[9/8/2006] - Finding Serenity In Queens: The D.D. Jackson Interview
Pianist D.D. Jackson is as comfortable swinging before a live audience as he is composing an opera based on the life of a former Canadian prime minister. He grew up in Ottawa and has since moved on to The Big Apple. He is settling down to domestic bliss after touring around the world and taking some serious apprenticeships with the likes of Jackie Byard, David Murray and Don Pullen. As a band leader he often writes tunes which showcase the abilities of his band mates. In his spare time he writes a column for the music publication Downbeat and his articles have also appeared in the Village Voice. Let's see: he writes and performs classical music and jazz, conducts, arranges and composes scores for operas, writes articles for periodicals and was probably one of the first musicians to set up his own website and have a site that actually had some substance to it. His CV includes nominations for Composer of the Year, Album of the Year, International Musician of the Year, Musician of the Year, and Pianist of the Year in the 2004 National Jazz Awards in Canada. He previously was named the 2002 National Jazz Awards Socan Composer/Songwriter of the Year, the 2000 and 1996 Jazz Report Composer of the Year, and won the 2000 Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album (his CD's have been nominated six times). Jackson was also previously named the Downbeat Critics Poll #1 Talent Deserving Wider Recognition for Piano. I caught up to this busy, but very happy man at his 'serene' home in New York.
JD: Today I am speaking with D.D. Jackson, who, I believe, is in Queens, N.Y. Is that correct D.D.?
DD: Yes, I like to call it New York City because it sounds hipper. But it is technically part of New York for sure.
JD: Let’s start off with asking you a few things about your background. When did you first start taking music lessons?
DD: I started playing music of various sorts when I was about two or three, but I guess you could say I started taking formal lessons when I was about six years old or so.
JD: Were either of your parents musicians?
DD: No, my mother was actually very musically inclined, and my father, I still don’t know if technically he is tone deaf, because I’ve never heard him actually try to sing, but certainly he has always been a big fan of music. My mother would play piano, once we got the piano, around the house and she would sing to us. Both of my parents would play classical music to me, when we were falling asleep when we were toddlers. So, all of that had a great influence on me. We also actually played recorder, together, because it was a very good instrument to get started on as a family.
JD: It seems that a lot of people got started with the recorder. I talked to Bill Runge, the sax and bass player out of Vancouver, and he said that it was the way that he got started, too, on the recorder.
DD: Ya, ya. I wonder some time about technology and how that’s going to affect things. I actually have my first baby on the way in a couple of months--
DD: Thank you. I’m sort of obsessing over these electronically oriented musical devices and wondering if about the same sort of exposure that I had which really forced me to be visceral with the instrument and try things out, if that’s really become changed by these heightened primary coloured push button devices where everything seems to be done for you. It will be interesting to see how that works out.
JD: So, who taught you the most about music over the years?
DD: You know, I could on a certain level say that formal training taught me a lot. I studied classically in Ottawa with a wonderful teacher named Dina Namer for, really, 12 years, practically until I was ready to go to college and continue along. She got me off to a very good start and she was tolerant that I really didn’t want to do “the dozen a day,” which was the God-awful book of exercises--not to be overly critical--too late (laughs), that people learn when they’re young. They have these little figure drawings and there’s something inherently condescending about it, so I was fairly resistant to that. Instead she allowed me to learn, essentially by ear for a few years, when I first started and that got me ultimately into improvisation indirectly, because it fostered really good ear training when I went on to further studies. Then Don Pullen and Jackie Byard were my formal jazz teachers, who I got working with, once I got to New York City after college and for my graduate degree--my Masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music. They were also extremely influential mentors to me.
JD: That is interesting. Don Pullen, we lost him around 1995 or so?
DD: We did. Ya, it was only a few months before my mother died, so it was a very sad period for me. And, as I said he was very influential for me. In fact I really got my start by subbing for him on one of his last projects. It was a collaboration with a Native American drumming and singing group in collaboration with Garth Higgins’ dance company and Don Pullen’s African-Brazilian Connection. He actually died while I was sort of subbing for him, doing his final gigs with them.
JD: That is sad. Well, you compose all the music on your CDs. How do you feel you are evolving as a songwriter?
DD: Well it’s interesting. I reflect on that, because I’m almost feeling like my brain has gone off into different directions. It always has, I’ve always tried to be eclectic from one project to the other, but in terms of my jazz output, there I don't consider myself overtly political. I think that everything that I do comes out of a desire to be sincere about what I experience at any given moment of time. ’s always been sort of a consistency, I think, of sort of a melodic orientation, no matter how wacky or experimental the projects have become and most of them have ultimately been pretty accessible. But there’s also been a sense of adventure with everything I’ve done. I say I’ve branched off, in the sense that I’m now working on other sorts of works as well including, for example, a new opera on Pierre Elliot Trudeau. George Eliot Clarke and I have been commissioned to write the libretto and which will receive its premiere at the Harbour Front Centre in Toronto, in one form or another. We’re not sure what the scope will be yet, about a year from now. I’ve also been doing a little bit of the classical stuff. I recorded a version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with orchestra, not too long ago, and I’ve done some classical commissions and getting into writing and lots of other stuff, so my brain has gone off into many different directions. But there is a certain kind of consistency as far as my jazz output, I would say. That is a melodicness, maybe paired with a sense of open-mindedness or adventure.
JD: There does seem to be some adventure involved in your jazz. Don’t loose it. I love it.
JD: Is there an ideal state of mind you need to be in to compose. Some people need to be upset, or happy, or it has to be a nice day. Does it matter with you?
DD: Well, I have this column I’ve been writing in Downbeat for a few years called “Living Jazz.” I wrote a column, actually a couple of columns about that process. One of them was called “I don’t need time, I need a deadline,” which was one of my favourite quotes by Duke Ellington and you know, I think that’s very true with me. No matter what other things are going on, what other processes I think I need to compose, the bottom line is that if you give me a good deadline and I will start to compose, you know. So there is a certain “at the momentness” that is harnessed when you have to get it done. But there are other more musical/technical things that are involved once you get to that state, which for me involve different processes for keeping different folders of ideas and trying not to pressure myself too much and taking a break when I’m working on one piece and switching to another. These are ideas that I have also explored in my columns including the most recent once which is called “Accessing The External Melody” and it’s on newsstands right now.
JD: Ok. I’m going to mention some names and maybe you can say something about them or how they affected you. I was going to mention Don Pullen, but you answered that one already. How about Jane Bunnett? You played with her for a while.
DD: Ya, well she got me my first start. I think my first Canadian tour was with her and my first gig in Europe. Wait, maybe I played one little tour before that, but she kind of brought me to Europe on a larger scale for the first time. She was very important to me I've always tried to be eclectic from one project to the other, but in terms of my jazz output, there's always been sort of a consistency career-wise and she was always extremely encouraging. We always had that Don Pullen connection. In fact the first time that she heard me was when I was jamming--very late night--I almost wasn’t going to do it but I thought, “What the hell.” I think almost all the other players had stopped playing and I just went up and did a solo version of one of my favourite pieces of Don Pullen called “Gratitude” and she happened to be in the hallway. She got my number and that sort of lead to me working with her because she recorded with Don Pullen, a couple of albums of her own and so on--so there definitely was that connection.
JD: David Murray.
DD: Well David Murray was a huge influence on me. In fact I was just reflecting on the fact that I haven’t played with him in so long. People still associate me with him, yet maybe it’s been five or six years. There’s a point where he basically kicked me out of his band in the good sense of the word. He said, “You really are starting to emerge as a leader and it’s time for you to do your thing and I want you to kind of get out of that.” He’s had a reputation for nurturing young talent and when it comes time to let them go, he sort of lets them go. But ya, he had a huge influence on me in terms of trying to be a leader and trying to do various types of groups, in terms of booking, and certainly conceptually, because he came out of the Don Pullen, which emerged in a sense avant-garde expression, while trying to maintain a through line of melody and things that people could hold on to. Gospel influence in his particular case would be one of the things that you can hold on to in his playing.
JD: I’m getting a sense of the education that you got from these people, Don Pullen and David Murray. It is a continuing education in the jazz world/music world and it is wonderful that they hand down their knowledge, of not just the music, but the business end and everything else. It’s kind of neat.
DD: Absolutely. Not to overstate what I do as a writer, but I wrote an article over a year ago for the Village Voice Jazz Supplement Issue and it was on the new apprenticeship and it was talking about how, at the jazz educational level in institutions, people are really trying to push the ideas of using mentors, people who have really lived and breathed the music, to teach. I feel really fortunate in my studies both formally and informally, that I have always been somebody who benefited from that myself.
JD: I had the pleasure of hearing and seeing you perform at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in 2002 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and we really did enjoy the show.
DD: Well, thank you.
JD: One thing I did notice was that you have the ability of playing with great speed and great clarity. Have you ever had a problem where a rhythm section couldn’t keep up with you?
DD: Oh, (laughs) well you know, the answer is sort of. I’ve encountered a lot of different sorts of players, let’s put it that way. It’s not an issue of keeping up--maybe I’m trying to be too diplomatic about it--players have different sorts of approaches and I’ve always looked for a certain of type approach in the sidemen that I’ve worked with. In the piano trio format I like bass players, for example, who play on top of the beat as opposed to lagging behind, which is sort of a more laid back thing that I’ve heard with a lot of bass players, especially those from areas that are more relaxed inherently--you know, culturally. And people who also play simply--they don’t overplay and really lay the groove down and, drummers, for me, really need to be virtuosic and have access to a variety of styles and play on top of the beat. So I have played with players who, you know don’t quite have that kind of feel. It’s not that there’s something wrong with that, but it just doesn’t work for what I’m trying to achieve most of the time.
JD: That’s understandable. Well, now we have some good news. You have a new CD out. Why don’t you tell us about it.
DD: Sure. “Serenity Song” is really a reflection of what I’ve been going through the last couple of years. In a way, even though I’ve been doing these other projects, including this other jazz opera that was done at the Vancouver Cultural Centre in 2003 and at the Guelph Festival, called Quebecite, for the most part I feel like I’ve been a little off the radar for the last couple of years and that’s primarily because I’ve gotten married and spent a little time, just on the personal life, as they say.
(Note: The CD is available through D.D. Jackson’s website, along with plenty of good info and some previous CD’s at: www.ddjackson.com.)
JD: That’s allowed.
DD: Ya, what the hell. We’ve just kind of been settling down and we bought a place here in Queens and as I mentioned earlier, a baby on the way and all of that and Serenity Song in a way is a reflection of that new found, literal, feeling of serenity that I have in my life, married to my wife Elizabeth. The title tune, in fact, is specifically dedicated to her and really represents the felling that I have waking up next to her every day, of course when we are both in town and our schedules are in alignment. At the same time there’s a certain freedom, a certain relaxation that can also lead to different forms of joy, and so I really feel that the CD is a reflection of the scope of what I really like to explore and perhaps a little more melodic in scope even than usual, but there are still elements of adventure on it as well.
JD: Ya, I really enjoy the CD. It does have a variety of music styles, yet it some how seems to fit nicely, too if you listen to it straight through. It does have an interesting flow to it and I really like it.
DD: I’m delighted.
JD: I like your playing, obviously and Sam Newsome is on it, too. You wrote two or three songs with him in mind and boy do they ever fit his style.
DD: That’s one of the things I like to do with my recordings. It’s one of the exciting things about being a leader and being in a situation where I can record and do my own thing, is try to discover new talent, although Sam is a seasoned veteran and not a new talent by any stretch of the imagination, but at least focus on people I really have admired and in certain cases, like on this album, write things with them in mind. So he has a certain biting quality to his tone, a certain lyrical quality to his playing, but if you ever listen to his own compositions you will hear the influences of Middle Eastern things, and repetitive ostinato grooves that he kind of does this thing on top of, so I really wanted to find a way to really try and represent all the things about his playing that I admired and hopefully did so on the new CD.
JD: There was a nice quote about your last CD, which was A Suite for New York, and I also noticed you have a song on this one for the Katrina survivors called “The Recovery.” He said, referring to you, “It is an example of jazz being relevant, and of a player composer responding to his surroundings.” Would you comment on that?
DD: It’s funny, because I don’t consider myself overtly political. I think that everything that I do comes out of a desire to be sincere about what I experience at any given moment of time and just try to express it in music and you know, in general The Suite for New York City, which Canadian Jackson now calls home, was the subject of his recent album, Suite for New York.
New York City, which Canadian Jackson now calls home,
was the subject of his recent album, Suite for New YorkNew York, the previous CD of mine on Justin Time, it was very much a direct reaction to the events of 9/11 and there were pieces on it that were written before 9/11 and in fact it was intended to be more of a celebration of the adopted home of mine, New York City. But after 9/11 I was so moved, as was everyone else, by the horrible tragedy, that I wrote a series of invocations and turned the work into a different sort of thing. In a way I was regretful when shortly after when shortly after the CD came out, the whole political situation changed. It really wasn’t a political statement. I just wanted to celebrate the City of New York and feel compassion towards the city and my adopted country over here and then we had this invasion of Iraq and this whole nightmare in the Middle East and perhaps I haven’t addressed that musically because it hasn’t moved me to do so, yet. So all I have to say, again, is that I just try to be sincere about what I do and I’m not necessarily trying to make political statements. Katrina was the same way. I was watching the horror on television and just came up with this melody called “The Recovery,” just as a reflection on this ridiculous struggle, you know, the survivors had to endure, I hate to say, just because of the ineptitude of the government, over here.
JD: You always do, to me, seem to have a positive spin and I think it’s fair comment. You ask what can we do and how do we celebrate the positives. “El Barrio” is lively and near the end of the album (Suite for New York). You get the feeling that there was a problem, we’re dealing with it and dealing with it the best that we can.
JD: That’s what I got out of the CD.
DD: Ya, absolutely, on fact there’s another piece called “Hopes and Dreams” on “Suite from New York that is which is very much about the fact that New York, despite all of these obstacles, has always been this beacon for people to come to from the world over. It is amazing to see the diversity of people who want to be here and are willing to endure a lot of hecticness and the overwhelming nature of the culture because there is still something really exciting about being here. New York as an inspiration for one’s hopes and dreams, literally.
JD: It’s the city. There’s no doubt about that. How about a couple of easy questions before you have to go? Let’s see how your memory is. What’s the first piece of music that you ever bought?
DD: That I ever bought--wow! I hate to admit it, but I actually do remember the answer to that (laughs)... the answer is ... The Grease Soundtrack, in the third grade.
JD: Nothing wrong with that.
DD: It may not be the most profound answer you’re looking for but I actually remember that it was the first piece of music. You know, I remember some of the earliest pieces I listened to, whether I bought them myself or not, were things like Oscar Peterson, which was the first jazz album I ever heard. I think it was “Night Train.” I think my father bought the album for me. There was also an album of duets of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. There were two different albums done by them. I had one of the two and believe one of the albums has since been released as a CD, that I listened to, over and over again, as a kid. Ya, there were a lot of early memories of wonderful music that later influenced me greatly when I became a jazz musician.
JD: Ya, it seems that many jazz musicians and classical musicians didn’t get a jazz or classical album as their first piece of music. Ok, if I was at your place right now and hit the little button on your CD player, what would pop out?
DD: (laughs) Actually nothing, because I switched to a wireless hyperactive high-tech system with my whole Apple set-up. So, basically I’m using I-tunes and I loaded a lot of my collection onto my computer and I have it connected wirelessly to different rooms in the house, so I don’t really listen to many CDs anymore.
JD: Ok, so what’s the last thing you listened to (laughs), is what I’m trying to say?
DD: I know, a vastly, direct literal answer to an obvious question that was intended not to be so direct. Lately I’ve been watching DVDs of orchestral performances. I bought a lot of conducting DVDs. I have one of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and one of Zuben Meta in rehearsal and things like that.
JD: D.D., thank you for taking the time to speak with me and good luck with your new CD “Serenity Song.”
DD: You’re welcome Jim, and thank you, too.