Many jazz fans are unfamiliar with Calvin Jackson, a Philadelphia-born pianist who has been largely forgotten today despite an exceptional career. After studying at Juilliard in the late 1930s, Jackson played piano in New York and led a band. According to Danish jazz enthusiast Timme Rosenkrantz in Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron's Memoir, 1934-1969, "Calvin was crazy about the voicings of Jimmie Lunceford's arrangements. He played them on the piano and made it seem like the whole Lunceford band."
Jackson was big enough in the early 1940s that Dizzy Gillespie worked for him after leaving Lucky Millinder's band, according to Ira Gitler in Jazz Masters of the Forties. Jackson soon moved to Hollywood and worked as an assistant musical director at MGM Studios from 1943 to 1947. In '47 he recorded for Discovery with the Phil Moore Orchestra and as a solo pianist. He also recorded V-Discs in 1948 for the American Armed Forces. In 1950 Jackson moved to Toronto and worked on Canadian TV. His appearances included CBC-TV's Jazz With Jackson, hosted by disc jockey Dick McDougall every Saturday night at 7:30. One week Jackson would play with his big band and the next week his quartet. When he wasn't on TV, he was often found at the Paddock Tavern, a basement club frequented by pianist Oscar Peterson.
In 1955, Jackson made an album for Columbia with Peter Appleyard (vib), Johnny Stapleton (b) and Howie Reay (d). He then spent years in Los Angeles recording with Buddy Collette, Fred Katz, John Pisano, Paul Horn and Carmen McRae among others. In 1961, Jackson recorded as a leader for Reprise, and arranged and conducted Ray Charles' Sweet and Sour Tears in 1964 for ABC Paramount, which would be his last known jazz recording.
Jackson didn't fall off the scene. From the late '50s on he arranged film scores as a ghostwriter and played piano in movie orchestras. His opportunity in film had come as a result of MGM's George Stoll, who did the studio's hiring, said Lee Young—Lester Young's brother and a studio drummer—in Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles,. Jackson orchestrated films such as Bathing Beauty, Music for Millionaires and Her Highness and the Bellboy. Jackson's piano work for MGM included Viva Las Vegas (1964) with Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret. [Pictured from left: Director George Sidney, Elvis, Ann-Margret, Calvin Jackson MGM assistant musical director, and George Stoll MGM Musical director, arranger and musical score conductor]
According to Wikipedia, "by the early 1980s, he had moved to San Diego County, where he lived in semi-retirement in the Point Loma neighborhood, giving music lessons on a piano in his apartment. In the years before his death, he frequently sat in as a guest at the Sunday night jam sessions Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham hosted at the Bahia resort on Mission Bay, playing piano and harmonica between sets and occasionally with the band."
Calvin Jackson died in December 1985. He was 66.
JazzWax tracks: Since you're on the edge of your seat at this point, I dug around Amazon for a while and found a selection of Jackson's work, depending on how much you want to spend.
- Calvin Jackson at the Plaza—recorded at Toronto's Park Plaza Hotel in 1954 ($8.99)
- Calvin Jackson at the Plaza—all of the songs above divided between two tracks ($1.78)
- The Calvin Jackson Quartet—features a selection of Jackson's Columbia work in 1955 ($5.34)
- The Calvin Jackson Quartet—another selection from the same 1955 Columbia dates.
- John Pisano & Billy Bean—four tracks feature Jackson: Pottsville USA, Dingle Bird, Half Breed and Pastorale.
Here's Stompin' at the Savoy from 1955...
Here's Linger Awhile, also from 1955...
JazzWax clips: Here's Calvin Jackson on V-Disc in 1948...
Here's Jackson with Buddy Collette in 1957...
A special JazzWax thanks to Jon Jackson and Fred Augerman.