Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 56 - Bull Moose Jackson
Story filed September 1, 2000

Bull Moose Jackson started out as a big band swing saxophonist and became almost a legend of early honking and risqué-lyrics rhythm and blues.

He was born in Cleveland in 1919 as Benjamin Clarence Jackson. When he was only three, he was singing in the choir at Cleveland's Avery AME Church. His parents soon sent their musical son off to take violin lessons. But, by the time he got to Central High School, and over the objections of his parents, young Benjamin Jackson began playing the saxophone. With another Central High School student, trumpeter Freddie Webster, Jackson formed his first band, called The Harlem Hotshots. Before long, they were playing at Cedar Gardens, the popular nightclub at the time at East 97th and Cedar.

Jackson moved to Buffalo for a while, but returned to Cleveland in 1943. He was playing saxophone with various groups here when he caught the eye and ear of bandleader Lucky Millinder who had one of the most rompin' stompin' big bands of the early 1940s.

Millinder had been the leader of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, one of the early black swing bands, until 1938. For a while, Millinder worked with the band of Bill Doggett, who later spent years playing in Cleveland, particularly at the Theatrical Grill on Short Vincent. In 1940, Millinder formed his own orchestra, a band that became one of the most rhythmically exciting bands of the period. Among the musicians in his band were Dizzy Gillespie who played trumpet on the Millinder band's hit recording of "When the Lights Go On All Over the World," Sam "The Man" Taylor, who later honked his way to fame on the rhythm and blues circuit, and Jackson's old boyhood friend from Central High School, Freddie Webster. When Jackson joined the sax section of the Millinder band, some of the other musicians decided "Ben Jackson" wasn't a very colorful name. They began calling him "Bull Moose" Jackson, and the name stuck.

One of the Millinder band's popular songs was "Hurry, Hurry!" The song was usually performed and recorded by a singer named Wynonie "Mr. Blues" Harris. But, one night in Texas, Harris failed to show up for the gig and Millinder pulled "Bull Moose" out of the sax section to sing the song. That spur-of-the moment decision by Millinder launched a whole new career for the saxophonist from Cleveland. He began singing more and more with the band, including a song called "Who Threw the Whiskey In The Well?"

Jackson continued to tour, play sax and sing with the Millinder Orchestra for two years, until 1945. That's when a man named Syd Nathan, who had an interest in the Millinder Orchestra and also ran a small country and western record company became intrigued with a new form of music called rhythm and blues. It was Millinder who urged Jackson to begin recording for Nathan. Bull Moose's first record, ironically, was a tongue-in-cheek response to a Millinder song. Jackson called it "I Know Who Threw the Whiskey In The Well."

Over the next five years, Jackson made a number of records including, in 1947, a song called "I Love You, Yes I Do." It became the first rhythm and blues record to sell more than a million copies. After crooning sentimental songs like "I Love You, Yes I Do," the unpredictable Jackson would turn around and, in almost the next recorded breath, belt out double-entendré risqué songs like "I Want a Bowlegged Woman." He followed his hits with a continuous string of popular records including "Nosey Joe," and "Big Ten Inch Record." Some were simply too risqué to play on the radio.

While recording, Jackson toured throughout the late 1940s and early '50s with his own band, which he called The Buffalo Bearcats.

Many people have forgotten that in 1951, Cleveland jazz composer and arranger Tadd Dameron was playing piano with Jackson's band. Dameron, who had known Jackson at Central High School, was at the time trying to decide what to do with his own jazz group. Another member of Jackson's touring rhythm and blues group was a young saxophonist who had dropped out of Howard University in Washington, Benny Golson. In fact, that is how Golson first met Dameron who later became Golson's tutor and mentor in composing and arranging. After touring with Bull Moose, Golson joined Dameron's group and in 1956 joined Dizzy Gillespie. Pianist Randy Weston also toured with Bull Moose's band before launching his jazz career.

But, despite some top-flight jazz musicians in his band and a string of hit recordings, Jackson seemed to run out of gas by the late 1950s. In 1958, at the age of 39, Jackson was semi-retired and running a bar in Philadelphia. By the early 1960s, he took a job with a catering company at Howard University in Washington.

But years later, in 1983, a man named Carl Grefenstette who was leading a rhythm and blues band called The Flashcats in Pittsburgh, sought out the all-but-forgotten rhythm and blues singer and coaxed him into appearing with the Pittsburgh band. The bandleader said, "We thought it would be the thrill of a lifetime to play with him."

They played a series of sold-out concerts and Bull Moose, the hero of rhythm and blues 40 years earlier, suddenly became almost a cult hero in Pittsburgh. He made his first recording in more than 30 years and said, "I'm elated that I can still perform and I'm very proud that people still remember." He said, "They've resurrected an old man. I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. They dug me out and here I am."

Jackson began recording again and made appearances in New York and Hollywood. In 1985, the 66 year old Jackson performed at Carnegie Hall and toured Europe with Johnny Otis.

The Cleveland native continued to perform regularly until 1987 when his health began to fail. His last performance was on April 23rd of 1988. He played a birthday concert with the Flashcats in Pittsburgh.

After that concert, Bull Moose came home to Cleveland and moved in with an old girlfriend who had read about his newfound success. Benjamin Clarence "Bull Moose" Jackson died of cancer at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland July 31st, 1988.

Copyright 2000 Joe Mosbrook

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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).