Vernon Reid Remembers Ronald Shannon Jackson
1.12.40 – 10.19.13
I had a kind of fusion band in the late ’70s, and Melvin Gibbs was the bass player. We used to rehearse a lot but we had no gigs. And Melvin started playing with groups in Manhattan, which was a big deal for Brooklynites. One day he said, “You have to hear this drummer I’ve been playing with. His name is Ronald Shannon Jackson.” I went to a gig, and it was a magical experience; I’d never heard music like that. I later joined his Decoding Society.
Shannon was unique because he played with Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, so he’s a common figure between three pillars of the jazz avant-garde. With harmolodics Ornette was a figure something like Miles Davis, in that James Blood Ulmer went on to do his thing with the concept and Ronald Shannon Jackson had his own take on it. Ornette and Shannon—they’re from Texas, and that’s a big deal. There’s something that unites Shannon’s music to Lightnin’ Hopkins; there’s a certain something that is just boiled in.
Shannon’s music was a blend of his Buddhist beliefs, his fascination with Eastern mysticism—and barbecue. Also the Great Migration, also big-city life, also just pure imagination. His tunes, those melodies—I’ll stick my neck out and put Shannon with Mingus. A lot of his tunes were so odd but at the same time so accessible; you felt like, “Where have I heard this before?” On the first Decoding Society record, Eye on You, he wanted avant-garde music but he wanted it to be very short. He didn’t want super-long solos. It’s a sort of jewel box of a record in that way. He really was a populist. Part of why he took me on was that I was a young guy and I was into rock and roll music. He wasn’t one of these jazz musicians who railed against the audience for digging pop music. He was a fan of the band Journey! He liked Neal Schon’s guitar playing.
As a drummer he loved Max Roach. He talked about how the odd time signatures and other ideas he was using came from Max. And a lot of his rhythms, the pattern that would normally be played on the ride he would play on the mounted tom. So he flipped the swing, and he combined that with marches, with fife-and-drum, bugle-corps stuff as well as African polyrhythms.
He became a kind of father figure to the guys in the band, and he could be very acerbic in his assessments. If a gig wasn’t to his standards, at the next rehearsal a riot act would be read. He pushed really hard, because he knew that there was another level to go. There were tours where it was really tough and I had to work hard. There was one particular tour where it seemed like nothing was right, and it was very discouraging. After the shows, he wouldn’t say anything—if I did well, if I didn’t. At the very end of the tour, he said simply, “You moved up.” And that was huge.
He trusted me. I was the band treasurer, if you will [laughs]. I kept the money, kept it safe. I was a square. I came into that band as a comic-book-reading, sci-fi-loving nerd who also was into Hendrix and Mahavishnu Orchestra and John Coltrane. I was stone-cold sober the whole time, and he had gotten straight. Like a lot of cats, he had gone to the edge of the doorway of perception and fell through. I didn’t get high, but I also wasn’t like a judgmental vegan [laughs].
The last time I saw him was at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Shannon always had such strength of character. He was a man in a bad situation, but seeing him in the hospital, I could believe he had a chance of making it. He got up; he could walk around. He gave me a big hug, and there was strength in his body. He wrote music constantly, and there was manuscript paper in his room.
Aside from the sadness of losing such a wonderful person, the thing I feel most is an incredible amount of gratitude. Shannon began my life. My life as a professional musician before was stops and starts and disappointments. I experienced things for the first time because of him. The first time I flew on a plane was because of Shannon Jackson. The very first time I went to Europe was with him. I just have a profound sense of gratitude and love. That’s what I’ve got. That’s all I’ve got.
As told to Evan Haga