Name: Brian Jackson
Occupation: Composer, pianist, flautist
Current release: Brian Jackson joins Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge on the latest instalment of the Jazz is Dead series. Simply entitled Jazz is Dead 8, the album moves with warm elegance and galactic grace, with Jackson's dreamy flute licks hovering on top of rich bass resonances and laid-back drum grooves. Some may see parallels with Jackson's 70s work with Gil Scott-Heron: The sound, the attitude, the flow (besides the interesting trivia that Ali Shaheed Muhammad produced some of Scott-Heron's later work). And yet, it feels compellingly current, urgent even. This need not be a contradiction. As Brian Jackson puts it: “From the first minute, we could feel that our musical roots made us all a part of the same tree. This album is the offshoot of that notion. It is my hope these sounds also nourish the roots of your spirit.”
[For an interview with another Jazz is Dead collaborator, read our João Donato interview]
Recommendations: I honestly don’t know how to define art and consequently how to categorize the works of writers like Howard Zinn. His book, A People’s History of the United States, like the best art, helped me to see the world in a different way. And, in spite of its title, has the ability to change the way anyone, regardless of their nationality, to see the world differently as well. My wife, for example, is not from this country and has in fact only been living here for the past six or seven years, yet it impacted her worldview. In the end, Howard Zinn’s book is something that I feel your readers should know about, regardless of its artistic status.
Then there is the work of Jean Toomer. I discovered his book, Cane, in the early seventies. It was powerful in its imagery and its stark, modernist prose. I was moved by this work and told Gil [Scott-Heron], “You must read this.” Because I rarely made pronouncements like that, Gil picked the book up. A few days later, he was at the piano writing a song based on one of the characters of the book, Becky, a white woman living on the wrong side of the tracks raising two interracial boys, shunned by everyone on both sides of the tracks. That song appeared on the album, Secrets. It’s a book you will never forget.
If you enjoyed reading this Brian Jackson interview, visit his excellent website for everything you ever wanted to know about him. He also has a Facebook page for recent updates and further information.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was about 14; I had been studying classical European music for about seven years because I was told that it was wise to do that if I wanted to play jazz, which I did. I grew up in a household where music was being played continually and it connected my family because it was something we could all feel. I guess that’s what it represented to me – love and security and belonging. I developed such a passion for it that I wanted to find out how it was done. I was that kid who took apart all of his favorite toys to see how they worked. I ended up trying to do the same with music.
For me, the crashing of Max Roach’s cymbals, the boom of the bass drum, the rat-a-tat of the snare was equivalent to a video game to me. It was exciting! The galvanizing call of Clifford Brown’s trumpet. I saw flashes of light; I sensed different colors and movement. I really wanted to play that game!
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Of course, I attempted to imitate my favorite musicians, but I was resistant to copying them. I never took the time to learn the great licks everyone was supposed to know and practice them over and over, in different keys and all.
Mind you, I practiced all the time – scales and chords. But for whatever reason, I only copied certain phrases or licks that especially caught my fancy. Once I figured out how they were done, it was enough for me. I just “internalized” them, the shape of them. Those shapes helped me to feel the licks without actually playing them verbatim. My best quality as a player is my feel. That is what I copied from the greats. So, I actually don’t think I ever had the problem of directly emulating anyone.
I really don’t recommend anyone study like that. Because I didn’t follow the time-tested path to become a jazz player, I was insecure about my playing for a long time. I spent years shying away from the title, “jazz musician,” when attached to my name. How I have learned to play was way harder and took me much longer and was far more painful than it needed to be. I don’t know why I did it like that, but in the end, it made me who I am.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I am a Black man living in America. That reality never escapes me. I can’t live my daily life outside of that context, but I have learned not to allow others to define that context for me. My music is a product of the conflict between what I am expected to be by my own people, the rest of the world and how I see myself that so many African Americans experience.
I guess you could say that my creativity is born out of a traumatic cognitive dissonance that I am constantly trying to bring into harmony.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I was insecure about my abilities. I would judge myself alongside the giants I admired and quite naturally I always came up short. Once, during a series of concerts where Gil and I were opening for Herbie Hancock, Gil found me in the dressing room, looking forlorn.
“What’s the matter, Stick?” he asked.
“Man, if I had 100 years, I’m never going to be half the pianist Herbie is. I’ll never play like him.”
Gil thought about this for a second and said:
“…but people are coming not just to hear him, many of them have come to hear you, too!
“So even though you for sure will never play like Herbie Hancock, have you ever thought of this?
“Herbie Hancock will never play like you.”
That was the moment I began to accept who I am and put into perspective the value of what I do. I was able not only to hear the elements of perfection in the artists I loved, but I began to hear their slight “imperfections” as well and began to realize that it was those imperfections that revealed them as vulnerable and therefore more easily accessible.
Understanding that - it took me a while, but I’m far more comfortable with my imperfections now.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
There are so many kinds of time in music. There’s the rhythmic time. There’s meter. There’s tempo. There’s space; in other words, how much time will you allow within a composition or a solo for silence? To let the piece … breathe?
There’s also the period of time within which you write the composition. Is it the 70s? Is it 2021? Are you trying to speak to something happening now or of something that happened long ago? Are you building on the past, or attempting to move completely away from it? I don’t think it’s completely possible to do the latter, but one could make the effort a feature of the composition …
We take all of those elements into consideration, whether consciously or not. Our perspectives – and our lives – are constantly informed by an awareness of all of these elements.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Sound and composition are one. They are just different manifestations of the same energy. You might have an idea for a sound that inspires or directs a composition. You might have a broad idea for a composition and then have to figure out the sounds you want to use in it.
And yes, in the age of synthesizers, which are capable of producing so many sounds, a totally acceptable way to work for me is to allow the sound to spark some type of musical motif.
That said, I usually let the composition guide me to the sounds (I still like composing on piano) but the sounds and timbres often change as the composition evolves. I’m not rigid about how I start out with a composition. Any one, or a combination of approaches works for me. The important thing to me is to be open to however the song itself wants to come together.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I am a collaborator by nature. In music and in life. As many ideas as I have, there are always other ways to see. I am never so confident to believe that my best possible work is always possible done by me only. I love what other spirits bring. I love beauty; if more beauty is available and it comes as an offering from someone who is interested in building on something beautiful that is coming to me, I’m going to reach out for it every time!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Since I retired in 2018 from my job working for 35 years as a programmer for the City of NY, I wanted to experience a little freedom from routine. But I do have 4-year-old twins, so I didn’t actually achieve that experience.
So yes, I have a fixed schedule; I make them breakfast most mornings and find it hard to isolate myself in a bubble and not respond to what goes on in the house – even though my wife is so understanding about my need to finish projects. I’d say my schedule has a lot to do with what my family needs or is doing.
When I was young, I used to spend all of my days and nights writing and practicing – but I was also very lonely. I think I’ve found a balance. I’ve been working towards a more defined schedule to work, but there’s really no way for me to separate my life from my work – I mean, that separation has never existed for me anyway; my work is somehow about my life and a huge part of my life is making music. I’m not sure how seamless it is, though. Life can be messy and not particularly geared towards allowing one the convenience of putting all of one’s pieces into neat boxes.
I see on social media that some people claim to have it figured out. I’m definitely not one of them. I’m okay with it, though. I am very good with my work and I am very good with my life!