This piece originally appeared in the January 2-8, 2003 edition of Fort Worth Weekly.
The haunting music wafts out of the black-painted frame house. The notes have no trouble negotiating the double layers of wrought-iron fence, surrounding first the porch and then the yard of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s home. The music elicits no whisper from what looks like an old school bell, or the myriad other bells and chimes hung on the porch enclosure, and raises nary a rustle from the dozens of potted plants that crowd the yard. The strange tunes float around the black 280Z parked in the driveway and out to a visitor on the sidewalk.
Despite the chill of an October night, the front door stands open. Inside, the house is filled with books, c.d.’s, videos, drums, African masks, piles of printed-out e-mails and musical compositions in progress, and odd-looking instruments. An organ and a piano sit in facing corners of the front room. Two large, colorful paintings by Jackson’s lifelong friend Sonny Benton hang in the den.
Follow the music down a hall whose walls are covered with snapshots and scrawled fragments of sheet music. Turn left, and there you find the source of the sounds — Rachella Parks, saxophone player from Jackson’s band, the Decoding Society, playing keyboard, and violinist Lawrence Haywood, auditioning to join the group.
Now a slight but solidly built man with spectacles picks up a strange instrument with multiple bells, like a Medusan version of a clarinet. That’s Jackson, 62, intelligent, articulate, wryly humorous, his hair braided with rivets and New York City subway tokens. What he’s playing is a schalmei, a medieval ancestor of the oboe, and he leads the two musicians through the piece they’ve been rehearsing, the violin echoing Jackson’s plaintive melody over a lush bed of keyboard chords.
Then Parks picks up her tenor sax and Jackson moves behind his enormous Sonor drum kit, painted with African-looking designs, with double bass drums and a full array of cymbals suspended high above the traps. Jackson starts out with some delicate cymbal work, then establishes a steady meter with the sock cymbal and rimshots on the snare. Parks blows a solo of mounting intensity, which Jackson mirrors, his sticks moving like a whirlwind across his battery of tom-toms. The tune winds down, back to a unison passage where the musicians repeatedly play four beats, then three, then two, then one to end the piece. Haywood keeps his eyes on Jackson throughout, watching for cues.
Pick up any book about jazz written in the last 20 years, and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s name is there. He’s performed and recorded with many of the major innovators of jazz’s avant-garde, and his playing is unique in the annals of jazz drumming. Profiling Jackson for Musician, Player and Listener
magazine in 1981, writers David Breskin and Rafi Zabor called him “the most stately free-jazz drummer in the history of the idiom, a regal and thundering presence.” As a composer and leader of his own band, the Decoding Society, since 1979, Jackson has created a demanding but accessible synthesis of jazz, funk, rock, and “world music” strains. He’s recorded more than 50 albums, 23 of them as a leader. He’s played concerts and appeared on television all over Europe, Asia, and Africa. He’s been the sole representative of the United States at an international drum festival in Korea and toured Japan twice with Herbie Hancock.
Oh, and he’s from Fort Worth, and he lives here now. Ever heard of him?
If not, it’s easy to understand why. While still based in New York, Jackson and the Decoding Society were regular visitors to Caravan of Dreams during the downtown venue’s ‘80s heyday, but those shows were sparsely attended. Although family ties brought the drummer back to live in Fort Worth in 1996, it’s been three years since he set foot on a stage anywhere in the Metroplex, and his recordings are conspicuously absent from record store shelves. Even his eight incredible CDs released by New York-based Knitting Factory Records in 2000 quickly disappeared from area stores. You’ll have better luck finding his music on the internet, starting with Jackson’s own website
, which has a selection of CDs, live digital audiotapes, and videos.
“He’s showed me that there’s no limit to where you can go or what you can do,” said Pete Drungle, a University of North Texas graduate who played keyboards in the late-‘90s Decoding Society and now composes soundtracks in New York City. “He listens on a level most musicians aren’t capable of and pushes you to play things you didn’t know you were capable of.”
But Jackson’s talents have not taken him, careerwise, where he and others think he should be. “Shannon’s a wonderful person, but I think he’s bitter,” Drungle said. “in the ‘80s, he’d travel from one end of Europe to the other, playing, then go do the same thing in Japan, then go and make a record. To go from that to having his thing shut down – almost like people are trying to destroy him – had to be hard.”
Jackson is a pure product of Fort Worth. He grew up amid racism and violence but in a supportive community that nurtured his musicality. Although he started playing music at age five and continued through high school and college, he claims that he didn’t really commit himself to being a professional musician until he was 34. By that time, he’d already spent several years on the New York jazz scene and overcome the scourge of heroin addiction by adopting Nichiren Shosu Buddhism and vegetarianism. He received his first critical notice as a sideman for avant-garde jazz icons Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor in the 1970s, but financial success was longer in coming. He toured the States, Europe, and Asia extensively through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s and visited Africa to explore the roots of his music. But while his records were consistently lauded by the jazz press, they weren’t always well promoted or distributed by record companies that were sometimes indifferent, sometimes outright hostile to jazz.
In his maturity, Jackson is a proudly uncompromising and creative artist – but one who feels disrespected in his hometown. In part, this is because his asking price for a performance exceeds what local promoters are willing to pay. Also, he feels his challenging music doesn’t fit in with the conservatism of the local jazz community. In music as in other arts, there’s a built-in tension between the avant-garde and the mainstream. But while Jackson is unwilling to return to the kind of jazz playing he did in his formative years – backing strings of solos on well-worn standards – his own music makes liberal use of pop materials and forms. Dissonant, angular melodies rub up against blues shuffles, funk grooves, and gospel cadences. Like him, it is a synthesis of sharp and soft, rough and polished – discord, beauty, achievement, disappointment.
“When I was 9 years old,” Jackson said, “I remember walking in the house and telling my mother and grandmother that I was going to be rich when I was 34. And 34 was when I really decided to be a professional musician. So when I was 34, I became rich, but it was rich in life and playing music.”
Born Ronald Gene Shannon, he had a total of 15 stepparents. (He eventually took his birth father’s last name.) Both of his birth parents came to Fort Worth from Iola, Texas. “My mother was married seven times and my father was married eight times,” he said. His mother, Ella Mae Walton (nee Shannon), was “a teacher, a workaholic, and a gambler. She traveled all around the world before I did, but nobody around here knew it because she’d never tell anybody.” His father, William “Bill” Jackson, ran a jukebox business and had the first black-owned record store in Fort Worth, the House of Music on Evans Avenue, as well as an early black-owned grocery, Jackson’s Drive-In Grocery at Tennessee and Hattie.
Jackson grew up surrounded by music. His mother played piano in St. Andrew’s Methodist Church and would take her son to the gazebo in Greenway Park, just north of downtown, to hear jazz musicians play after they’d completed their paid engagements for the evening. “It wasn’t about rehearsing or playing songs,” he said. “They’d just play.” He also remembers listening to live bands playing between the movies at the Grand Theater at Rosedale and Fabons (now a church).
“Back then,” said Jackson, “the south side was like an African village. All the businesses were black-owned except for the big supermarket and the Grand Theater. It was a self-sustaining community, probably more so in Fort Worth than in Dallas, because Fort Worth was more commercialized. There was plenty of work for black men on the railroad and in the meatpacking plants. That all ended when the civil rights movement came…People wanted to see what there was outside the neighborhood.”
In 1955, when Jackson’s family moved into the Riverside house he now lives in, there weren’t many black families in the neighborhood, and local whites reacted to their arrival with hostility and violence. Shortly after Jackson’s family moved in, the house was firebombed – an event that went unreported in the local press – and his stepfather had to stand guard outside with a shotgun. “There was a florist’s across the street that they moved brick by brick to Haltom City, where the rest of the Ku Klux Klan was,” said Jackson. The following year, a black family down the street had their car bombed, and there were other arson attempts.
Jackson moved back into the house in 1996, after his mother died of Alzheimer’s at age 76. “She was healthy as a horse,” he said. “Nothing else wrong with her besides that disease.” Two of his children live nearby – his sons Clifford, 43, an Alcon employee, and Gregory, 40, a Tarrant County truant officer and father of Jackson’s grandsons Cochise and Solomon. His daughter Sunday, 23, a Juilliard graduate in modern dance, is currently performing in Las Vegas with Celine Dion, while his son Talkeye, 22, is a student at Bard College in New York. Jackson’s wife, Natalie, a Harlem native, lives in their apartment house at 87th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, and they travel between the two cities to see each other. She’s a teacher of gifted students and a reader for the New York Public Library.
Jackson said he knew from age four that he would play the drums, and he used to beat on pots and pans around the house. Instead, his parents started him on piano, which he played from ages five to nine. “My father said that to be a real musician, you had to play a variety of instruments.” Jackson played percussion in the school band and learned from watching the drummers he saw when he went into nightclubs to service his father’s jukeboxes. Jackson’s mother finally bought him a set of drums as an incentive for him to finish high school.
“I worked seven days a week growing up, because my father had all these different businesses. And growing up with him, I knew all of his businesses, and I’d take care of them. So I was working all the time, and my release was playing drums. I’d be walking to the store from where I lived, and I’d just hear these rhythms. I used to dream about being on a slave ship coming from Africa, and I think I must have been a drummer back then. I’d hear these African rhythms, and in my mind, I’d put them over Frank Sinatra or whatever I heard on the radio.”
A couple of local musicians fostered Jackson’s teenage enthusiasm for jazz: his friend Thomas Reese, who lent him an album by drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and multi-instrumentalist Charles Scott, who encouraged him to build up his leg strength to keep the beat on the sock cymbal. “Shannon had the right idea about how to play right off,” said Reese, who was a freshman in college when he started playing with high schooler Jackson. “Some of us had to grapple with the language; he didn’t.”
At age 15, Jackson was playing R&B and jazz gigs with saxophonist James Clay – who later played in the Ray Charles band alongside Dallas reedman David “Fathead” Newman – and learning about jazz accompaniment from backing visiting singers like Dakota Staton. “In those days you could actually work as a musician here. We were playing four nights a week, with two gigs each on Saturday and Sunday, anything from Ray Charles to bebop. People were dancing, and when it was time to listen, they’d listen. But I was brainwashed into thinking that you couldn’t make a living playing music.”
The ‘50s Fort Worth scene spawned an impressive number of future avant-garde jazz notables, all of them students of I.M. Terrell High School band director G.A. Baxter, a perfectionist who took his students from Sousa to Wagner. Besides Jackson and Ornette Coleman, who started his performing career here as a honking R&B tenor saxman, there was clarinetist John Carter, Jackson’s third-grade music teacher, who later co-led a group with ex-Coleman trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Trumpeter Charles Moffett switched to percussion at 16, played drums in Coleman’s early ‘60s trio, and fathered five children who pursued careers in jazz. Saxophonist Dewey Redman was a schoolteacher when he gigged with the teenage Jackson, but later became a mainstay of Coleman’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s groups and is the father of another young saxophonist, Joshua Redman. Reedman Julius Hemphill, a classmate of Jackson’s was a participant in the ‘70s New York loft jazz scene and helmed the World Saxophone Quartet from 1976 to 1989.
“Mr. Baxter was a trumpet player, very open-minded,” said Reese. “He’d always encourage you. During our lunch hour, he’d let us use the auditorium – which was also the band room – to jam. And he wasn’t the only one. We had a chorus teacher, Miss Adelaide Tresvant, who started a music theory class.” A former classmate recently told Reese that Baxter is still living in Oklahoma. “I.M. Terrell was well known for having the best black high school band in Texas,” he added. “We’d always win the contests at Prairie View A&M, both playing and marching. The cadences from our drum section were always a crowd-pleaser.”
While he values his exposure to music in school, Jackson is disdainful of many collegiate jazz education programs. By and large, he said, “the people who are teaching [there] chose to do so rather than performing, so young musicians are learning to play from people who don’t have the experience of performing.” But after hearing that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik in 1957, Jackson decided to go to college.
“I realized that I didn’t even know what makes airplanes fly, let alone rocket ships,” he said. He had a full scholarship to now-defunct Westlake College of Jazz in L.A., but instead elected to attend Lincoln University in Jefferson County, MO, here Hemphill and Reese were already studying. Hemphill pointed out that, since the school was midway between St. Louis and Kansas City, it provided an extra opportunity to catch touring jazz groups during their weeklong residencies in those cities.
At Lincoln, Jackson played in a quartet with Hemphill, Reese, and his roommate, pianist John Hicks. He also did some experimenting with drugs. “We played at a skating rink once while we were high on nutmeg,” he remembered. “You’d take a handful of it with black coffee, and it would take about six hours to come on, then it was a 16-hour trip. We went to play the gig, and we’d forgotten we took [the nutmeg]. I looked over at Reese, who was playing bass, and he had the bass lying horizontal on the floor, holding onto it. I wondered what was wrong with him, and the next thing I knew, I was holding onto the snare drum to keep from flying away. Somehow the instruments all got packed up and we made it home.”
Jackson later attended Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M before transferring to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. At Prairie View and Bridgeport, he focused on history and sociology. But while staying with an aunt in Connecticut, Jackson had a foreshadowing of his future. “She told me, ‘Don’t worry; you’ll be all right when you go to New York,’ and I didn’t even know I was going there! This woman was a soothsayer, but not like a fortune-teller…What she’d tell people would actually happen. She told me, ‘You’ll go through some hard times, but it’ll be all right.’”
On a visit to New York in 1966, Jackson discovered that his old Lincoln roommate Hicks was working as musical director for Art Blakey. Hicks encouraged Jackson to come to New York, and a scholarship from the New York College of Music enabled the drummer to make the move. Soon, at age 26, he was working with bandleaders as diverse as bassist-composer Charles Mingus, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and singer Betty Carter. Jackson’s first recording session, under saxophonist Charles Tyler’s leadership, was a one-take affair without rehearsal, and it left the drummer in tears of frustration. But it was there that he began his first of several associations with ‘60s free jazz innovators – in this case, with uncompromising avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler.
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 CD 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 CD 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?