Pure Daniel

Daniel Jackson
  • Daniel Jackson
  • Image by Tom Harlen

“He wanted to stay around Southern California, you know he never ventured into New York. That’s where you’ve got to go to get an international reputation. Had he been exposed to a larger audience, he would have been a very well-known figure, because his playing was as good as anybody. Art is the only pursuit where you can be a genius and nobody would know, nobody would care, and you could be as poor as a church mouse.” — Charles McPherson.

Daniel Jackson died on September 3 after a long struggle with cancer, and though the San Diego jazz community is reeling from the loss, they are determined to celebrate his life in music. The Reader got in touch with some of Mr. Jackson’s close associates for comment and reflection. Jackson’s spirit of encouragement came through in every interview.

“What I heard from Daniel that really set him apart from other players was the integrity in which he played every note,” pianist Joshua White recalls over the phone. “He imparted so much wisdom and so much knowledge on music and life. All of those pieces of information ultimately become fused in who we are as people. I kind of feel like he’s not gone; because all of those lessons I still carry with me — so it’s kind of like he’s still here.”

Bassist Marshall Hawkins began his career in 1964 and he has played in the bands of Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, and Roberta Flack, to name a few. “He was a mentor to everybody — not just younger people — age, gender, race had nothing to do with it,” Hawkins expressed as we sat in the lobby of the Westgate Hotel. “Everybody who was in his presence gained something of value — it wasn’t always about music; in fact, most of the time it wasn’t.”

“The first time I heard Daniel play, I just got the chills,” SDMA 2013 Artist of the Year Gilbert Castellanos remembers: “I couldn’t believe this guy lived in San Diego! Everything he played was so organic. There were no clichés, no licks, just pure Daniel.”

Jackson’s ability to teach with minimal verbiage is a common thread in San Diego jazz lore. Bassist and UCSD professor Mark Dresser took his instruction right on the bandstand. “He had a way of playing a set that flowed without ever saying a word about what was coming next,” Dresser recalls. “On many occasions he figuratively dragged me by my ear showing me the changes till I got it. There was something really essential in how he musically communicated feeling in sound.”

“He didn’t talk much,” McPherson concurs, “The other thing about his persona was an aura of mystery. We had a nickname for him — we used to call him ‘The Shadow,’ as in the 1940s radio character. He got that name because you’d never see him walk in the room — he’d just appear.”

“I’ll remember his generosity,” said Castellanos. “He would make the beginning students that came to my jam sessions feel like they were already performing at a higher level with his presence. Before those kids could even play the notes, he let them know that it was going to be okay, that he was going to take care of them on the bandstand.”

Jackson saw it all in terms of giving back, as he told me in a 2013 interview: “I was fortunate enough to be mentored myself, so I have a lot of respect for that. Well, there was this gentleman, John Coltrane, and another gentleman, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, who were instrumental in helping us out.”

“Daniel has been such a big part of my life,” violinist Jamie Shadowlight remembers. “The biggest gift he gave me was the belief in the path that I am on...he really confirmed that with every breath and he let me know all the time. He is a part of who I am, and I am truly not processing his absence from the scene yet.”

As the end grew nearer, Jackson’s wit continued to inspire. Dresser recalls, “Shortly after returning from my travels in July, I called him up to set up a visit, and I asked him if I could bring him anything, and he said, ‘Two handfuls of peace.’ That’s a tune title for sure, I just need the tune worthy of it.”

At the Westgate gig, Castellanos, White, and Hawkins played Jackson’s music with a fierce fidelity. “I see him now. I know he’s here,” Hawkins insisted during the break. “Why do you think we’re playing the way we’re playing tonight? He’s making it happen. And he did that when he was here on Earth. When he walked into the room, the level of music, the level of consciousness went to its highest point at that moment in time. That was the power of Daniel Jackson.”

Jackson knew that the music would long outlive him, and his work with young people maintained that motion. “I don’t think it has that cycle of death in it,” the mystery man confided last year. “So, if you can imagine something that’s almost unimaginable — which is a straight line forever — that’s pretty much where it goes.”

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