There are some people who always sound like they’re competing for the title of “world’s noisiest drummer.” Not Oliver Jackson. He’s more inclined to draw you in with inventive, subtle playing than to force you back with bombast. Give Jackson a break where you’d expect most drummers to cut loose, and he’s apt to surprise you—maybe patting the drumheads low and musically with his hands rather than his drumsticks, or doing a whimsical tap dance on the rims and cymbals with his sticks. He understands dynamics, the use of drama, and effects. He can get more different sounds out of a standard drumset than most young drummers would probably think possible. But he always has power in reserve. And when he’s got you lulled—bam!—he’ll break through with the energy he’s kept under careful control.
“A lot of drummers,” Jackson says— making it clear from his tone of voice that he is not “a lot of drummers”—beat their drums. They beat them!” (He sounds almost disgusted by the idea.) “That’s like beating your old lady. The drums start screaming at you: ‘Oh, you’re beating me!’ You always have to maintain a touch.”
Jackson’s been maintaining the touch for some 30-odd years. He’s worked with many of the greats: Earl Hines, Charlie Shavers, Erroll Garner, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Sy Oliver, Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, Dorothy Donnegan, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton. The list goes on. He’s currently a member of George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars. He’s drummed on more than 300 albums, according to a discography prepared by European admirers. And he’s equally comfortable in the drummer’s chair of a big band or a small group.
If you ask most drummers to talk about their work, chances are they’ll start with terms referring to rhythm and power. They’ll talk about the beat they try to lay down, how the drummer is the timekeeper for the band, and how the drummer has to take charge of a band and drive it along. But if you ask Jackson to talk about his work, he’ll tell you first off that he’s striving for “a melodious sound—a sound that’s compatible with whatever I’m playing with.
“My approach to playing the drums,” Jackson explains, “is to play them like a piano would be played. I try to get harmonics with them—with their sounds. I have four things that I’m working with: my left hand, my right hand, my left foot, and my right foot. So really, I could play four-part harmony there.
“Sonny Greer set the pace when he played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra,” Jackson says. “Sonny Greer’s thing was to play drums as effects—not to keep time. It’s like in a symphony orchestra: You have a conductor, and he or she keeps the time. The percussion section is just for effects. It’s another voice—another section—like a woodwind section or a brass section. You play for effects—to get certain sounds. In jazz, people always say the drummer keeps time. But everybody is supposed to keep his or her own time.”
Born April 28, 1933, in Detroit, Michigan, Jackson started taking drum lessons when he was 11. Why drums, as opposed to any other instrument? “The school system provided music classes. I didn’t have any money to buy an instrument, so I started taking drum lessons because you only needed a practice pad to take the lessons,” Jackson explains.
“I used to go to the Paradise Theater all the time, from the time I was nine years old on up. I saw all the big bands there and all the drummers that were playing. I saw Big Sid Catlett with Louis Armstrong; I saw Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, and Cozy Cole. I saw Jo Jones when he came through with the Basie Band, and I saw Andy Kirk’s Band.
“I knew right away, after about a year of studying, that I wanted to become a professional musician. At that time, Detroit, where I grew up, was like a southern town up north. There was a lot of discrimination going on. By the time I was 12 years old, I realized that I could never be a fireman, a policeman, or even a garbage man, because at that time, black people weren’t allowed to have those kinds of jobs. This was even before Jackie Robinson got into the baseball scene. So I said, ‘The best thing for me to do is just to stick with music,’ because I saw a way out of the situation that I was in through music. When I saw all the guys at the Paradise, I realized that there was a future for me in entertainment.
“I started working around Detroit, and playing for the singers and dancers on Hastings Street, which was a big entertainment street—every bar had a band in it. At 14, I was working at night and going to school during the day. Then I got a gig with Wardell Gray [the tenor saxophone player] at the Bluebird Inn. See, with so many musicians and so many jobs around, all the older cats had to take younger cats. I met Billy Mitchell and Elvin Jones. Lucky Thompson was there in Detroit, along with Doug Watkins, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, and Tommy Flanagan. We all grew up together around that time.
“By the time I was in high school, I was working at the Juana Club, playing shows. Everything was a show, then. Very seldom did you just get a gig, like playing in a jazz club. I found out then that you had to be a well-rounded musician in order to make a living. I not only played jazz, which was my preference, but I also had to be able to play for singers and dancers, and to know show business. Nowadays you can’t see these things. There are no more cabarets, with tap dancers, shake dancers, jugglers, and comedians. But back then, you had to play for everything. So I got a well-rounded, basic playing experience there in Detroit at that time. I was very fortunate.
“One thing about playing shows is that you learn how to give of yourself. You’re always putting your individual thing in it, but it takes a lot of cooperation and a lot of sacrifice to play for singers and dancers. That’s because usually they’re not expert musicians. So you have to bend and learn all the different tricks. For instance, when you’re playing with tap dancers, you can’t keep a strict tempo, because the dancers’ tempos change according to the steps t
hey’re doing. They’ll slow down when they’re doing a buck-and-wing, but when they’re freestyling, they’ll speed back up to the regular tempo. And you have to watch, because you have to hit things and make accents. Then you take some singers: They sing way behind, but you still have to go straight ahead, because they’ll make up the time, like the way Billy Eckstine or Sarah Vaughan sings. You think that they’re out of meter, but it’s just their style. Little tricks like this mean a lot,” Jackson says.
Jackson adds that he received invaluable instruction while in high school from members of the Detroit Symphony, who taught part-time to supplement their incomes as musicians. He also had opportunities to attend symphonies with them.
While in high school, Jackson became friends with another aspiring drummer by the name of Eddie Locke. They both went on to Wayne State College (today Wayne State University). Around 1952 or ’53, they worked up a two-drummer vaudeville act. They figured that, by presenting themselves as all-around entertainers and not just drummers, they’d have a better chance of making it in the business. Drummer Cozy Cole—then touring with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars—gave them pointers as they rehearsed their act.
Billed as “Bop and Locke—Versatile Percussionists” (Jackson became “Bop” for the time being), they sang, danced, and drummed in clubs, resort hotels, and theaters in the U.S. and Canada for several years. In between those bookings, the two men accepted whatever gigs they could find separately as jazz drummers. Jackson became a member of Yusef Lateef’s band for a couple of years, recording a number of albums with him.
Jackson and Locke moved to New York permanently in 1956. Bookings for their act were running out, so they decided to see if they could make it just as drummers. The legendary Papa Jo Jones was the one who recognized their abilities as drummers right away.
“Eddie and I were staying at the Alvin Hotel, and we ran out of money; we couldn’t pay the rent. This was about 1956. So Jo Jones let us come and stay with him. We lived with Jo for about three years, and during those three years, Jo turned me on to a lot of gigs,” Jackson notes.
“I got a job in the Metropole, subbing for Zutty Singleton. That was about 1957, and back then, a lot of people worked in the Metropole. Everybody came. I met Gene Krupa there. Gene was instrumental in my getting with the Slingerland Drum Company in 1958. He recommended me to the company, and I’ve been with them ever since. So I got a chance to meet and play with all these different types of people. I worked at the Metropole for a couple of years, and I also started working over at the Embers with Teddy Wilson. I still work with Teddy a bit.”
From there, Jackson moved on to steady work with trumpeter Charlie Shavers’ Quartet (1959-61), Benny Goodman’s big band (1962, plus subsequent gigs with Goodman’s small groups), Lionel Hamton’s big band (1962-64, plus subsequent gigs with Hampton’s big band or small groups continuing to the present), Earl Hines’ Quartet (1965-70, with occasional larger groups or big bands formed by Hines during that period for specific engagements), and Sy Oliver’s nine-piece band in the mid-’70s. He’s primarily been free-lancing since then.
These days, touring keeps Jackson away from his New York apartment the better part of the year. He gets to Europe two or more times a year, leading his own groups about half of the time. Throughout his career, he adds, he’s never stopped trying to learn new things—whether concerning drumming per se, music arranging, or music theory. Studying music, he stresses, goes on for a lifetime. There are always books you can read and other musicians you can glean things from.
Jackson notes that he learned a great deal in the three years he lived with Jo Jones. “He was a fabulous percussionist. He knew all the tricks,” Jackson says. “All we did was play drums. . . . He’d show me something one time, and it might take me a year to learn how to do it.”
According to Jackson, Papa Jo taught him that he shouldn’t try to use the same drumset when playing for both small and big bands. And that leads into a discussion of Jackson’s equipment. Jackson notes, “I have three sets of drums. When I’m playing with different groups, I keep the same accessories; I just change the size of the drums. I’ll use an 18″ bass drum, a 20″ bass drum, or a 22″ bass drum, depending on what I’m doing. When I’m playing with a large orchestra or big band, I’ll use a 22″ or 24″ bass drum, a 16” floor tom, and a 9 x 1 3 tom-tom. That gives me a bigger sound.
“The bass drum is the heart of everything. There’s no way you can sit up in a big band or a large orchestra—I don’t care how much electricity they put on it—and play with an 18″ or 20” bass drum, because they won’t be able to feel you. I don’t mean that they won’t hear you, but they have to be able to feel you.
“Sometimes what I’ll do is put a timpani head on the batter side of my bass drum, and you can hear that for 30 miles. It gives the drum a round sound. And I don’t use any mufflers. When you start muffling something, it’s like putting cotton in the mouth of someone who is speaking: You’re going to hear another kind of speech. So I never use mufflers in my drums; I play them wide open. But then, you always have to maintain a touch, because that way, you can play from pianissimo up to triple forte, and still play the drums and not beat them. If you play the drums wide open, it takes a lot of technique and a lot of control, because you can sound either too loud or too soft.
When it comes to cymbals, Jackson says, “I use A Zildjian cymbals. I’ve got a 22″ ride and a 20″ ride, a 20″ Chinese sizzle, 15″ and 16″ crash cymbals, and 15″ sock cymbals.”
For years, Jackson used calf heads exclusively. “It was a hell of a transition for me, going from calf heads to plastic heads. But I just had to concede to it. Now, I use the standard heads, so I had to find another way—a different style of tuning and what-have-you—and adjust to the drums. You see, the drums are not going to adjust to you. They’re going to sound different every night. Just like you’re different every day, your instrument is going to be different every day, too. You can never get your instrument to sound the same. The environment changes, you know. If you take a set of drums overseas, and you put them down in that hold and they get cold and everything, they feel the same way you feel. They have jet lag, too.”
“Usually after I get a set of drums, I tune them once or twice, and then I let them adjust to themselves. You know, if it gets kind of ridiculous, then I’ll give them a couple more tunings. But I just try to play the drums the way they are. You know, if you’re going to tune your bass drum to a low G, like some people want to do . . . to me, that makes it difficult. What I do is just take the drums out and play them. Then I make the adjustment.”
When asked for any parting advice he can offer to aspiring drummers, Jackson reflects for a moment and then says, “Study the piano, and study the theory of music, which takes in harmony and composition. It makes a better drummer out of you, because at least, then you know where you’re going. I think it makes you more sensitive. And I think it helps you to get a little more enjoyment out of playing. I think the most important thing for a drummer is to be a musician.”