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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Co-Ordinator - FF&E

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior FF&E Project Co-ordinator is re...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Carer / Support Worker plus Bank Support

£10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A delightful, 11 year old boy who lives in t...

Recruitment Genius: Office Furniture Installer / Driver

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Furniture Installer /...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor