The ecstatic overstatement of Jacquet's 1942 solo as a member of the Lionel Hampton band both changed the popular trajectory of jazz and prefigured the R&B and rock 'n' roll eras. It joined such watershed moments as Louis Armstrong's trumpet solo on "West End Blues," Coleman Hawkins' tenor saxophone performance on "Body and Soul," and Gene Krupa's galvanic drum solo on "Sing Sing Sing" from the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert.
Although Jacquet went on to become an accomplished player with a distinguished career, the "Flying Home" solo overshadowed the rest of his output. His genius as a performer was that he cultivated that notoriety rather than let it stifle him.
Jacquet, born in Broussard and raised in Houston, Texas, grew up playing soprano and alto saxophone in blues-heavy territory bands. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Count Basie's group, originally out of Kansas City, Mo., was the apotheosis of this jump blues style, with tenor saxophonist Lester Young playing with a driving swing that augured a whole new direction for jazz.
Jacquet was a Young disciple with a lot of enthusiasm when he was hired as a 19-year-old tenor saxophone section player in Hampton's band. Hampton, a consummate showman and a shrewd judge of talent, put Jacquet in the spotlight. Jacquet asked for advice and was told to just let it rip. Hampton wanted to tap the youngster's brash energy to push the dancers to a peak of jitterbugging ecstasy, and he got more than he bargained for when Jacquet's astonishingly emotional, honking and squealing solo drove the crowd into a frenzy. The solo became a magic talisman, an incantation, and a fixture in Hampton's show.
Jacquet's solo was a moment of spontaneity that emerged from the blues foundations of jazz and anticipated the unbridled emotions that would be unleashed in the latter half of the 20th century. Its immediate popularity cauterized it into an institution.
Jacquet repeated the solo verbatim nightly and Hampton required subsequent tenor players in his band to play it note for note. Though the public loved it, some of the musicians took a less sanguine view. By the end of the 1940s, Hampton's band was a conduit for the newest development in jazz, bebop, a revolution whose practitioners prided themselves in never playing a piece the same way twice. Playing a rote solo, perhaps especially one with rehearsed histrionics, was akin to the swing band practice of playing "sweet" stock arrangements of popular tunes instead of swinging them.
Poet Jayne Cortez wrote "About Flyin' Home," musing on the fate of a jazz musician being defined for life at such an early age: "What would you say to yourself / if you had to lay on your back / hold up the horn / & play 99 courses of / a tune called Flyin' Home / exactly as you recorded it / 55 years ago."
But Illinois Jacquet didn't mind duplicating his signature turn at will, especially since it was his ticket to being able to play anything else he wanted with anyone he wanted to. Stints in the Basie band, with Cab Calloway and as a featured performer in Norman Grantz's immensely popular Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) jam session concerts made Jacquet one of the most popular performers of his era. His saxophone battles with Flip Phillips made JATP an international sensation.
No less an avant-garde figure than Cecil Taylor recalls hearing Jacquet play with Basie on the radio. "Basie's band had Illinois Jacquet in it," he says. "Now that was a swinging band."
Jacquet also led his own bands, combining Basie-ites and beboppers in a hot dance mix, and continued to tour leading jump blues combos after the demise of the swing era. And of course, there was always old faithful. His reunion with Hampton at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival, documented on the RCA Bluebird reissue Flying Home, was described in patriotic terms by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett: "The alumni spent most of the dozen numbers sitting on their instruments while Hampton labored at the vibraphone, the drums and the piano. In Flying Home,' though, Illinois Jacquet, who had played well earlier in the evening, went through his celebrated calisthenics, and it was like hearing Francis Scott Key sing The Star-Spangled Banner.'"
Jacquet enjoyed a revival in his 60s after Harvard University installed him as artist-in-residence, the first jazz musician to receive such an honor. He organized his students into a big band and kept active through the rest of his life, touring extensively in Europe and the United States. His album Jacquet's Got It documents this stage of his career, and its centerpiece, of course, is a spirited version of "Flying Home."