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Jazz Appreciation Month: Texas Tenor Titans

Arnett Cobb at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA 1979
Brian McMillen
Arnett Cobb at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA 1979

During the 1940s Swing Era, certain big bands began to popularize a saxophone style that would become known as the "Texas Tenor" sound. Nick Morrison’s going to take us back to the beginning of that sound and follow its evolution from the big-band era to 1960s soul music.

--Arnette Cobb’s solo saxophone opens--

What a sound, right? It’s that sweet, raunchy, sensual roadhouse tenor saxophone sound known as "Texas Tenor." And the piece we’re hearing now contains everything you need to know about that sound.

The song we’re hearing isn’t really even a "song," I guess. It’s a very standard 12-bar blues — which is one of the warhorses of jamming musicians. This one’s called "Cobb’s Blues," recorded in 1972 by one of the Texas tenor titans — Arnett Cobb from Houston.

After honing his sound in Lionel Hampton’s big band, Cobb began leading his own bands in the late ‘40s, and here he lays out the Texas Tenor blues playbook. After blasting us with those few phrases of intent at the beginning of the piece, he lays way back and plays it pretty for a while. But pretty doesn’t last forever, and by the song’s end, Arnett is wailin’ away again.

The only way to follow that ending is to jump back in time a little to the Texas Tenor player who came before Arnett and set the template — Illinois Jacquet.

This is a 1968 recording of one of Illinois’ little rave-ups called "Bottoms Up." But first things first: You might be wondering why a Texas Tenor player is named Illinois. Well, he quite literally made a name for himself. His given name was Jean Baptiste Jacquet but early on — and for whatever reason — he renamed himself Illinois. But he was raised in Houston — so he’s legit.

He made his name, musically, in 1942 when he blew the Texas Tenor sound into the broader national culture as a teenager in Lionel Hampton’s Big Band. He went on to play with Cab Calloway and Count Basie — became the first ever jazz artist-in-residence at Harvard — lead a number of small group and started his own big band. He did a final gig with that big band at Lincoln Center in July of 2004, and passed away six days later, after spending a lifetime doing what he loved. So, if you’ll accept a springtime baseball analogy — Illinois Jacquet pitched a complete game, throwin’ 100 and chalked up a win.

--King Curtis ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ begins---

Even after hearing just this little bit of Texas Tenor, you can see how perfectly it lends itself to rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll. And there was one guy — a kid from Fort Worth and yet another graduate of Lionel Hampton’s band, named Curtis Ousely, whose Texas sound could be heard on recordings from the mid-1950s through the early '70s — playing with everybody from The Coasters to John Lennon. He was also the leader of Aretha Franklin’s band and a headliner in his own right — now known by the name he earned — King Curtis.

King Curtis, Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet are just three of the titans of the Texas Tenor sound. If you like it, you might also check out Hershell Evans, Buddy Tate, "Fathead" Newman and Jimmy Forrest. And that’s just for openers. Discovery awaits.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.