arpeggios (albeit with surer tone and intonation), while his loping solo grooves and arches even at double the tempo. Here and elsewhere Jackson surrounds himself with other clear, direct communicators:
All of the above videos are posted by Jackson’s daughter, Michelle Jackson Jewell, who also maintains a loving tribute to her father at an informative, comprehensive and tune-filled website. She’s also organizing a campaign to fund the release of Jackson’s 95th birthday celebration, his swinging, star-studded last concert in 2008, which she hopes to issue as a double disc set. You can find out more about her father, this project and how to donate here:
As the clip on that page will show, Jackson could make a chorus of “Happy Birthday” a party unto itself! He once said, “it’s no good tune if it don’t have a story,” and hopefully the right support can keep Jackson’s story going much longer.