Born Milton Jackson, January 1, 1923, in Detroit, MI. Military/Wartime Service: Served in U.S. Armed Forces, 1942-44. Addresses: Record company--Qwest Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.

Jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson is probably most recognized for his membership in the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), but he has also forged a long and formidable solo career spanning five decades. His articulate two-mallet attack and deep blues approach represents a stylistic departure from earlier jazz vibists; unlike swing vibist Lionel Hampton, Jackson is known for slowing down the motor of his vibraharp (an instrument that is larger than a vibraphone). "The result," wrote Thomas Owens in Bebop: The Music and Its Players, "is that his long notes have a beautiful, subtle style instead of the nervous shimmy that originally was the norm of the vibraphone." A performer and composer, Jackson serves as an inspiration to an entire generation of vibists who owe a tremendous debt to his inventive reinterpretation of his instrument.

One of six sons, Milton Jackson was born January 1, 1923, in Detroit, Michigan, to a devoutly religious mother and a musically talented father. (His brother became a professional drummer.) As a child, Jackson sang in church. He was later quoted in Jazz Masters of the Fifties as saying: "In my case, I believe that what I heard and felt in the music of my church ... was the most powerful influence of my musical career. The music I heard there was open, relaxed, impromptu--soul music." At seven Jackson took up guitar, and around age 11 he began to take piano lessons. At Miller High School, an institution reputed for producing a number of important jazz musicians, he played drums, timpani, violin, xylophone, and sang in the glee club. When he was 16, his high school music instructor, Mr. Goldberg, encouraged him to take up vibes. Around the same time, Jackson was also performing in a gospel group and a dance band.

Watching Hampton's live shows at the Michigan State Fairgrounds and Detroit's Graystone Ballroom further inspired Jackson to study vibes. Though he appreciated Hampton's musicianship, Jackson did not seek to play in the same style; rather, as a member of a younger generation growing up in the 1940s, he received his main musical inspiration from innovative bebop jazz musicians, especially modern pianists and horn players.

Though Jackson had intended to join the band of pianist Earl Hines, he was inducted into the armed forces in 1942. Out of the service in 1944, Jackson returned to Detroit and formed a commercial based music group, the Four Sharps, which included pianist Willie Anderson, bassist Miller Clover, and guitarist Emmit Flay. In the quartet, he sang and played piano, guitar, and vibes. It was at this time that he received the nickname "Bags." In the liner notes to Plenty, Plenty Soul, Jackson explained: "I did a lot of celebrating with a lot of late night hours, and so I had little bags under my eyes. The musicians called me 'Bags' and it stuck." In Detroit, Jackson found a flourishing jazz community. "The environment of the '40s in Detroit was very similar to the environment of 52nd Street when I first came to New York," he related in Jazz Talk. "In Detroit we had Al McKibbon, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards ... [and] the Jones brothers [Hank and Elvin]."

In 1945 Dizzy Gillespie recruited Jackson for his West Coast engagement at Billy Bergs on 1356 Vine Street in Los Angeles. Added as a sixth member to Gillespie's initial quintet, Jackson joined the ensemble as a possible replacement for the group's chronically unpredictable saxophonist, Charlie Parker. In his memoir To Be or Not to Bop, Gillespie recounted how "Milt Jackson, on vibes, was someone new and coming up fast in our music, very rhythmic, soulfully deep, and definitely one of my most prized pupils." Though Gillespie's stint at Bergs has been viewed by music critics as a "disaster," the stage performances and live radio broadcasts from the club did expose a great number of bebop fans and intellectuals to authentic modernist jazz.

In March of 1945 Jackson opened with Gillespie's group at New York's Spotlite on 52nd Street with pianist Al Haig, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Stan Levey. Despite numerous personnel changes over the next months, Jackson remained a steady member of Gillespie's quintet, which eventually became the core of the trumpeter's second big band. In To Be or Not to Bop, Jackson paid tribute to his mentor: "He's dynamic with a big band. I learned how to play good music, this particular kind of music, because he's the father of it.... I love his philosophy of music, and his philosophy of life, modern progressive development."

Two months after his debut at the Spotlite, Jackson played piano on Gillespie's big band recording of Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight"; he also played vibes on the now-classic "Things to Come." The next winter, Jackson joined the band on the Victor sides "Anthropology," "A Night in Tunisia," and "52nd Street Theme." He later recorded for the Musicraft label with Gillespie's alumni saxophonist Sonny Stitt and drummer Kenny Clarke, cutting the numbers "Oop Bop Sh'Bam," "That's Earl," and "One Bass Hit."

Leaving Gillespie in 1947, Jackson teamed up with pianist Thelonious Monk. Together, they recorded for the Blue Note label over the next two years. In 1948 Jackson and Monk, along with bassist John Simmons and drummer Shadow Wilson, produced the numbers "Evidence," "Mysterioso," "Epistrophy," and "I Mean You." Several years later, accompanied by drummer Art Blakey and bassist Al McKibbon, Jackson recorded such arrangements as "Four in One," "Criss Cross," "Ask Me Now," and "Straight No Chaser."

In 1949 Jackson joined the big band of Woody Herman and toured nationally. With Herman's small ensemble, the Woodchoppers, he appeared at the Tropicana in Havana, Cuba. When the audience was unresponsive to the group's modernist repertoire, Herman called upon Jackson to supply some popular standards. In the liner notes for Jackson's Plenty, Plenty Soul, Herman described Jackson's remarkable memory for arrangements: "He's a fantastic musician. And one of the things about him that impressed me was his great knowledge of tunes. He was ... a young man, but he remembers songs I've long forgotten. He remembers all about a song, the bridge, the right changes. That depth of repertoire is a long-lost quality with most young players, but not with Milt."

Jackson rejoined Gillespie from 1951 to 1952. For Gillespie's Detroit-based Dee Gee label, he recorded sessions with John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell. The rhythm section of Gillespie's big band--pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke--soon broke off to form a group with Jackson. As the Milt Jackson Quartet, they recorded sessions for Dee Gee, Savoy, and Blue Note.

In 1952 Jackson's quartet--with exception of Brown, who was replaced by Percy Heath--incorporated themselves as the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). The ensemble performed a format of jazz standards, classically-based originals written by Lewis, the group's music director, and numerous blues compositions written by Jackson. As Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the liner notes to The Modern Jazz Quartet, "Milt Jackson remained the star of the rhythm section because he is a natural soloist and also because it was such a blindingly unique style of playing he brought forth." This observation was shared by Lewis, who explained in Plenty, Plenty Soul, "Milt is not only a fine soloist improviser, but he is an excellent group player too. And he keeps on developing. In all areas."

Throughout the 1950s Jackson performed with the MJQ and continued to record under his own name, collaborating with musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Art Farmer, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Jimmy Heath, and Ray Brown. A guest musician on the 1954 album Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, Jackson provided Davis's LP with two takes of his classic minor-blues number, "Bags' Groove" in a session that evoked the now-legendary controversy concerning Davis's demand that Monk "lay out" during his trumpet solos. Five years later, Jackson co-led a session for Atlantic with John Coltrane, Bags and Trane, which brought together two powerful voices of the modern age of jazz.

The 1960s saw Jackson continuing his solo efforts. His 1958 collaboration with Ray Charles, Soul Brothers, for Atlantic, was followed by the 1961 release Soul Meeting. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler recalled the two musicians' creative interaction: "Dialoguing like two long lost friends, Milt and Ray were soul brothers indeed--relaxed, chatty, honest, respectful of each other's time, patient listeners with nowhere to go except further into the landscape of their pasts and sorrowful joys of their songs." That same year, Jackson teamed up with guitarist Wes Montgomery to record Bags Meets Wes!, featuring pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

The breakup of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1974 enabled Jackson to pursue a full-time solo career. In 1975 he signed with Pablo Records and made several Montreux Jazz Festival appearances. Outside of performing, Jackson has devoted himself to lecturing on the history of music. The MJQ reformed in 1981 for a tour of Japan, and he has subsequently made several albums with the group. Featuring backup by Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins, Jackson's 1994 release, The Prophet Speaks, is a testament to his timelessness. In a career that began with the birth of bebop and included collaborations with nearly every influential name in jazz music, Jackson has made substantial contributions to nearly a half century of African American musical development.

by John Cohassey

Milt Jackson's Career

Sang in church; took up guitar at age seven and four years later began to study piano; at Miller High School, sang in glee club, played several instruments, and took up vibes; performed in gospel group and dance band; formed commercial group the Four Sharps in Detroit; joined Dizzy Gillespie, 1945; recorded with Thelonious Monk, 1947-51; performed in Woody Herman's Second Herd, 1949-50; rejoined Gillespie, 1951-52; formed the Milt Jackson Quartet; founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, 1952; performed with group until its breakup in 1974; recorded extensively with prominent jazz musicians, early 1950s--.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser, To Be or Not to Bop

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 14 years ago

I always enjoy seeing my work offered to the public, and especially the positive comments about it. As the author of the Milt Jackson article I would greatly appreciate if you could add my name. Thanks, John Cohassey

almost 15 years ago

Thank you for making information about Milt Jackson available. It is further encouragement to enroll in full time music school next fall at the ripe old age of 52, earn a b.s in jazz performance, then on to grad school for a masters in vibes.

almost 16 years ago

As a long time fan of Milt Jackson and a former Detroiter I really enjoyed the biography. I am 76 and continue to add Milt Jackson cds to my jazz collection.

over 16 years ago

Great site! Thanks for making this information available.