Overdue Ovation: Michael Gregory Jackson is on the Move

The guitarist is contemplating a solo acoustic record, sonic landscapes, and more

Michael Gregory Jackson (photo: Gillian Doyle)
Michael Gregory Jackson (photo: Gillian Doyle)

Michael Gregory Jackson is moving to California. “I’m ready for a change,” he says. “I’ve been living on the coast of Maine, a very idyllic, beautiful place, but warm weather is calling.”          

Not that he’s settled on a specific locale. “We’re scouting the warmest, sunniest parts of the Bay Area and seeing what we can find. We’ll give it six months; if it works out we’ll stay, if it doesn’t we’ll move on to something else.”

Such restlessness is par for the course with Jackson: Musically he can’t stay in one place for too long either. The guitarist, vocalist, and composer made his mark in New York’s avant-jazz loft scene of the 1970s. Even that eclectic and experimental environment, though, was too confining. After some excursions into new-wave rock and elsewhere, Jackson spent much of the ’90s and ’00s withdrawn from a music industry that didn’t support genre-resistant artists.

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The business he finally came back to was barely recognizable, but it left him free to be himself. His new album, WHENUFINDITUWILLKNOW, sounds little like the Jackson who debuted with 1976’s Clarity, Circle, Triangle, Square; indeed, except for its jazzy sophistication, it barely sounds like the same artist made two tracks in a row. Blues-rock leads to free-funk leads to bossanova leads to postbop. “I could do something different every day, without any problem,” he says. “That’s just who I am.”

At the same time, however, the album reworks some early compositions. “I wanted to connect with my earlier self,” Jackson muses. “When I did Clarity, I was maybe 23—working with these amazing people who were all doing their own thing, as was I. That’s a spark that has never left me.”

Jackson encountered that world fresh off an upbringing in the suburbs of New Haven, Conn., where he was born in 1953. His father worked in a factory, but also played ukulele and tenor guitar, steering his son toward guitar lessons from ages seven to 14. Jackson’s main musical exposure, though, came from Yale University’s radio station WYBC, whose format placed Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s progressive jazz alongside Jimi Hendrix’s acid rock and Joni Mitchell’s folk confessions. Jackson soaked it all up in equal measure. He was soon performing at coffeehouses, playing whatever happened to tickle his fancy.

After graduating from high school in 1971, Jackson moved to Boston, playing in bands around Boston University. (Jackson audited classes at BU, but never formally attended college.) However, he regularly commuted back to New Haven, where he’d met and begun playing with experimental trumpeter WadadaLeo Smith. On one gig, Smith used a newly arrived St. Louis expatriate: alto saxophonist Oliver Lake.

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“Oliver and I hit it off really well,” the guitarist says. “I started going down to New York to play with him all the time, and then we traveled all over the place.”

Lake formed a trio in 1975 with Jackson and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, continuing it through 1979 and yielding four albums. Lake also played on Clarity, Circle, Triangle, Square (along with Smith and tenor saxophonist David Murray) and Jackson’s duo followup, Karmonic Suite.

“We had quite a creative time,” Lake says today. “The way we played off each other, that was very exciting for me.”

In 1978, Jackson signed with Arista Records. He had sung on Clarity, suggesting commercial potential to Arista honcho Clive Davis. “They were really grooming me to be a Peabo Bryson type, a soul singer,” says Jackson, who loved that music. (He describes his 1979 record Heart and Center as “wacky Earth, Wind & Fire.”) But as the 1980s began, he became enraptured with the punk movement, forming a new-wave rock trio called Signal. Arista responded by releasing Jackson from his contract.

“I thought I’d have a deal very quickly, because I knew so many people in the business,” he recalls. “But they basically said, ‘If you want to play jazz, we’ll sign you tomorrow, but not this music.’”

He found himself adrift. He recorded a couple of solo albums for the German Enja label; a 1982 collaboration with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker ended badly, with no completed record. He finally found an outlet for Signal at Island Records, with the legendary Nile Rodgers producing 1983’s Situation-X—but the label did little to promote it and the album (credited to Michael Gregory, to avoid confusion with the newly crowned King of Pop) sold modestly even after singer Al Jarreau covered its “No Ordinary Romance.”

After some scattered projects, a disgusted Jackson gave up on the music business. “It had put me through the wringer,” he says, “I got beat down for a while and said, ‘Okay, maybe I don’t need to do this.’” He moved to western Massachusetts, taking factory jobs and spending some time working with the developmentally disabled. Occasionally the bug would bite again, and he’d trek to New York for a one-off gig. A pop-soul record with solo guitar and vocals, Towards the Sun, came out in 1991; another, Red, appeared in 2000.

But the urge was too strong: He tentatively made his way back into full-time musicianship. In 2004, Lake reformed the trio with Jackson and akLaff for a European tour. Shortly afterward, he reconnected with Wadada Leo Smith, ultimately performing on and producing two of his albums (2009’s Spiritual Dimension and 2011’s Heart’s Reflections). He also began traveling to Denmark to play with Danish bassist Niels Praestholm, a friend since the late ’70s.

His partner, Karen, encouraged him to professionally re-adopt his last name—which he did in 2013, on a recording with Denmark’s Art Ensemble Syd. “It felt really good to come full circle and be my full name again,” he says. “That’s who I needed to reconnect with: Michael Gregory Jackson.”

He completed his comeback with 2015’s self-released After Before, featuring the Clarity Quartet (with Praestholm and two other Danish musicians, saxophonist Simon Spang-Hanssen and drummer Matias Wolf Andreasen). After making a trio record in 2017 (Spirit Signal Strata) with American bassist Keith Witty and drummer Kenwood Dennard, he returned to the Clarity Quartet for WHENUFINDITUWILLKNOW.

All three albums are similarly eclectic. Yet even so, they can’t contain all of Jackson’s multitudes. “Michael is innovative and prolific,” Lake says. “He’s always coming up with new ideas and compositions.” The guitarist confirms this.

“I have a record of songs, with lyrics, that I want to do. I have a solo acoustic record. I have something in mind for New Orleans-style instrumentation. I have some sonic landscape pieces. I have some hip-hop-influenced music. And then there’s more music for the quartet.

“I’m also looking forward to meeting a lot of new musicians out in the Bay Area after this move, seeing what comes up with them. Because I’ve got no shortage of things I’m thinking about musically: It’s a veritable warehouse in there.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.