Drummer Stefan Gonzalez Remembers Ronald Shannon Jackson, Fort Worth’s Jazz Master

Fort Worth native Ronald Shannon Jackson is said to have been the only drummer to have worked with three of the most recognizable giants of the free jazz movement: Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman, who was born in Fort Worth ten years prior. Jackson also collaborated with everyone from the considerably more accessible McCoy Tyner to full-on, genre-killing experimentalists such as Bill Lasswell, as he did in 80s outfit, Last Exit.

Like many North Texans before and since, Jackson had to leave to New York to find real work.  He was also a bandleader and composer of note, and toured globally on multiple occasions. He returned to Fort Worth in the 1990s, and ended a long drought of playing locally with an appearance at the Kessler last year. I caught the performance and felt very fortunate to have seen Jackson perform live, especially since he seemed to have all his faculties intact—often creating enormous blocks of sound—at the age of 72. He passed away late last month of leukemia. He was 73.

Seven years ago, Dallas drummer Stefan Gonzalez, of such acts as Akkolyte and Yells at Eels, looked up Jackson’s phone number and called him. His boldness was rewarded with Jackson inviting him to his home. Following Jackson’s death, Gonzalez had the honor of playing at Jackson’s memorial. He describes the experience below, along with an account of first meeting the musician he so admired.

— Christopher Mosley

My father worked at KERA 90.1 in the early-to-mid 1990s, and he often received promo CDs that he would sort through and split down the middle between me and my brother, Aaron. I first discovered Ronald Shannon Jackson through him giving my brother a copy of Last Exit’s Iron Path. Before hearing it, Aaron described it to me as “free jazz guys playing heavy metal.” It was quite intriguing in description alone. Upon hearing the first song “Prayer,” I was immediately reeled in by Shannon’s thunderous drum solo within the first minute-and-a-half of the song. Coming to find out that he was also a Fort Worth native blew me away all the more. You hear of so many pioneers of the early free jazz lineage being from Fort Worth, but most were reeds players, such as Ornette Coleman, Prince Lasha, Dewey Redman, and Julius Hemphill. I knew I had to research his discography to a deeper extent.

Becoming fed up with my identity as a grindcore/punk drummer and vocalist, I felt I had to do some sonic research to keep the candle of heavy yet creative playing lit. I soon immersed myself within feverishly studying the history of free jazz and raided my Father’s expansive vinyl collection.

One of the first LPs that caught my attention was The Decoding Society’s Man Dance, the second record released under Shannon’s leadership. This especially made a mark on me as it had a very adamant and heavy backbeat with aspects of funk, punk, free jazz, classical, and heavy metal all thrown in the mix. Within a few months I collected all things Shannon Jackson-related, including his contributions to albums by Cecil Taylor to James Blood Ulmer to Albert Ayler. He had made his mark on my life and perception of drumming. He had become—and still remains—my favorite drummer and biggest inspiration in the percussive arts.

Shannon played from a jazz perspective yet facilitated a roaring backbeat focusing on his bass drum, a background in marching band, and an undeniable intrigue complementary to the early punk jazz/no wave scenes he was around in New York. This was during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was often considered off-limits within the confines of jazz, but for me it made total sense, having come from both a free jazz family background as well as a rebellion through the advent of hardcore punk, grindcore, and metal.

At the age of 21, I knew I had to contact him upon hearing he had moved from NYC back to his family house in Fort Worth. I simply called 411 for information and they had his number ready and available. I remember trembling when I heard his voice on the answering machine and realizing I was about to leave a message for my idol. I quickly and hesitantly left a very silly and nervous message saying that I was a fan—a drummer—and that I was interested in getting a drum lesson from him. I hung up and expected I’d never hear back. Twenty minutes later, he called confirming that he’d be down to get together and that: “I had to listen to your message about “five times because you talked so goddamn fast, I couldn’t tell what you were saying.” I quickly called back and got directions, and was Fort Worth bound within five minutes.

It was all a blur upon entering his house, shaking his hand, and receiving a warm and welcoming hug. His house was decked out with memorabilia from his days on the road with Mingus, Ayler, Last Exit, Decoding Society etc. It was like a history lesson in front of my eyes. He was the archetypal Ronald Shannon Jackson I had seen in pictures with sunglasses on and sea shells/pieces of metal tied into his dreads. He looked so real and like a star even on his days off at the crib. He fixed us coffee and then forced me to play on his expansive kit before even attempting to show me anything on his own. I was scared sh*tless but went with it nonetheless. I was met with a skeptical grin. I was at a loss. He then got behind the kit and pounded out rhythms fiercely similar to what I had been listening to for months on end, only this time it was the man himself in the comfort of his home, and me, there, star struck in disbelief.

We then went and kicked it for several hours in his living room and he asked to hear some of the music I do. I showed him some Yells at Eels, Akkolyte, and early Unconscious Collective demos. He nodded approvingly, and in turn exchanged some of his own CDs for those that I brought him: Street Priest, When Colors Play, and Barbecue Dog.

This scenario played out a mere two times more and we lost touch shortly after that until the Decoding Society played its last engagement just down the street from my childhood home at the Kessler, one of the top concerts of my life. The last time I saw him was at the Moon Mansion’s annual Christmas Eve Party in downtown Dallas, 2012. He kicked it with me and my girlfriend at the time, as it seemed it he didn’t know too many people there. We talked and laughed and as always I was met with his archetypal smirk. The dude had charisma even into his early seventies.

When I found out through Gregg Prickett (Unconscious Collective/Decoding Society/Black Dotz) that he had fallen ill, I was concerned, but not deeply. He had an air of eternal youth, and seemed to not be concerned with “old age.” He looked like a rock star every time we crossed paths and was always curious and outgoing. I was pained to find out about his passing, but figured the last thing anyone would want was for a mere fan to attend his memorial service. I teared up when I received the call from Gregg Prickett asking me if I would want to play for his memorial service and that no one could think of a better drummer locally to do his playing justice. I agreed, of course, and got no sleep the night before.

The service was deep and touching, and all of his friends and family in attendance were warm and lovely people. Upon taking the stage to send him off musically, I calmed down and had this clarity, as if we were accepted no matter what we played. Leonard Hayward, Gregg Prickett, Rachella Parks-Washington, Buddy Mohamed, John Wier were all on stage, and had all played with him extensively. When they turned to me to cue a drum solo during “The People We Love,” I was overcome by a force I have never felt before. All nervousness and inhibition faded away and I swear I was acting as a puppet to Shannon’s soul which was undoubtedly in attendance. He was standing over me guiding each and every decision I made in that moment. It was thunderous, visceral, and spirited. It was not my solo, but his. Words cannot describe that feeling in time and what an honor it was to take part in sending off this man and his legacy. All things come full circle, but this I did not expect.

To conclude, I will dig out the tiring cliché that all things are bigger in Texas. I hate the cocky Texas pride we are well known for, but if that saying is to be considered the truth in any regard, it is definitely true in the case of Shannon’s drumming and sound. Understatement and introversion is not an option. If you have a story to tell, tell it with some conviction. Tell it with pride. Tell it as if it’s the last time you will ever be able to do so. Ronald Shannon Jackson told his story fully within every bit of music he ever released into the cosmos. He is missed and loved dearly.

Image: Ronald Shannon Jackson, performing live at the Moers Festival, June 2011. Credit: Michael Hoefner