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APOLLO 801; MARCH 1950



The second single released by saxophonist Willis Jackson this month as Apollo Records apparently felt that putting out four instrumentals for listeners to choose from somehow wasn’t overkill in a marketplace that basically had no idea who Willis Jackson even was.

Because of this we could choose to focus a good deal of the review that follows on detailing the idiocy of such a short-sighted move on the record label’s part, or we could just assume that by now you already are well aware that record companies were not home to the brightest bulbs in the lamp and instead focus on the contents of this record… one which is in many ways more of a concession to jazz and yet in Jackson’s playing is more of a reaffirmation of all of rock’s decedent excess.


Gator Surfacing
Since we barely mentioned Jackson’s start in music in our first meeting with him earlier this month on Chuck’s Chuckles, let’s at least fill in the blanks here to get a better idea of where he was coming from musically and why this jazz-rock push-pull dynamic would remain an issue with him for quite awhile.

Though he would gain much of his reputation as a rock artist throughout the 1950’s Willis Jackson initially gained notice for his playing in Cootie Williams’ jazz band which he joined as a sixteen year old in 1948.

Charles “Cootie” Williams had been one of the most acclaimed trumpeters in jazz for twenty years at that point, highlighted by his decade long stint with Duke Ellington (1929-1940) and then helping to obliterate the color line when he briefly joined Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1940 before heading off on his own.

But in spite of his impressive résumé Williams, like almost all jazz outfits, was facing an uncertain future as the 1940’s drew to a close for reasons we’ve detailed in great depths the past few years around here… from the changing attitudes of the post-War black community that sought something more musically aggressive to reflect their own cultural outlook to the increasing suburbinazation of America which led to a decrease in club work centered around formerly heavily populated cities and even the rise of television which gave people new reasons to stay home at night rather than hit those remaining clubs for their entertainment.

Then of course there was the rise in rock ‘n’ roll which gave the up and coming black musicians like Willis Jackson a new option for carving out their own reputation if they so chose.

Despite his own impressive jazz credentials Cootie Williams himself actually proved to be open to embracing these changes, and indeed in time he’d keep his career going by playing rock sessions and touring behind rock vocal acts even though both meant his own name recognition for that work would suffer. He eventually returned to Ellington’s band in the early 1960’s as the Duke was one of the jazz bandleaders who remained big business after rock’s ascent.

Anyway, it was with Williams in the late 1940’s that Jackson got his nickname “Gator”, the result of his performance on the 1949 track Gator Tail, a jazz song in spite of Jackson’s presence, with Williams’ spry trumpet out front and Jackson’s jittery sax neatly replicating that sound on his own horn before starting to cut loose halfway through, hinting at rock in its most audacious moments but ultimately sticking to a jazzier mindset.

On the basis of his impressive showing on songs like that Jackson was signed to cut sides as a leader for Apollo and as would be the case for any kid his age there’s a natural inclination to declare he was On My Own and do something to stand apart from whence he came.

Besides it’d be hard for someone not yet twenty years old in 1950 to be completely unaware of just how effectively rock was breathing new life into the tenor saxophone’s commercial appeal and with the record company equally cognizant of the sales charts it was all but inevitable that Willis “Gator” Jackson would wade into the murky depths of rock ‘n’ roll.


As with his debut however here there is no full-on embrace of rock, but rather a merging of the two musical approaches.

You can’t call On My Own a hybrid song though because it handles the opposing aspects by sort of quarantining them each and allowing both to flourish when the spotlight is firmly on them but other than the initial transition when Jackson has to bridge the gap momentarily the two sides for the most part remain separated.

In many ways that’s for the best, as we’ve seen what can happen when the jazz and rock approaches mingle together with both parties trying to forcibly wrest control of a song from the other which usually descends into noisy chaos. But while here they’re keeping a fairly respectful distance from one another that doesn’t mean this winds up being the smoothest of rides into either part of town.

This starts off purely in the jazz neighborhood with Panama Francis riding the cymbals as the full horn section is playing a brassy hyper-kinetic riff, exactly the kind of track that Cootie Williams circa 1945 would be featuring in his sets.

When Jackson comes in just before we hit the one minute mark his sax can’t help but add a different color to the palette that is more in line with what rock is already known for, but that’s as much a reflection on just how dominant the instrument itself was in rock circles at this point as it is what Gator is actually playing which is still far too jazzy in its construct.

He’s tearing off some fast stuttering lines, even tossing in a quote of “Happy Birthday” which momentarily causes you to scratch your head in bewilderment though he manages to make it fit sonically without it being too jarring, but you’re still not convinced he knows where he’s going. Of course we know that Jackson and the band behind him (which includes not just Francis who we’ve met before but also future rock organ star Bill Doggett), are all first rate musicians… it’s just that they’re first rate jazz musicians at this point who have yet to be asked to switch allegiances to something more rough-hewn.

That change in direction though, assuming it’s going to happen at all, can only be left up to the kid leading the band who thankfully decides to stretch his legs and take this across the tracks to where we reside – in rock land.


Owning It
Halfway through the record, even as the band behind him keep adhering to their jazz mindset, Jackson finally starts to shake off these musical shackles and begins romping, stomping, ripping and snorting with increasing fervor.

Francis’s drum work is the one lending the most overt support, adding a clattering back-beat to the pyrotechnics out front, but it’s clearly Jackson who is determined to drag the others along in his wake. He has no qualms about going for broke either, in the process smashing the rules of decorum that most musicians from his field were adamant about respecting. Yet respect is the last word called to mind when you hear his flatulent lows and the squealing retorts showing the range of the instrument and the maniacal passion of the man blowing on it.

His playing here at times reaches some really high levels and gives some indication of what he was capable of if he threw himself into rock wholeheartedly, critics be damned. Yet for all of his ability to whip you into a frenzy there’s still too much of a haphazard feel to On My Own, a sense this is a freestyle performance rather than a carefully worked out message.

On a bandstand this would undoubtedly be a welcome sight, as the energy of the artist feeds the crowd which in turn responds by transferring their energy back to the guy on stage… but on a record… well, that’s when a more calculating effort is needed to make sure everything falls in the right sequence, where the track is designed to build and build and then offer release at the precise moment when things are about to explode.

This doesn’t quite fulfill those needs, the backing band is energetic enough but out of place stylistically, and as such there’s no outlet for introducing another compatible sound to relieve Jackson of the pressure. Wild enough to get noticed for sure, if not quite disciplined enough to fully work.

Biting The Hand That Feeds You
Though it winds up being a better record than it seemed to have any chance of being when it started, it’s still little more than an interesting curio – a song that’s emblematic of music at the crossroads in early 1950, where the jazz community was seeing their power wane and the rock community was aggressively muscling in on its territory.

Which side Willis Jackson chose in the long run is probably the most interesting aspect of On My Own, yet one that – for the time being at least – wasn’t entirely certain.

His own performance here would indicate he was leaning towards rock, but whether that was by his own volition or at the bequest of Apollo Records who saw the dollar signs flashing before their eyes, is yet to be determined.

He’s off to a decent start at least when it comes to convincing us he’s got both the ability and more importantly the right attitude to pull it off, now he just to see enough positive response to these kind of wild efforts to keep riding down this road a little further.

If and when he does though there’ll be no mistaking it. Once he comes to grips with the idea that unlike jazz where peer respect was the most sought after badge of honor, in rock it’s the ability to move the asses on the floor where you’ll make your bones. When that happens there’ll be no turning back.


(Visit the Artist page of Willis Jackson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)