By James Hale
D.D. Jackson: Border CrossingsCopyright © 1997, James Hale
The most intense athletes are often defined by a look they take on under pressure. The Look - you saw it on the faces of running back Jim Brown, pitcher Bob Gibson and hockey legend Maurice Richard - says "I'm going straight to the goal and nothing can stop me."
Ottawa-born pianist D.D. Jackson has his own version of The Look: his eyes narrow, his head lowers and his lips purse. It's likely the same expression he wore at age six when he determined to conquer Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata by ear.
The Look reveals an internal fire that drives him to continually expand his musical horizons.
For most of his 30 years, Jackson has been on a constant road of study, practice and performing.
A resident of New York City since moving there to study at the Manhattan School of Music in 1989, Jackson has attracted attention for his work with veteran saxophonist David Murray, his own trio, and his two Justin Time recordings, Peace-Song and Rhythm-Dance. All this from a musician who has been playing jazz for less than a decade.
That kind of sudden recognition gives rise to phrases such as 'overnight success' that make Jackson cringe.
"I look it as a continuum," he says, "just a lot of hard work, making connections and doing whatever I can to move forward. It feels like it's more of a slow, steady process, rather than a sudden one."
It's a process that began when Jackson was in first grade.
"It just seemed natural for me to learn piano pieces by ear, whether they were classical things that I would aurally lift off my parents' records or popular melodies."
Recognizing their son's ability, his parents - an African-American father and a Chinese mother - took him to Ottawa piano teacher Dina Namer.
"He was already an extraordinary talent," says Namer. "He couldn't read music, but he was playing entire pieces from memory. He also had an incredible vitality, and a lot of physical energy - so much in fact that one teacher had already turned him down because she thought he might be too much to handle.
"Someone who had worked with gifted children told me the best thing I could do was just to let D.D. go - teach him, but don't hold him back."
"I remember in particular wanting desparately to learn Moonlight Sonata," Jackson says. "I eventually won Dina over, even though the written music was too hard, because I already had the piece in my head from hearing Van Cliburn's version over and over."
Namer says there's no question that Jackson had the talent and discipline to become a concert pianist. She recommended him to study classical music at Indiana University, but the young man was also listening to other voices.
"I had heard Oscar Peterson records when I was a child, and later my older brother, Chris, turned me on to duets by Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock."
At the Orford Music Camp in Quebec's Eastern Townships one summer he began improvising to entertain his friends.
"Their response was very positive, so for the first time I began thinking about exploring improvisation more seriously. Then I heard one of Keith Jarrett's solo recordings, and I was surprised that there were actually people who were playing strictly off the top of their heads. After that, I really began listening to everything I could in the jazz idiom."
The decision to pursue improvisation rolled an impassable boulder into his classical path, and put him at odds with Indiana professor Menachem Pressler, one the world's most respected piano teachers.
Namer, herself a former Pressler student who calls him "tough, demanding and scary," says the split from the classical establishment was traumatic for the young pianist. "Pressler is very old-school European, and he just couldn't understand D.D.'s decision."
"The worst thing he could think of to say to me," recalls Jackson, "was that I sounded like some sort of jazz pianist."
Despite the schism, Jackson finished his classical degree. But when he moved to the Manhattan School of Music for master's level studies, it was as a jazz major.
Pressler wasn't the only one shocked by Jackson's decision.
"It took my parents some time to adjust, but once they understood what I was trying to do they were behind me 100 percent."
It helped that Jackson stepped almost directly from studies with a renowned classical teacher to private lessons with Don Pullen, a jazz player of equal stature in his own world.
They met in Oakland, California, in the summer of 1990, when Jackson attended a master class presented by Pullen. When the older pianist asked for volunteers to play for him, Jackson was the only person to step forward.
"I ended up studying with him for more than two years, and he really gave me a much greater sense of freedom, because he said it was alright to experiment, to compose, to try to find your own, unique voice."
Ironically, Jackson's adoption of several of Pullen's signature techniques - particularly the stabbing, percussive accents and roiling, muscular attack - led to him being labelled in some corners as a Pullen clone. The impression was reinforced when Jackson filled in for his mentor during several stretches of ill health that preceeded Pullen's death in 1995.
Steadily, however, as his musical circle has grown to include Murray, Billy Bang, Craig Harris and other seasoned improvisers, Jackson has learned to trust his own instincts. In performance, shards of Tchaikovsky mingle with Monk, and there is an Asian influence that appears unexpectedly. And there is sadness, and defiance, too. The premature death of his influential brother in 1986 from a rare disease and the demise of his mother and Pullen just weeks apart are reflected in stormy compositions named Funerale and For Mama that are emotional highlights of concerts.
Above all, Jackson's work is consistently marked by a high level of intensity. It suffuses his playing, and his outlook on his career.
"I have this feeling that I have to make up for lost time. I still feel like I'm catching up on a backlog of compositions I have, and I'm excited about opening myself up to new things - other players with different conceptions - and finding ways of expressing myself from within them."
James Hale has written and lectured about jazz in his native Ottawa, Canada, since 1977. A former radio host and head of an international jazz festival, he is now a regular contributor to Down Beat, Coda and The Jazz Report. His work has also appeared in Pulse! and Rhythm Music. He is also jazz critic for The Ottawa Citizen.