Ronald Shannon Jackson: Jazz drummer who defied barriers

Studying history and sociology, he believed music came from the person rather than from theory

If one were looking for a definitive example of “heaviness” in contemporary music, it wouldn’t be necessary to look further than Last Exit, the 1980s power quartet fronted by the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and guitarist Sonny Sharrock, but grounded on sledgehammer riffs by bassist Bill Laswell – whose idea the whole thing was – and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Between 1986 and 1989, Last Exit produced a body of dark, deafening electric jazz, a defiant response to lightweight “fusion” and to Wynton Marsalis’s besuited neo-conservatism.

Jackson is rarely cited in lists of modern jazz’s most influential percussionists. And yet in a career that ran, with some significant interruptions, from the age of 15 up to the present, he worked alongside some of the most important figures in modern music, bringing a torrential sound and implacable beat to a wide variety of projects.

Few others, if any, could claim to have worked for Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, three of the founding figures of the contemporary avant-garde. Jackson saw his own place as right at the centre of that movement. He pestered Charles Mingus for work, but Mingus was committed to his regular drummer, Dannie Richmond, and only later acknowledged Jackson’s gifts. He missed the chance to work with John Coltrane, who died just as Jackson’s career was taking off, sparking a breakdown and spiritual crisis in the young disciple. “I felt it all meant nothing. I’d grown up, if you like, in the midst of the music business” – his father sold and rented jukeboxes in Fort Worth, Texas, where Jackson was born in 1940 – “but surrounded by this philosophy that said you couldn’t make your way in the world by making music. It didn’t matter how hard you worked, and I could play five or six nights a week, it didn’t amount to anything.”

Jackson became a heroin addict and dropped out of performance, though he did continue to study drumming. In the mid-1970s he became an acolyte of Nichiren Buddhism and recovered his physical and mental health. At that point, and while living in New York, Jackson renewed contact with fellow Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman, who recognised a kindred spirit who could combine avant-garde ideas with Southwestern funk and R&B, and a degree of showmanship. Jackson joined Coleman’s free-funk band Prime Time and proselytised the saxophonist’s paradigm-twisting “harmolodics”.

An educated man who chose to major in history and sociology, Jackson believed that music came from the person rather than from theory. He spent a good part of his college years, in Texas and Connecticut, listening to visiting bands and playing in every musical situation that presented itself. A charismatic performer, his intense playing was set off by exotic clothes, black painted nails and a wild mane of hair.

After leaving Prime Time, Jackson worked for a concentrated period with Cecil Taylor, another highly physical performer who regards the body as the primary source of music. Like Taylor, he often “sang” during performances, notably on the 2000 release Puttin’ On Dog, which reunited him with pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, who had coached him in Buddhist practices. Jackson then formed his own Decoding Society group, under which name and with shifting personnel he performed for the rest of his career. But solo success eluded him and it was as a sideman on guitarist James Blood Ulmer’s 1980 classic Are You Glad to be in America? and the sequel America – Do You Remember the Love? that Jackson became something of a star.

Last Exit’s supergroup success failed to mask his growing frustration. Jackson felt that his own work was little appreciated but also that his drumming was becoming generic. Work with the trio Power Tools disappointed him too.

Like many jazz drummers, he had a creative epiphany in Africa. Jackson said on his return that he had learnt enough in three months to last him a lifetime. He also liked to hint, with a dark chuckle, that he refused to be constrained by a single physical life and intended to spread his spirit across multiple existences. This led him to take chances with his health. He played on despite neurological damage that affected his powerful left arm, and he discharged himself from hospital a day after bypass surgery, to play a scheduled concert, though did meekly readmit himself after the gig.

As an industry outsider, he relied on Japanese release for Decoding Society recordings. The best of his own earlier records were What Spirit Say and Raven Roc on DIW, the latter helping to firm up a stage image that fell somewhere between James Brown and Edgar Allan Poe. Later recordings were on the Knitting Factory imprint.

He was reported to be suffering from leukaemia in early 2013, but was preparing material for a new Decoding Society record at the time of his death.

Brian Morton

Ronald Shannon Jackson, jazz drummer: born Fort Worth, Texas, 12 January 1940; married (two sons, one daughter); died Fort Worth, Texas, 19 October 2013.