what’s natural for Bags

it was the summer of 1978, i was 15, and my wonderful piano teacher at the time was Bill Bell, who had worked for some years as Nancy Wilson’s accompanist, which speaks quite well for him we can agree. Mr. Bell would place quarters on the backs of my hands, if they fell off as i played my scales for him, which would indicate improper motion, he’d slap my hands briskly enough to alert me, without actually constituting grounds for a harassment suit by 21st century standards in which it’s just about federally underwritten that kids govern their instructors. great teacher. i was not and am not a whiz with the scales, but thankfully Mr. Bell focussed primarily on the finer points which even back then my concern was directed towards – the Feeling of this Music.

one day Mr. Bell thought to mention to me that he’d be playing the piano with the GREAT Milt Jackson for an upcoming S.F. club engagement. ‘Bags’ – more than the king of the vibraphone, but one of the elite upper echelon of Soul, creativity, devastating groove, innate virtuosic genius spontaneous inventiveness, the consummate embodiment of phrasing, taste, simplicity and hipness of a divine order, and… what did i leave out? did i already say SOUL?

Mr. Bell informed me that he would in fact be a part of a local, san francisco bay area rhythm section which would accompany the Man at a nightclub in S.F., called ‘Christo’s’.

I WANTED TO GO. i HAD to hear Bags! come on, it was BAGS! in town!


Milt Jackson and Ray Brown, New York, between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb)

Milt Jackson and Ray Brown, New York, between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb)

one of of the two records of Milt’s that i’d been listening to at the time was ‘Very Tall’, with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Oscar’s hair was ‘conked’ in the 1961 album photo, it actually looked pretty slick to me and i imagined purple toned stage lights shining off it. the other record was one which my father had bought me, a second-hand copy of one the Modern Jazz Quartet’s greasiest, called ‘Blues At Carnegie Hall’. Milt was the angel masthead at the front of both of those quartet recordings. no one can ‘cut’ Oscar Peterson, yet if you listen not only to ‘Very Tall’, but ‘Reunion Blues’, ‘Two Of The Few’, and ‘Ain’t But A Few Of Us Left’ (one of both Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson’s all-time favorites of their own recordings, which Oscar ALWAYS had playing in his car whenever i was in it), you can see that, basically, Milt didn’t take no ‘stuff’ from Oscar. they were two undefeatable gladiators going at it with joy, class and laughter. Love. that’s what Jazz is. you can practice all day, and yet when all is said and done you play as you are, and how you feel, as Milt characteristically explained in a lot fewer words to me at the end of this story.

my father drove me into S.F. early to see how we could work it, for me to be granted entree to the nightclub as a minor. my dear dad, he flat-out assured me on the way there, that he would get me in to hear Bags, whatever it took. and we did not have a lot of money when i was growing up, so slipping a maitre’d $20 was not a tangible option. but Dad pretty much promised me, that we were going to get in, and that we were going to hear Bags. my dad, he was and is the BEST dad, ever. i come from angels, and just look at who has come into my life along the way…

we entered the street-level doorway. there was a long, straight staircase up to the club and restaurant. the doorman stopped us gently (i suppose a grease pencil mustache wouldn’t have quite gotten me over; i was a little guy). my father calmly and confidently asked the man at the door if the proprietor could please be summoned, to address the issue of me and him attending the show. in no more than a minute, the man who i’m pretty sure was actually ‘Christo’, came to speak with my father. my father explained that i was a student of the pianist who was performing in the club with Milt Jackson for the weekend, and, without even having perused the layout of the venue before, my father fortuitously asked ‘Christo’ if the two of us could lay low in a coat closet (really), and watch through an occasional opening.

kind Mr. Christo was agreeable! he gave us no hassle whatsoever about my dad’s proposed ‘seating arrangement’. even as a kid, i remember that i was totally knocked-out by the humanity. i’m telling you – angels. this guy, this man we’d never met, he must have been a real, genuine Jazz lover, he got the big picture – Milt, my teacher, the Music, me – he was in tune and he knew what was up. i swear, everything is easy with people who understand about Jazz, who really understand what This is.

as i’ve since recounted to Milt’s wife Sandy (S.K.J.) and her daughter Chyrise (Reecie), likely one time too many, my father and i took turns (i’d say 75% of the set he allotted for me), literally bending down and peering through a keyhole in a closet door, with a straight shot view of the very informal stage (area past the bar on the main floor). what struck me immediately about hearing Bags in person, this uniquely warm sound and feeling which like Louis Armstrong, once you’ve heard it, you’ll forever know in a few notes that it’s Bags, was that he swung the whole band and achieved his sound and feeling, which permeated the room, without playing loudly in the least. it seemed to me to be virtually acoustic; unamplified, but resonant like a M.F.! true resonance.

years later, on a cruise ship in 1995, when Milt and Sandy who is one of the most strikingly beautiful women on this planet inside and out (and who also like Milt doesn’t take any ‘stuff’) came to hear my trio and took a seat alongside the piano, Milt clearly found great pleasure (with big, repeated belly laughs which were always a welcome respite from his detroit-street scowl) in taunting me as Oscar Peterson and his angel of a wife and true partner Kelly, entered the room before ‘hit’ time, also to ‘check me out’, in taunted me with, ‘benny, you know that’s OSCAR PETERSON ’bout to listen to you?! hahahaha! that’s OSCAR PETERSON! HAHAHAHAHAHA, benny, OSCAR is gonna listen to YOU play right now, HAHAHA, you ain’t scared, man?! that’s OSCAR out there, man! hahahaha —

thanks, Milt. yeah, the term ‘f***ing with me hard’, would most definitely apply here. but He was one to talk of Oscar; Milt Jackson himself was seated right next to the low end of the piano keyboard. with Milt, Oscar, Ray, Art — people like this, kings like this, it’s all Love in the face of trial by fire.

my first opportunity to play with the great one, Milt Jackson, was at the old Bird Of Paradise club in Ann Arbor, Michigan. we were there with Ray Browns trio, and as Bags was nearby in Detroit, visiting with family in his hometown, someone arranged a funky old rinky-dink set of vibes, practically a xylophone, in hopes that Milt would sit in with us. Ray and Milt were true brothers, from their days together with the incomparable Dizzy Gillespie big band of the 1940’s, and they never looked back. Milt and Ray were, to say the very least, ‘thick as thieves’. Milt sat in with us and man, did it feel GOOD!! oh boy, this is what you live for.

he befriended me, i got to perform with him on numerous occasions, and was blessed and honored not only to be invited to play on his ‘Burnin’ In The Woodhouse’ CD, but that he was amenable to recording a tune i ‘showed’ him that i had heard on a Nat ‘King’ Cole trio recording, called ‘It Only Happens Once’, with an opening cadence akin to ‘I’ll Never Be The Same’.

once, after Milt virtually lit the stage on fire in a guest appearance with Ray’s trio on a concert in Japan, as we walked down a long fluorescently-lit corridor to the dressing room backstage, i was so utterly elated that i said to Milt, somewhat rhetorically, absolutely in awe, ‘Milt, man, i just want to ask you — how does it feel to swing like that?’

Milt turned around, never missing a beat, cool as a cucumber (no, cooler), and replied, ‘Natural’.