Talking Jazz and Rock with Reuben Jackson
I had the (undeserved) privilege of being introduced to a poet and music lover who exceeds any ordinary music listener’s, and even most performer’s knowledge of groups, their influences, and their impact on music and life. Reuben Jackson is a curator, an archivist, and has long written and spoken about jazz. He was curator for the Smithsonian Jazz collection for 18 years, and so an invitation to speak to him was something not to pass up.
This year I’ve been teaching a new class (new to me) and naturally I’ve re-vamped it considerably from what I inherited. What does that mean? Homework for me. Research. Buckets of it. At least I can tell my students I’ve done at least 10 hours of homework a week. I hope they do too 😉
What you find below is the audio and the transcript of my talk with Reuben. Questions are in bold, so you can scroll through and pick the ones you are interested in. There are SO MANY names and references to people and works. I really do recommend you follow up on them and learn. Be a sponge. Challenge yourself – especially if you hadn’t considered crossing, and certainly not straddling the jazz / rock divide.
Enjoy! and huge thanks to Reuben for his generosity, both with his time and sharing his experiences and knowledge. For me it’s people and their living stories that make history come alive. (I also talked to Reuben about his upcoming book, and that segment will appear in another post)
Reuben Jackson Interview (with Laura Ritchie)
Tuesday 16, October, 2018
Good morning Felix Grant Jazz Archives.
-Hi, this is Laura Ritchie, I’m ringing for Reuben.
Yeah, hi, how are you?
-I’m very well. Thanks for making time to chat. And of course permission to share the call – I’m happy to transcribe it.
Oh absolutely. That’s fine.
That’s fine. So I guess the best thing to do would be for you , you know, to just lead me and I’ll take off from there. You know, I don’t want to get too vague here (laughs) in the view of help.
-Well it’s a gigantic topic.
Q: Are there any artists who you would say actually are completely pivotal, apart from rock, just in jazz, that have influenced and been fundamental to the way that – to change in music?
Sure, ok. I hear what you’re saying. Cause, I was thinking about this after reading your email and taking the subway home yesterday and my first kind-of – what would you call it, a rough thesis? Was thinking about jazz musicians who were not ‘quote’, who didn’t think – well a lot of jazz musicians who were considered jazz musicians thought rock was like the kid who ruined the neighbourhood. (and) I feel fortunate both as a listener and as someone who’s tried to write about music and now kind of working on the archival end, to have come into, I guess, a deeper interest in jazz at a time when musicians were saying – well, the Beatles (for want of a better group off the top of my head) aren’t no less important to music than, say Cole Porter. So they weren’t afraid of delving into it. Of course you have to remember that it’s the music business so there’s some exec somewhere saying ‘if you want to sell more –money- you should do these things. You should cover the Beatles or whatever.
But to be more specific about your question, the first person who comes to mind is Miles Davis and I think his consistent restlessness as far as moving the music forward also covers what people might consider – to use an umbrella term – rock and funk. And I’ve never considered it to be, as people have often said a sell-out or you know, kind of cynical pandering. I think it was born of a consistent curiosity within his work and I also think that in so many ways he provided kind of gateways for people who might otherwise have stayed on one side of the street or another, and I’m talking about listeners as well as musicians.
I still marvel at his courage too because for me he’s one of these artists where you build these beautiful like edifices, scaffolds and he’d knock them down and try something new. Because if you think of a collection like Kind of Blue from 1959 with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and that record remains for me like a sovereign nation and it’s just beautiful- and to use the old cliché it’s timeless, but he didn’t stop there, and if he had continued to have done that who could have blamed him, because it’s like the beautiful sunset you see every day that you play in. But he kept moving and I think that he understood and was genuinely moved by people like Hendrix and Sly Stone and classical composers like Stockhausen and so that’s just so- People acknowledge I think the breath of his work but I think we still haven’t really come to grips with it in part because it’s still fairly recent in terms of recorded music history, but it’s also [that] a lot of musicologists and critics don’t necessarily – They order from certain sides of the menu. They don’t necessarily go beyond 1965 or 1966. So, um, Miles Davis.
-mmm but he also, in breaking down some of the scaffolding that’s built up, he brought a lot of personal authenticity to his music.
Oh yes, I agree.
Q: And do you think that influence – that he [Miles Davis] in turn influenced others, because he didn’t subscribe to the commercial attitude of you must cover this and you must go in this way. Do you think that, in effect, leadership, influenced others.
I think it did. I think one of the ironies is that whether you’re talking again, about like jazz or hip-hop for example, you have the people who say, well I’m sitting on this side of the room at a party and then people go – wait, what are they doing? And what can often happen is that the window is open, or whatever metaphor you want to use, and people who follow – I actually do think they’re inspired by that courage, to use that term again, so yeah, I think it happened. I also think that it became – and this is maybe a first cousin of what you’re asking me – but I think what became known as ‘fusion’.
Became formulaic and I do think in some cases it was more cynically assembled, but you know that’s not new because, what is it Charles Mingus said about Charlie Parker? He said, ‘Charlie Parker was not a Bee-Bopper, but the musicians who followed him were.’ So again, you’re getting another one of the challenges, and this is where the business end, which is always present, comes to the forefront is that you’ve got that commodification, and then it’s like – well baby you gotta call it something. By the time many of Miles’, whether former band members or peers had started in a similar direction, [you know] again, he was gone.
And of course at one point he took time off because his health was so bad, but I’ve often said to people, “A true radical is someone who angers even those who may follow him or her into this new realm. Because people who – for example, Bitches Brew is often talked about, but then a record like Live Evil, which came next – people are like ‘well what the heck is this? We’re not… ’ They had gotten comfortable with what was on Bitches Brew and then Live Evil appears and then you get to, like, On the Corner in 1972, which I think people still kind-of scratch their head over, but he just kept going. So it’s- I do think you’re right, I just think – and I know this isn’t a Miles Davis seminar that you’re doing, but I just keep thinking about what he did do and the stuff he took – you know, you look at the reviews and – I understand there was some bewilderment, but he just kept doing it, and you think – wow, this is interesting. It’s the same thing if you think of somebody like Jimmi Hendrix who, well like Miles, he’s part of this broad tradition and someone with great imagination and I think a lot of nuance for a young artist. And now of course he’s an icon, but it’s the same thing where people – when the firmament is cracked and they say ‘what is going on here, this is not… ‘ and you know I think the artists struggle with what the record companies want to call it and how they want to sell it, but again I think that’s kind of a tributary.
Q: What about the sounds? What about the vocalists and how they contributed or led to influences that became Motown and things like that? Do you think there’s a
I didn’t mean to cut you off- what else were you going to say?
-No that’s all, I mean I know that’s like Pandora’s box or a treasure chest or something.
Yeah, it’s a symposium! [laughs] I think. Oh goodness, now again are you talking about. I guess obviously you’re talking about stylistic evolution?
-Yeah, it could be, so stylistically but also the freedom from lyrics, the harmonies, the temperament, the way the voice contributes to the track as a whole.
Ahhh… Yes, I see what you’re saying. You know that’s funny I just finished re-reading this new, well new last year, the Sarah Vaughn biography, which is quite good, and it made me think about what was happening in the late 40s with ‘jazz’ and how the usual suspects, I don’t mean it in a derogatory way -like Charlie Parker, Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Mary Lou Williams were expanding the harmonic beds of these pieces. And you know, how vocalists who were so inclined were also part of that. Now I think the other thing to think about in terms of –and I hate these – like Duke Ellington, maybe it’s the only comparison I could make with Duke Ellington, but the dislike for labels, but also in the late 40s you’re starting to see the popularity of people like Louis Jordan and then they start calling it ‘the big beat’ and it becomes R&B and all that. You also get like a parallel desire to kind of simplify music, and good stuff, but I think that also influenced people who were singing.
So you have like Sarah Vaughn and then you might have – uh – well I’ll just say Louis Jordan even though he sang and played saxophone. So what happens with what ultimately becomes labelled – again playing with these labels – you know, R&B or race music or rock is that you’ve got- When I say simplification I’m not making – it’s not a qualitative distinction but it’s a technical distinction. And yet, so maybe it’s like looking at these parallels, like you have two river beds running along side and one kind of goes this way and one goes the other way but they’re still bodies of water and [laughs] This is – this is really a great question! So I’m just I’m kind of flinging the bat here with no form because I never really considered… It’s fascinating.
-No, that’s alright, because from a listening perspective as someone who has not analysed the music and I don’t know in detail all the artists, but my initial impression was that jazz was so far ahead and people were experimenting and the rock bands as they started out were really quite, um, formulaically simple in some instances and then they started pushing boundaries, but when they started branching out and the instruments took over the vocal lines and the voice was used in different ways it was on such a more simple level – I mean you get the blues added in, you get, you know, pentatonics as a rudimental thing
-and, but then it’s not until much later in solos and things, and when people were really borrowing the more advanced harmonies and chromaticisms and sound world that almost came first. So I mean, you’ve got your parallel rivers, but it’s unusual that – I mean my students will be shocked that you’re talking about things that happened in the 40s and we’re already 20 years later, you know? [we’re] watching things that sound very modern and oh, they’re all electronic, but actually they’re – they’re taking quite a while to catch up.
Right. Right, and you know the musicians of course usually had no problem in acknowledging influences which come before their time. And I’ll tell you a kind of funny personal example: I worked for 20 years with the Duke Ellington collection at the Smithsonian and I was at an Ellington Symposium some years ago and somebody said you have this great love for Duke Ellington and Billie Strayhorn and what was your big musical influence growing up? And I said, ‘Well, you know, my parents did listen to all types of music in our house and my mom played classical piano, ‘ but I said, ‘The person who really, really opened the door for me and with music, even though I knew a fair amount technically, it just grabbed me when I was very young, but I mentioned Hendrix.’ –and these people kind of looked at me like what? Because again, you know you sometimes come across people who will have this dividing line. They say well, this is jazz and this is rock, and, you know, how does this happen, but in terms of what he did with the voicings and then having a drummer like Mitch Mitchell who was influenced by Elvin Jones and you know I heard all these things, and he among others – and again we’re talking 20 years later, so we’re jumping from the 40s to the 60s, but I do think that influence, that sophistication and it’s like another colour in the palate for the music was there, and that’s why I said early on when I was riding home yesterday I started thinking of musicians who were not afraid of either hiring people who had that kind of range like Mitch Mitchell had or even- If you look at somebody like Jack Bruce with Cream, who played with Cream and then he played with, on Escalator Over the Hill and then he played with Carla Bley and
You knew he really knew, either you could say the traditions (plural) or you could say the big broad tradition.
So it’s there, and it’s, you know, response to it is another thing, and I do agree. You said there’s a certain- one of the frustrations that I think some listeners to these bands had. You could hear certain influences clearly but you’d say oh but the solos, they’re just pentatonic scales. Why don’t they do more? And I think a lot of the musicians themselves admitted that and were frustrated like – Hendrix wanted to take a year off to study composition, and obviously he didn’t live to do it. But again it’s there and the other thing that I thought about too is [there were] members of the ‘jazz’ community who were not threatened or completely turned off by the bend in the river and they could appreciate it for what it was, and you know it’s not hard and fast, but that openness is often present in artists when it isn’t necessarily so for us as listeners. –‘Cause you fall in love with a period and, like I mean think Kind of Blue and who can blame anybody?
My father loved music as a listener and he thought, for him I jokingly say, that for him, he thought that the Fender electric bass was like Satan’s first step into ruining the Western world! [laughs] but that’s, you know…
Q: You’ve got all the big festivals with uh, that happened over rock, and the protests. Does jazz play any part in those?
Well, I would say yes and no but the other thing. You know thinking about this is kind of coincidental or serendipitous. I was talking to someone the other day about the booking that Phil Graham who did the Fillmore East and West, put together during this time, and you’d have programmes like the Jefferson Airplane and the Woody Herman’s Orchestra on the same bill. Now you know this is a smaller venue and he’d like set them down in the early 1970s but I’m thinking of the festivals and of the audiences who attended those festivals and to hear Miles Davis play with the Steve Miller Band and again this is. Well you know, radio at that time at least certain FM stations were not averse to mixing things of that nature, but in terms of audiences, I mean, the Newport Festival in the late 60s had begun to bring rock bands in and again some of it is because at that point the commercial reach of what’s called jazz was not as great because of what was on the radio. So it was certainly possible to see Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa on the same programme on in the ’69 Newport Festival. And it is interesting and I know it must have been confusing and probably irritating to people – we have a collection here with, um, it’s a magazine called ‘Jazz Magazine’ published in the United States, and then by 1969 it became ‘Jazz and Rock Magazine’ and again this is- you want to sell magazines, and there’s like this one cover, it’s got Archie Shepp and Frank Zappa on the cover as artists of the year. Now for me being someone who tends to just listen to music and love it or not like it for whatever, because I just like it or dislike it, it’s not because it’s ‘this’ of because this person knew John Coltrane or whatever – it just makes me smile to see it, but it also reflects what was happening, and see again you’ve got this kind of concurrent thing because you’ve got in the late 60s the stuff that Coltrane was doing before he died. You’ve got people like Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, like that, and then you’ve got players like Zappa and Hendrix and you just go all over the fly ten year after Janis Joplin etcetera.
So I mean from a business point of view you’d be maybe foolish to ignore that if you’re selling your product, but it’s also maybe a reflection of… I don’t know, that period was an 8 or 9 lane highway with so many things. [laughs]
Q: Do you think that (this is a sort of recurring question that’s happened with different people I’ve talked to) Do you think- and if focuses on connection, because thinking about the different- the nature of performance in jazz and in rock, and when you mentioned Elvin Jones – I’ve got his signature from seeing him at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, and um,
Oh my gosh!
-Yeah, it was super fun! That place doesn’t exist anymore, but you used to go – I went in the mid, actually early 90s and you’d go for like $2 and you’d sit right next to these people and it was amazing. It was an intimate setting and it was about connecting with the audience and yes, you recognised the tunes, but it was expected and hoped for that you would have definitely each player’s personal spin on that tune on that night and it would not be exactly the same. Whereas when you go see the rock band, you’ve got each track and you kind of expect to sing along and there might be a solo or a bit of something, but it’s not gonna change the shape of the overall piece and so it lends itself to this sort-of mass culture in a different way.
Q: Do you think that if, I mean it’s a crazy question, but are there parallels between the connection of the music, as they borrow so much, and if the audience – if somehow we skipped 40 years and we’d gone straight to the big screens that they have in arenas and we could see the up-close of the people, do you think that jazz could have gained a trajectory like the rock concerts have?
Oooh, yeah, that is, um – That is a big loaf of bread right there.
-It is, but we get the up-close and personal with the video capabilities.
Sure, m-hm, and I would say, it you go to the – I’m thinking 1976-77 and bands such as Weather Report were – that band was really unique. By the time Heavy Weather came out and they had Birdland – a lot of those groups, fusion groups were being not only ‘market’ to – either you might call it a mixed audience – but um, my point is the first time I saw Weather Report here in DC after Heavy Weather came out in March of 1977, they had smoke machines and that kind of stuff which of course you didn’t see –
Like Count Basie doing this and I wonder , and I think this is probably calculated to orient to or re-orient who saw bands with, you know, similar volume but these things which went along with the show were part of retaining attention or making it – so there might not have been as broad a leap for people – so if you went from seeing, I’ll just say the Jefferson Airplane again and then you come see – as great as Elvin Jones is in a small club, maybe what you and I would go to see an artist like that for might not pull everybody in and they might get bored. And I do think one of the challenges with, thinking about that same concert in 77, when the music was loud- and this is when Jaco Pastorius joined the band. So you’d get the showmanship with Jaco dancing across the stage. When they would play these wonderful ballads – you could tell the audience was just not – people were like, ‘what is this?’ you know? And again this is like audience expectation, and – this is another great question because I’m also thinking about today, you know? With people bringing phones and – well I was thinking about what you said concerning the frustration maybe audiences might have or even musicians, if say you love an artist and you buy, well say back then, their lp and you want to hear a song or songs you love done a certain way – and I know I keep bringing him up, but he’s a great example and I think one of the things that bugs someone like Jimmi Hendrix is, ‘cause I went down and I would listen to like a zillion Hendrix bootlegs and you’d hear these re-imaginings of pieces people knew and loved, and you know he was someone who was struggling with trying to get the music in his head out and translating it so the band members could do it , and he didn’t have all the technical language at the time, but he’d say oh boy, people would come to see just some version of Hey Joe with just this beautiful 16 bar introduction, and I thought this is just like great but I know how frustrating it must have been to people who just want to hear just like the record. The solos are not the same and even someone, again like Hendrix, who is working with the certain scales and modes on a pretty regular basis, but the creativity and the subtlety and that it’s a more overt connection to what one expects or is familiar with in ‘jazz’. But that’s – you know, I sit and I know I call myself musically consumed, and I’m just sitting there going whoa, this is so much… he built upon this thing that people were familiar with , but if you paid, what, 5 or 6 bucks back then and you’re thinking – that’s not the record.
[laughing] You know? And the same for Miles Davis, when before he disbanded the quintet and so they would still play, like, Walkin’ and some standards, but the tempo was really brisk or they would change the keys – and people kind of going??
The Grateful Dead, I mean that’s one of the first concerts I ever saw with just these incredible long solos, beautiful solos. They played here at RFK Stadium and they came out and did an announcement and they started doing the fun Tennessee Jed and so they sang like a verse and a chorus and like they left the stratosphere and then they came back, I don’t know, 15, 20 minutes later, and it wasn’t just noodling, it was really incredible stuff, and I thought ‘whoa!’ But, maybe Dead Heads would come to expect that, but still it’s that – it’s an interesting kind of maybe conundrum for some people and I think it’s what you talked about led to, and maybe still does, leads to frustration on the artist and on the listener’s end. Because if you want to stretch out and you’re always – well if your audience knows that’s part of what you do then I guess that’s fine – well if you think of like the Almond Brothers and people like that. But again if you just hear the album and it’s like a 5 minute piece and they go for 25 minutes, you’re either enthralled or you’re squirming in your seat like I did in church when I was a kid.
Q: We’ve got tid-bits of jazz things, we’ve got tid-bits of rock things, we’ve got how they mix. Here we’ve got a programme called Desert Island Discs and you’re allowed to take three things on to your desert island – three pieces of music, so if you were going to say there are three jazz artist– we’ll say artist because that gives you more scope, or even albums, and three rock people that you say, actually you should look at these, and I think they’re connected, what would your Desert Island three be?
The first would be, and these are particular recordings, but I think they’ll lead people –Carla Bley’s recording Escalator over the Hill, which is from I think 1970 or 71 and there are lots of jazz musicians on it. They get Don Cherry, Don McLaughlin, they get – Jack Bruce shows up- but it’s just beautiful – Charlie Haden, Gato Barbieri, Linda Ronstadt’s on it
So I mean, yeah, it’s an interesting – well that tells you a lot about the times period. So that, I would certainly say,
and not just because it turns 50 years today, but Jimmi Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland, you know,
and the third would be Miles Davis’ Live Evil. These are all kind-of around the same period, so Electric Ladyland is ’68, Live Evil is 1971, and Carla Bley is – it’s that same late 60s early 70s period. But I also think that, um- and a lot of people have said this about Miles Davis, even the context in which he presented himself – changed- but it is still Miles Davis. And you hear, I don’t know if that assessment was so easily arrived at at the time, because again, like I think critics and listeners were thinking ‘what?’
-There was so much different music.
Then you read Finnegan’s Wake and you’d think ‘no… what happened to our man?!’ but I, yeah, so those three, those three.
Q: Do you think we’ve come away from the time when there’s a willingness to embrace such diverse music or is it still happening now, but just in a different way?
I think it’s still – I think it’s still happening and a great example from me as a music listener, and an erstwhile poet, if I can use that term, – In the hip-hop that you don’t necessarily hear on, well I use the term radio loosely, because people don’t necessarily listen to radio like they did back in the day, but see I’ll go on youtube and pull up some 1970s Ron Carter album on CTI and I’ll look at the comments and it will say things like this rapper or that rapper brought me here. And what that means of course, is samples were taken from these jazz recordings, and I’ll go back and listen to their source and I’ll think whoa this is just fascinating because again it’s like borrowing from the traditions and then how does that work. Because I consider sampling a form of composition, and a lot of people do. Hip-hop now I think is probably, at least in my opinion where the sort-of post Miles jazz fusion stuff ended up and again you have like the guitarist Robert Fripsit (?) – something like all, ‘all systems become fixed at the moment of inception.’ And you know, things come through and then people say ok, here’s an archetype so what do we do? I think thematically musically, what is coming out now (and I think this is probably my age too) but is not as- It doesn’t really reflect what’s possible in a way maybe some of this other material has. But I do think, I think hip-hop is a good example. I also think as I said earlier, a lot of musicians who aren’t so young in contemporary terms are not as averse to what has come before. They are not as picky. I don’t mean they can throw anything together, but they are not as hard-core, almost discrimination that some artist who might consider themselves jazz musicians would espouse in an interview or even musically. I mean I always tell this joke about my father, and his friends would go to a lot the jazz clubs here, and I said, well, they’d put you in a room and say well here’s Ella Fitzgerald and here’s Cream and they’d point a gun to your head and say pick one.
[laughs] and somebody’s say well what if you love both? –and he’s say, no, but you’ve got to pick one.
So I think that sort-of ‘which side are you on’ thing – I guess it’s always present in some form or another, genre not withstanding, but I – so I would say a lot of musicians now are – there’s just this beautiful meshing of ideas from various traditions and it’s not just like a smorgasbord for the sake of it, but it’s gorgeous. There’s a trumpeter out of Oakland, Ambrose Akinmusire, and his new recording – I forget the name of it, but I heard a bit of it on NPR, like did a review, and you hear he clearly loves people like Debussy, because they hip-hop on it and it’s not some choppy meshing or bad meshing of these things. But all the stuff that’s happened, and I think things are a little more – artists aren’t afraid to do and draw upon stuff which moves them and it’s like they go in the grocery store and so you might have peanut butter and lychee nuts from some part of the world, and people say – why’re you doing that? Just get the eggs and go home. And you can do that, but there’s so much to choose from and I think this breaking down of some of these neighbourhoods is not a bad thing at all. And I guess the most important thing for me is that if I love Eric Clapton it doesn’t mean that I’m refuting Fats Waller, and I had to learn to understand that, because there’s all this stuff we heard at home but then you heard the opposite to, well no- if you’re this then you should love this.
-That’s a very encouraging, positive thing to hear, in general, because the musical palate, especially for people who are meeting music for the first time- There aren’t really taboo or rules in the same way that there might have once been.
-It’s actually fine. Doesn’t matter.
It makes me so happy that that exists that way, or has become more that way.
And I see it even on the streets. I’ve seen – I was on the subway the other day and there was a young African American man and he had a Ramones tee shirt on and I said – you know, I consider you, I explained – you’re like my son.
and he says, ‘what do you mean?’ and I said when I grew up I used to hide Hendrix albums underneath like the Temptations so I could walk home and not be laughed at. And I said I love the Ramones, but I loved seeing it. And he looked at me kind of like he understood but he was a bit bewildered by it, which made me even happier.
Because it meant that he operated in a sphere, you know, where this wasn’t a thing and I though, oh that’s wonderful. You know? [laughs] That makes, in a lot of ways I’m happier, I’ve said to people – not to minimise the importance of, like what Obama symbolised… As a music, like oh my god, and to see this. And he’s probably thinking- this old guy’s so happy on the train? And it’s rush hour and everybody’s real stayed and I’m like oh yeah don’t you love Rocket to Russia, and we talked about all this stuff – but see, for me it’s like form of liberation. Because I held all this stuff in, and I loved it. But you couldn’t always – talk about it. You’d listen to it at home, or it’s in your head and see, it goes back to that thing too – you can love the Ramones and Verdi, cause I love opera, and I though, wow – it’s safer to come out of the house now. And I said, well, I met you – it only took six decades. [laughs]
But yeah, I’m so glad. So glad, and I hope that it just keeps going, and the more bewildered young people I see when I respond in this manner , the happier I’ll become.
-That’s a joy. That confusion is a joy.
Oh it is.
-That is good.
-Thank you so much for making time.
I cannot tell you how much fun I’ve had talking to you.
-Oh that is so kind! Thank you!
Featured image source: https://www.sevendaysvt.com/LiveCulture/archives/2017/11/08/reuben-jackson-to-leave-vermont-public-radio