Drummer Duffy Jackson, center

The Beat of Jazz

A conversation with acclaimed jazz drummer Duffy Jackson, who appears at the TCU Jazz Festival this weekend.

published Thursday, March 21, 2019

Photo: YouTube
Drummer Duffy Jackson, center


Fort Worth — An interview with the legendary jazz drummer Duffy Jackson is like listening to one of his licks. He is energetic and driven. He controls the flow of words and ideas in a brilliant but unpredictable stream.  And mostly, he is unrelenting. The answers come out in bursts and rests, a positive driving rhythm of thoughts and ideas about the art of drumming and the nature of swing music and jazz.

Mr. Jackson brings his expertise and his spirit to the 42nd Annual TCU Jazz Festival on March 22 at Ed Landreth Auditorium at the TCU School of Music. The festival also has events and concerts on March 23. The program highlights in particular the music of the great Count Basie and iconic drummer Buddy Rich. Jackson has long experience in the field. He began sitting in with the Basie band at the age of six, and played with them as early as 14 years old. His father, bassist Chubby Jackson, brought him along to play not only for the Basie Orchestra but also for a wide range of the great bands of the height of the swing era. “My father played for everyone,” Jackson says. “You can find him on recordings from all the great bands. He gave me my first set of drums when I was three and then taught how to use them and how to feel the groove. I had my first tuxedo when I was five. We would travel together, and if they were down a man, say the drummer didn’t show for a session, my dad would put me up there.”

Having grown up behind the skins, Jackson played as a team with his father for almost 60 years. “We would tour together. We were the only father-son rhythm section on the circuit. Sometimes I would play the base too. And the piano. I taught myself to play chords and then solos. I have a whole system to teach the piano based on improvised solos. It’s really a lot like the drums but with a wider variety of notes.”

Photo: Texas Christian University
TCU Jazz Festival

He intends to show and teach the students that the drummer’s job is deceptively easy. “You just have to understand the groove and be able to lay it down. The groove is the joy behind the music, the driving force that makes the music move. You can play the music anyway you want, but the rhythm is what makes the specific sound. It’s what makes Basie Basie or Ellington Ellington.”

Jackson likens playing the drums to scat singing, the freestyle, often wordless jazz vocalizing that allows the voice to be another instrument in the orchestra. “When you feel the rhythm and you hear the chords changes, you just start making the music with whatever you have on hand. Sometimes it’s pounding on the steering wheel of your car. Sometimes it’s using your voice. Words may come out, but the words flow according to what the music is telling you, not according to any lyrics or poetry.” His versatility with rhythm instruments has been a boon at times, but it can also cause problems. “I was available and asked to do some sets with Harry Connick, Jr. He’s a really good drummer but he doesn’t have the stamina to play for a whole concert. Plus, he wants to be out front of the band. Because I can play the bass and the piano, they would put me in on drums and if Harry wanted to take them over, I would slide over to piano or the bass or whatever they needed. Well, one of times things were going great. The band was wailing, really laying into the song. Harry was smashing on the drums and I was tinkling on the keys. But I couldn’t help myself and suddenly I started to scat. It was just natural. The audience was going crazy, but Harry didn’t like that very much.”

“Drummers shouldn’t play from charts or rhythm sheets,” Duffy insists. “The band and the scene should define what they play. But you have to have some framework to the music too. You need to know the groove. It’s why, after sixty years of playing them, I still think I’m learning how to play them.”

He talks about the need to be generous in the rhythm section. “Your whole job is to support the song. It’s very important, but you have to know that you may not get the solo attention.” He takes issue with drummers who play too fast just for the sake of showing that they can do it. He also has very little time for drum solos. “It’s fine to break out and scat a little on the groove, but when you start stepping forward you lose the structure of the whole band. The great drummers could do it, like Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa, but they didn’t step out that often. They knew what their role was.”

“I got to sit in for Buddy [Rich] in his band at fourteen then at seventeen and ninety years old. He had a reputation of being a stinker, but he was always really nice to me. Such a tough bird too. One time I was in Vegas with another group and I had an off night. I heard Buddy play with the Ellington band and then arranged to pop up for breakfast the next morning in his hotel suite. Well, I show up for breakfast and there’s no answer at the door. So, I keep pounding and finally, Buddy opens up the door. He had to drag himself across the floor, he’d put his back out so badly the night before. I get him to bed and call the house doc, thinking I’d have to move my schedule to play for him that night. But, sure enough at showtime, there was Buddy Rich pounding away, shot up full of pain medicine. It was one of the best gigs I ever saw him play.”

Jackson thinks that drums are particularly suited for accompaniment, especially the great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald or Al Jarreau. “You have to hold back a little, until the singers really get wailing and then you feed off each other’s energy.”

Duffy finally takes a breath and ponders the question that set off his half hour ramble. “So, what am I going to teach the students at the jazz festival? Besides the importance of the groove, I’m going to show them that an old guy can still play with joy and passion. The old-style bands are never truly out of the picture. Every generation finds them again, so at some point as a jazz musician you are going to be asked to play swing or rhythm without the bebop. As long as people are willing to dig the old tunes and as I long as I have the strength to do it, I will be out there laying down the joyful groove. I consider myself the Johnny Appleseed of jazz.” Thanks For Reading

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The Beat of Jazz
A conversation with acclaimed jazz drummer Duffy Jackson, who appears at the TCU Jazz Festival this weekend.
by Keith Mankin

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