With so many jazz musicians trying to make waves, chances are that most will stay submerged. But a few stick their heads up and make the fight against the undertow appear much easier than it really is.
That’s the case with Jason Jackson, a 43-year-old trombonist, arranger and composer who’s coming to town for a series of gigs with tenor saxophonist Rob Scheps over the next few weeks.
After the release of a critically praised album that features heavy-duty friends such as trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Terell Stafford, tenor saxophonists Rich Perry and Pete Christlieb, bassist Rufus Reid and trombone mentor Slide Hampton, plus a recent profile in Downbeat magazine, Jackson is an emergent artist to watch.
He got to this level by working with, well, pretty much everybody. Listen to him tick off a list of bands he’s involved with: “Jimmy Heath’s big band, Charles Tolliver’s big band. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which I’ve been associated with for almost 20 years. Rufus Reid’s big band.
“I get to play, not regularly, in Maria Schneider’s band. I was with Ray Charles a couple of years — that was my first real road gig. I work a lot with the Dizzy Gillespie alumni big band…”
Not to mention his work with his wife, singer Rosena Hill Jackson, and his work in bands for Broadway shows and recording studios.
He’s a cat who works and plays well with others and makes it look easy. But it took a lot of preparation.
Jackson grew up in Southern California with music in the house.
“I used to sing and dance with my friends, and we made little dance moves to Michael Jackson records. We even charged the kids 5 cents to come see it.”
He took to his instrument early: “My uncle had a trombone. I found it and started tooting some notes on it. Everybody said it was amazing, because nobody showed this kid how to play a note. They said to take the horn.”
He went “all in,” he says, by studying at the Oberlin Conservatory, where he had some “very humbling” lessons with bebop trombone innovator J.J. Johnson. Then he obtained a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study with Hampton, who let the student into his big band.
That set the stage for a long period of getting noticed and making friends on the New York scene.
His CD, “Inspiration,” with beautiful large-ensemble arrangements that include strings but never turn cloying, is an imposing but ingratiating statement. But it had a long and complicated genesis.
The first recording sessions were a decade ago on the West Coast. Later sessions were in Jackson’s home studio.
“I went to friends and said, ‘Can you help? Can you come by the house for a couple of hours and lay down some tracks?’ I was so scared to ask Roy Hargrove … but I did ask, and he said ‘Cool,’ and that was it. He came over and said, ‘How many things you got? You got more? I really like that. I want to get a copy of that chart.’”
That’s a compliment to Jackson’s arranging prowess. Unlike his well-tutored trombone playing, arranging is a skill he learned through independent study.
“My first influence there was Mingus. A lot of my early arrangements were stolen from his records. Then obviously I got into Duke. Thad Jones is a huge arranging influence.
“I just learned by listening to a bunch of people.… I just whittled my way through, banged things out on the piano and tried to find something that sounds good.”
There’s a similar open-mindedness in his trombone playing, as we’ll hear on his Kansas City gigs.
“My big influence was J.J. Johnson, right from the beginning. I love Curtis Fuller. Slide is one of my main influences. But I’m really not a purist when it comes to playing.”
His music is all about taking those ideas and making them his own.
“I think I specifically gravitated toward jazz,” Jackson says, “because of the freedom of expression and the very democratic quality of it, where everybody works together and puts their thing in and this bigger thing comes out.”
This week, the Scheps/Jackson quintet plays a free concert on the Jazz by the Lake series at Kansas City Kansas Community College, at noon Thursday in the Conference Center by the campus lake.
The full group, plus some friends, performs again April 11 at the Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., and April 16 at Take Five Coffee Bar, 6601 W. 135th St., Suite A-21, behind Von Maur, Overland Park.
Until then, Jackson and Scheps are guests with pianist Mark Lowrey’s group at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Majestic Restaurant, 931 Broadway, and with guitarist Ron Carlson’s group at 6 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. April 10 at the Lucky Brewgrille, 5401 Johnson Drive in Mission.
And don’t be surprised if they pop up on some other gigs around the area while they’re in town.
▪ There’s another great musician visiting us this week, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, an omnipresent sideman who has distinguished himself with Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Maria Schneider and Karrin Allyson, among many others, and was reliably excellent when he came through town in bassist Christian McBride’s Inside Straight band.
Wilson is in residency at the University of Kansas this week. And he’ll play a concert with the KU Jazz Ensemble I, directed by Dan Gailey, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Lied Center on the KU campus. Tickets are $14 to $25; call 785-864-2787 or visit Lied.KU.edu. (Wilson is one of the friends heard on Jason Jackson’s CD. Small world.)
▪ Women’s History Month is almost over, but it hasn’t passed without notice from the musical community. One of the big events will be The Gathering: Women of the Arts KC, a fundraiser for the Emancipation Station day shelter for homeless women and children.
On the bill are musicians from all over the spectrum, from jazz to R&B to gospel to classical, including singers Mary Moore, Pamela Baskin-Watson, Angela Hagenbach, Lisa Henry and Toni Oliver, plus a rare appearance by singer Luqman Hamza. The event is from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Blue Room; thtickets are $35 to $75 at Eventbrite.com.
▪ The Blue Room also has the New Jazz Order big band, directed by Clint Ashlock, at 7 p.m. Monday; singer and multi-instrumentalist Lester “Duck” Warner and his band at 7 p.m. Thursday; pianist Joe Cartwright’s Latin Jazz Quartet at 8:30 p.m. Friday; and the Louis Neal Big Band in an Alpha Phi Alpha benefit for Harvesters food bank at 8:30 p.m. Saturday (bring three canned goods for a discount on admission).
▪ Take Five Coffee Bar thhas bassist Bob Bowman’s band Interstring at 8 p.m. Friday and lefty guitarist Lester Estelle’s group at 8 p.m. Saturday.
▪ Highlights at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., include the Foundation 627 Big Band at 8:30 p.m. Sunday; organist Chris Hazelton’s trio at 9 p.m. Monday; the Sequel Quartet at 9 p.m. Tuesday; organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 9 p.m. Wednesday and again at 9:30 p.m. Saturday; and vibraphonist Peter Schlamb’s Electric Tinks at 8:30 p.m. Friday, followed by Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 band at 10:30 p.m.
▪ The next show in the Spirituality and All That Jazz concert series is a showcase for the Kansas City Kansas Community College big band and vocal ensemble. It’s at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St.