[5/15/17] "A conversation with D.D. Jackson – on his Ottawa homecoming and his musical inspirations"
by Alayne McGregor
This week will be a homecoming for Juno-winning pianist D.D. Jackson – back to the Ottawa student music festivals where he made his first public performances, and back to playing with a long-time musical friend.
D.D. Jackson's two concerts in Ottawa on Thursday and Friday are a homecoming for him after almost 10 years photo by Dave Kaufman
And back to jazz. Jackson recently returned to jazz performance, after several years concentrating on TV and film scores (for which he's won an Emmy) and on raising his son and daughter. He'll be unveiling brand-new compositions at his concerts here on Thursday and Friday, which he hopes to include in a new album – his 13th.
On Thursday, Jackson is the featured artist at the Highlights Concert for the Kiwanis Music Festival at the Algonquin Commons Theatre. His solo piano performances will be a concert highlight, together with top Ottawa student performances at the show. On Friday, he'll give a closed masterclass to Canterbury High School students in the morning. In the evening, he has a sold-out show at GigSpace with Ottawa double bassist John Geggie, with whom he's performed and recorded for 22 years. The concert will include solo piano pieces as well as piano/bass duos.
Jackson grew up in Ottawa, attending W. Erskine Johnston Public School and the Earl of March High School in Kanata. His piano talent was obvious from an early age – but at that time, strictly channeled into classical music. It wasn't until after he attended Indiana University for a degree in classical piano, that he began looking at jazz. When he moved to New York City to take his masters at the Manhattan School of Music, it was in jazz performance, and he has remained in the NYC area and in jazz ever since.
He's recorded nine CDs as leader on the Justin Time and BMG record labels and three as co-leader, and received five Juno nominations, including a win for ...so far in 2000. His hard-hitting piano style has complemented performances by acclaimed jazz musicians, many on the cutting-edge. They include drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart; violinist Billy Bang; percussionist Kahil El'Zabar; and saxophonists James Carter, Hamiet Bluiett, Chris Potter, Dewey Redman, and David Murray.
Among his compositions are a meditation on the events of 9/11 entitled “Suite for New York”; and two operas, including "Quebecite” (based in part on his African-American father and Chinese mother), and “Trudeau: Long March/Shining Path” (about the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau), both written with librettist George Elliott Clarke, Canada's Poet Laureate.
Although some of his first jazz performances were at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, it's been nearly a decade since Jackson performed in Ottawa. OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor spoke to him on the phone on May 9, just after he completed a week of performances at the Village Vanguard in New York City with David Murray, who has just recently moved back to that city. This is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: The last time I heard you play was at the Guelph Jazz Festival in 2014, with saxophonist Kidd Jordan and drummer Milford Graves.
D.D. Jackson: That's right. My narrative that I haven't done a lot of jazz in a while, while true, is not completely accurate, because I have definitely been going out and doing the odd higher-profile gig, even during my semi-imposed pseudo-retirement, as it were.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: It's been almost 10 years, you've said, since you've played in Ottawa. Does it feel like a coming home?
Jackson: Very much so, yes. It's always been so meaningful for me to play in my hometown, and it's actually where my career got its start. My very first professional gig was at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, I think in 1991. It was before I had really done much of anything. I was opening for Lionel Hampton and just put together an assigned trio, and that was really the very start of my career. So it's always been extremely meaningful to come back and play in my hometown, especially since I have a lot of family and friends that are still there.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you have any memories of the Music Festival? I understand you won several prizes there. What did it feel like competing in those festivals?
Jackson: It was definitely really the first time I had any experience playing in front of an audience – just any experience performing at all. I was put into them from a very early age. I remember coming in second one time when I was relatively young, like maybe 12 or something, playing against college students, and being very excited by that. And just having the feeling of excitement, of getting out and performing and trying to compete and doing as well as I could.
I think my first performance was when I was maybe four or five, some years before I even started playing the piano, I was playing recorder with my brother. I think I did a performance on tambourine at some point. So I go way back with the festival.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What will it feel like on Thursday, performing for all these young students?
Jackson: It's always so inspiring to play for young kids. It will be certainly a different take on things than what they may be used to hearing, because I'll be doing my jazz material. But hopefully they'll find something in it that will be inspiring, and [it will] show a sense of continuity from the fact I came up through the festival myself.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you ever attend the Ottawa Jazz Festival when you were a student here?
Jackson: That's a very good question. I'm trying to think if I ever did, actually... My jazz passion didn't really take root even until I was in college. I was sort of improvising and playing in the Earl of March jazz band and things like that, but it didn't really occur to me really that it could be a plausible career until I got into university. And then it was after that I started coming back and attending and really performing at the festival.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: When did you know for sure that you wanted to take a more creative approach to music?
Jackson: I actually can trace it to a music camp that I went to in Magog, Quebec, the summer after my first year in college. I was still, at that point, very much on a very strict classical music path. That was the thing that was expected of me, the thing that I had been training for my whole life. I was studying with, even to this day a very renowned piano teacher named Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio, at Indiana University.
But I really wasn't adjusting very well. I really realized it wasn't something I was enjoying. I was feeling a tremendous lack of freedom, and wanting to be more expressive. So I went to this music camp, where they have these cabins in the woods. And I just started to … even though I was supposed to be working on my classical repertoire, I started to just improvise. And people were commenting on it, and it just felt incredibly natural and expressive for me. It was only after – which I find amusing now – that I realized that there are many people that are doing this already! Like Keith Jarrett. And I started to look into him, and many other people. He ended up actually being the name of our first-born son, whose name is Jarrett Jackson, he was so inspiring.
I was always playing jazz off and on and having fun with it, but that was really where I realized it was something that maybe I had some sort of talent for, and it really got me motivated on that path.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You studied for a number of years in New York City with jazz pianist Don Pullen. How did he influence you?
Jackson: He was a tremendous, I would say, more than anything a mentor figure to me. Not even just as a pianist, not even just conceptually, but just in terms of life. Handling myself, business. He introduced me to many people that I, to this day, am playing with. In fact, I just completed a week at the Village Vanguard in New York City this past Sunday, and it was with David Murray's group. Don introduced me to David Murray many years ago. In fact, the very first big gig I ever did with David Murray was substituting for John Hicks at the Montreal Jazz Festival, back in 1994 or something like that! It also helped lead me to getting signed to Justin Time Records, where I did many CDs over the years subsequently. In turn, I actually introduced David Murray to the label, and then he ended up doing many CDs of his own as well for Justin Time Records.
So Don was incredibly influential as a mentor: certainly musically, conceptually, but also connecting me with an entire scene of players, many of which I still play with to this day.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Last year. there was a tribute to Don Pullen at the Guelph Jazz Festival which Jane Bunnett organized. It was the first time I'd heard some of his pieces, and they were just amazingly vibrant. I was blown away by the music.
Jackson: He's an incredible composer, I think in a way an underrated composer. People think of him more as this very open-minded jazz pianist with a very unique conceptual approach. But the thing that first caught my ear was actually one of his more delicate, beautiful tunes called “Gratitude”. And that was the tune – speaking of Jane Bunnett – that I remember she first noticed me playing at a jam session at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. I was playing it at the Ottawa Jazz Festival after hours, I think just as a solo piano piece. If I recall correctly, she came in, and she said, “Who's that?” And then she subsequently hired me for a Canadian and also a European tour, so that also was another Don Pullen connection, indirectly.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Bunnett's group played "Gratitude" at Guelph, and it sounded wonderful.
Jackson: Yes, one of my favourite tunes.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long have you known John Geggie?
Jackson: John and I go back since I guess just before my first recording for Justin Time, which came out in 1995. How long is that – 22 years? It's been quite a while.
He appeared on my first two recordings, on Peace Song of course and Rhythm Dance, with Jean Martin on drums. He's gone on and done so many other wonderful diverse things. I was the first guest also of his Geggie and Friends very successful series at the NAC for many years. Shortly after the events of 9/11, I recall, because it was a very surreal atmosphere to even come back right after what had happened in New York City.
So we have a lot of shared memories, for sure.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What do you like about his playing?
Jackson: Well, I've always admired his diversity, first of all – I admire people who have their foot in many different musical worlds, and he is certainly equally adept as a classical and as a jazz player. But in the jazz realm also, his approach has always been very open-minded, which is evidenced by how many diverse people he was playing with. And just his basic tone. He has a wonderful, full classical sort of tone, but he can also take things out, as they say in the jazz world, as well.
It's a lot of fun to play with him – I'm really looking forward to it.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What do you think you two have in common, in terms of your approach?
Jackson: I would say the jazz/classical thing certainly is a connection, because that maybe leads to a different perspective on things. The classical world has taught me a lot about larger-scale structures and even though people connect my freer-form improvisations as one might expect with some of the more avant-garde jazz pianists, whenever I go into that musical form of expression – which is certainly not all the time, but on occasion – in reality, I think a lot of that came from own classical music studies. Bartók and Stravinsky and Prokofiev and things like that. They used larger-scale form and melodic development in a sort of atonal way. So John understands all of those different intersections as well, so we in a way can speak the same language.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: John doesn't just stick with one thing. He moves on; he tries new things all the time.
Jackson: Yes, absolutely. And I think that's rather vital. I came out of a period when I was first coming along, and being embraced, thankfully, by Don Pullen but also by David Murray. It was the whole previous generation of musicians that came out of the post-loft jazz scene in New York City – which is making a comeback, you know! David Murray was joking that Jazzmobile never wanted to invite him before because they thought his playing was too crazy or something? I'm not really sure why not. And after this very successful, sold-out week of Vanguard gigs with David finally back in town after many years, now they're calling him!
I think the conception has changed, but certainly there was a very cliquish mentality, a more neo-conservative mentality when I was coming along in jazz in New York in the 90s. And I was embraced by the previous generation as somebody who was, I think, more reflective of the more open-minded post-loft-jazz-scene sensibility that was not terribly prevalent at the time among people actually my own age, who were more aligned with the Wynton Marsalis school.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You've said you'll be playing some solo piano and some duos with John, but what music will you be playing at GigSpace?
Jackson: I intend to play, as I've often done with my own gigs, a lot of originals. I'll certainly invite John to play some originals as well. But one of the reasons I wanted to do this performance – and the highlights concert for that matter – was that I've been feeling newly-inspired to express myself more in the jazz realm, of late, which is something I'm realizing that I hadn't been doing very much. I've been writing music for television and all of that for several now, and for film, and doing as I mentioned, the occasional higher-profile jazz gig.
But what really set me off was David Murray coming back to town, and also just needing the catharsis of being able to express myself in this direct, at the moment, emotional sort of way. Especially in light of everything that's happened politically in this country [the U.S.], which was enough to make me almost want to jump ship and just move back to Canada and just get out of this country. Because it was so horrifying – the election of Donald Trump.
So I've written a number of tunes, not all of which are angry-sounding tunes by any stretch. I've a varied repertoire of new tunes, enough I would say to do a new jazz recording, which is one of my summer projects, a new jazz recording. I intend to premiere several of them at these jazz concerts.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I always wonder though, how anyone can use Donald Trump as an inspiration, because to me, he's more like how Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann: “the banality of evil”. There's not really much there.
Jackson: I should clarify that, because it's not really so much that I'm doing “Ten Variations on Donald Trump's personality” or anything like that. It's really more just a general feeling of needing an outlet for the emotions that I'm feeling. And he has provided that outlet, because there's been such a feeling of – I don't want to say helplessness – but frustration, certainly, and passion against what he's been trying to do every day. And somehow that's awakened in me a desire to express myself in this very immediate and direct manner of jazz, in a way that I haven't felt in a while.
Now that I'm doing it, I was like, 'Wow! I can't believe that it's taken this long to feel this again!' I think part of it was raising a family, and getting settled in, and enjoying very much doing the Emmy Award-winning work and all of this that I've been doing for television. But jazz is really, it's a very different, vital form of expression. It's very direct. It's very at the moment, of course, and it just feels like something that I needed to say, at this time. And hopefully, others will also find some sense of connection to the material, maybe even catharsis in certain cases.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're planning to go into a recording studio this summer?
Jackson: I keep verbalizing it to make it real, because I always go back to the Duke Ellington quote: “I don't need time. I need a deadline.” This is my personal deadline. I have these tunes written. I'm starting to talk to some people about ways that I can get this together. The whole CD market has changed so much since the past, but on the other hand in some ways it's easier to do them than ever before logistically, so... We'll see. That's definitely the plan. Hopefully it will be out the next time we talk.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Had you also been inspired by playing with people you hadn't played with for a while – for example with David Murray? When you play with someone whom you've known for a long time, is there a special feeling there?
Jackson: Absolutely. Again, it's very strange – one of the things I've been commenting to people about, especially those that I've run into after many years. It's almost like you're in a time machine, and you travel to the future when you have kids! Because the whole period when you're raising your kids, and certainly very much enjoying it and diving in and changing diapers and taking them to school, the time just flows by! And just for whatever reason, of late I keep running into people that I haven't seen in 15 years sometime – certainly 10 or more. And because jazz seems to keep people youthful, they appear relatively the same from the last time I saw them, but so much time has gone by.
So it was very, very surreal, for example, this past Saturday night performing at the Vanguard. David Murray wanted to revive one of my favourite groups of his, which was his octet. To do so, he brought in Hugh Ragin on trumpet, all the way from Colorado. Hugh was somebody I hadn't seen since I don't know when. He performed on my duo CD, Paired Down Volumes 1 and 2, on Justin Time in 1996. And there he was! It was really like old times. He looked very similar. The Vanguard looked exactly the same as the last time I played there in 1995. So there's definitely that sense of just coming back home to what I was doing in the past.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: But doing it differently?
Jackson: Well, I mean in some ways, it's like sliding back into something that has a tremendous familiarity. And there's a feeling of realizing, 'Wow! I can't believe that so much time has gone by and that I haven't been compelled until now to dive back in.'
Now that I'm back in, it's like – a terrible analogy – a oil leakage. You can't stop! Once the taps are open, it's very hard to cap it off anymore. So now I'm ready to go. If anything, I need to manage my tendency to just be expressive and keep things under control until the next performance, and so on. So it certainly awakened something in me, this process of coming back to jazz, and playing with all of these people that I've worked with in the past.
And having somebody like David Murray back in New York City is very exciting to me. He just performed last night with my Hunter College Popular Music Combos as well. [Jackson teaches jazz and popular music part-time at Hunter College in NYC.] He came and sat in with the group, and it was quite enjoyable for me as well as for the students.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Besides playing music, do you have any other plans for the days you'll be in Ottawa?
Jackson: Yes, I always like to visit family. In fact, I'm going to have an extra day where I'll do so. I've driven up to Ottawa with my family, usually about twice a year actually. So we'll spend Christmas up there, and my brothers Shaw and Charley and my father, they all remain in Kanata.
But Shaw is actually teaching at the school that I went to when I first discovered the piano: W. Erskine Johnston Public School – that he also went to and my brother Charley also went to. Again, there's a tremendous connection to my roots, whenever I come back.
I'm also looking forward to doing this masterclass at Canterbury High School. There's another old friend, Grace Vigneron, who's been teaching there for some time and had said, 'The next time you come to town, let me know.' And I said, 'Sure, let's do it.'
I do a lot of workshops and masterclasses in area high schools here as well for Hunter College, and it's always again very thrilling to try to hopefully inspire people and talk a bit about the career as a composer and as a jazz musician. So I'm very much looking forward to that as well.
– Alayne McGregor