Drummer & Composer Ronald Shannon Jackson Dies at 73

Leader of the Decoding Society also played with Ornette Coleman and many others

Ronald Shannon Jackson, a drummer and composer who worked largely within the realms of free jazz, funk and fusion, died Oct. 19, in Ft. Worth, Tex. Jackson’s passing was confirmed by his cousin, Tobi Hero, on Jackson’s Facebook page. Jackson was suffering from leukemia and had been living in a hospice. He was 73.

Ronald Shannon Jackson
Ronald Shannon Jackson
Ronald Shannon Jackson in 1989

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Jackson recorded more than 20 albums as a leader and served as a sideman with such pioneers of jazz’s avant-garde as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. (The drummer was in fact the only musician to work with all three.) Jackson’s band the Decoding Society, formed in 1979, incorporated contemporary elements such as rock, funk and dance and included, at various times, such now well-known players as Billy Bang, Byard Lancaster, Zane Massey, David Fiuczynski, Jef Lee Johnson, Melvin Gibbs, Robin Eubanks and Vernon Reid.

Jackson was born in Ft. Worth on Jan. 12, 1940. His mother was a church organist and singer while his father was the proprietor of Ft. Worth’s only black-owned record store. Shannon played drums in his school marching band and by 15 he was playing professionally. In college in Missouri, Jackson played with pianist John Hicks, trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Julius Hemphill, all fellow students. Jackson transferred to other schools and eventually received a full scholarship to study at New York University under trumpeter Kenny Dorham.

Once established in New York in 1966, Jackson’s career took off and he aligned in the late ’60s with several other top musicians, among them McCoy Tyner, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Charles Mingus, Betty Carter and Stanley Turrentine. But his musical leanings veered increasingly toward the avant-garde, and he recorded with Ayler at the end of that decade. A heroin addiction sidelined Jackson for four years in the early ’70s, but upon becoming a Buddhist he kicked his habit. In 1975, Shannon joined Coleman’s group Prime Time and a few years later, Taylor’s outfit.

With the Decoding Society, Jackson began to make a name for himself as a leader, and the group’s albums, beginning with 1980’s Eye on You, were critical favorites. Decoding Society recorded more than 15 albums and toured under the auspices of the Voice of America, playing in more than 15 African countries and nine Asian countries.

Jackson also worked with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer during this period. In 1986, Jackson formed the group Last Exit with guitarist Sonny Sharrock, saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and bassist Bill Laswell; Jackson also worked with Laswell on other projects. In 1987, Jackson, bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist Bill Frisell formed another group, called Power Tools.

Jackson kept the Decoding Society alive with a revolving membership into the ’90s, but nerve damage to his left arm slowed down his drumming output after the turn of the century, although he continued to compose. His string quartets and other compositions have been performed in Europe and the United States.

He returned to active playing in 2005 when he joined with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, pianist Vijay Iyer and double-bassist John Lindberg in the Golden Quartet. In 2011, Jackson, Reid and Melvin Gibbs formed a trio called Encryption; Jackson suffered a heart attack while on tour with the group but soon returned to playing.

Jackson was also an educator, giving seminars at Harvard and many other institutions, as well as abroad.


  • Oct 20, 2013 at 01:44PM Howard Mandel

    RSJ's Decoding Society debut Eye on You was a bolt of lightning in the soundscape of 1980. Ornette's first Prime Time releases and Miles' On The Corner were precedents, but RSJ organized all-star free-funkateers like neither Ornette nor Miles, casting (as Jeff writes above) "rock, funk and dance" rhythms as the fundamental motivators of his racing, clashing lines. Shannon had his own sound, putting his own stamp even on the recordings with Ayler, Cecil and Ornette (Dancing in Your Head!) perfectly powerful with Blood, Laswell, Sharrock, Nix, Gibbs, Frisell, Vernon Reid, Zane Massey, et al. Sad he's left this world.

  • Oct 21, 2013 at 05:07AM HDC123

    I will always remember Shannon! We had some time together. Driving him in a beaten up Volkswagen with Byard Lancaster; Yousef Yancey and Garrett List from Leuven to Antwerp (Belgium) after a concert of the A1 band. Or the rollercoaster-like trip after a concert of the Decoding Society from The Hague to the airport in Brussels in the wee wee hours of the morning. Or the memorable concert of the Decoding Society at Sfinks festival in Boechout (Belgium). On Sunday the Decoding Society was scheduled as last group of the festival. In the early afternoon of the same day they played in Groningen and made it just in time to the festival in Belgium. Going on stage with no sound check, mesmorizing the public from the first drumroll. The concert of the Decoding Society left no observer unmoved. It was the last concert scheduled that day and the fact that the group arrived late made that their concert started when the festival came officially to en end. However, the Decoding Society played on, uplifting. A policeman jumped on stage and dragged the drumsticks from Shannon's hand, who refused to be intimidated and took a new set of sticks, and again and again until there were no more. The concert was shut down, but the public did not take it. Every festival goer drummed on anything and with everything he or she could not find.The festival that normally should have ended at 11 pm, lingered on till 8 am the next day. Charges by the police were taken by the audience for good and bad. I will also cherish the memories of the Last Exit concerts and tours. We had fun, especially when Diamanda Gallas joined one night the group at the Moers festival. And finally, I convinced the producer of Eiland (Island) at the Belgian Radio and Television to add Shannon to the series. I will never forget the 20 minute drum solo annex interview with Shannon. Somewhere in the archives I have a copy of that show on a videocassette. With pleasure I will dig up the tape and enjoy again the ultimate experience. Looking forward to meeting you again Shannon somewhere, sometime, someplace.

  • Oct 27, 2013 at 01:52PM Onaje Allan Gumbs

    I have known Shannon for over 40 years.I introduced Shannon to Buddhism as we were both going down Atlantic Avenue in 1974. He was driving very fast. I started chanting until he asked me what I was doing. I told him"if you slow down, I will tell you.! Shannon was like a big brother. He also in 1984 entrusted me to interpret his melodies for solo piano after I had done one interpretation of one of his melodies. It took a while for this project to be completed because the producer, David Breskin, had sat on this music for about 20 odd years. I finally bought the rights to that recording.So as of THIS October, 2013, Bloodlife ,solo piano interpretations of melodies by Ronald Shannon Jackson will be digital download.

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