I had the opportunity to speak to Frank Jackson and his wife, Kathy, in a wonderful interview.
JazzReview: You have a long-standing career as a giant of jazz. How do you manage to stay on top considering the changes jazz has made in the past 10 or so years?
Frank Jackson: As far as my playing I’ve never changed. I’ve never deviated from jazz. I’m very fond of the Great American Songbook, and I have a lot of materials. I enjoy what I do. After a while, you see the wheel turning and people come right back to what some of them left. They come right back to the same style. The younger people are discovering jazz.
JazzReview: Do you think the younger groups are turning to traditional jazz or are they set into smooth jazz?
Frank Jackson: I think smooth jazz is a commercial aspect. I don’t really know what it’s about. It’s more about making money, which is a good thing because we all need to; but a lot of kids who get into that find out they still want more. They go further back and come right back home.
JazzReview: Do you think the younger people are actually turning towards traditional jazz now?
Frank Jackson: I think so.
JazzReview: That’s good to know. Many times when you’re asking about jazz, they like it, but refer to smooth jazz.
Frank Jackson: That’s because that’s their first concept. They’re familiar with that, but the more they learn, their minds will wonder what happened here and there. They will then go back to the basics. Plus, they go to clubs that are not playing smooth jazz and they want to know more about it.
JazzReview: So you think the trend is going back to traditional jazz?
Frank Jackson: I think it is and the older musicians are helping to teach the kids, making them familiar to what’s it all about. I know when I was coming up, I received the same help from my elders. I’ve always been interested in music all sorts of music; how it was formed, played, and how I could get something from different styles of music. I like classical music. To me, I think it’s soothing, but it does depend on who you like, such as Brahms. The lullabies are easy to listen to and, of course, Bach (laughter). I think all jazz musicians love Bach.
JazzReview: Who were some of your early inspirations and/or influences?
Frank Jackson: For singing and playing the piano, I would say Nat King Cole because of what and how he did it. He just had a natural way backing himself while he was singing. It’s like he had someone else playing for him. He played not just changes behind himself - he played fill-ins. To be able to sing like that doing three different things at the same time, people didn’t realize how much piano Nat played and the number of awards he won. He was an excellent pianist. One of his idols was Earl "Father" Hines. Oscar Peterson was crazy about Nat. When you listen to him you can hear the influence.
I met Oscar Peterson at the Black Hawk (a club in San Francisco). Actually prior to that, I met him the day before downtown at the market place. I used to walk downtown for the exercise and early in the morning most of the stores are closed. The streets were very quiet, but as I looked up, I saw this big tall man coming. As I got close to him I realized it was Oscar Peterson. We talked for about 15 minutes. I told him a friend and I were coming to the club that night. When we got to the club, Oscar came over and told the waitress that he was picking up the tab for us. That was really something!
JazzReview: There are such classics in "New York After Dark" such as Autumn in NY and You are So beautiful. What was your motivation behind the music?
Frank Jackson: For one thing I love the songs. We did the songs first and my wife and I put it together. Then we decided on the title for the CD and we selected "New York After Dark." It’s sort of a nightclub atmosphere. I was motivated by the songs.
Kathy Jackson: To elaborate further, Frank has an affinity for a lot of rare and obscure songs, but he has a wide diversity of the standards that he likes. And of course, there was a consultation with James Williams (piano, organ, & producer) going over the songs. Frank has a major list that he plays. He knows so many. He said, 'I’d like to record these.' And we went into the studio with about 15 songs. The song Summertime was on the original list of songs, but it came off.
Once we were in the studio James said, ‘Frank I think you and Ron Carter (bass) should do a duo together. Why don’t you do Summertime?’ That’s how that one came about. The rest of them like Foolishly Yours, no one knew that but Frank. James was delighted that there were these old gems that he had never heard of. To give credit, he’s very good at selecting songs, putting them together and mixing them up between a ballad and a swing. He naturally has that swing feeling anyway in his playing. Maybe it’s because he’s been in the business as long as he has. He’s able to usually feel out his audience and see where his play list is going to come from or where it’s going to go. He really only organizes a play list for concerts or recordings.
JazzReview: Your voice is in magnificent shape. Considering the wear and tear on vocal chords over time, how did you manage to keep your voice in shape?
Frank Jackson: I learned at a young age how to save my voice, but not over sing it. I think that’s what saved my voice up to now. I can’t explain just exactly what I do, but I think it has to do with breathing so you don’t run out of air and tend to stretch your voice. I can sing with a cold, but I don’t push it too much At the same time, I want to feel what I’m doing. When I sing, I get into the story of the song and that way I’m a part of it. It’s like it’s mine. It’s me.
JazzReview: In your songs, it seems to persuade listeners that you are singing to them only.
Kathy Jackson: We hear that quite a bit. Not only does he come across like that in recordings, but live. I don’t know how he does in recordings, but I know he likes to interact with his audience. So I would imagine (as he said) he gets into the feeling of the song and the story of the song. He gets into the feeling that’s being conveyed to others at the same time.
Frank Jackson: In the studio with James and the other musicians it was as if it was one. At first it was different because I had just met them and had never been on the bandstand with them. I admired them. I use to say I would like to sing with someone like Ron Carter. Wow! And to have that come to pass, it was really something for me. After a few days of getting to know them musically and otherwise it was really uplifting. In the studio I’m singing with them and it was almost like I was standing off watching this and listening to it and being entertained. I was motivated by their abilities and what they play. I could see how I was fitting in and how things were really happening. I was delighted and had fun with it.
JazzReview: You could tell that in the music.
Kathy Jackson: That’s great because that was the whole intent in the delivery.
JazzReview: In 2002, you and your wife, Kathy, established the record label Kasis. What was the motivation behind it?
Frank Jackson: Well, maybe to see a couple of CD’s (laughter).
Kathy Jackson: [The motivation for it is] the way the involvement of the jazz music and the industry [operates] in order to put your music out there now. You tend to see more independent record labels doing that as oppose to the larger record label companies coming around and saying, "Hey! I think you’re worthy of being recorded." It does seem that they tend to favor youth a little more rather than someone considered being a statesman, an older statesman. Primarily, the main reason was to promote Frank and his music. The first CD that Frank recorded "I Should Care" was at one time with another label, but it didn’t go anywhere. It was a good CD, a trio CD in Nat King Cole style. We felt it should be reissued and we had already been in the studio working on the second one. So it seems obvious that was the nature of the business to go with our own label and work as a small independent to record to produce and release the music. We have been learning ever since (laughter).
JazzReview: It does give you an opportunity to get your music out rather than go with the larger record companies
Frank Jackson: Yes, however we’d be delighted to be picked up by the larger label (laughter), but in the meantime we enjoy doing this. We’re getting ready to start a new project.
JazzReview: Are you introducing other artist?
Frank Jackson: Yes, we’re doing that with some of our local artist. There are some excellent musicians in the Bay area.
JazzReview: Over the years, you have been intertwined with legendary musicians. How did you meet the challenge?
Frank Jackson: In my younger days I worked after hours. We had a lot of after hour spots like New York does. The big difference was in New York they stayed open all night. In San Francisco, they stayed open, but the bars didn’t. So at 2:00 AM they had to close the bars. They had coffee and soft drinks, and of course, like speak easy’s, they had other stuff in the coffee cups (laughter). There were several clubs. One was Bop City named after the club in New York. I worked there for seven years and had a chance to meet everybody. Anyone that came to town would come to Bop City. Most of the headliners would sit in from time-to-time. Everyone from Quincy Jones to John Coltrane, from Charlie Parker to Dizzy Gillespie, would come through Bop City to play.
JazzReview: You are certainly one of the giants and have played with the giants.
Frank Jackson: Bop City was like a workshop. It was a great experience. Something I would treasure, the type of thing happening in your life that only comes once. I think about it sometimes. I worked in one of the clubs where Sarah Vaughn was the headliner. There are so many great people. Jazz was jazz then and jazz is jazz now.
JazzReview: What would you tell a new musician entering the jazz world?
Frank Jackson: Listen to a lot of jazz music, live and recorded, but go back to the 30's to get the roots; to find out what was going on and how things changed through periods coming up to where we are now. You’ll find through all of that time, there are still some things that were used then that are being used now. The chord changes are not different; they are extended. A lot of things have been naturally made modern. Basically, underneath it’s still the same. You have more range to explore and play. There’s always an experiment where things are changing. Everything changes, but nothing does. I like music. I liked it then and I like it now.
JazzReview: What else can we expect from Frank Jackson? You said earlier you were working on another project.
Kathy Jackson: Actually he has a couple in mind. He’s been toying with a Christmas CD. Everyone likes a Christmas CD. Frank has recorded an original song for someone that never went anywhere. It was quite nice. He has his own original Christmas song that is really quite beautiful and we’d like to get it copyrighted and get it recorded. Usually you start early in the year with those things. It takes a while to get it out for the holiday season. That’s one thing on the agenda to do. As Frank mentioned, he wants to do another CD at the piano, of course, with a number of great musicians in the Bay area that he’s been playing with for at least 6 or 7 years. I think we have someone in mind locally that deserves to get more recognition; Kenny Washington. He’s a vocalist. Although we haven’t sat down and put anything in writing yet, we’d like to consider doing something with him at some point and seeing how it evolves from there.
We have a tentative schedule:
New York in April
Norway in the summer months
San Francisco: Jazz at Pearls in March
And, a tribute to Nat King Cole is being planned by Frank at one of the local clubs of San Francisco.
"New York After Dark" - Kasis Records, LLC - Musicians: Frank Jackson (vocals), James Williams (piano, organ & producer), Ron Carter (bass), Billy Pierce (soprano & Tenor saxophones), Kenny Washington (drums)