Best known for his many collaborations with kindred spirit Gil Scott Heron, the critical mind of Brian Jackson – freewheeling jazz pianist, flautist, and conscious soul architect – remains unbroken. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Jackson met Heron at Lincoln University in 1970. Back then, Heron was already an aspiring poet and novelist, about to take a hiatus from school to work on what was to become his first novel, The Vulture. Yet Jackson saw another dimension to the rhythmic feel and charismatic delivery of Gil’s writings, adding his own musical understanding to create one of the most influential soul duos of the 1970s. His soothing Rhodes, piano and dreamy flute provided an often drastic counterpoint to his friend’s fierce, socially-charged wordplay.
Brian decided to evolve musically in the 1980s, working with the likes of Phyllis Hyman, Roy Ayers, George Benson, and Will Downing in the process. Most recently, Brian has engaged in various collaborations as a band leader alongside socially-minded hip hop stalwarts like Chuck D, Boots Riley of The Coup, and Dead Prez’ Stic.Man. In this edited and condensed excerpt from his recent chat with RBMA Radio, Brian tells the stories behind some of his most successful collaborations.
A Toast to the People
This was the first song Gil and I wrote together, in that rehearsal room at Lincoln University. As became our custom, Gil asked me, “What were you thinking about when you wrote that song? What is the feeling of this song? What do you want to say with this song?” I said, “It’s a song for the people. It’s to honor the ancestors.” That song became “A Toast to the People.” Victor Brown sang it and it appeared on our album, The First Minute of a New Day.
What initially stood out to me about Gil was his sense of humor. This guy had the oddest way of looking at things. He could say more in five words than anyone else, and it always just tickled me. He incorporated that same sense of timing and economy in his writing, particularly in his lyrics. Not only that, it was his social consciousness: the way he articulated his vision about events that were happening to all of us, whether it was on a national, cultural level or an ethnic level. He was always able to articulate a very clear, solid viewpoint. I thought, “This is something that everybody needs to experience.” The only thing that I could see preventing more people from having that experience was not having the type of music or production that would allow that to take place. That’s what I saw as being my mission.
Pieces of a Man
Gil had already recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” He had gotten a deal with Bob Thiele, who produced many of the great Impulse albums for John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. Bob Thiele had started a new label, Flying Dutchman, where he was primarily interested in spoken word. He had read Gil’s poetry book, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and wanted to know if he’d be interested in narrating the poems. Gil told him, “The only prerequisite about me doing this is I want to do the next two albums with my boy Brian.” Bob says, “One thing at a time. Let’s put this out, and if it does okay then we’ll talk about it.” We waited a few months. Bob called Gil and said, “Okay, you and Brian come down to my office and let’s see what you got.”
Bob’s office had this typical Tin Pan Alley set up. He’s got the pipe and the mounds of papers all over his desk. There’s nowhere you can step. Albums on the floor, you know. Off in the corner, there was a little Spinet piano, badly out of tune, but it was there. He opens it up and says, “Okay Brian, Gil, do your thing. Let’s see what you got.” We played “Pieces of a Man,” “I Think I’ll Call It Morning” - all of these songs we had worked on over the last year or two. He’s smoking the pipe, nodding.
We get in the studio. They’re all there; Ron Carter, Johnny Pate was the conductor. I’m sitting there looking at all these guys and saying, “Why am I here again?” I was there because I wrote the songs and because I knew the songs better than anybody.
He takes a long draw and says, “Okay, so who do you want on the album?” We were like, “Ron Carter.” That’s the first thing that came out. We named everybody that we could possibly think of. We wanted Hubert Laws, Wayne Shorter, Alvin Jones, Bernard Purdie - we wanted one of everything. He called us back and says, “Well, look here. Let’s just be realistic about this. We got Bernard Purdie, we got Ron Carter and we got Hubert Laws, and we need a guitar player. I haven’t found one yet.” I said, “My boy Bert Jones. He goes to Lincoln. He played with Wilson Pickett. He’s great.” He says, “All right fine.” That was it. That was our first album. We had all the songs already done. We signed over our publishing which, as you know, is a no-no. All the older guys told us, “Man, don’t do that.” We said, “Hey, it’s either yes or no. We either do it or we don’t get to play.” We did it.
I was 19, so I actually had to have my mother sign the papers. Gil had just turned 21 so he was just able to sign the papers. We get in the studio. They’re all there; Ron Carter, Johnny Pate was the conductor. I’m sitting there looking at all these guys and saying, “Why am I here again?” I was there because I wrote the songs and because I knew the songs better than anybody. Johnny, realizing at some point that I did know what I was doing, didn’t try to run the session or anything. He just kind of sat there for me if I needed him.
Ron and Bernard thought, “You know what? We can’t miss this opportunity to break this young one in.” Ron starts questioning me about some of the chords. He’s like, “So that chord there, are you sure that’s the chord you want? Because it could be another chord. I’m not really sure.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the chord, I think. I wrote it that way, but what do you think? Do you think it should be…” “No, no, no man, no. It’s not up to me. I’m just saying. It’s up to you. You tell me that that’s the chord you want, we’re going with it. That’s it, though. You can’t change your mind afterwards.” I’d catch him and Hubert and Purdie just looking at each other like, “Oh man, this is fun.” That is Ron to a T. No matter how many times they chased me around the barn, I always came back to the same place.
Winter in America
That album was an interesting project. We were finished with Flying Dutchman, not because Bob Thiele was a bad guy, but because of that deal with the publishing situation. It was just unbearable. We probably would have signed with Flying Dutchman again, but Bob refused to let us have any parts of our publishing. In retrospect, I kind of understand; being that he was a very, very small label and wasn’t making any money off of album sales. He couldn’t take our writer’s share, so he was basically taking 50 percent of the writing revenue and we were taking the other. We weren’t happy with that.
We see what he does. He’s in the control room with the engineer, smoking a pipe and telling him, “Okay push that up a little bit. Turn that down. More treble, less bass, whatever.” We thought about it for a while and we said, “Hey man. We can do that. One of us in the studio and the other one in the control room.” We found us a studio in Silver Spring, Maryland and it had everything we needed: drums, piano, blah, blah, blah, and a control room.
We had an idea that we were going to record an audio book. Gil’s next novel was going to be a musical novel. We came up with this whole idea. In a nutshell, it was about a brother who was just coming back from the war, having fought for his country and still not being accepted as a first-class citizen; on top of which, having problems with drugs, having relationship problems, probably having been exposed to so much Agent Orange that he was insane. At the end of the album, you discover that everything being discussed in the songs was basically a figment of his imagination. The dude was strung out. He was flashing back on his early childhood and his first love.
Gil’s next novel was going to be a musical novel. It was about a brother who was just coming back from the war, and still not being accepted as a first-class citizen.
Anyway, there were a lot of songs on there that were just way too maudlin. After we did the album, we scrapped it. We said, “Okay we’re going to keep some of them because some of them are good.” We kept “The Bottle,” “A Very Precious Time,” “Back Home,” “Daddy Loves You,” and we did “H2O Watergate Blues.” One of the ones we didn’t keep was “White Horse Nightmare.” That was just a little bit too severe. “White Horse Nightmare” probably turned into “Angel Dust” at some point. It was about a guy who had tripped out and lost his mind.
Once we regrouped, we decided that we needed some other people. I was playing keyboard, bass and Rhodes and playing flute and Gil was singing. We called Bob Adams on drums and Danny Boens on bass. By that time, we’d run out of money. We had already spent like $4,000, which was all we had. There was a label that we had researched, and we found out that they were willing to do all of our distribution and give us 80 percent, because they were artists themselves. They knew the game and they weren’t in it for profit; they were in it so that artists could actually get their music out there. Stanley Cowell, Charles Tolliver, Dick Griffin: our heroes.
We ended up with Winter in America, a song the title of which was not on the album. We got called out on that by one of our school friends Jay Harris’ mom, Peggy Harris, who did the artwork for Winter in America. Jay’s mom chastized us because she said, “Well, where is the title track?” We were like, “We’re not doing that.” She said, “Well, then the next album you have to have a song called “Winter in America” to make up for it.” We were like, “Yes ma’am.” So we wrote a song called “Winter in America,” and we put it on the next album.
“The Bottle” came about because we were living in Washington, D.C. at the time on Logan Circle. As a matter of fact, if you look at the album cover of Winter In America, you’ll see a spiral theme going on because that’s where we lived. The initial title of the album was Supernatural Corner because it wasn’t really a corner at all, it was a circle. On every corner, there was something happening. There were the hookers and the pimps on the one corner, and on the other there was a liquor store and the winos.
The winos were probably the most interesting – watching them trying to negotiate that circle was really more than entertaining. It was kind of a life lesson. What do you do when you get to a point of no return? How do you handle it and still maintain your balance? They did it very well, but sometimes they also got lost and confused; would sit down and talk about their lives, things that had gone wrong and how they actually got to be where they got to be, either to us, themselves or imaginary beings. We heard a lot of this. It all just blended into a few stories, which ended up being the basis of “The Bottle.”
When you’re addicted, you always think it’s happening to somebody else.
I always thought that it was ironic that “The Bottle” had the biggest impact where people were doing the most drinking. I wondered if people were actually listening to the lyrics, or if they only stopped at the part where it says “The bottle.” There’s a part before it that says, “Don’t you think it’s a crime how time after time people living in the bottle.”
Part of the irony is that nobody really thinks they’re in the bottle. When you’re addicted, you always think it’s happening to somebody else. My buddies who I’m getting high with are the ones that have the problem. I don’t have the problem. See, I can stop. It’s kind of like a group mentality: a group blame game, where you’re kind of invisible. In the end, you have to say it’s truly ironic that “The Bottle” would actually become a drinking song. But, then again, so was the “Star Spangled Banner” with different words.
What was happening in South Africa at the time was unbelievable. There were a lot of people who didn’t know about it. Neither Gil nor I knew as much about South Africa as we could have until we met two brothers from South Africa at university. One was a black South African by the name of Zola, the other was a colored South African by the name of Derek; they had different points of view but they had the same goal. We had been influenced by the music of Huma Sakayla and Miriam Makeba, so had somewhat of an understanding, but those two guys gave us a first-hand account of what was going on.
By the time the Sharpeville massacre occurred, we were fed up. We wanted to do something. If we had anybody’s ear at all, we wanted to let folks in South Africa know that there was a whole country full of black folks, and others, who were really concerned about what was going on there – the killings, the incarcerations – and that we were working as hard as we could to raise consciousness of it.
Interestingly enough, we never got to South Africa until about 1998. For the finale, we did “Johannesburg.” There’s a part in the song that says, “What’s the word?” It’s a call-and-response thing. The call is, “What’s the word?” The response is, “Johannesburg.” This was a very emotional time for us. We’re thinking, “Okay, this is four years after liberation and Mandela is released, so what’s the word?” About four or five people said, “Johannesburg.”
Everybody else was like, “What’s the word? What do we say?” Afterwards, we we’re talking to people and we said, “Hey how come you guys didn’t jump in and say ‘Johannesburg’ when we said, ‘What’s the word’?” They were like, “We didn’t know we were supposed to say that.” We were like, “Didn’t you hear the song?” They said, “No, man, that song was banned in South Africa. We never heard it.” It did get to people but it never really got out the way we had hoped it would.
It’s Your World
I wrote that one - the music and the lyrics. Every once in a while, it occurs to me that I can write some lyrics. That wasn’t an easy thing to be aware of around Gil, because I could always just go to him and say, “Hey man, I got this idea. Why don’t you just write it?” Sometimes things would come to me in a flash and I felt like I might as well just say it, because I’d already started. There was a popular phrase at the time: “Hey man, what’s happening?” The answer would be, “Ah man, it’s your world.”
I just started thinking about what that really meant. Does it really mean it’s your world? What I came up with was that you’re only as in control of your life as you perceive. You’re only as free as you let yourself be. You’re only as positive as you allow yourself to be. Perceptions actually shape your life. When I’m saying “It’s your world,” what I’m saying is, “First of all, you need to be comfortable with who you are. Nobody has the right to tell you who you can be or how you can be.”
Bridges was the first album that we recorded in Santa Monica, California, with a producer by the name of Malcolm Cecil. Malcolm was known for his work with Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers. When Clive suggested that we go out there and work with him, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Here is not just one synthesizer, but a room full of synthesizers, along with a piano, a Fender Rhodes, a Clavinet and everything else that you could ask for - and a great engineer and producer as well.
We brought the whole band out there to record. “We Almost Lost Detroit” was one of those songs that sounded unbelievable with a whole band. Then there were other songs where I didn’t know what I was looking for… I had been fooling around with the Rhodes for a while and I’ve always been a frustrated bass player. I felt like my left hand was getting ready to tell me what to do. I let it talk to me, and it wanted some different basslines. I didn’t want disco or funk basslines. I wasn’t sure what it wanted. I asked Malcolm to fire up the synthesizer and Tonto, which stood for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, and I just went to work..
I’ve always been a frustrated bass player. I felt like my left hand was getting ready to tell me what to do. I let it talk to me, and it wanted some different basslines.
The first song we were having a problem with was “Hello Sunday, Hello Road.” I threw that bassline on there and I got the fever. I saw Ron Carter years later and I said, “I have to apologize, because I know I did all that bass stuff on the keyboard and everything. I know that’s kind of sacrilegious. I’m a frustrated bass player.” He said, “I know. So am I.”
Bridges came about because of all of those synthesizers. I had no idea that a synthesizer could do that many things. On “Song of the Wind,” I thought I was being a wise ass. I said, “You know what? This is a tropical song. I want to hear some tropical trees and breeze and some tropical birds. Can you do that with a synthesizer?” He said, “Yeah, we’ll give it a shot.” He started tweaking some knobs and the next thing I know, not only did he have the birds and the waves and the trees but he had it all on one patch. Tell me if your mind is not blown. That is a synthesizer, dude - those are not sound effects.
This was one of those cautionary tales. We were out in California and, what can I tell you? We were hanging with this sister who obviously had done more than her share of angel dust. I was in the backseat of the car with her and we were all driving, just having a regular conversation. In the middle of a sentence, she just stopped and said, “Wait. What’d you say?” She started having an argument and getting very loud and emotional. We all kind of looked at each other like, “Oh, this is one of those things you just need to leave alone. I see.”
A couple of weeks later we heard that she had jumped off a building. Based on that and our own experience, we decided that was a dead-end street. There just ain’t no turning back. Angel dust, PCP, was like the original crack in LA. Nobody really talks about it, but I’m sure the CIA probably put that out there too. PCP wasn’t dangerous enough. It didn’t make people kill each other. Let’s face it, it didn’t make you really feel that good. It just made you feel really messed up. A lot of kids were getting on it. We felt like this was probably a bad thing. Kids were mixing. A lot of times, kids didn’t know the difference between weed and angel dust, and ended up smoking angel dust and tripping out.
The whole song was not a fun song like “The Bottle.” The songs about drugs are not supposed to be like, “Let’s go do some of this.” It was more like, “Hey, look. This is a story about what can possibly happen to people if they do it.” Clearly, anybody who listens to the lyrics knows that’s what it’s about.
I came out with my first solo album in 2000, called Gotta Play. I wanted to have people who were important to me on it, and the two people that came to mind immediately were Roy Ayers and Gil Scott-Heron. I had been in Roy’s band and had been touring with Roy briefly. New Year’s Eve 1999, I had a show down at The Cooler in the Meatpacking District. The line up was Gil Scott-Heron opening for Roy Ayers, and I was in both of those bands.
These were the two most influential people in my life and I wanted them both on my album. Then it became an issue of what song I should do. We were working on a song called “Parallel Lean.” For some reason, at some point, I just started singing “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.” It just seemed like it worked together so well. The more I began to think about why that song came to my mind at that particular time I felt like it, was because I finally really understood the message. I had been playing the other side with Gil from the mid-’90s. I don’t think anybody would have ever guessed that he would have had the kind of problem that he was talking about in that song. Yet he did. “You keep saying kick it, quit it, but have you ever tried to turn your sick soul inside out so that the world can watch you die?”
It was very difficult to see Gil struggle with addiction, even though he claimed it wasn’t a struggle. He claimed it was a lifestyle decision.
“Home Is Where the Hatred Is” is all about judgment. Don’t judge me. Don’t make me feel that I can’t be around anybody. Don’t make me feel that I’m so different from you that you can’t possibly accept me the way I am, even if I am all fucked up. It really hit me and I said, “I got to have Gil do this. I got to have him put his two cents in on this.” I brought him into the studio to do whatever he wanted to do. He listened to the song for a few minutes and he said, “I got it.” Then he took a pen and a piece of paper and he wrote the opening lines to that piece.
It was very difficult to see Gil struggle with addiction, even though he claimed it wasn’t a struggle. He claimed it was a lifestyle decision. It was painful for him at some point. It was something that he didn’t always enjoy, and it was clearly something that he was running from.
The New Midnight Band album was released last year and features artists like M1 of Dead Prez, Gregory Porter and Martin Luther, an alumnus of the Roots, a great guitarist and a great singer. M1 and Martin Luther really carried the majority of that album. I was looking for artists who I respect and who have claimed direct lineage from some of the stuff that Gil and I have done. I was interested in hearing what it would sound like for them to do the songs that influenced them, like what Gil and I did with Alice Coltrane’s song “Gospel Train.”
I like working with younger artists. The biggest thing that younger artists need to do is get out of their own way, and stop being so influenced by wanting to be accepted. Being an artist is not really about the desire to be accepted. It’s the desire to do something that satisfies your aesthetic sensibility. It’s something that says what you want to say, the way you want to say it. In this time and in this place, it’s very difficult to find.