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Darryl 'Munyungo' Jackson

In many cases, the percussionist is the unsung hero of many groups. While the horn players or singers capture the spotlight, in many cases the entire mood of a concert, and particularly of some tunes, would be entirely different without the assistance of a percussionist. In many cases, even today, it is difficult to study to be a percussionist, and many of the best known and most successful percussionists have taken up the challenge of playing percussion by the love of the instruments and the love of the sounds they produce.

Which brings up another point: While some musicians spend a lifetime mastering a single instrument, or instruments within the same family, percussionists are expected to know exactly which instrument, however exotic, may produce the effect that a group leader is seeking. In many cases, the leader may not even know the names of the percussion instruments, but may describe the sought-after sound by its timbral characteristics. Percussionists are continuously collecting new instruments and experimenting with new sounds from all over the world, and in spite of their inconspicuous presence, they bring a worldwide cultural perspective to the groups they join.

Darryl "Munyungo" Jackson has spent his life in pursuit of the infinite sounds that percussion instruments provide. In spite of his work with jazz leaders like Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul, Terri Lyne Carrington or Dianne Reeves, he still remains fairly unknown. He has recorded on hundreds of CD’s, contributed to movie sound tracks and even played the role of Max Roach, albeit briefly, in Clint Eastwood’s movie, Bird. And in his "spare time," he has written about book about Ebonics, The Nu Naybahood Funetic Ebonics Dictionary in which he transfers his talent for listening to other performers on stage to capturing the nuances of African-American speech. The result is sometimes profane and sometimes irreverent, but always hilarious, and always honest.

After a life-changing experience, Jackson found that music provided the means for his rehabilitation and therapy, and now, thankfully, he is touring and recording again, mostly with Dianne Reeves. Here’s a long overdue recognition of the work of Munyungo Jackson.

JazzReview: Where do you play next?

Munyungo Jackson: I played today, actually, with some guys from Trinidad. And tonight I have to rehearse with Bennie Maupin. I’ll know more about that gig when I see him. Sometimes people call me for jobs, and if they fit into my calendar, I’ll get all of the other info when I get to the rehearsal. I always take my calendar with me, and then I can tell them, "OK, I can do it," or "We’ll talk later."

JazzReview: How do you know what to bring?

Munyungo Jackson: I would talk to them about that too. ‘What kind of music will we play? What will we be doing?’ Or they’ll just send me a copy of their CD or a tape of their music. I have a basic thing that I play (congas, bongos, timbales and hand instruments), but sometimes people ask me to bring certain other things.

JazzReview: How did you get started on percussion? Did you start as a drummer?

Munyungo Jackson: No. I started as a classical piano player. My parents made all of us play musical instruments. I have three sisters, and they all played piano. I have a brother who played trumpet and another brother who played clarinet.

There was a guy named Harold Johnson who was a grade ahead of me in my piano class in Horace Mann Junior High School. He also played in his father’s church. So he had that gospel thing. When I got to Washington High School, there was a talent show that he played in with his own band. He had a bass player, a flute player and two conga players. I dug the rhythm that the conga players were doing.

At that time, my mother and father were radio deejays. My father was the program director of a station called KTYM. I learned that a lot of promo records came to the deejays so that they could be played on the radio. I didn’t know who the artists were, but if I saw a picture of a conga drum, I wanted to listen to it.

Being in Los Angeles, I was always attracted to congas and other percussion. But the people in L.A. who spoke Spanish were Mexicans, but I didn’t see Mexican people here playing congas. I heard it on the radio. I was listening to Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria and those kinds of people.

I used to hang out with the conga players from my friend’s band. I kind of played behind them to learn to play the instrument. But I wanted to learn to play something else that I could play with the conga players. So, I played cowbells and timbales. Also, I played along with records when I came home by people like Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Baretto, Carmelo Garcia, who was the timbale player with Mongo Santamaria at that time.

Since my father was a program director, he also emceed at a jazz club called Marty’s on The Hill. It was in Los Angeles, at La Brea and Overhill. He called to tell me that Mongo Santamaria was playing there. At the time, I was seventeen or eighteen years old--too young to go into a club without a permit. He said, "You ought to hear these guys play." I couldn’t wait to go! When I went into the club, the band was playing this mambo tune. Carmelo Garcia, who was the group’s drummer, was starting to play a timbale solo as I was being taken to my seat. My eyes were on the stage, and I was bumping into people. I loved the intensity! It was like, oh my goodness. So, I learned a lot by watching him play. The energy was really cool.

In the late sixties and early seventies, music was starting to change into fusion. Miles and a lot of other groups were getting into that kind of music. So, I had to change the dial on my radio from jazz to the traditional Latin stations. They were playing some mambos and singing, and I was listening just to hear the congas. Back then, when I listened to Latin music and saw the people who spoke Spanish, it was quite different. At that time, the Mexicans in L.A. weren’t playing the type of music I was listening to. Among some of the promo records that were sent to our house, there was a real dark-skinned Cuban guy named Rolando Laserie who played small sets of timbales called timbalitos. When I listened to him on his records, he sounded like the Spanish people in L.A. Musicians who grew up on the East Coast were exposed to a lot of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, while the West Coast had a lot of people from Mexico.

JazzReview: Did your father encourage you to play music?

Munyungo Jackson: Oh, yeah. He dug it, even though he was more into jazz.

JazzReview: What was his name?

Munyungo Jackson: Art Jackson. My mother’s name was Genie Jackson.

JazzReview: So they were fairly well known.

Munyungo Jackson: They had their own radio shows. My mother played some music on her show, but she also interviewed people and talked to children. Also, she got into writing music, stories and plays.

JazzReview: What instrument did she play?

Munyungo Jackson: She didn’t play an instrument, and she didn’t sing. She just used her pencil and paper to write down a lot of things. Also, her older sister, Nellie Lutcher, was a singer in the forties. She retired five years ago at the age of 85. She had a deal on Capitol, and she put out four or five records.

Anyway, the leader of this band called The Harold Johnson Sextet had a conga player in it named Billy Jackson. I used to hang out with him and listen to him play. When I got some timbales, I played straight time while he played all over the place. He used to pick me up, and a guy who brought his upright bass. Billy put the three of us, his two congas, my timbales and the bass player’s upright bass all in his Volkswagen Bug. The bass would stick out of the sunroof. He used to take us to various parties to play. One time, he took us to some people’s apartment. We took our instruments and played different grooves at their party. The people dug it, and they paid us, like, five dollars apiece. I thought, "You mean, I can do something I love, people dig it, and I get paid too? I want to do this for the rest of my life!" I’ve been playing in a lot of different places for a lot of different people ever since.

JazzReview: Is that the only type of work you’ve done?

Munyungo Jackson: Back then, I had little jobs. One of my first jobs in life was being a paperboy. I had a bike to deliver an evening newspaper called The Herald-Examiner. After I started playing music, I was still working little jobs on the side because music was considered to be a hobby. But I really dug getting five dollars here or there for playing music, and sometimes I just went to the park to play. I played along with Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo records. Then I started playing for dancers and dance classes.

JazzReview: You started playing professionally in 1974.

Munyungo Jackson: At the time, my father invented a wooden clock that would help kids learn to tell time as they put it together. He wanted to turn that business over to me when he retired. But I was trying to figure out how to make a drum when I was in his shop. I wanted to learn how to make something I could play! At that time, I got a call to play in the musical, $600 And A Mule. We were rehearsing every day. So I couldn’t take a full-time job any more. Big Black was the leader of the band, and I was making about $500 a week, which was cool for me. Big Black looks like a big African drummer, but he’s from the South. He’s a different kind of conga player. He’s a serious jazz percussionist.

JazzReview: When did you start touring?

Munyungo Jackson: Actually, one of the first times I traveled was with Willie Hutch. After we rehearsed, we opened for Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, in Texas. Teddy Pendergrass was in the group at that time. The house was only half full that night, but people screamed. They really dug the music. As I was packing up my conga drums after the show, I went into the dressing room, and the other guys in the band were getting dressed again. They were forking out their big naturals. I said, "Are we playing again?" And they said, "Oh no. We’re going out to catch some women now." I mean, I didn’t know that that was the other part of the gig. That was like a new thing to me. I was more into the music. I just wanted to play.

I think I auditioned for Santana at about that time too. I didn’t get that gig. But the next time I saw Santana was in London. I had arrived there with The Supremes. After the gig, we hung out. When he saw me, it was like, "What are you doing here?"

It was really cool playing with The Supremes. This was after Diana Ross left. When I went to South Africa with The Supremes, I didn’t know what Apartheid was there. We had signed some papers stating that we wouldn’t get involved in political situations, but I didn’t think anything of it. See, back then in the seventies, I had a big Afro and a beard. But a lot of people in Africa didn’t grow a lot of hair. When we landed in Johannesburg, we looked different.

Normally, when you walk down the street anywhere else in the world, you make way for each other out of respect. But in Johannesburg, I saw this white guy coming down the street while I was just kind of looking around. It was kind of a narrow sidewalk, and when he got closer, he didn’t move over. Neither did I. We bumped each other! When I turned around, he just kept going. I didn’t know that a black person was supposed to get off the sidewalk if a white person was walking down it.

When some people took us to Soweto, man! When we first arrived, we went to a soccer stadium where the Orlando Pirates and the Kaiser Chiefs were playing. They were rivals, like the Mets and the Yankees. The place was packed! I mean, I grew up in South Central L.A., but that was the first time I saw a place full of black people. They were hollering and screaming and chanting. One team kicked a goal, and a bunch of people ran onto the field to hug the players on their team. Then some police had to come onto the field with their dogs to chase the people off the field. The feeling there was intense!

JazzReview: Did the people respond to the music the same way?

Munyungo Jackson: When I toured with The Supremes, I noticed that a lot of the black people in South Africa couldn’t afford to come to the concert. And the authorities wouldn’t mix the concerts. Not a lot of people could come to the black shows. At that time, we tried to mix one of the shows. So, the authorities put some chairs and boxes in the back row and let some janitors sit there in the back. They thought it would be legal if they did that.

Before we landed, I thought I would kiss the ground because I would be in Africa. But when I saw what was going on in that country, I did not want to touch my mouth on the ground.

We invited some people to come to our hotel and hang. But some of the officials complained that we couldn’t take them into our hotel. We said, "We’re with The Supremes. We can have whoever we want in the hotel." There were some people who really dug us and cooked for us.

JazzReview: You performed for the president of Gabon.

Munyungo Jackson: That was quite a different experience. The way I met the president of Gabon was through Fred Wesley, who was producing a record for the president’s wife. She was a singer who also lived in the United States. Our group went to the palace to meet the president. He shook everybody’s hand. Then he started talking about political topics regarding his country.

JazzReview: Who was in the band?

Munyungo Jackson: Fred Wesley led it; he used to play with James Brown. When James Brown went to different parts of Africa, the audiences really dug him. The manager of James Brown’s band also worked for the president of Gabon. So the president asked him to put a band together to come to his country and then to perform for his wife.

JazzReview: Who was the president at that time?

Munyungo Jackson: Omar Bongo. He’s still the president. Two tribes in Gabon merged. His wife’s father is the head of one tribe, and his folks were the head of another tribe. So the tribes put their people together to combine the country.

One time we were flying from Gabon on the president’s plane. We had gone to the country to perform for the son’s wedding. We were supposed to fly to Senegal and wait for the president’s wife’s plane to arrive in Dakar. Then we would fly back to the States. Her plane was supposed to arrive in three hours, but we wound up waiting three days! We got to Senegal at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. At the Dakar airport at that time of the morning, the energy was way more intense than at twelve o’clock in the afternoon in downtown Gabon.

I really dug it! While we were waiting for the other plane, I said, "Hey, man. Are there places where drums are made around here?" So someone took me around town to get a bunch of instruments: three djembes, a saba, and a bailaphone. After I took those things back to the airport, they told me, "The plane’s not here." So I went back and bought some more stuff. A drum company and a dance company came to perform at the hotel. I really dug Senegal. That’s how I got into their music.

JazzReview: How do you acquire your instruments now?

Munyungo Jackson: The United States is the center of a lot of different cultures. You can get so many instruments here that you don’t have to go overseas to buy them.

JazzReview:What happened after you played with The Supremes?

Munyungo Jackson: I played with different friends, and I was learning new things. When I first started playing percussion, I was only into Latin music. But there are so many other different styles. When I went to Senegal, I became interested in that music, and of course, my parents exposed me to jazz. When the Senegalese started to come to the United States, the dance groups adopted the rhythms and music from that country and Guinea. The most popular drum in the world is no longer the conga; it’s the djembe. There are very few places in the world now where you won’t find a djembe.

JazzReview: And you collect instruments from all over the world now.

Munyungo Jackson: I found little string instruments in China and Japan. And I listen to a lot of their work on the taiko drums. There’s so much more that I would like to learn about them. I use the taiko drums traditionally, but sometimes when I’m doing records or movie sound tracks, people like to hear the sound of them. So I’ll use them if they’re called for in the movie.

JazzReview: How many percussion instruments do you own?

Munyungo Jackson: Over four hundred.

JazzReview: Where do you keep all of them?

Munyungo Jackson: I have fifteen cases that I keep in a storage area at the house. And I have other instruments all over my house, and they’re playable. When I do records, I bring a lot of instruments with me. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll need for a record date. I just bring everything, even though the only instrument I may use on a job may be a triangle or a little egg-shaker. You never know. Sometimes the arrangement may call for a certain instrument. And I’ll say, "You want this instrument, but try this one." And then they’ll say, "Oh, I like that. Let’s use it."

Sometimes I’m in sessions where people say, "I want some Brazilian stuff." But just because an instrument is Brazilian doesn’t mean that it has to be used. For example, Brazilians play a big drum called a surdo in parades. But the producers may not want a sound that big. Also, the Senegalese have the djun-djuns, which also is like a bass drum that can be hit with a stick or a mallet. Whatever works for the music is what’s important. It doesn’t have to be traditional.

JazzReview: How long does it take you to set up?

Munyungo Jackson:

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Darryl Jackson
  • Subtitle: The Interview
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