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Brian Jackson: Winter In America Pt. 2

Chris May BY

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'The Bottle' was stolen from us. Sylvia and Joe Robinson of Sugarhill Records replicated it and because they had better distribution than Strata-East they massively outsold us. They sold a million but they never paid Gil or me a dollar. If we had tried actively to pursue it, we probably would have ended up face down in the Hudson.
—Brian Jackson
As Gil Scott-Heron's songwriting and performing partner during the 1970s, keyboardist, composer and arranger Brian Jackson was co-author of some of the most galvanising liberation music of the era. Inhabiting the intersection of jazz, soul and spoken word, Jackson and Scott-Heron, who met while they were both students at Lincoln University, were a team from Pieces Of A Man (Flying Dutchman, 1971) through Winter In America (Strata-East, 1974) and its breakout single "The Bottle," through six subsequent albums on major label Arista, culminating in 1980. The partnership did not end well, as Jackson tells All About Jazz in this interview, with music industry machinations and Scott-Heron's cocaine-induced paranoia combining to bring about a divorce.

Since then, Jackson has recorded only intermittently. In a new burst of activity, he has no less than three albums scheduled for release in 2021—including a much anticipated disc as part of Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad's Jazz Is Dead series. But between 1980 and 2020 Jackson released just two own-name sets: Gotta Play (RMG, 2000) and Kentyah Presents: Evolutionary Minded featuring M1, Brian Jackson and the New Midnight Band (Motéma, 2013). He reveals the reason for the hiatus below.

After growing up in Brooklyn and spending most of his life in New York City, Jackson moved to the West Coast in 2019, first to Los Angeles, then to Portland, Oregon. Though 2021 may be springtime for Jackson, he fears that even post-Trump, it is still winter in America.

Jackson concludes the interview by telling us about six of his all-time favourite records (a number imposed on him by AAJ). To make it a little easier, it is assumed that Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) are included but, deus ex machina, do not count as part of the six.

All About Jazz: Did you grow up in a musical household?

Brian Jackson: Absolutely. My mum and dad were jazz fanatics. Radio, records, music was always playing and it was usually jazz.

AAJ: Can you remember the first jazz record that made a big impression on you?

BJ: Like it was yesterday. It was "Parisian Thoroughfare" by the Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet. I was probably around four or five years old. What got me was the musical imagery. Not that I knew what that meant at the time, but I was old enough to realise that it sounded like a busy street somewhere that wasn't here. I was fascinated by Max Roach's approach to playing the drums, which to me sounded like, in more modern terms, a video game. Booms and crashes and exciting things happening all the time. As a young kid, that really caught my attention.

AAJ: When did you start playing an instrument?

BJ: I started piano when I was seven. Before that I wanted to play drums, like Max Roach. But living in an apartment, that wasn't going to happen. Then it was the trumpet, like Clifford Brown. But that was not going to be happening in an apartment either. So we settled on piano, which my mother had played a little. It took her a few years to get it together. It occurred to me recently that she wasn't just testing me to see if I was serious, she was saving up the money for the lessons and to get me a piano too. After the first lesson I had, I came home and I didn't have a piano, but the teacher gave me cardboard cut-out of the keyboard to practice fingering on. Mum got the piano a few weeks later.

AAJ: Did you continue your piano studies at Lincoln University?

BJ: I had hoped I could study music, but when I got there and examined the music department curriculum I found that jazz was not included. I was amazed because it was a university with a high proportion of black students. I had chosen it because some of my heroes had gone there— Langston Hughes, Oscar Brown Jr., Kwame Nkrumah, Thurgood Marshall. I had been reading Langston Hughes for years and listening to Oscar Brown on the radio and in the mid 1960s you could not open up any black publication without seeing Thurgood Marshall's name. It was also a time when I was becoming aware of some of the political struggles in Africa, so Kwame Nkrumah was also on my list. I had been studying European classical music for over ten years and by this time I wanted to study jazz. I wasn't prepared to do just classical music anymore.

AAJ: So what did you study instead?

BJ: I ended up doing Liberal Arts. But I spent the most of my time playing piano in the music rooms in the arts centre. One day the singer Victor Brown [who appeared on several mid-1970s Scott-Heron / Jackson albums] came into the room where I was practicing and asked me to play in a show he was organising. One of the songs was "God Bless The Child," the Blood Sweat & Tears version, which I knew. He said that another one was written by a student at Lincoln who happened to be working in the next practice room. It was Gil. He came in a played it and I was absolutely knocked out by the lyrics. To cut a long story short, we started writing songs together, for the next ten years.

AAJ: How did you write together? Did the lyrics come first or the tunes?

BJ: When we started, our normal style was I'd write the tune and then he'd add the lyrics. We'd talk about the tone and intent of each piece and then Gil would fill it out with actual words. Later on he began to write more lyrics first and I would fill it out with the music.

AAJ: Out of all the work the two of you made together, please would you pick out a couple of your favourites?

BJ: Our first first album, Pieces Of A Man, is still a miracle to me. To go into a professional studio with a highly respected producer like Bob Thiele [founder of the Flying Dutchman label] and to make an album with some of my heroes, like Ron Carter and Bernard Purdie and Hubert Laws, it was surreal. These people were gods to me. Their presence legitimised everything that Gil and I were doing. I was nineteen and Gil was twenty-two and to have our work taken seriously, that was everything to us. Imagine Pieces Of A Man without those guys. It might still have been good stuff but they turned it into a classic. Another major highlight was our first self-produced album,Winter In America. We had some great help from the engineer, Jose Williams. He was our mentor, he showed us the ropes. There are always people who are not mentioned, in the back room as it were, who are actually the catalysts making things happen, and Jose was that person for us.

AAJ: What was Bob Thiele's style in the studio? Was he a hands-on producer?

BJ: Until I was doing it myself, I didn't realise what a producer actually did in the control room and I think that is probably the highest compliment I can pay Bob Thiele. At the time I had no idea what he was doing. I just felt like I was making music and somehow it all got magically put on to an album. Bob never told us how to do what we were doing. His whole idea was simply to fully capture what it was and then he'd figure out what to do with it, get it to fit on an album, sequence it and so on. That's basically how he worked with us.

AAJ: Like Thiele said when someone asked him about producing John Coltrane: "I didn't produce Coltrane. Nobody produces Coltrane. You just make sure the tape's running." Why did you and Scott-Heron move on from Flying Dutchman?

BJ: All the older guys had been telling us, "Get your publishing, get your publishing." And Bob, having a small label, wasn't really willing to give us a cut of our publishing. That was basically the deal breaker. Sadly, in retrospect. And we thought to ourselves, we can produce our own music. What does he do? He sits in the control room and smokes a pipe and twiddles a couple of knobs. We can do that. It wasn't until we actually did it that we realised how much there was to it. We definitely found out there was more to it than smoking a meerschaum.

AAJ: So you took Winter In America to Strata-East because Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver would let you keep the publishing.

BJ: That was their whole thing. Because they were musicians themselves they ran a label that was fair to the artists. And not only did they let us keep the publishing, they let us keep most of our artist royalties as well. On Strata-East eighty-five per cent of the proceeds went to the artist. Because Stanley and Charles never really expected to sell that many copies and all they wanted to do was cover their operating costs.

AAJ: Charles Tolliver told me in a 2020 interview that Strata-East couldn't really handle the success of "The Bottle." It was too big for them and they didn't have the pressing or distribution facilities to make the most of it.

BJ: That's true. In fact, "The Bottle" was stolen from us by this outfit out of New Jersey. Sylvia and Joe Robinson [later of Sugarhill Records] put out a cover version [on Sugarhill forerunner Turbo] and because they had better distribution than Strata-East, it massively outsold us. They sold a million copies. They just replicated our song and kept all the money.

AAJ: Didn't they even pay your publishing royalties? Scott-Heron was credited as the composer on the decal.

BJ: They never paid Gil or me a dollar. If we had tried to actively pursue it we probably would have ended up face down in the Hudson.

AAJ: It's tragic how so much of the music business was run by gangsters and thugs back then, and how some of it still is. Talking about Winter In America, do you think the exit of Donald Trump means spring is coming?

BJ: No, it's still winter, man. It's going to be winter for a long time unless some people realise some things. There's still poverty, more so than ever. There's more disease, more than ever. There's more hatred and vitriol than ever. There's more polarity. There's more fear. I don't think Joe Biden is going to be able to do much about most of those things. I think the American people, as a nation, need to face some facts, which they don't seem to be willing to do. And I'm not even talking about the freaking election and seventy million people voting for Trump despite it all. I'm talking about how the demographic of America is changing to become more like the global demographic. In this world there is an exponentially larger proportion of humanity that is non-white. The fact that we even say "non-white" is crazy. Given that people of colour outnumber white people so massively why don't we talk about "non-black"? It should be that way round. I mean, you reference the majority, right? Anyway, a lot of people in America don't understand that, and if they do, they don't like it. I think the most fanatical of those people fear that in power, those who had the greatest atrocities visited upon them will take vengeance. Which would be justice in a way though I don't think it would be right. And I don't think it would happen anyway. Look at South Africa. Blacks haven't taken vengeance there. I don't know what is going to wake these people up.

AAJ: It's terrible, really depressing. It's beyond comprehension. Moving on, what caused you and Gil to stop working together?

BJ: At the beginning, we were both happy with where we were at musically. But when we got to Arista, Clive Davis [the label's president] wasn't happy with it. Coming after "The Bottle," he saw tremendous sales potential. He figured, "If I can get another of those, I'm in the money." But we weren't interested in doing another one. We were interested in pursuing our muse, whatever that happened to be. So we were always kind of at odds with Clive. And I think he saw me as the person who was in the way. He put a lot of pressure on us to come up with another hit single. He would tell us, "I'm a businessman, I can't operate without a hit." I guess we sold enough to keep him at bay, but he didn't rack up the kind of numbers that he intended to.

AAJ: Whatever he thought of the sales, those Arista albums were landmark artistic successes.

BJ: We did a good job on those. And I had other music that I wanted to do. I did some stuff with Malcolm Cecil [producer of the Scott-Heron / Jackson Arista album 1980] with the intention of at some point releasing an album of my own. Gil was OK with it at first, but somewhere along the line he interpreted it as meaning I wanted to split. I'm not sure where he actually got that idea from. Partly it was probably paranoia born of the drugs he was using. Cocaine creates a lot of paranoia. And also, when you look at Gil's life, you have to factor in that he probably had issues about abandonment. Like not meeting his father until he was twenty-six and successful, and having grown up being tossed about between his uncles and his grandmother, and his grandmother dying right in front of him when he was nine. I take all that into consideration when I think about what happened between us.

AAJ: Meanwhile, Clive Davis may well have been whispering in his ear.

BJ: Let's just say I don't think he was concerned about whether the door knob hit me in the ass on the way out. Somebody told me once that he had said to Gil, "Why do you surround yourself with incompetents?" I didn't consider myself incompetent but my instincts told me that he was talking about me and my being in the way of him making Gil a mega-million-selling superstar.

AAJ: Did you and Gil ever have any artistic differences?

BJ: The only difference that Gil and I had artistically was that I was more of a touchy feely kind of guy than he was. I would always prefer to serenade somebody into consciousness, whereas Gil wanted to take up a club and beat it into them. Which is one way of doing it, I guess. But it wasn't my approach. The only thing that annoyed me about him as time went by was the excess bluntness. I saw other people who had the same message but were going about it better. Like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. Also Gil considered himself a blues singer at heart, while I wanted to develop as a musician. Gil was a master poet, not a musician. I guess that in the end I had reached a level of musical sophistication that Gil wasn't really into.

AAJ: After you split from Gil, why did it take twenty years for your first solo album to be released?

BJ: I don't know. Actually I do. There were several reasons. When Gil and I split it was 1980. That was the year that disco finally took over and all the jazz loving A&R people on the labels, the people who didn't care if a song was 120 beats per minute and four on the floor, they were being replaced by disco people. So when I presented some of the music that I was doing it didn't fit the zeitgeist. I was turned down by about fifteen labels. In the meantime, the business problems I was having with Gil kind of rendered me broke. I was having problems surviving financially.

AAJ: What were the business problems?

BJ: I wasn't receiving my publishing royalties. And if you're going to litigate, you need money. It was catch twenty-two for me. Had I got my money I wouldn't have needed to file any law suits, but not having that money I couldn't afford to file a law suit to get it. It ended badly for me and Gil, sad to say.

AAJ: For a few years you worked with other people and then things seem to have gone really quiet until 2000.

BJ: Right. I toured with Phyllis Hyman in 1981, which is one of the other greatest things that has ever happened to me. I enjoyed that so much. We were on the road for almost a year. Gary Bartz joined us on the West Coast and we travelled with him. Oh man, those were good times. Later on I worked with Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Gwen Guthrie, Roy Ayers, Kool & The Gang and Will Downing. Then there was a dry spell and I ended up finding a job working for the city of New York, as a city employee. I have five kids, man, I had to support them. I ended up doing that for over thirty years. I only retired in 2017.

AAJ: But you have albums in the can right now.

BJ: There are three actually, all of them coming out this year. One is with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad as part of their Jazz Is Dead series. Another is with Thievery Corporation's Eric Hilton. It's an instrumental album where I do a lot of lead work on synths. It's quite different to what I'm known for though I've been doing that for some time. The third one is more what you'd kind of expect from me. It includes two tracks from those late 1970s Malcolm Cecil sessions I was talking about. It's coming on Britain's BBE label.

AAJ: So after the famine, the feast. We can't wait. Please would you finish up by telling us about six of your all-time favourite records?

BJ: OK. I've kept it to albums I heard for the first time in my early years. We'll assume A Love Supreme and Kind Of Blue and go for some others....

BRIAN JACKSON: SIX ALL-TIME FAVOURITE RECORDS

Miles Davis All Stars
Walkin'
Prestige, 1957

This was the first album I ever bought. I would have to say that Horace Silver, wow, he just blew my mind. I get reverential when I talk about him. First of all, he made me want to play. He made it sound so easy I thought, hey, I can do that. He took me on my journey. And his solo on "Walkin'" is a complete work of art. They should put that in a museum. Then you've got Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke before you even get to the horns. Something else.

The Supremes
Where Did Our Love Go
Motown, 1964

Hey, I was eleven, man. It was the beginning of my consciousness of the Motown sound. The Funk Brothers were playing on it. You had Earl Van Dyke on piano and that sax solo from Andrew Terry. And Holland-Dozier-Holland were a composing-producing team like no other, although I was too young to be conscious of that then. But the record made me aware that pop could be musical in a way that I could relate to.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Arrives
Atlantic, 1967

Aretha was working with the Muscle Shoals guys on this album. I actually ended up meeting Spooner Oldham on tour once. That was a great thrill, because I had a Wurlitzer at the time and his work on Wurlitzer was something that got me in tune with how soulful an electric piano could be. Then it was Aretha on acoustic piano. Put those two together and you've really got something. And Aretha is singing. What more could you want?

Jimi Hendrix
Are You Experienced
Track, 1967

Everything comes from the blues and to me this album was an example of another incredible direction that the blues could take if you let it. Or maybe I should say, if it let you. And that's the thing on Are You Experienced . Where does Hendrix stop and the blues start and vice versa. It's an album that still sounds revolutionary today. It's deep in the tradition but it extends it at the same time, which is a great thing to do.

John Coltrane
My Favorite Things
Atlantic, 1961

There's got to be a Trane in here somewhere. My head explodes when I think about Africa / Brass. But there's this one too. It was mystical to me. When I put that album on the first time, "My Favorite Things" put me in a trance. And it was the first time I heard McCoy Tyner, I mean really heard him and his approach to chords. He didn't do the fourths thing on that album, but still, his approach to comping and using his left hand, accompanying himself during his solos, those were revelations to me. And the heat of sound that Coltrane produced, those flickering lights in front of you. It was probably the deepest thing I had ever heard.

Gary Bartz Ntu Troop
Harlem Bush Music Uhuru
Milestone, 1971

This is an album that blended vocals with new rhythms, with an African sensibility. Gary was living in Brooklyn at the time and he frequented East, a cultural centre that raised a lot of people's consciousness. It was so aligned with where I was coming from. East was where I discovered Andy Bey . His work on this album was outstanding. I used to listen to it over and over and over again. One of the great voices.

Brian Jackson's podcast, Pieces Of A Man, is at: brianjackson.net/podcast

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