PEOPLE often speak ill of drummers - 'What's a sextet?' 'Five musicians and a drummer.' Unfortunately the bad reputation is often deserved and everyone remembers bitterly otherwise great jazz sessions which have been ruined by an over-loud drummer. Oliver Jackson's drumming was the opposite of this and he never played badly. He could play with delicacy and perception in any idiom. In the last 19 years he played at 18 of the Nice Jazz Festivals, and he was the first choice for musicians as widely spread as Buck Clayton, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines and Zoot Sims.
'In the early days at Nice,' he told me last year, 'there were no bands as such. We were just a group of 70 musicians and we had to come together and form different combinations. That way you used to get to play in every kind of style.'
Jackson was a listening drummer, always careful to fit his playing to the work of other musicians rather than try, as some drummers do, to dominate a band. When he toured Britain in 1967 with a mainstream all-star group called Jazz From a Swinging Era, he had to accompany the grandiose Earl Hines and another pianist, the comparatively self-effacing Sir Charles Thompson, as well as the trumpeters Buck Clayton and Roy Eldridge and tenor sax men Bud Freeman and Budd Johnson. All Jackson's great talent was called upon as he had to switch his accompanying style so often.
Although the tour was supposed to be by a group of equals, Earl Hines assumed the role of leader and, without anyone asking him to, would stand before the band and conduct it. This annoyed most of the musicians and enraged Roy Eldridge, who was only dissuaded from leaving by hours of patient pleading from Buck Clayton. Jackson was able to take the whole affair in his stride since he had by then been working as the drummer in Hines's quartet for some time. Hines was an elaborate, incisive and sometimes opulent soloist, probably the most prodigious jazz pianist after Art Tatum. It seemed impossible that any drummer could follow his convolutions.
'Earl is a very difficult person to play with,' said Jackson. 'His sense of timing is uncanny; he's got practically perfect time on the piano, and that means you've got to do everything perfectly. What he plays with his right hand is altogether different than what he plays with his left. You can take your pick - you can go with the left hand or go with the right. I generally go with the right, because the left hand goes all over]
'Hines has counter-motion going, and all kinds of counter- rhythms, so whatever you do has got to be right in there, because if you ever get off, it's going to be so noticeable, and it's going to be a great struggle to get back where it is. Your timing has got to be good, and you've got to have a melodic ear. You have to be very quick to think of some of the inversions he does. He's a genius - a real, living genius]'
The drummer stayed with Hines from 1964 until 1971.
Jackson played as a youngster with the musicians in his home town of Detroit. They included such names of the future as the trumpeter Thad Jones, the bassist Paul Chambers, the pianist Tommy Flanagan and the tenor player John Coltrane. 'A lot of people don't know that Coltrane was a very fine blues player, a real honky-tonk blues man] Just like people don't know that Tommy Flanagan was a boogie woogie player, a top-class one.'
He visited New York as drummer with the pianists Dorothy Donegan and Ivory Joe Hunter but each time returned to Detroit until 1948, when he moved to New York as part of a dance act with another drummer, Eddie Locke, called Bop and Locke. The two men worked together until 1953, spending two of those years sharing the apartment of the legendary Count Basie drummer Jo Jones.
When business flagged the two men split up and Jackson joined Yusef Lateef for two years before working as a freelance, as he did for the rest of his life, in New York. The Sixties saw him as a member of Charlie Shavers' quartet, various Buck Clayton bands, Kenny Burrell's trio and the Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton orchestras. After the years with Hines he left with Budd Johnson and the bassist Bill Pemberton and, together with the expatriate Welsh pianist Dill Jones, formed the JPJ Quartet.
Jackson joined Sy Oliver's band and stayed from 1975 to 1980, but his role there was anonymous, and it was in the festival setting that he will be remembered. He played for Oscar Peterson and other top jazz artists so numerous that it would be easier to list those with whom he hadn't worked.
Jackson toured Europe last year with George Wein's Festival All Starts. The two men were close friends and Wein was responsible for most of Jackson's later work. Jackson would in any case probably have missed the Nice Festival this year since, for the first time, the organising of the festival has been taken out of Wein's hands by the Nice authorities.