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Overdue Ovation: Brian Jackson Emerges from Behind the Curtain

A look at the keyboardist's career from his time with Gil Scott-Heron and beyond

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Brian Jackson (Courtesy of Artform Studio)
Brian Jackson (Courtesy of Artform Studio)

For better or worse, Brian Jackson’s name will be forever tied to his symbiotic collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron. Mostly for better, because the two produced some of the most powerful and iconic music of the ’70s, including “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Johannesburg,” and “The Bottle.” But the thing is, that halcyon time lasted only about 10 years before they parted ways in 1980. Scott-Heron went on to make more music, little of it as influential or powerful as his work with Jackson, and he died in 2011, a tragic figure beset by substance abuse. His story has been told and retold many times since. 

But what about Jackson’s story? Since his split with Scott-Heron, he’s never stopped playing and creating. Yet few talk about his contribution to the Scott-Heron legacy, or about the career he’s built in his own right as a keyboardist and composer. It’s as if the warm and upbeat Jackson, ever the yang to Gil’s yin, had been eclipsed by his erstwhile partner’s dark shadow. Luckily, though, some musicians don’t see it that way. When Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the creative forces behind the Jazz Is Dead label, wanted to create the first album in their series of collaborations with jazz elder statesmen, they reached out to Jackson. And that’s only one of a few current projects he has on his docket.

Speaking from his home in Portland, Oregon, Jackson says that music was king in his family’s Crown Heights, Brooklyn household. “Jazz was always playing in my house,” he explains. “I grew up admiring people who played music. From an early age, I started bugging my mom about being able to play drums, because Max Roach was my hero. Like some kids would play air guitar to their guitar hero, I’d play air drums to Max Roach. My favorite album was by Max and Clifford Brown, a little 10-inch 33 with Harold Land and Richie Powell [1954’s Clifford Brown & Max Roach]. The song that really got to me was ‘Parisian Thoroughfare.’ Even at a young age, it sounded to me like a busy city. I thought it was so cool how they were able to conjure up those images with just music. It made me want to do something like that.”

The would-be drummer ended up forging a lifelong bond with a very different instrument. Jackson started taking piano lessons at seven, but sans a home piano. “When I came home from the lessons, I had to practice on a little cardboard keyboard for a few months,” he says. “Finally, my mom got a piano. An old, egg-shelled, cracked, sort of purple or eggplant-colored spinet. It was hideous, but I loved that piano. To me it sounded really good.” 

In 1969, Jackson was just 17 when he met Gil Scott-Heron at Lincoln University, an HBCU in southeastern Pennsylvania. Jackson had already dropped out of classes, depressed by the lack of an Afrocentric curriculum, but he stuck around the school playing piano and writing music. “I was in a practice room and I heard a knock on the door and it was [singer] Victor Brown,” Jackson recalls. “He came in and said, ‘Hey man, it sounds like you know what you’re doing.’” Brown proceeded to talk about an upcoming talent contest for which he needed help with one song. The other song was an original by a friend of Brown’s. “I said, ‘Let me hear it, maybe I can play that one too.’ Victor said, ‘No, he’s going to play it.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine, but I still want to hear it.’ Victor said, ‘Sure, he’s in the next room, I’ll bring him over.’ And of course it was Gil.”   

Just 19 himself, Scott-Heron already had a reputation as a prodigious literary talent; he had chosen Lincoln in part because his hero Langston Hughes had gone there. “He had written this song for Victor called ‘Peace.’ I heard it and it completely blew me away. I couldn’t believe that it was written by this 19-year-old kid. That was that. I had a bunch of songs I’d been writing, feverishly trying to forget my troubles, and here was this guy writing all these great lyrics. I said to Gil, ‘Hey man, you want to give a shot at some of these songs I’ve written?’ He said, ‘Sure, let me hear ’em.’” Thus an historic partnership began. 

Jackson was in awe of his new friend’s process. “He had this big notebook of lyrics and poems. And a pen. I looked at him and thought, ‘He’s either very arrogant or very stupid or very talented.’ [Laughs] That was my first impression of him. Of course, the last option was the right one. We got along then. It really was magic.” The first song they wrote together was “A Toast to the People,” which they later recorded on the From South Africa to South Carolina album in 1975.

They formed a band with Brown and some other Lincoln students called Black and Blues, working the mid-Atlantic area and playing a mix of R&B and jazz. Largely on Scott-Heron’s rep as a writer, they got a record deal with Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label. Inexplicably, the legendary jazz producer wanted a spoken-word album, but Jackson and Scott-Heron convinced him to allow them to mix it with music. “We thought, ‘If we can just make this spicy, maybe Bob will let us do a musical album for him,’” Jackson recalls. It worked, and the result was Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which included the now-iconic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” They recorded two more albums for Thiele and Flying Dutchman (Pieces of a Man and Free Will) and one for Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell’s Strata-East (Winter in America) before signing with Arista, for whom the duo would record six albums—with Jackson listed as co-leader, something Scott-Heron fought for with label honcho Clive Davis.

After the pair split over the proverbial irreconcilable differences (details to come in his in-progress memoir), Jackson moved on to a successful if under-the-radar career both as a backup musician to artists like Will Downing, Gwen Guthrie, and Kool & the Gang and as leader of his own jazz groups. However, the few albums he did with the latter just didn’t get traction. After many years on the L.A. scene, he moved with his wife and family away from the smog and traffic to Portland. He even added martial-arts mastery to his résumé.

“Don’t put me in a box. I’ve always had diverse influences. It wasn’t contrived.”

Ironically, his return to the public eye came via the town he had left, in the form of two young musicians, Younge and Muhammad, with a deep appreciation for the music that Jackson had made in the ’70s. “It was Black History Month when they approached me to do a gig at Highland Lodge, which is just around the corner from their recording studio in L.A. They had this idea to start a label, Jazz Is Dead, and they wanted to know if I’d be interested in collaborating with them. I think they wanted to see if it could work with an older musician in the studio.”

At that time, Jackson says, their direction wasn’t fully formed, but it all came together quickly in two days. “There’s something about that spontaneity that I love,” he says. “Ali is the ultimate groove maker. It doesn’t matter if he’s on a Campbell’s soup can or whatever, he’s going to make something happen. The things that he laid down on bass catalyzed me and drove the thing forward. It was very easy to see what their vision might have been. They were completely open and they had no preconceived notions.” Although the album was the first recorded in Jazz Is Dead’s series of eight (so far), it was held until earlier this year when it was released to unanimous praise. 

The re-energized Jackson now has other irons in the fire, including an upcoming album for the BBE label that he recorded with Daniel Collás, best known for his work with Phenomenal Handclap Band, as well as a recording produced by Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation. All three albums are groove-oriented but otherwise very different. “Don’t put me in a box. That’s what these three albums will show. I’ve always had diverse influences, and it showed in the music that Gil and I did. And it still shows in the music I’m doing now. It wasn’t contrived. It was about what influenced me and what I liked.”

Looking back over his career, one could understand if Jackson were resentful of all the attention paid (even by me here) to his work with Scott-Heron, but that’s not his nature. “No, I feel incredibly fortunate that anybody even knows that stuff 40 or 50 years later. How many artists can say that? Just a handful. It’s an honor and a privilege to be regarded with such esteem by people of now three generations.” 

Recommended Listening

Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man (Flying Dutchman, 1971)

Gil Scott-Heron: Free Will (Flying Dutchman, 1972)

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson: Winter in America (Strata-East, 1974)

Roy Ayers: Drive (Ichiban, 1988)

Brian Jackson: Gotta Play (RMG, 2000)

With Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad: Jazz Is Dead 8: Brian Jackson (Jazz Is Dead, 2021)