For Ronald Shannon Jackson (1940-2013)

1 Nov

Ronald Shannon Jackson recently joined the ancestors. I write this as an appreciation and salute to a master drummer. You will find a good tribute here, which notes Jackson was unique for playing with Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. In a sense, this means he contributed to the three major streams of “free” drumming, from Ayler’s gospel-inflected conception and Ornette’s funky period, to the great 1970s edition of the Cecil Taylor Unit, noted for such albums as 3 Phasis, Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, and The Cecil Taylor Unit (New World) among others. That Taylor elected to use the group’s name as the title of that album suggests it was the closest to his conception at that time. (Other 1970s Cecil Taylor sides–It is in the Brewing Luminous, which features both Jerome Cooper and Sunny Murray, comes to mind–deserve mention as definitive records of this period, but then we would have to think about his relationship with Jimmy Lyons, certainly one of the most important collaborations in jazz history.)

Down Beat‘s obituary describes him as a “unifying force among creative musicians.” Listening to those Cecil Taylor records, in particular, it is clear that he could be such a unifying force because he was an excellent musician. Drummers, like singers, infrequently get note for their musicianship. Rather, we tend to focus on the accuracy of their time keeping, or the styles they master. So I want to say a couple words about Jackson as a musician who adapted to very different conceptions.

Whether or not the drummers would acknowledge it, if you listen to contemporary jazz you favorite drummers probably benefit from the work of drummers like Jackson. Listening to Jackson’s work on Too Many Salty Swift, I’m amazed at his inventiveness. It’s a live date, and you get to hear Jackson in real time responding to and pushing Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Raphe Malik, Sirone and Ramsey Ameen, maintaining a very musical conception during his solo. During the long, untitled ensemble tracks that follow, I hear him building and releasing tension. Where a drummer like Sunny Murray (let us appreciate his genius while he is still with us) pursued a textural approach that freed the drummer from time, Jackson frees up time within the ensemble, providing time lines rather than a definite pulse, pockets of time that emerge and dissipate according to the compositional and energetic needs of the music. He achieves a kind of deep communion, creating great whirling eddies of time and counter-time, often extending for upwards of twenty minutes.

Using a term like “pocket” to describe such a free conception may seem perverse. I will extend that perversity. In my hearing, the underlying ensemble time bears an abstracted swing sensibility not unlike what Mingus achieved with his changing tempi and moods, rooted in a different approach to composition and improvisation for which the source is still Ellington. Some musicians have abandoned the term “jazz” but wish to retain the concept of swing as a way of racially marking a tradition that extends beyond the marketing logic of genre. Record companies and club owners alone have never, and can never fully define genres. Moreover, the term signals something powerful, vital and generative that seems to me worth retaining. The definitions of jazz is a genuine struggle over the directions of the culture, and there’s no avoiding it. And let’s recognize that anti-“jazz” rhetoric is as much a marketing strategy, and thus just as problematic, as the term “jazz.” Only a person with a very limited, ungenerous conception of the music could complain in seriousness that “99% of jazz now is boring.”

As the poet Elouise Loftin (she appears on an album with Andrew Cyrille, another tremendously important drummer) wrote, “i thought today / its all about a / battle for mind / and who’s got yours.” Listening to him, Jackson was a drummer very much in possession of his own mind and in his playing worked to free others. If I had to pick one thing that characterized Jackson’s playing, and I tried to get at this in talking about the ways his playing prompts pockets or eddies of time within the ensemble, bending and folding the moment, setting time free rather than keeping it, is his generosity. Listening to him, you hear a person who devoted himself to the particulars of others’ conceptions, and that’s before we consider his own work as a leader. We have lost a great musician, a great drummer, and an elder. Ashé.

Hear music from his band, Decoding Society, on his website.

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