The legendary jazz drummer, Jackie Mills (August 17, 1927 – June 24, 2014), was born Johnnie Charles Mills in Dothan, Alabama and played with some of the greatest icons of jazz throughout his decades long career. Jackie displayed talent for drumming at an early age and upon entering the United States Army during World War II to serve in the Special Services Unit, he drummed in the Army band.
After the war, Jackie studied music, first at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Florida and then later at The Julliard School in New York City. To be closer to NYC, he and his childhood sweetheart/wife, Juanita, moved to northern New Jersey, where they later had three daughters (Addie, Jacklyn, and Patricia). Jackie delved into the Harlem jazz scene and played with burgeoning jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. Jackie also studied under the acclaimed jazz drummer, Cozy Cole. Jackie would benefit from Cole’s connections and was able to perform with Louie Armstrong at the famous Apollo Theater and then later accompany Cab Calloway on tour.
Touring for African American musicians was difficult during the 1940s and 1950s, if you were not the featured artist. Jackie told stories of being on the road with Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Charlie “Bird” Parker where the featured artists were allowed to stay in the white hotels. However, Jackie and the other black musicians in the band had to rely on staying in “safe homes” within the African American community in the various locales they would tour.
Friends recall that Jackie enjoyed a particularly deep friendship with Charlie “Bird” Parker. Jackie lived with Bird for two years while touring, which strengthened Jackie’s love of the jazz style Bebop, of which Bird is considered one of the premier innovators. Jackie’s virtuosity in this demanding style and other iterations of jazz and blues, also landed him gigs with Lionel Hamilton, Hazel Scott, Ellis Marsalis, Ray Brown, Marcus Roberts, Nicholas Peyton, Jimmy McGriff, Sarah Vaughn, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
In 1968, Jackie and Juanita moved back to Dothan, AL, where he continued to perform in clubs like the 1048 Jazz & Blues Club in Montgomery, AL. He also became a beloved music educator – teaching privately as well as bringing his extensive jazz knowledge to college students at Wallace Community College, Florida State University, Troy University, Florida A&M University, and the free “jazz in schools” programs (produced by Music South) for thousands of primary school children.
In his later years, Jackie also worked with the Dothan Auxiliary Police Department and at Dothan High School. Yet, his influential work as a music educator has had a lasting impact. Some of Jackie’s students have become heads of college music departments and/or have enjoyed commercial success. Paul Pollan, a former student turned close friend, credits a national tour he landed with Steve Winwood, directly to Jackie’s guidance. Paul also recalls Jackie’s continued outstanding performances in the annual Dothan Jazz Festival in the 1990s, playing with Randy Brecker at the Dothan Opera House, and sitting in with Wynton Marsalis at a memorable concert in Pensacola, Florida.