Reference Entry

Forrest, Jimmy

Barry Kernfeld

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Forrest, Jimmy

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jazz and rhythm and blues tenor saxophonist, was born James Robert Forrest Jr. in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of James Forrest and Eva Dowd, a pianist and church organist. His father's occupation is unknown, but he also played music. Forrest started on alto saxophone and switched to tenor about two years later. His first jobs were local, with his mother's trio and, at age fifteen, with Eddie Johnson and the St. Louis Crackerjacks. While still in high school he played with Fate Marable's band during summer vacations, from 1935 to 1937. He was a member of the Jeter-Pillars big band, which included the bassist Jimmy Blanton.Leaving home, Forrest joined Don Albert's band early in 1938 for jobs in Houston, Fort Worth, and Dallas, Texas, and a long tour of the South and the eastern seaboard. He left Albert by year's end. After a period of work with lesser-known bands, Forrest was working in Dallas in the summer of 1942 when Jay McShann's tenor saxophonist Bob Mabane was drafted. Forrest worked with McShann briefly before replacing Al Sears in Andy Kirk's orchestra, with which he remained until 1948. He replaced Ben Webster in Duke Ellington's band for about nine months in 1949–1950, during which time he performed in the film short Salute to Duke Ellington (1950). He returned home to St. Louis three days before the birth of one of his children. His wife's name and the marriage date are unknown; they had five children.In St. Louis a small group under Forrest's leadership recorded “Night Train” (1951), an expansion of a blues theme from Ellington's “Happy Go Lucky Local.” Now a classic tune, far better known than Ellington's original, “Night Train” became a nationwide rhythm and blues hit and the anthem of striptease dancers. It also flung Forrest out of jazz circles and onto the rhythm and blues touring circuit for about six years. Returning to jazz, he worked in small groups with the trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison from 1958 to 1963, either man serving as leader; Joe Williams often sang with them. Forrest's recordings during this period include Edison's album The Swinger (1958), three tracks as a member of the arranger Andy Gibson's band on the album Mainstream Jazz (1959), Forrest's own All the Gin Is Gone (1959), the trombonist Bennie Green's Hornful of Soul (1960), and the organist Jack McDuff's Tough Duff and The Honeydripper (both 1961).After another stop in St. Louis, Forrest moved to the West Coast in 1966, only to suffer a heart attack that summer. In December he played with the tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. He worked in the house band at Marty's in New York and then rejoined Edison. A second heart attack in 1969 forced him to retire temporarily to California. By 1972 he was keen to go on the road again. He substituted for Davis in Count Basie's big band on 2 June and replaced Davis in October. He left to lead his own band in December 1972 and exactly one year later began a long stay as the star tenor soloist with Basie. He toured internationally with Basie until October 1977, when he formed a quintet with the trombonist Al Grey, but this new affiliation was repeatedly disrupted by Forrest's poor health. The two men performed in England in March 1980. Shortly after a two-week stand in Florida with Grey, Forrest died of a liver ailment in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1978 he had married a second time, to Betty Tardy.Forrest was never entirely comfortable with the hard-hitting simplicity of “Night Train,” although naturally he had no complaints about its financial rewards. Like his fellow players Illinois Jacquet and Eddie Davis, he preferred to balance emotive outbursts with fast and heady improvised jazz melody. In this vein Forrest is heard to advantage on the aforementioned albums and even more so with Basie's band in the film documentary Last of the Blue Devils (in a segment from around 1976), in which he almost steals the movie in his brief appearance.

Reference Entry.  741 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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