A.k.a. Willis "Gator" Jackson or Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson

Born 25 April 1928, Miami, Florida
Died 25 October 1987, New York City, New York Willis Jackson was an exciting tenor saxophonist whose honking and squeals (although influenced by Illinois Jacquet) were quite distinctive. Like Jimmy Forrest and Hank Crawford, he was a link between R&B and jazz. He invented the gator horn, a long saxophone with a ball-shaped bell with small opening, that sounds between alto and soprano. He played locally in Florida early on, until joining Cootie Williams (on and off during 1948-1955). Overlapping this spell with Williams, Jackson led his own band on tours and for recording sessions. Jackson got his nickname from his two-sided honking feature "Gator Tail" with Cootie Williams, which was recorded in 1949. Though it hardly featured any work from the leader, it was credited to Williams, but singles like "Chuck's Chuckles" (Apollo, 1950) and "Gator's Groove" (Atlantic) had Jackson's own name on the label.

Every Jackson biography on the Web or in an encyclopedia says that he was married to Ruth Brown. Though the two lived together from 1950 till 1955, they never officially tied the knot. But only Willis, Ruth and her mother knew this at the time. Ruth brought Jackson to Atlantic, where he plays on many a 50s session, including most of Ruth's own recordings (until 1955). Up to this time, Jackson's playing and composing (he had studied music theory at the University of Miami) had been strongly inclined towards R&B, but most of his post-Atlantic recordings are in the jazz field and fall outside the scope of this list. His extensive series of Prestige recordings (1959-1964) made him a big attraction on the organ circuit. Although generally overlooked by critics, Willis Jackson continued working steadily in the 1970s and '80s.

Recommended listening: Call of the Gators (Delmark DD-460). Apollo recordings 1950-1951, with Bill Doggett, Panama Francis and others. Further reading: Ruth Brown with Andrew Yule, Miss Rhythm : the auto- biography of Ruth Bown, rhythm and blues legend. New York: D.I. Fine, 1996 ; paperback edition New York : Da Capo Press, 1999.

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