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Willis Jackson, 59; Saxophonist of Rhythm and Blues and Jazz

November 02, 1987

Willis (Gator) Jackson, a tenor saxophonist who gracefully crossed over between rhythm and blues and jazz and who designed a Gator horn he played primarily on ballads, died Oct. 25 in New York City a week after heart surgery and of the complications of diabetes.

He was 59 and had lived in Manhattan for the last several years.

Jackson studied piano and clarinet before first playing tenor sax professionally when he was 14, performing with local bands in his native Miami.

After studying theory and harmony at Florida A & M, he went to work for Cootie Williams and with that band recorded his own composition, "Gator Tail," earning a nickname that stayed with him the rest of his life.

After Williams, he toured with various groups, including his own, and backed up such vocalists as Dinah Washington, The Ravens and Jackie Wilson. He was married at the time to singer Ruth Brown and appeared often with her.

He also recorded with his own groups, including a series of albums on the Prestige label that featured organist Jack McDuff.

The Gator horn he designed hangs almost to the floor and ranges, in his words, "between soprano and alto and French horn and clarinet."

Most recently he had appeared in various New York clubs.

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