Drummer, Bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson Dies at 73
Drummer and composer Ronald Shannon Jackson, who led the band The Decoding Society and performed with some of the world’s most cutting-edge jazz artists, passed away from leukemia on Oct. 19 in Fort Worth, Texas. He was 73.
Jackson recorded more than 20 albums as a leader during his career. In 1979, he founded the eclectic, hard-driving band The Decoding Society, whose members included, at various points, Billy Bang, David Fiuczynski, Robin Eubanks, Melvin Gibbs and Vernon Reid. Among the band’s recordings were Eye On You (1980), Decode Yourself (1985) and Live In Warsaw (1999).
A frequent sideman and collaborator who was known as a unifying force among creative musicians, Jackson was equally fluent in funk, fusion, free-jazz and world beat styles.
Over the course of his career—which was temporarily sidelined by drug addiction in the late 1960s and early ’70s—he performed with a diverse array of musicians, including Charles Mingus, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, James “Blood” Ulmer, Wadada Leo Smith, Peter Brötzmann, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Laswell, Bill Frisell and James Carter. His work with Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor pushed new frontiers of avant-garde jazz.
Born Jan. 12, 1940, in Fort Worth, Jackson was influenced by his musical family. His father owned a record store and jukebox business, and his mother was an organist and pianist at a local church. Jackson attended M. Terrell High School, where he was preceded by Coleman, Julius Hemphill and Dewey Redman. After starting his career in Texas, playing with local musicians and working with members of Ray Charles’ band, Jackson moved to New York City in 1966.
In the August 1982 issue of DownBeat, Jackson described watching blues artists like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf perform in his hometown. “I went to hear them because I always liked to hear what the drummers were doing; it didn’t make no matter what kind of music it was,” he said. “It wasn’t a thing of the type of music or race or whatever in that period—just so long as I could hear some drums.”
Jackson’s string quartets and other composed music have been performed by top orchestras in Europe and the United States. He received numerous awards and honors worldwide, including an NEA Jazz Composer Grant and three Meet the Composer awards. As an educator, Jackson gave seminars and performed at Harvard and other universities.
Jackson is survived by his wife, four children, three grandchildren and a great grandson.