Ali Jackson Jr. developed his talent on drums at an early age. After earning a degree in music composition at the New School University for Contemporary Music, he studied under Elvin Jones and Max Roach. He has performed and recorded with artists including Wynton Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Harry Connick, Jr., KRS-1, Marcus Roberts, Joshua Redman, Seiji Ozawa, Diana Krall and the New York City Ballet.
Mr. Jackson is also featured on the Wynton Marsalis Quartet's The Magic Hour (Blue Note, 2004). Mr. Jackson currently performs with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis Quintet, “phenom ensemble,” Horns in the Hood and leads his own Ali Jackson Quartet. He has appeared at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy Club Coca-Cola and participates in the Jazz For Young People series. He is also the voice of “Duck Ellington,” a character in the Penguin book series Baby Loves Jazz.
All About Jazz: You come from a family of musicians. How did you get started on drums?
Ali Jackson: Yes, I’m a third generation musician, second generation jazz musician. I studied classical music and jazz. My mother is a classical pianist. My father, bassist Ali Jackson Sr., played and recorded with John Coltrane. My uncle, drummer Oliver Jackson, played with Earl Fatha Hines.
AAJ: So, you’ve been influenced by all kinds of music.
AJ: Oh absolutely. That has a dramatic influence on you growing up and just being around music. I can remember being three or four years old, sitting on my father’s bass stool in a rehearsal. He used to teach at Oakland University.
AAJ: When did you get your first drum set? When did you get serious about it?
AJ: I was playing gigs by the time I was eight years old. I remember playing on the street with my father, in Detroit.
AAJ: A ton of jazz musicians came out of Detroit, did you get to meet a lot of them?
AJ: Yeah, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Sir Roland Hanna, the Jones brothers…Elvin Jones was a huge influence, like a godfather to me. I met pretty much everyone, Geri Allen and Bob Hirsch, Rodney Whitaker. I met a lot of them because they would take lessons from my dad.
AAJ: Who taught you the most about drumming style and technique?
AJ: My father started me off. Then, Philly Joe Jones would come and visit our house when I was about eight years old. He gave me lessons. I took lessons with Roy Brooks and Lawrence Williams. I studied a lot of African and Congolese and Senegalese percussion.
AAJ: What drew you to the drum?
AJ: I guess it was a natural choice. As long as I can remember, I’ve been playing drums. I’ve been quite passionate about it. It’s part of who I am--my makeup, my DNA.
AAJ: The human voice may have been the first instrument, but the drum came in a close second.
AJ: We are born with the drum. Your heart is a drum. Without rhythm, the world wouldn’t move. Everything has a rhythm, from the Earth, from the stars, the whole galaxy, it all has rhythm. The universe is rhythm. Everything you do has a rhythm or a pulse to it, whether its your speech, or how you walk, the ways your eyes blink, the way the wind blows and rustles the leaves, its all rhythm. As a percussionist, you want to channel that rhythm. Rhythm is key.
AAJ: Explain what the rhythm section does for the band.
AJ: It is the focal point of rhythm, that’s why they call it the rhythm section, because without rhythm, there would be no music, it would just be notes, and no rhythm and time. That’s what makes the music feel good. It’s the soul of the music. If the rhythm section is sad, then nine times out of ten, the music is going to be sad.
AAJ: How did you hook up with Wynton?
AJ: I met him when I was a kid, maybe eleven years old in Detroit. He was playing a jazz festival and we met. We stayed in contact every time he came to town and our relationship just developed from there. There’s only a handful of people who can play, and Wynton tries to, “not to pat myself on the back or anything," but likes to be around musicians that are serious. I played with him when I was about eighteen for a little while and then we rekindled our relationship about six years ago. I lived on the West Coast for a while and when I came back, we started working together again. I had developed as a musician and as a young man. It’s more like family. It’s beyond just playing music. It’s a lifestyle and consciousness that people have. There’s only a certain number of people that play music on a high level, so it’s like one big family.
AAJ: What are your words of wisdom to young musicians?
AJ: Practice. You just have to want to do it. Sometimes young musicians think they’re going to make all this money and be a star…you just have to want to do it. For me, I was kind of born into it. It was my natural path. But if you really want to do it, you’ll practice hard and surround yourself with people that are really serious.
AAJ: What is your philosophy on life? Is the glass half empty or half full?
AJ: It’s always half full. Life is what you make it. All you can do is spread love. I try to extend a warm smile and a sweet embrace with anyone I meet…just from that basic principal. I try to wake up with a smile on my face. Just keep moving forward. Adversity is actually positive because its your will and focus to move through adversity, which makes you stronger and makes you more positive. In a nutshell, that’s how I try to live my life. Share the gifts that you have.
Jared C. Balogh
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