Vasti Jackson – cut him open, it read MUSIC.
This interview proves the point that the greats do not get to where they are by talent alone. Success just doesn’t come to slackers. Vasti Jackson is a musician for all seasons, with so much passion, and for all the right reasons. Vasti Jackson is a melting pot of ethnic genes and genres, on stage he fizzes like liver salts. His story re-enforces the “Immersed to be well- versed” approach to a musical education. Pronounced Vast-eye, this guy is a misnomer being from Mississippi, his speed is much more Northern and plugged in. Blues Matters loves to listen, and Blues Matters loves to share….so enjoy.
Bruce Iglauer, Alligator Records CEO quote, “Vasti is an extremely talented guitarist, songwriter, singer and arranger. I worked with him closely on two Katie Webster albums and two C.J. Chenier albums and he has a huge musical vocabulary, from down home blues to contemporary funk and rock. He’s a true professional, able to adapt to any kind of musical situation as well as a very confident band leader. Plus he’s smart, driven and has a great sense of humor!”
Do you think you would have received more exposure had you lived elsewhere in the states?
I don’t think it is a matter of where you live, I think it is the amount of publicity you market. At this day in time, it is about, do you have a press agent, and that kind of thing. My choice to live in Mississippi has been a very beautiful one. I don’t know in terms of exposure or maybe the public knowing my name, but I do and have done so much work with great musicians that the music is so much more important than fame. Notoriety helps you to make more people aware of you, which gives you more opportunities to work. God man, I’m so thankful to have been able to work with the likes of B. B. King, Cassandra Wilson, Harry Connick Jr., Henry Butler, Katie Webster, Johnny Taylor, Denise LaSalle, Bobby Blue Bland all these great people. In Zydeco like C.J. Chenier, Chubby Carrier, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., There’s Irma Thomas, so being in this area have afforded me to be right in the middle, from New Orleans, Jackson and Memphis. My heritage is very mixed; we knew our American/Irish cousins growing up in MComb, MS. Some of our kin people were from the Middle East, and of course Native Americans. When I was young, my Grandmother would go to do domestic work in the rich white people’s homes, homes in MComb. I would go with her, so I was exposed to all of those things. My Grandfather would play blues guitar, and my Grandmother was very religious, so I had the gospel from my Grandmother. (laughs) My Grandmother’s Father did not want her to date or be in a relationship with my Grandfather. He was a preacher and his Father was of Irish decent. So there was another status, my Grandmother is very tall and fair in complexion; my Grandfather was very short and dark. Therefore, when my Grandmother would tell the story, she would be happy when she heard the blues, even though she came from a very religious family. My Grandfather would be walking through the fields in the country playing the guitar and the louder the sound of the blues got the happier she got because she knew she would be seeing her man. That was the blending of the blues and gospel in my family before my Mother was born. My Grandfather taught my Grandmother how to play the guitar. I moved to Atlanta then to Los Angeles for awhile, but coming back to Mississippi always strengthens my foundation. Musicians go five generations back on the maternal said of my family. My Uncles and my Aunt’s played in marching bands, so I heard the music of John Philip Souza, in concert bands as well as Mozart, and Beethoven. My Grandfather moved to New Orleans before I started first grade, (5-6 yrs old stateside) and we would go to New Orleans all the time, so I was heavily influenced by the music of New Orleans. It is kind of like the aspect of Robert Johnson being born in Hazlehurst. But his musical influences came from many places. When you listen to songs like “Red Hot”, “When You Got a Good Friend” and “Love in Vain” you know that his influences and his creativity is beyond I IV V, blues changes. He was a virtuoso; he was a great musician, not just a guitarist. Because the music is within you. It is NOT in the instrument, and that is what I convey to young musicians. “Please understand, that there is no music in that tuba, there is no music in the violin, that music is in you!” Now whatever tool you may choose to express that with is fine, but you have to hear the music, the music must live inside of you, and when you get it out in a physical way, be it singing or playing an instrument you pass it onto the world. The public cannot read your mind; they do not know what notes you are thinking. With having family in New Orleans I be around the Stoops, and the Treme, and back and forth to New Orleans all of my life. Billy, I will tell you, and this is beyond me and I will say to you because I know this to be true. God gives us all we need, and in my family music was a great component as within many African Americans as far as survival. There is something that people have heard from me musically as a kid that I did not understand at the time, and I did not know why people were hiring me. When Frank Williams who was a great gospel guitarist from the Jackson Southernaires hired me to play on their recordings, what Frank would do was to show me on the guitar part that he wanted me to play. Now he could play it, wonderfully, beautifully. So why would they hire me, it was something beyond technique if you get me, even beyond skill. It was something intangible even though he could play the part correctly, It sounded differently when I played it even though it was the same exact thing, there must have been some nuance or elements there that I had that God gave me, that you could not write it down. Same happened with the Williams Brothers, I played on their hit song, “I am Just a Nobody”. Melvin showed me the guitar part, and at that time about 19/21 yrs old I didn’t get the significance of it all. There is something about a person, their consciousness and their soul that gives them uniqueness. Those things have carried me my entire life, when I met Z. Z. Hill When I moved back from Los Angeles to look after my oldest son. I sold instruments and moved back to Mississippi because family is paramount my life. Money is one thing, but family is the main thing. I was back about three months and I saw Glenn Holmes who is a great drummer who played with Latimore, and recorded the uptempo version of “Stormy Monday” and “Let’s Straighten it Out”. They were playing a gig at the Elk’s club in MComb in Mississippi so I went to see the club and Bobby Rush was there. I was around 21 and Bobby said, “I am doing a record man and why don’t you come down man and play on the record”. I didn’t think too much about it, maybe about six weeks later he called doing a record at Malaco, I started doing sessions at Malaco when I was about 18. The bass player was late so I ended up doing bass, and guitar on the ‘Sue” record, Jesse Robinson was on the session and was playing guitar in Bobby’s band. Then about three weeks later the drummer called again. I have always had good musical ears so I have been able to emulate different musical styles. So when I got the call to do “Downhome Blues” gig with Z. Z. Hill I did not know who Z. Z. Hill was, and this record was huge. One of the greatest compliments that Z.Z. said to me as long as I ever sing a note was, “I want to hear your guitar”. That was when I was 24. I was e the “Go to guy” at Malaco for contracting musician many of the artist. So when Johnny Taylor went to Malaco they called me to put together a band because I could write. What I am trying to say is, whatever that thing is that God gave me that has sustained me it is of love, because I do love music, and I do love people and I am happy to be in a situation without ego. Maybe my ego should be bigger, maybe my name would be more known, but that is not important to me, it is important that I carry the music forward. If my name has to be bigger and I have to be more popular or more recognised the world over to carry the music forward then I am glad to be. I want to be on every TV show and every magazine everywhere if is going to move the music forward. I do all my records myself, I produce them and that is because I won’t let anyone limit the music that I do. I have had offers from record companies asking me to make the records they want, but I cannot make plastic music, if it does not sound right or sit right with me it ain’t honest, I am not interested in making a record that sounds like a company. When I go to sleep at night, I am comfortable with how my music is being portrayed. I am not interested in making a fantasy; I am blessed in not having to succumb to that stuff. I work as much I want to work because I cannot do all the work I am offered.
OK going back, yeah with the gospel of the Williams Brothers Smithdale, MS. and Bo Diddley of McComb, MS. The Bo Diddley beat is almost the New Orleans second line beat, which is a clave which we look at that as Cuban rhythm. Then you look at the rhythms of Haiti, and then you go to Brazil, then on back to Africa, which was transferred to here through the slave trade. When you get down in the southern part of Mississippi, there are broader influences than in the delta.
You have learned to play several instruments, and I guess there are few skills in making music that you haven’t done. Are you a control freak?
No I’m not a control freak at all. I just love music, and I love music more than I love the guitar. So therefore, this drives me and propels me to learn more about music. Whether it is arranging music, composing, being an engineer, or playing bass, writing for horns or strings; it is not to control it, but to contribute. I collaborate with people all the time; I just played with “Playing for Change” in Los Angeles at the Whiskey A Go Go, and at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday. These are musicians from nine different countries, from Israel, South Africa, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Japan and everybody is bringing their different elements, and is truly world music, global music. I come from a blues and gospel background, but I was exposed to jazz at 16 yrs old so with me loving and having a passion for the art of music, and coming from five generations of musicians it gives me the ability to interface with artists that are in different genres of music. This is such a gift for me. I am 53yrs old, and I am so thankful to everybody the world over who have took a liking to me and what I can contribute to their lives in a positive way through music. Even now I do “Vasti Jackson the artist”, but I go in with people who hire me just to play guitar, and I love it. I love having to meet someone else’s expectation in the musical sense when it is just dealing with their music. A lot of times the public are unaware it is me playing guitar or arranging the music (laughs). This year I have been in Germany, Holland, headlined at the New Orleans festival in Austria – the third time I have headlined that festival. I leave next week for Argentina, Brazil, Chile then the last week in October I’m in Poland. I am my own booking agent, I’m my own manager, my own songwriter, publisher and record label. It is not that I’m a control freak, but I don’t do drugs, I very rarely take a drink, I don’t gamble…so I got to have something to with my time (laughs). My sons are adults, 33 and 26.
For a very young man you played an awful lot of old school music. Did you get any stick for this as a teenager?
In my community, there were musicians all over the place, and they were older musicians. There was a guy when I was young two blocks away called Big Moody, He knew my Mother and My Mother would let me play with him in the clubs. I had already heard my Grandfather playing, and all my cousins were great musicians, and they were doing more contemporary music like Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power, Johnny Guitar Watson, Funkedelic that kind of stuff. But when I went to Jackson State University the older musicians Tommy Tate, Lewis Lee, and J. C. States were playing at restaurants and lounges. William W. Davis who was a great trumpet player who worked with names like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and all those guys. I got there, and I could play some jazz and I had a feel for the blues and these guys hired me. So I was working three nights a week with musicians who were more than twice my age. The simple reason was that there were no funk bands working three, four nights a week, they were just doing special events. I will say what people have said to me, that I have an old soul. I suppose it means there is something that is timeless. I have always been comfortable around old people since I was a child. Being around these old guys made sense to me, I remember this old drummer Zebedee Lee he loved Jimmy Reed. I mean as a guitar player Jimmy Reed ain’t playing much in the way of virtuosity, but he is playing beautifully, soulfully and rich. I mean he would just sit down and say listen to this, and listen to this, he was a drummer, and I played drums too but he just loved Jimmy Reed. We would just sit around without instruments and listen to Jimmy Reed, because he would drink beer and all he wanted to hear was Jimmy Reed. For some reason I was OK with that, I didn’t have to be out playing baseball or basketball, the feeling of that music kind of got into me. I have done records like on Alligator Records with Michael Burks where they were very contemporary, intense rockin’ soulful blues, and the rhythm arrangements that I worked on in those records they have a lot of accents, units and lines and stuff like that. In many cases people many people don’t see me as being old school (laughs).
Does your live wire stage performances, harking back to those old school performers?
Let me say this, I believe that you should respect the audience. I never let my ego get in front of the audience, I believe in listening to the audience, I believe in looking at the audience. With me if I have an audience they are part of the show, I never leave the audience out of my musical equation. When I see their eyes or the way people move then that is information for me, they are communicating to me, and I take that information and I use part of it to communicate back to them. Am I energised on Stage? Yes, am I excited on stage? Yes I am, because this is such a gift and such a joy to be able to do this, and for people to appreciate this. This is how I make my living, but this is my passion. Now does it harken back to old school? No not that it is conscious in my mind. Because I live this, and the music is completely in me, through me, over me, under me, so rhythm, melody hit me in a certain way, so it is physical thing. I am not doing a workshop or a seminar, or in front of an audience with tuxedos, I don’t restrict my joy personally. In knowing that the music is beyond the instrument and beyond the voice, then everything about life is music to me. The rhythm, the way a person walks, their heart rate, temperature, pulse rate, the sound of the birds, the car running down the street, the point that water freezes, the point that water boils it is all music to me. Therefore, every fibre of me is that, so I want to interpret that. Now the reason people come to concerts is not just to hear music, they come to see a performance. Because we have other musicians on stage when I perform, I am also a conductor. As a conductor, I have my hands filled with the guitar most of the time on stage, so I conduct the band with my feet, with my legs, with my hips, with my head, etc . So some of the movement, the presentation, isn’t part of the entertainment, or trying to move to overwhelm the audience. It is the aspect of, “This is the way the music makes me feel”. Simply because I am not trying to impress a record label or someone’s opinion, or whether I am playing too many notes or too few notes. That is not the point because I am playing for the people, I am playing for the “folk”. Even when I am playing electric, not acoustic it is still folk music. It is folk music because it is for the common folk, what you have to understand is what I do is for everybody, if you like it, if it is good to you then take it, if it is not then don’t like it then it is OK because taste is subjective. So therefore, I don’t take the aspect of, “I’m a great musician, and you should respect me, sit there be quiet and listen to me”. I don’t take that approach. If you want to move then move, if you want to sit quiet and listen that’s wonderful. I have those audiences. Do I dress nice on stage? Of course I do. The reason for that is because I respect the people, this is a great opportunity for me. It is a statement of honour and respect to put forth a little effort. Do I tune my guitars? Yes. Do I have good instruments? Yes. Do I customise them? Yes. Why? because they deserve the best I can give them at the moment. The circumstances are not always ideal in a live performance, but the bigger point is the love you can communicate under any given circumstance. If I break a string it means opportunity, because you take what you got, to get what you need at any given moment. That is why I am always open the band and let everybody solo, because when we are playing the groove I want them to lock into the music. I don’t want to stifle nobody, I want them to shine, I want the glory of God to be revealed, so everyone has a forum. I love people man; I want them to know I am not insecure with them or that I am trying to keep them in the back. The reason why I have hired them is because I believe they posses goodness and quality and that they are musically astute, and that they are artists in their own right. It may be me up front today, up there writing the cheque, tomorrow they may be hiring me. I have been on both sides, I truly love to be up there supporting other artists, and I am concerned about them, and what will help their presentation, and their artistry.
You have portrayed Robert Johnson on several occasions on stage and film. What is your take on the man, his talent and the circus that surrounds him?
About what you call the circus, I tell you man anything that is worth having is worth stealing, you know what I mean (laughs). You are always going to have people around who see an opportunity to get money or to make money, legally and illegally. He was a fantastic musician/artist, I never knew the man personally, but I can listen to his music, and I have had to dissect his music. Not just dissecting his music for guitar, but to break the music down to get an understanding of what it is, whether it is to be for a stringed quartet or that we are going to add horns. Robert Johnson used the guitar as a mini orchestra, and a lot of people talk a lot about his guitar, but not about how great a singer he was. He was a great singer, a great interpreter of a song and a great communicator through music. He was far beyond the blues in the sense of the basic blues form, with it basically being three chords. He would deviate rhythm; he would superimpose straight sixteenths then go into blocked triplets, then go on to eighth note triplets. He would use closed intervals, minus 2nds, and all kinds of things that at the time no one was being as adventurous and on the cutting edge as Robert Johnson was. So many people look at Robert Johnson as being traditional blues, well let me tell you something right now, Robert Johnson is as modern as you’re gonna get in the blues. Harmonically, rhythmically, and you can take that music and apply it to Hip Hop, you can apply it to anything and it is still interesting today. So what I do when I am looking at that music in the stage play, “Robert Johnson, The Man, The Myth and the music” it was not to exact his guitar part. It was to embrace, embody the whole of what I could gather about his possible personality, his life as if he were here today. Take the stories, what do the stories mean to me? That is what is important, what do the lyrics mean? When he says, “Sweet home Chicago, going back to the land of California” , he means utopia or a better place. In the song, “Stop Breaking Down” when he talks of the term of “99%”, which was a slang for cocaine. When you read about the work camps in Mississippi where they brought in cocaine and drugs to fuel those labourers, and there were prostitutes, there were murders and all kinds of things going on back around the turn of the century. When he says, “She’s got Elgin movements” Elgin was a very popular watch where the hand moved very smoothly, and he’s talking about the body language of this woman. A lot of times people concentrate so hard on the guitar that they loose something, they are trying to play it as a guitarist a opposed to living in the story, and letting the emotion you get from the story go into the music, whether it is singing or playing. So now it becomes real to the audience, not that you are trying to imitate Robert Johnson, it is not about imitation it is about taking on the character or the persona in a way you can get enough information, and humble yourself firstly to the spirit of the culture. Then you have to research the time period, because being in 1927, 1930, 1935 it’s different. So you have to think about how this guy felt walking down the street, you got to think what this guy felt when the sun was going down, and he was worried about the Paddy Rollers catching him. You know in Crossroads, “Sun going down, can’t let darkness catch me here”. He don’t want darkness to catch him man because he is sacred of the Ku Klux Klan, there was a curfew for blacks at night. Now put that into your psyche as a musician at that time, and you’ve got to consider all of these things. You don’t want to work in the cotton field. It was hard to try and put myself back in time. You read about, talk to elders, and gather enough information to see how it would feel to be back in that place and time. Not just to cop the guitar part or not just learn the song and the melody. Now if you can get into that mental space, then now grab the guitar and start to sing the song, but keep in mind that you are not Vasti Jackson in 2013. At the debut premiere of, “Robert Johnson, The Man, The Myth and the Music” we had about a 96% capacity house, and we received standing ovations. People were transported to another time, not just through the music, but because drawn in by the body language, by the emotions, by the expressions. When you say “Kindhearted Woman”, and the woman saunters across the stage and she has this movement, and the guy is entranced. Steve Johnson Michael Johnson and all of the family came to the theatre, and we were so honoured that they approved of our presentation. When we started to write and construct the play they were excited about it. We were able to get funding from the Mississippi Opera Association and the Hattiesburg Concert Association, Dr Jay Dean. When I first started working on the Robert Johnson stuff I got a call from a young Director in Los angles by the name of Glen Marsano. He was doing a short film called, “Stop Breaking Down”, and he called about me being the musical director for that particular project. That was during the time of the court case when they had just finalised that Claude Johnson was the legal heir of Robert Johnson.
Can you tell me about your current and future projects to wind up?
The new CD is out now, it is called, “New Orleans, Rhythm Soul Blues”. I am very happy about this CD because it combines a lot of my New Orleans influences and activities musically, and of course, I can never get away from Mississippi, and there is lots of blending of that. There has always been strong musical exchange between New Orleans and Mississippi. Reverend Charlie Jackson was a cousin of mine; my Mother took me to see him when I was nine yrs old. Little Freddie King is kin on my maternal side of the family. I have also re-issue my first CD, “Vasti Jackson, Mississippi Burner”. Last August I was in South Africa with the “Joy of Jazz festival” with the legendary Battiste family from New Orleans, which is a New Orleans jazz/ funk/ R&B army. I received a call from the Jazz Foundation of America about doing presentations that demonstrate the link between blues and jazz. So, I am very excited about that. I will be working with, and mentoring youth, more visitation with the elderly, and producing more music.
For more information, and merchandise visit www.vastijackson.com