Feature: Wednesday, January 2, 2003
Legend Shadows Part 2

By Ken Shimamoto

Ayler’s music was influenced by the Masonic marching bands and blues combos he played in while growing up in Cleveland, but was much freer and more emotionally direct, highlighted by his huge, vibrato-laden sound. “Albert was the first [leader] that really opened me up,” said Jackson. “He let me play the drums the way I did in Fort Worth when I wasn’t playing for other people.” The saxophonist died in 1970 under mysterious circumstances and is now the subject of no fewer than four biographies currently in progress. Now Jackson hopes the biographers will “tell the real story, how it really was, not the Hollywood version. But they’re not talking to the people who really knew Albert.”

Jackson had achieved the jazzman’s dream of making the New York scene, but he still wasn’t fully committed to the musician’s life. The death of saxophone avatar John Coltrane in July 1967 hit the drummer hard emotionally, and he spent the next seven years drifting between music, drugs, and petty crime.

During his time in New York, he’d gone the way of many musicians and started dabbling in heroin. “I was getting so much work that it was frightening,” he recalled of a period that found him playing both society gigs and burlesque houses. “I’d be strung out, but even then, people would come looking for me. I wound up being a heroin addict, and I had $50,000 in the bank. I’d take my first wife down to Bloomingdale’s and buy her diamonds, mink coats. I had money like horseshit. I was fucking up royally, but I learned. There’s something about when you go through that kind of thing, when you need to hustle $300 to $400 a day, which would be equivalent to maybe $1000 now. ... I learned to hustle. The kind of person I am, I couldn’t play drums then, spiritually. ... I just didn’t feel right.”

Drugs took a physical toll on Jackson, and there were also intermittent run-ins with the law in New York, when he was arrested for stealing or drugs and spent time in jail. On one occasion, he returned to Fort Worth to try to avoid being entered into a three-year program run by New York’s Narcotic Addiction Control Commission. “My feet were so swollen, I couldn’t even wear a shoe,” Jackson recalled. “My father took me to the doctor who birthed me — who was a heroin addict his whole life — and he filled me up with Dilaudid and put me on a plane.” When Jackson realized that his ticket back to New York was one-way, he was furious. Since he had enough money to buy drugs, he managed to avoid the rehab program, quickly fell back into the junkie life, and didn’t call his family for two years.

That could have been the end for Jackson; the list of musician casualties of the heroin plague is lengthy. But in 1974, bassist Buster Williams introduced Jackson to Nichiren Shosu, a form of Buddhism whose devotees chant the phrase Nam myoho renge kyo for hours daily. It was this discipline and his concurrent adoption of vegetarianism that kept Jackson alive, enabling him to kick his heroin habit and return to music. At first, he was reluctant to commit to the new regimen. “I said, ‘I’m going to try this for three weeks,’” he recalled. “Then three months had passed. It pulled me together and pulled me out and I was able to focus. I was a Buddhist and a vegetarian for 17 years.”

Shortly after his conversion to Buddhism, Jackson ran into his fellow Fort Worthian Ornette Coleman in Manhattan. Coleman asked Jackson to join his new electric band, Prime Time, for four years while the older musician’s son Denardo, also a drummer, was attending business school. Jackson and Prime Time guitarist Bern Nix moved into Coleman’s loft “after we lost our apartments because we weren’t playing any gigs.” Jackson credits the saxophonist with teaching him a great deal about composition and encouraging him to compose on the flute “because he said I was hearing in that piccolo range.” Coleman called his style “harmolodic,” based on a theory of music he devised that posits an equal relationship between harmony, motion (rhythm), and melody and abandons conventional key and pitch. After rehearsing in the loft for months, he and his group traveled to Paris, where they played concerts and recorded the albums Dancing In Your Head and Body Meta.

Upon its release in 1976, Dancing In Your Head set the jazz world on its ear with its combination of harmolodics and electric instruments, but financial reward did not follow. Instead, Jackson remembers the period as the first of several times in his life when he was part of an acclaimed band that had its progress thwarted by the music industry. “We played Carnegie Hall,” he said, “and then we were booked for a tour of 10 or 12 cities in America, but they cancelled that. We had a sold-out show, a big review in the New York Times. Ornette had already been thrown out of the loft and he was staying in the Carter Hotel, so it totally messed him up. They cancelled everything, and [A&M Records] wouldn’t re-press Dancing in Your Head. That’s the first time I realized, [the music business is] not about making money, it’s about control and power.”

Because the Coleman group gigged so infrequently, Jackson also joined the iconoclastic pianist Cecil Taylor’s band for six months in 1979, recording six albums. It was during this period that the jazz press began to single out the drummer’s aggressively extroverted approach. That same year, he formed the Decoding Society. It’s always been a composer’s, rather than a drummer’s band; Jackson integrates his thunderous playing into the ensembles, rather than making the band a vehicle for his solos.

Over the years, the Decoding Society enjoyed great success for a jazz group, particularly overseas, but its achievements were still subject to the vagaries of the music industry. Two early mainstays of the band were guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs, high school and college bandmates from Brooklyn who were enthralled with jazz-rock fusion and somewhat leery of the idiosyncrasies of older players. Both later enjoyed varying degrees of rock stardom, Reid with the group Living Colour and Gibbs as a sideman for punk rocker/poet Henry Rollins. “Shannon didn’t have the stereotypical older jazz cat’s attitude that we younger cats used to make fun of,” said Gibbs, who still lives in New York. “We were just kids, but he didn’t feel like he had to break you down, then build you back up, so he could keep his band together. He wanted a band of strong people, not a bunch of cowards.”

Reid was impressed by Jackson’s willingness to incorporate elements of popular music into his avant-garde approach — unlike many of his contemporaries who made music that was deliberately impenetrable to all but other musicians. “Shannon wasn’t an ideological avant-gardist,” Reid recalled. “He made the music he made from an outsider’s view, but not to the exclusion of rock and pop — he wasn’t mad at pop music for being popular the way some of his generation are. He synthesized blues shuffles with African syncopations through the lens of someone who gave vent to all manner of emotions. I feel that the collision of values in his music really represents American culture.”

By the time the Decoding Society album Mandance appeared on Island Records subsidiary Antilles in 1982, the band had developed into a hard-hitting unit that offered brassy fanfares, free-form funk, and Coleman-like legato ballad themes that often unfolded over roiling rhythm beds of furious drumming and dueling electric basses. But an unsympathetic record company stalled the record. “They printed 3,000 copies,” said Jackson, “then they’d wait two or three months to re-press, even though people all over the country were asking for the record. The A&R [artists and repertoire] man didn’t think drummers could sell records.”

Starting in the late ’70s, major record labels had briefly embraced jazz, signing innovative but relatively noncommercial artists and starting up boutique jazz labels. By the early ’80s, though, the music industry was turning away from jazz, dropping all but the most musically conservative artists and folding most of the major label jazz divisions. The growing control of airwaves by consulting firms also led to the exclusion of jazz from radio programming. “I was making a good living playing colleges. Then around ’83, ’84, one morning we woke up in New York and the jazz station was country-western. And it didn’t just happen in New York. ... It happened in Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, L.A. Straight across the country, they took jazz off the radio.” When jazz returned to the airwaves, it was in the form of homogenized “smooth jazz” that Jackson disdains. “You get in your car and drive from here to California, you’re going to listen to the same stuff all the way. Oasis all over the country!”

In the mid-’80s, while the original Decoding Society was still together, Jackson lived in New York and returned to Fort Worth periodically to play at the Caravan of Dreams. He and the band released five c.d.’s on the club’s in-house label.

But there was a much more distant “hometown” that Jackson also longed to visit. When he finally made that trip, it enriched his music and cemented a connection he’d felt since his earliest days as a drummer.

Aided by a trio of grants, Jackson made the journey to west Africa to hear in person the sounds he’d been imagining in his head since he was a child. “I always wanted to go to Africa,” said Jackson. “When I came to Paris with Ornette, I was meeting all these African cats in the street and they’d been telling me about these secret drum societies.” His three-month African sojourn included visits to nine countries, including Zaire, Cameroon, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Togo, and Mali. At every stop along the way, he listened to local musicians and wrote music inspired by what he heard.

“It’s always hard, you have to really go looking to find the music,” Jackson said in explaining his world travels. “You’ve got to break it all the way down, because they automatically assume that you want to hear the music that’s popular, which is influenced by American music — which I don’t want to hear! The way I was able to get to it was by saying, ‘I want to hear the music your mother and father listen to!’”

Meanwhile, the Decoding Society’s personnel had changed in response to music industry machinations. Jackson attributes the dissolution of the original band to a couple of business associates who saw the potential marketability of young guitarist Reid. “We were together seven years, then they broke my band up — the two agents who were doing my booking. They went with another agency and then, boom! They started that Living Colour group.”

For his part, Reid credits Jackson with giving him the confidence to strike out on his own. “In Living Colour, we played to empty chairs for the first few months,” said Reid. “Then, by playing relentlessly, we were able to build an audience. Shannon taught me you can do whatever you want to do if you’re willing to pay the price.”

The album Red Warrior, recorded in 1988 and released in 1990, marked the arrival in the Decoding Society lineup of the fiery guitarist Jef Lee Johnson. “You only need one person in the band who you’re in total communication with,” said Jackson. “After Vernon, Jef Lee was the next one who did that.”

Johnson, speaking from his home in Philadelphia, said, “The mistake people make [with Jackson’s music] is trying to listen like it’s a regular piece of music. You have to learn to listen in layers. Then you can see how beautiful it is — this demented orchestral small band with all this drum chaos underneath.” The guitarist recalled his time in the Decoding Society as “like being in a circus. It was always pretty hilarious, even when I wanted to kill [Jackson]. I remember getting a lot of stares in airports. People weren’t used to seeing folks that looked and dressed like us” — like a band of gypsies in colorful African attire.

In the late ’80s, Jackson undertook a number of other projects. He played in the blazing metallic jazz-rock group Last Exit with pioneering free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, and with SXL, a funk-world music fusion group. Another project was Strange Meeting, a 1987 c.d. by the experimental group Power Tools. The disc teamed Jackson and bassist Gibbs with eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell. The disc made Rolling Stone’s “albums of the year” list but was nearly impossible to find when it was new and remains unavailable. “I got off the plane in Berlin and got in the cab and it was playing on the radio,” said Jackson, “and the same thing happened over in Tokyo. Then they took it off the market and made Frisell a star.” To Jackson, it seemed like a rerun of A&M’s failure to promote Ornette’s Dancing In Your Head, Island’s abandonment of the Decoding Society’s Mandance, and his more recent experience of losing Vernon Reid to Living Colour.

Jackson released his last c.d. of new material, Shannon’s House, in 1996, the year he returned to Fort Worth to live. The record is full of overt gospel influences, particularly in the work of saxophonist Parks, a church choir director since age 14, whom Jackson’s life-long friend Thomas Reese discovered and brought into the Decoding Society lineup.

Since then, Jackson has rarely performed in the area. “When I left Fort Worth to go to New York,” he said, “they were playing all these corny songs like ‘Days of Wine and Roses’...‘Sunny.’ When I came back [in 1996], they were still playing all those same songs. I’m not about that.”

Jackson’s infrequent appearances since returning to his hometown have added an elusive quality to his legend here. Drew Phelps is one of several local musicians who have played with Jackson and view him as a kind of mentor and sage. The Denton bassist introduced himself to Jackson at a 1998 Caravan of Dreams show. A month later, Jackson heard Phelps play at the Dallas Museum of Art and invited him to a rehearsal. They wound up playing together every Monday night for a year.

The bassist was impressed by Jackson’s near-photographic memory. “He’d be discussing some philosophical idea,” said Phelps, “and if he felt like he wasn’t getting the point across, he’d walk over to a bookshelf, pull down a book, and say, ‘Here, read that!’ He’d always open it to the exact page that he wanted.” Interestingly, Jackson spoke of his former bandleaders Coleman and Taylor having the same ability.

“When he knows a melody, he really knows it forward and backward,” Phelps continued. “We’d be playing a tune and he’d say, ‘Somebody needs to play the melody backwards to accompany the solo.’ We’d be struggling trying to figure it out, and he’d just sing it. I saw him do that lots of times.”

In the year Phelps spent playing with Jackson, there were no paying gigs. “Shannon got an offer from the DMA to play in their Jazz Under the Stars program,” Phelps recalled. “They offered him $2,000 and he wanted $5,000. He felt he should be able to pay us something for all of our rehearsal time. He really believes that artists should be respected. He’d ask, ‘If they can pay a million dollars for a painting, but they can’t afford $5,000 for a band, do they really want us?’”

Jackson learned that philosophy from working with leaders like Coleman and Taylor, who always command top dollar. “They both taught me to never undervalue yourself, because once you do, you’ll never get paid decently again. Before you ask somebody for money, you have to be able to produce, and I can produce.” Eventually, the money disputes were settled, and the Decoding Society played the DMA in 1999 — the last time Jackson has performed in the Metroplex.

“I don’t just play music,” said Jackson, “I create events.” A videotape of a ’99 show at the Warsaw Jazz Festival features an as-yet-unreleased tune called “Horus.” In the middle of the piece, Jackson and trombonist Craig Harris have a dramatic call-and-response vocal exchange that’s filled with the power of myth, ritual, and incantation. Watching the performance, it’s hard not to think about how good “Horus” would sound onstage at the Bass Hall — and how unlikely that is to happen.

Since those performances, Jackson has experienced problems with a nerve in his arm related to his intensive practice regimen on the schalmei, which prevented him from performing or even composing music for two years. He credits Drs. Clinton Battle and David Estes with restoring his ability to play.

Although Jackson safeguards his privacy, young musicians and fans from the UNT jazz claque will occasionally seek him out. “I was playing my drums one night,” he said. “I had to wait until 2 a.m. when the trains were coming by, so I wouldn’t disturb my neighbors. Somebody knocked on the window, and when I went to the front door, there were a boy and girl standing there. Then I looked behind the bush in front of the window — there were six more of them there!” When saxophonist Sam Rivers, a pillar of the ’70s New York loft jazz scene, recently performed on the Denton campus, a UNT jazz instructor sent one of his students to pick up Jackson and take him to the show. Jackson hadn’t set foot in Denton since the ’50s, when he was playing a pool party there. “This boy touched my cymbals, and I knocked him in the pool!”

It’s sobering to confront a fiery avant-gardist in his autumnal years. “All the people who know me are dead,” said Jackson, who turns 63 on Jan. 12. Albert Ayler’s body was found in New York’s East River in 1970. Jackson’s old music teacher John Carter died of cancer in 1991. Julius Hemphill and Charles Moffett died in April 1995 and on Valentine’s Day, 1997, respectively.

But Coleman and Taylor, both a decade older than Jackson, remain their iconoclastic selves. Dewey Redman returned to Fort Worth to play last year’s Juneteenth Festival with a band that included Moffett’s son Codaryl on drums. And Jackson is writing and playing again.

On one of my most recent visits to his house, he met his grandson, 7-month-old Solomon, for the first time. Holding the infant in his lap, the musician picked out a C scale on a piano and softly sang the notes to the boy, who sat quietly against his grandfather’s chest and gazed up, wide-eyed, seemingly enchanted by the sounds.

“Shannon’s music is so alive, so interesting, so colorful,” said Drungle. “I would love to see him treated in the way he deserves based on all that he’s done and all that he’s capable of in music.”

While Fort Worth strives to reinvent itself as an arts mecca, Ronald Shannon Jackson sits in his house in Riverside, a prophet without honor — or, at least without financial reward — in his hometown, composing music and rehearsing musicians. Does anyone dare to pay him what he’s worth to perform his own music here?

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