||Mike LeDonne - Bags Groove
DTRCD - 182
Jim Snidero - Flute/Alto Sax, Steve Wilson - Alto Sax, Jim Rotondi - Trumpet, Steve Davis - Trombone, Steve Nelson - Vibes, Mike LeDonne - Piano, Bob Cranshaw - Bass, Mickey Roker - Drums
1. The Prophet
5. The Harem
6. Little Girl Blue
7. Sava Bella
8. Bags Groove
Total Time 53:17
This recording “Bags Groove” is my personal tribute to the great Milt Jackson. I wanted to express through words, through music, and through the words of his friends & musical associates what a great man he was.
The dictionary definition of a genius is a person of the highest mental ability or the greatest creative power. A strong natural talent. Each of these definitions describe Milt Jackson perfectly. The thing about genius is that it may lie somewhere deep inside the mind that gets tapped into only when doing the one special thing you were put on this earth to do. The first thing to figure out is what that thing is. Milt was born with the gift of perfect pitch. A sure sign of a natural born musician. He had a photographic memory. If he heard something once, he knew it - certainly a sign of “high mental ability”. There were times when after a particularly grueling day I would see him nodding off from fatigue right before we were to go up and play, and I would think how in the world is he going to play tonight. But the minute he picked up those mallets and played his vibes he could do no wrong. His talent was something so deep and so natural genius is the only way to describe it.
Another thing they say is that genius breeds genius. Milt was around at a time when the “giants” walked the earth. Being around people like Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell didn’t hurt. Whatever the circumstances were, Milt’s talent reached the highest level. The level where the feeling that comes out is so intense that the ideas are just the icing on the cake.
Milt started out playing the guitar when he was around 7 years old. He used to love to sing and accompany himself on the guitar. He also sang in the gospel choir at his church. He tried playing the piano but he found that he couldn’t get his 4th and 5th fingers to work well. He first played the vibraphone in his school music program. The other instruments had all been taken so his band director encouraged him to give the bells a try. He told me that he fell in love with the instrument when he found out that it had an electronic device under the bells that rotated and gave the instrument a vibrato. Here was his opportunity to utilize his knowledge of the keyboard and have the vibrato of a singer. Milt always set the vibrato very slow and called it his “soul”. The rest is history.
When I first met Milt Jackson he seemed kind of aloof. Of course I was so in awe of him it was hard for me to relax around him. He had always been my favorite living musician and his band with Cedar Walton (piano), Ray Brown or Bob Cranshaw (bass), and Billy Higgins or Mickey Roker (drums), was my favorite band. I saw them almost every time they played in New York. After I got to know him I found he was a completely down to earth, warm person, who loved to play cards, play pool, and most of all, play music.
God Bless my fellow pianist James Williams for calling me to sub for him with Milt in 1988 in a little club in Philadelphia named Jewels. Luckily I knew most of the arrangements from having seen them perform so many times. I didn’t feel like I played well at all. After the gig I went up to Milt to apologize for my performance but before I got to say I’m sorry Bags grabbed me and gave me a big hug. This night is still one of the high points in my life.
The next day we had a huge feast over at Mickey’s house. It was my first real exposure to Milt the regular human being. I witnessed my first of hundreds of card games between Mickey and Milt. I wish I had recorded the banter at those games. Bob and I used to go and just sit there and listen to them and laugh.
Then I found out what a good cook Milt was. He would often find someone’s house to cook at when we were out on the road. He’d get up, go shopping and cook up a storm. His specialty was desert. He made incredible pies and cobbler. He’d always show up for a flight to Japan with a couple of pies. This was a revelation to me. I didn’t know you could be around such great musicians and have so much fun. It’s also when I realized that real heavy musicians don’t go around acting heavy.
In fact, Milt had an almost childlike exuberance for music. We were in Pittsburgh one time which is the home of one of Milt’s best friends, the great drummer “BeBop” Joe Harris. Joe is well studied in all percussion and has all kinds of percussion instruments in his home including vibes and marimbas. Milt was doing his thing, cooking a meal for us in Joe’s kitchen, when on the radio comes a National Public Radio broadcast of the great pianist Ray Bryant, and his trio. I’m listening to the music, and they hit some kind of groove, and the next thing I know Milt’s in the living room jamming with the radio. Here’s one of the great innovators of all time, who still loves playing so much he can’t resist a good groove, even if it’s just coming from the radio!
I remember nights just hanging out with Milt listening to music. He would tell me stories about when he went to the west coast in a band that included himself on vibes, Bud Powell on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, Kenny Clark on drums, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Charlie Parker on alto sax. When Parker couldn’t make it the great tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson would take his place. I would sit listening to these stories and then it would hit me, this was Milt Jackson I was hanging out with. He was one of them. I’d have to pinch myself and wonder how did I get here.
Thanks to James’s busy schedule I eventually wound up on the gig permanently. Imagine going to work every night and getting to play with Bob Cranshaw and Mickey Roker which is one of the swingingest rhythm sections of all time, and getting to hear Milt Jackson on top of that! This was heaven on earth.
On this CD I tried to capture the spirit of what Milt Jackson was all about. I wanted it to make use of the lessons I learned from the many musical sermons I received from the “Reverend” (Milt’s other nickname). I also wanted to make my own personal statement through his music. I picked the instrumentation according to the kind of texture that I knew he liked with the vibes. Each song is short and to the point. One thing Bags hated was long winded solos. He got his philosophy from the great Charlie Parker. Bird used to say that if you play more than 4 choruses in your solo you’re practicing and, Practice at home!
Milt is known for writing a lot of blues’ but I don’t think many people realize how many great songs he wrote. I find his compositions to be like his playing. Simple yet deep, beautiful and of course soulful. Little Girl Blue is the only standard and was one of Milt’s favorite ballads. I would like to point out one chorus in Bags Groove directly following the piano solo. This line is from a big band arrangement by the great bassist John Clayton which was recorded on a co-led date by he and Bags on Quest records called “Explosive.” Milt loved this chorus and immediately added it to the quartets version which we played every night. To me it just became part of the tune so I had to include it here. You’ll notice I broke out the Hammond organ on Namesake. I love the sound of this instrument and just thought it would be fun to play on this tune (and it was).
The musicians are some of my favorites on their respective instruments and people who I thought could do justice to this music. Mickey and Bob go back over 30 years with Milt. I think they sound as good as they ever have delivering the kind of swing that’s becoming a lost art today. On top of that you’ve got these great players! Jim Snidero, who’s a fantastic alto sax player, features his beautiful sound on flute. Jim Rotondi, who’s a killer on tpt. and flugelhorn, Steve Davis’ warm sound and swing on trombone, Steve Wilson, heard in the section on alto flute, has to be one of the premiere soprano sax players around today. And the man in the hot seat, Steve Nelson. I love the sound he gets out of the bells. It’s a big warm sound like Bags’ was yet distinctively his own. He’s a musician who’s musical personality is a direct outgrowth of his own personality. That is to say his style is totally without pretense, again a way he reminds me of Bags. I think Steve also proves that you don’t have to sacrifice being soulful to be at jazz’s cutting edge.
But enough from me for now. I thought it would be fitting to hear from some of Bags closest friends and fellow musicians. Here’s what they had to say:
“Through the recent years of modern jazz, I have from time to time had the opportunity of touching musical bases with Milt Jackson. Ever since I first heard him back in the days with his affiliation with Dizzy(Gillespie), Ray(Brown), and others of the bop era, I came to realize that his voice had become one of the most important musical entities in the world of jazz. He has always been the consummate vibes player, in my estimation. The most vivid memories I have of him date back to a duo performance at Carnegie Hall some years ago with just piano and vibes; the album titled “Ain’t But A Few Of Us Left”, and lastly, on the Majesty of the Seas cruise when I had the opportunity to listen uninterruptedly to his wonderful quartet featuring one of the most promising and talented pianists of this particular era, Mike LeDonne.” - Oscar Peterson
“I met Milt Jackson in 1945 when he joined Dizzy’s small band with Bird, Max, Bud & I. We became roommates and friends. Jackson had a way of playing the vibes that I’ve never heard before or since. His ballad interpretations should be studied by any and all jazz music students. All in all he was a beautiful man and a super musician. I really miss him.” - Ray Brown
“I was completely influenced by Milt. I first met Milt when Billy Mitchell took me over his house in Long Island. He was hard to approach because of his stature musically and personally. His music was completely the opposite. This was the Yin and the Yang of Milt Jackson. Of course I later found out that he was only hard to approach until you got to know him. I used to love when he’d come up to me and say “Hey Bobby come on up to my room you jive sucker.” That’s when you knew he liked you.
Playing the instrument : He knew how to make it not a novelty. He made it proud to be associated with any kind of music. When you listened to him play you felt like you had money in your pocket. Like you were rich. It gave you the energy and love to go on in life and go after the things you were thinking about. His music made you want to go after your dreams.” B. Hutcherson
- Ron Carter
“The Reverend, as we called him, was incomparable. After 52 years of performing and recording with Bags, he still amazes me.” - Jimmy Heath
“Milt Jackson! This is a name that conjures up all sorts of wonderful things in my memory of him. His approach to his instrument, the vibraphone, was uniquely unlike anyone I’ve heard. The sound of his vibes became his unmistakable voice, a voice that went past the ears and reached deep down into the deepest recess of the heart, mercifully satisfying the desires of the ear and the heart.
Anything he ever played on always added another beautiful, expressive dimension to the music. Over the years of knowing him, playing with him, and recording with him, he never had a bad night; only nights finding him here or there in superlative performance. He was a treasure, and he leaves that treasure in the legacy of his music. Milt Jackson, we who loved you and your inspiring music will not soon forget you.” - Benny Golson
“His close friends and musical associates called him ‘The Rev’ because when he played he delivered the most soulful sermons. The quiet man played his quiet gentle vibraphone with grace and elegance yet he would make us scream and holler with great joy.
Bags was the most natural and gifted musician I ever knew. I was privileged to have been invited by him to be his accompanist and it was a great and wonderful blessing to have known him as a friend.” - Monty Alexander
“Milt Jackson , to me , was one of the great soloists of any time. He was also one of my best friends. We did lots of things together, we played cards, pool, music, and we listened to many musicians play. I miss that cat, he was so simple and plain. His music will live a long time.” - Mickey Roker
“The thing about Milt Jackson: One of the more endearing qualities about the ‘Rev’ is that he was real and always about the Truth! From the time of my first encounter with him as an inexperienced 25 year old in 1977 up to my last performance with him in late 1999, the longest musical association I’ve had with any artist. Of course Milt is not just any artist; he is an innovator, our guiding light who helped design and expand my musical scope, vision, speaking the truth, pure and simple! No honor was higher than the Rev inviting me to be a part of his ‘inner circle’ as his personal accompanist. Thanks Rev for every soulful note.”
M- Musically Expressive Of The Highest Order
I- Imaginative, Intellect, Intuitive
L- Love Of Family, Music And Life!
T- Truth Is Always Spoken With Jackson; Like It Or Not
J- Jazz In It’s Most Natural, Pure, Jovial Form By A Master
A- Authority; Artist Of The Highest Order
C- Cool, Calm (sometimes) And Collected
K- Knowledge Practically Unsurpassed!
S- Soulful, Swinging, And A Singer Too
O- Outreach’ Always Giving And Extending For The Sake Of Jazz
N- Nothing Else Can Follow Milt Jackson
- James Williams
Kenny Washington was playing with Cedar Walton at the same time as he was helping me mix this music. After hearing good reports from Wash, Cedar asked me if he could make his comments about the music as well as Milt. I immediately sent him a copy of the date and this is what he had to say;
“Mike LeDonne”s talent comes two fold on this excellent tribute to the unparalleled 20th century master of the vibraphone. Ballads and Blues, Milt Jackson’s unchallenged forte, was shared with this youthful pianist from the most insightful perspective: the bandstand. I can personally vouch for this as Mike’s predecessor in this special capacity as a former member of many of the groups Milt lead over the years, excluding his charter membership in MJQ, jazz’s premier leaderless configuration.
Mike exudes allegiance to the great master, providing special treatments of many of Milt’s best known works while effortlessly exhibiting his own definitive style in the process. As a musician who shared many great musical moments with the master I’m actually blushing with pride and admiration.”
- Cedar Walton
WOW! As you can see another blessing I received through my association with the “Rev” was getting to know many of my childhood heroes. So thanks Milt Jackson, I was extremely fortunate to get to play with you and I’m proud beyond words to have been your friend.
- Mike LeDonne
Special thanks to Sandy and Chyrise Jackson, the two very special and strong women who made Milt’s life a great one. To all these great musicians for taking the time to contribute their thoughts about Bags to these liner notes. To Kenny Washington for his impeccable musical taste and insight. And to my wife Margaret for the strength she gives through her love and support.