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Ambrose Jackson

Andrey Henkin By

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[Ed. Note: We are saddened to report that Mr. Jackson succumbed to a five-year battle with prostate cancer prior to publication of this article.]

In the jazz world, an enormous amount of credence is given to the musician who appears on, to use the parlance, "countless sessions." Yet this ignores circumstances that can take a player on a different path and one can have significance even with the sparsest of discographies. An excellent example of this phenomenon is trumpeter Ambrose Jackson.

Jackson was born in Washington, DC in 1940. He studied classical trumpet and earned his Masters of Music Education from Catholic University of America in 1965. Jackson then went on to have a tripartite musical career: teaching trumpet at Howard University, being a member of the US Army Band Herald Trumpets (playing at President Kennedy's funeral) and touring both the US and Europe with the likes of Otis Redding. The first and third roles were instrumental in what would become an especially productive era for Jackson. Liking Europe after his visit there, Jackson went back on summer holiday. There, he "got to Paris and ran into [alto saxophonist] Marion Brown. I had known Marion when he was a student a few years earlier...at Howard University. He said that he had a tour in Germany and some concerts and he needed a trumpet player. So I stayed on and played in his band. That was Marion Brown, Gunter Hampel, Steve McCall and Barre Phillips." This group made three of the most important documents in avant-garde jazz: Gesprächsfetzen, In Sommerhausen and the soundtrack for the Marcel Camus film Le Temps Fou. The transition to this modern music was made through "the intellectual influence of Marion Brown [and] I found that I could learn a lot about composition, textures—a lot of terms we had in common—just sitting around talking to painters, people in other mediums and applying it to music."

It was while in Europe, alongside playing with folks like Sunny Murray and Steve Lacy, that Jackson, until then purely a repertory trumpeter, began composing for himself. "Over there people invite you over for dinner and say 'bring your instrument.' We as wind players, trumpet players, trombone players, are not used to that. But they really mean it because after the meal they'll say 'play something for us.' Many things I'd play would be excerpts, trumpet fanfares from operas... 'But what about your music? Play some of your music.' Then I had to start composing some of my own music. And then I had better start studying composition. And then I got into 'who am I?' if I am going to express myself. What are my historic traditional roots? In those days in the '70s people were kicking around roots—African roots and Celtic roots—but put us down in the middle of the streets of Dublin and we'd be lost. In those days, plop an African-American down in the middle of Nigeria, probably get sick after the first meal. But here we were wearing dashikis but we really didn't know. But it didn't matter, it had to do with what was going on, in a political sense, in America. But I wasn't in America for one and I wanted to be more profound than that if I am expressing myself musically."

Jackson began studying composition with Jean Catoire. "He was the type of teacher that encouraged us to find or to search for our own personal voice. Nothing was incorrect," remembers Jackson. At the same time, he "started going to these seminars and lectures at the Sorbonne...and after a while I started amassing credits and it got to the point I had enough credits...to get a Master's in Ethnomusicology. And before long I had enough credits to get a Doctorate. But I had to write a thesis so I went on and all I had to do was the field work." This led to a six-month trip to Cameroon, where Jackson studied "the traditional uses of the balafon...like marriages, funerals, victorious occasions." While in Cameroon, Jackson organized two concerts with a big band made up of local musicians and players from the Army band. "We gave a concert in a stadium and had 10,000 people. It happened to be during the bicentennial year, 1976, so the American Ambassador gave me a nice liberty bell with an inscription as far as contributing to relations between Cameroon and the United States."

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