"Huff & Puff" was the theme song my dad, Franz Jackson, used to close out his sets at intermissions and the end of the night. "Yeah, we huffed. And, we puffed. We blew the whole night away....," he'd sing in his familiar congenial growl. My dad huffed and puffed right up until the very end of his life and career, passing away five years ago in May, 2008 at the age of 95. But his legacy lives on and this November, Franz's light will shine even brighter on what will be the 100th anniversary of his birth.
My dad's professional life started at the tender age of 16 with the great Albert Ammons, playing on the back of a horse-drawn cart trying to solicit customers for train excursions between Chicago and St. Louis ("ballyhooing" as Dad used to say). He went on to join the bands of Carroll Dickerson, Jimmy Noone, Walter Barnes, Roy Eldridge, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and James P. Johnson, to name a few. He replaced icon Ben Webster in Henderson's and Eldridge's bands and also created big band compositions and arrangements for Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and Jack Teagarden for CBS. My dad's nearly 80-year career included appearances with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. He recorded dozens of albums, was a founding member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, led his own bands The Original Jass All-Stars and The Jazz Entertainers for decades with stints at the old Red Arrow in Stickney, IL, the Old Town Gate and the Jazz Ltd. in Chicago. He toured the world with his band for the USO and as a solo artist at jazz festivals and engagements in the USA and abroad. He was interviewed by Studs Terkel, appeared on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion", was honored as one of the five world's greatest living jazz saxophonists by the American Heritage Jazz Series, received the Jazz Institute's Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award, was a nominee for the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship and was featured at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In May, 2008, nine days after his passing, I accepted the Theodore Thomas Making History Award with Distinction in the Performing Arts from the Chicago History Museum on behalf of my dad and presented by the great Ramsey Lewis.
My dad played his last major concert in November, 2007. We didn't know at the time that it would be his last concert, of course, but that's how it played out. I organized a 95th birthday gala concert for him that reunited him with nearly 2 dozen of his friends and fellow performers whom he hadn't seen or played with for some time. Some of the best performers in Chicago and beyond made their way to Dowagiac, Michigan, where Dad had relocated permanently, to pay tribute to him on his historic birthday. Names familiar to Chicagoans included Art Hoyle, George Bean, Eric Schneider, Bob Cousins, Judi K, Yves Francois, Lisa Roti, and Chris Carani. Other musicians based primarily in the Northern Indiana/ Southwestern Michigan area and considered my dad's "go to" musicians when he played gigs there were also on hand such as Jim Pickley, Darrel Tidaback, Bill "Stix" Nicks and Larry Dwyer. Lots of folks on the roster hadn't performed with Dad in a number of years, and some had only played with him a couple of times like Tad Calcara, principal clarinetist with the Utah Symphony, who flew in especially for the event. Quite a few of them had never even met each other, let alone played together. It was a dream that could easily have turned into a nightmare!
But, it didn't.
With everyone arriving only a few hours before the start of the concert, there was no time for rehearsal, no sound check to speak of, and after everyone greeted Franz and reminisced a bit, it was nearly show time. Guided only by the program's list of tunes performed in various configurations of musicians and navigated flawlessly by jazz critic Neil Tesser who served as emcee, the evening morphed into a rollicking, boisterous night of music, memories and fun for both the performers and the audience! Not to be outdone, at the age of 95, Dad blew virtually every note right alongside all his friends during the nearly 3-hour concert which featured such classics as "St. Louis Blues", "Take The A Train", "Sweet Lorraine" and "Bourbon Street Parade".
This November, my dad would have turned 100. Every year since he passed I've organized an annual concert each November in Dowagiac in his honor. The Franz Jackson Jazz Celebration has featured some great acts - Marcus Belgrave, The Original Salty Dogs, and Judi K. And this year's Celebration promises to be the best one yet! The date and performer lineup are in the process of being finalized, but I hope to have a full day's worth of great music. The most exciting part of this year's event, however, will be the release of "Franz Jackson: Milestone", the 2-disc CD set of the music from Franz's 95th birthday concert in 2007. Five years in the planning, and thanks to the generous support of over 150 people who donated to the online Kickstarter.com fundraising campaign, this CD will be the final piece in my father's tremendous, historic legacy as one of the musicians who was there at the beginning of Chicago jazz and helped mold it into what it is today.
Please check Franz's website: www.franzjackson.com, sign up for the mailing list on the website and/or "Like" his page on Facebook (www.facebook.com/franzjacksonjazz) to stay in the loop on the plans for this historic and exciting November in honor of one of Chicago's greatest jazzmen. I'd love to have you join us for this wonderful celebration!
Here's the cast of characters in the picture, left to right: Larry Dwyer, Darrel Tidaback, Crystal Ristow, Hugh Leal, Lisa Roti, Yves Francois, Ed Bagatini, Judi K, Art Hoyle, Jim Pickley, Chris Carani, Neil Tesser, Hank Tausend, Tad Calcara. Seated front, right to left: Eric Schneider, George Bean and Franz, of course. Missing from the photo is Billy "Stix" Nicks. Photo by John Eby, Dowagiac Daily News.