The Magnificent Goldberg

Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson described himself as

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Thinking about the Legends of Acid Jazz series made me decide it’s time for a thread on Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson. And I recently read a Von Freeman interview in which he said this:

“Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he'll blow you off that bandstand, because he's got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways.”

(If you want to hear Von grooving with Boogaloo Joe Jones, pick up “Lockin’ horns”!)

Gator Tail was born in Miami. The AMG says this was in 1932; Oldies.com says it was 1928. When I first started listening to him, I’m sure I remember it as being 1930, but I can’t find that reference now. He died in 1987.

Gator was one of the honking tenor sax heroes of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. He studied piano, clarinet and alto sax, but took up the tenor at the age of fifteen, playing in various bands at Booker T Washington High, then in the house band at the Rockland Palace with school friends Cannonball Adderley and Blue Mitchell. He pretty soon began attracting the attention of well known bandleaders; Lionel Hampton wanted to hire him, but Willis’ mother said he was too young to go out on the road. The following year, Cootie Williams made an offer she couldn’t turn down; wherever the band was, Cootie would fly Willis home on the fifteenth of every month.

So, in 1948, Willis joined Cootie’s band. (If he was born in 1932, he’d have been 16, which seems a bit unlikely. If he was born in 1928, he’d have been 19 when his mother turned down Hamp’s offer; also unlikely.) Cootie’s band played everything. It had been a pioneer band during the development of Bebop and it was at the same time the most important R&B band with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson putting the band at the top of the R&B charts. As the forties progressed, the R&B side tended to take precedence, of course.

And it was on the R&B side that Willis made his mark. His first appearance on record came in March 1949 – the title was “Gator Tail”, pts 1 & 2 and it was Willis honking and screaming all the way! Now a double-sided 78 was pretty unusual in those days. But a double-sided 78 to which the leader made hardly any contribution was completely unheard of. The record was a minor juke box hit and gave Willis a nickname that stayed with him for his whole career.

Cootie’s band was hard work. Willis said,

“We’d play a dance one night, then there’d be a 600-mile jump to the next gig the next night. We were sleeping and living in the car. By the time you got to the next gig, it was just in time to get up on the stand. Then there was the problem of touring areas down South where you had to go in the back door to get your food, had to drive all night until you found a ‘colored place’ to sleep. But I was real young, and basically it was like a ball to me.”

Willis left Cootie in 1950 and put his own band together, recording for Apollo. He also began touring with Ruth Brown; they married in 1954 and stayed together for eight years. Through Ruth, who insisted Atlantic let him accompany her, Willis began to record for Atlantic, under his own name and as a sideman, often on Ruth’s records, notably “Mama he treats your daughter mean”.

Through the early fifties, he and Ruth toured. In 1953, he took his band out on a tour of ballrooms with Ruth and Charlie Parker (who was travelling with a string section at the time).

“We had a finale we used to do where he and I played, trading fours. We’d usually do three or four choruses, and I’d just stop and say, ‘Man, go ahead, you got it!’ And he had it! He was a beautiful human being… and the greatest improviser the world has ever known on the saxophone.”

Then, in 1954, Ray Charles changed the world and the honking business became played out. Willis re-evaluated his career.

“It was a thing at the time. Illinois Jacquet was doing it, and Arnett Cobb. People expected to see showmanship playing, the honking type of thing, lying on the floor, walking through the aisles. But you know, you can do that and PLAY too, if you can.”

“Records were getting more important, and people were getting more mature. They wanted something to look at, but they wanted something to listen to, too. And if you buy a record, they don’t know whether you’re walking around or not, they just know what they hear.”

So Willis put a different band together. He began to use organists. Almost all of Willis’ subsequent recordings were made with organists. His first band featured Jack McDuff, with Bill Jennings on guitar. When Jack left to form his own band, Willis made two albums with pianists Richard Wyands and Jimmy Neely, then hired Freddie Roach for a short while before he, too, left to put his own band together. Then in 1963, Carl Wilson, a very under-rated organist joined him, and shortly after, Pat Martino, then aged 16. Carl worked with Willis, with a few periods off, until 1980.

Willis had, for many years, two main gigs: Small’s Paradise in Harlem and Club Harlem in Atlantic City. He had a disciplined band; Pat Martino recalls that they wore uniforms; “silver jackets with oval lapels, black bow ties, and striped tuxedo pants.” It was a band that could do whatever was required. Willis recalled an occasion in Atlantic City,

“I remember one night – I had Jack McDuff with me on organ then – Frank Sinatra came in late one night, from where he was working at the ‘500’ and he sang with us. I was very pleased that he thought we were that good.”

Pat Martino clearly loved his time with Willis.

“He was more interested in people, in social interaction, than the music He was always trying to show the people in the audience that they were in the right place, at the right time, hearing the right band.”

“We had a father-and-son relationship, and yet he always factored my own father’s interests into the way he would treat me. He hollered at me, like a father. If you were late, he told you off. If you didn’t have the chart down, he’d tell you to lay out, or cut off your solo, because the arrangements he’d had done for the band were strict.”

“On the other hand, he constantly made sure I knew how proud he was of me. He’d give me little looks, little smiles… and he set it up so that Wilt Chamberlain, who was one of the owners of Small’s, called me because he wanted to take guitar lessons.”

Though not generally an innovator, Willis was responsible for one innovation. He designed and played the Gator Horn, introducing it in 1967. It’s a strange instrument, with a bell hanging down almost to the floor and makes an other-worldly sound which Willis described as “somewhere between an alto sax, a soprano sax and a French horn”. Reportedly, John Coltrane was getting interested in the instrument, but died before he could take it up. Who knows what might have come of this? As it is, Willis remained the only musician to record with it.

In the early 1970s, work became scarce for Willis. He was recording for the extremely dubious Paul Winley and his records were not publicised well. He was rescued from plans to leave music by Don Schlitten, who recorded him for Muse in 1973 and 1974. Then he made a couple of Disco albums for Atlantic, the first of which was his second hit album. And he was back on the road again, with a succession of recordings for Muse that were as good as anything he’d made. Indeed one, “Bar wars”, is among the greatest classics of Soul Jazz.

Willis made 42 albums between May 1959 and June 1980 (and yes, I HAVE got them all). Most of his Prestige recordings are available on CD; none of his Muse albums are. For the most part, they’re great; not innovative in any way, but packed with personality and swing and funk and blues and remaining true to his origins in honk and Bebop. He has one of the most vocal styles of any tenor saxophonist; he really DOES tell stories on that sax.

MG

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OK and here's a list of Gator Tail's recordings

(Currently available material marked ** current cat no in brackets)

Compilations:

** Chronological Willis Jackson 1950-1954 – Classics R&B 5135

** Later for the Gator – Acrobat 4203

** Call of the gators – Delmark 460

On my own - Whiskey, women and… RBD705

** The remaining Willis Jackson 1951-1958 – Blue Moon MCD6048

** Gentle Gator – Prestige 24158 (material from un-re-issued PR LPs)

** At large – Prestige 24243 (material from un-re-issued PR LPs)

Harlem underground - Winley 127 (tracks from Trip & Big Chance LPs as backing)

Albums

** Please Mr Jackson – Prestige 7162 (OJC321)

** Keep on a-blowin – Prestige 7172 (PR24218)

** Blue gator - Prestige 7183 (PR24198)

** Together again (with Jack McDuff) – Prestige 7364 (PR24284)

** Together again again (with Jack McDuff) – Prestige 7428 (PR24284)

** Cookin sherry - Prestige 7211 (PR24198)

In my solitude – Moodsville 17

Really groovin’ - Prestige 7196

** Thunderbird – Prestige 7232 (PR24218)

** Willis Jackson Cooks with Johnny “Hammond” Smith – Prestige 7239 (PR24282)

Shuckin’ - Prestige 7260

Neapolitan nights – Prestige 7264

** Loose - Prestige 7273 (PR24294)

** Grease ‘n gravy – Prestige 7285 (PR24254)

** The good life - Prestige 7296 (PR24254)

** More gravy – Prestige 7317 (PR24265)

** Boss shoutin’ - Prestige 7329 (PR24265)

Gator tails – Verve 68589

** Jackson’s action – Prestige 7348 (PR24161)

** Live action - Prestige 7380 (PR24161)

** Soul night live – Prestige 7396 (PR24273)

** Tell it - Prestige 7412 (PR24273)

Smokin’ with Willis – Cadet 763

** Soul grabber - Prestige 7551 (PR24294)

Star bag – Prestige 7571

Swivelhips – Prestige 7602

Gators groove – Prestige 7648

Mellow blues – Trip 5007

Funky reggae – Trip 5028

Gatorade – Prestige MPP2516

Willis Jackson plays around with the hits - Big Chance 5003

West Africa – Muse 5036

Headed ‘n gutted – Muse 5048

** The way we were – Atlantic 18145 (Collectables 6823)

** Plays with feeling - Cotillion 9908 (Collectables 6823)

In the alley – Muse 5100

The Gator horn – Muse 5146

Bar wars - Muse 5162

Single action – Muse 5179

Lockin’ horns (with Von Freeman) - Muse 5200

** Live in Chateauneuf du Pape - Black & Blue 33810 (BB957)

Nothin’ butt – Muse 5294

Edited by The Magnificent Goldberg

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Thanks for posting that list MG. I'll have to figure out what I don't have and get after some of those.

I dig Gator. As he said in the article you quote: "....It was a thing at the time. Illinois Jacquet was doing it, and Arnett Cobb. People expected to see showmanship playing, the honking type of thing, lying on the floor, walking through the aisles. But you know, you can do that and PLAY too, if you can.”

And HE played his butt off !

One of the great record buying bargains I ever came across was in the mid or late 60s when the Stern's department store in Paramus NJ ran some kind of record liquidation. I bought at least 15 or 20 Prestige lps all by Gator, Lockjaw, or Shirley Scott for TWENTY-FIVE CENTS each! It was my intro to them. I bought the records 'cause they looked good! And I was not dissapointed. Great score!

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he could play ok, though he was a nasty S.O.B. - I once sat in with Bob Neloms and Percy France at the West End in NYC - and Jackson also sat in - he knew Percy - I played fine, I knew what I was doing, but Jackson was clearly bugged by the white kid on the stand and bothered that he could not have all the solos - also bothered, I think, that the audience, more of a college crowd, was pretty non-responsive to what was at best, at the time, a kind of Hershel-Evans-gets-funky style on his part. Funny thing was, a few years later I met this guy who was a dentist, in a completely different (non-musical) context - he said, "you know, I used to have a patient that was a saxophone player, nastiest guy I ever knew, I wouldn't even treat him after a while. I wonder if you've ever heard of him - Willis Jackson."

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MG, thanks for this lenghty write-up! One question: what do you mean by "material from unissued LPs"? I have recently gotten "At Large" and I thought it's a collection taken from several LPs? Should it read: LPs never reissued on CD in their entirety?

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MG, thanks for this lenghty write-up! One question: what do you mean by "material from unissued LPs"? I have recently gotten "At Large" and I thought it's a collection taken from several LPs? Should it read: LPs never reissued on CD in their entirety?

Er, yes - slip of the keyboard. Thanks Ubu.

MG

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Thanks for clarifying!

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he could play ok, though he was a nasty S.O.B. - I once sat in with Bob Neloms and Percy France at the West End in NYC - and Jackson also sat in - he knew Percy - I played fine, I knew what I was doing, but Jackson was clearly bugged by the white kid on the stand and bothered that he could not have all the solos - also bothered, I think, that the audience, more of a college crowd, was pretty non-responsive to what was at best, at the time, a kind of Hershel-Evans-gets-funky style on his part. Funny thing was, a few years later I met this guy who was a dentist, in a completely different (non-musical) context - he said, "you know, I used to have a patient that was a saxophone player, nastiest guy I ever knew, I wouldn't even treat him after a while. I wonder if you've ever heard of him - Willis Jackson."

Pat Martino has an entirely different view, of course. People affect others differently, don't they?

MG

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very nice write up TMG ... thanks for taking the time. :tup

top of mind as just last weekend I made a sort of chronological mix of Jackson for a party hosted by a neighbor up the road who's nickname is "The Gator". he was nonplussed at best.

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top of mind as just last weekend I made a sort of chronological mix of Jackson for a party hosted by a neighbor up the road who's nickname is "The Gator". he was nonplussed at best.

:)

MG

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Count me in as a Jackson devotee. His early work can be a "tad" overwrought at times, but by the time he settled at Prestige he was right in the proverbial groove.

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Great thread!

The Gator lives!

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Nice to see a thread on Willis Jackson, a personal favorite of mine. I have been able to pick 6-7 originals on Prestige, probably because they are not highly sought after. While I don't have the Delmark I believe it has a lot of duplication with the Whiskey Women and title which I like quite a bit. Of his later stuff I am partial to his Muse date, In The Alley, which I used to see on vinyl regularly for a dollar.

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