Ronald Shannon Jackson
Photo by Bob Shamis

“As you know, this is only about having fun,” Ronald Shannon Jackson told the audience in his warm Texas drawl at the 1991 Skopje Jazz Festival, a performance archived on YouTube. “We’re here to have a little pleasure and bring a little peace to you.”

Read about the drummer/composer, who died this past October 19 at the age of seventy-three, and you might perceive Jackson as a forbidding avant-gardist. And he did participate in his share of harsh, seemingly chaotic music making: the gritty doom-blues exorcisms of Last Exit, the hyperactive polyphony of the 1978 Cecil Taylor Unit. But watch clips of the Decoding Society, his longest-running, most fully realized creative venture, and you’ll find that his will to romance an audience shines through.

At Skopje, during “Sunday’s Bells,” Jackson eases into a march pattern on the snare, punctuating each bar with a lively bass drum thump. He moves his right hand to the ride, shaking his rock star’s mane, and leads his band into an ecstatic swing breakdown. The medium might be experimental, but the presentation reveals a desire to commune and connect.

Growing up in Fort Worth, Jackson pursued a full-spectrum musical education. As a child, he studied piano and joined drum and bugle corps; in high school, he performed in blues, dance, and marching bands and played timpani in the orchestra. Speaking to Modern Drummer in 1984, Jackson recalled attending informal jam sessions in Fort Worth’s Greenway Park. “Man, there was so much joy released in those situations,” he said, “because people could be themselves without having to worry about the police coming and locking everyone up, or cats coming in with guns shooting, or requesting ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ when you felt like just playing. Greenway Park is where I first learned to hear music as communication and the expression of exuberance in life.”

Those experiences would fuel Jackson’s work with the jazz avant-garde. In 1966, the drummer moved to New York and recorded with both Charles Tyler and Albert Ayler, abetting the saxophonists’ raw, celebratory approach to collective improvisation. Jackson detoured into heroin addiction but righted himself in 1974 with the help of Nichiren Buddhism. He joined up with Ornette Coleman just in time for the saxophonist’s electric reinvention; the polyphonic groove of Coleman’s Prime Time group, gloriously documented on Body Meta, is unthinkable without Jackson’s sprightly, turbulent bounce. Jackson even brought an undercurrent of funk to Cecil Taylor’s surging modernism, anchoring the pianist’s tight-knit 1978 sextet.

Ronald Shannon Jackson
Photo by Chase Roe

Jackson founded his Decoding Society the following year, building on compositional wisdom from Coleman and Taylor, along with his own eclectic tastes, which ranged from Alexander Scriabin to the Ohio Players. With its blend of wailing free-form fusion, Asian-sounding rubato themes, rubbery dual-bass grooves, and Jackson’s inimitable caffeinated pulse, the band’s early output suggested surrealistic party music. In later years, the drummer’s work as a leader took on a darker, earthier cast, as heard on the 1990 three-guitar art-blues triumph Red Warrior. During his ’84 MD interview, Jackson handily summed up the mission of his principal project: “Living in the present and knowing about the past so that we can anticipate tomorrow is what I’m trying to do with the Decoding Society.”

Like his band leading, Jackson’s drumming was unmistakable. On the 1984 solo album Pulse, he juxtaposes stream-of-consciousness exploration with a deep-pocket groove. He revels in dynamic tension, flamming thunderously on his snare and signature taut, piercing toms or ramping a press roll down to a whisper. Depending on the setting, he could be a painter or a punisher. Strange Meeting, his exquisite 1987 collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Melvin Gibbs under the band name Power Tools, features Jackson at his most coloristic; on Last Exit’s 1986 self-titled debut, the drummer recites fragments of Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” as a prelude to a stomping double bass and China shuffle. “Often I’m not even thinking in terms of being a drummer,” he told MD. “I’m thinking about orchestration, flow, and the organic concept that has to be completed.”

Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, a former Decoding Society member, summed up the drummer’s aesthetic in a 2003 interview with Fort Worth Weekly. “Shannon wasn’t an ideological avantgardist,” Reid said. “He made the music he made from an outsider’s view, but not to the exclusion of rock and pop.” Even at its most fervent or abstract, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s work embodied a sense of play. Pleasure was this artist’s chief objective, and in it, he succeeded brilliantly.