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James Jacson: 1932-1997
James Jacson
Woodwinds, percussion

Born: July 15, 1932 in Georgetown, Washington
Died: August 10, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Infinity Drummer

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1997

Jacson, James James Jacson, a gifted woodwind player and percussionist, died in the Philadelphia house where he spent three decades as a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Jacson was among the core group of musicians who maintained both the band and its communal living tradition after the death of Sun Ra in 1993, under the leadership of saxophonist Marshall Allen.

The Arkestra's concerts always contained an important visual dimension, both in the theatrical costumes -- which combined ancient mystical traditions with science fiction -- and in the performance itself. Jacson was a key part of the latter element, as the player designated by his leader to play the famous Infinity Drum.

The Arkestra moved en masse from New York's East Village to the house in Philadelphia in 1968, and when a nearby tree was struck down by a lightning bolt just after Sun Ra had suggested to Jacson that he should have a new drum, the portent was not disregarded. Jacson hollowed out a section of the tree, engraved Egyptian-inspired hieroglyphic carvings upon it, and played it with two heavy sticks, curved in the style of African drum beaters.

It replaced the large conventional drum which Jacson had been using to open every Arkestra concert, and became a staple of the band's performances thereafter. His spectacular ritualistic playing heralded each journey into the strange and highly original musical world which the band inhabited, although his principal role remained as a woodwind player.

He was born James Jackson (the altered spelling of his surname came later, at the suggestion of Sun Ra, a believer in re-making identity) in Georgetown, and moved with his family to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1943. He taught himself to play flute as a teenager, and attracted the attention of composer Paul Hindemith at Yale School of Music, who encouraged him to add oboe and bassoon.

He moved to New York in the early 1960s, at a time of massive ferment in jazz, as in all of the arts. As well as playing music, he made and repaired musical instruments, including his "rhythm boxes", a series of tuned wooden boxes played with mallets, and sold his carvings, one of which -- in a taste of things to come -- was a representation of the Pyramids. More prosaically, he carved the famous wooden sign which hung over Slug's Saloon, for a time one of the centres for the development of the new jazz.

He worked briefly with pianist Cecil Taylor before moving into the Sun Ra orbit in the mid-60s, where he remained throughout his career. He revelled in the creative freedom to explore new sounds and timbres within the music, while accepting the rigorous personal as well as musical discipline the leader required. That committment eventually led to the break-up of his marriage.

James Jacson died of arteriosclerosis. He was survived by three daughters and a son.

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