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2012 story: Fort Worth's Ronald Shannon Jackson doesn't miss a beat

Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society

8:30 p.m. Saturday

Kessler Theater, Dallas




Posted 11:49pm on Tuesday, Jul. 03, 2012

One glance around Ronald Shannon Jackson's studio tells you how far the Fort Worth native has come.

Posters from three decades' worth of gigs the world over -- London, Paris, Warsaw, Zurich, Tokyo -- are plastered on the walls and ceiling of a modest room dominated by Jackson's well-loved drum kit.

Musical instruments are casually strewn about -- a flute here, a tambourine here, a schalmei over there -- and sheet music with all manner of intricate notation is scattered across the room.

As he situates himself behind the kit, it's not long before he's reaching for a pair of battered sticks. A thunderous, methodical roar punctuated with the splash of cymbals soon fills the space, almost seeming to lift the roof and rattle the windows.

He is home.

The acclaimed 72-year-old composer and drummer estimates that he has traveled at least 40 times to Europe, not to mention more than a dozen trips to Africa and various sojourns to Asia -- always with a tape recorder at the ready, eager to capture fresh, exciting sounds.

His destiny, he'll tell you simply, is rhythm.

The relentless pursuit of jazz music's most fundamental element has taken him around the world and brought him back to the city of his birth, where he has lived off and on since 1996 after a three-decade stint in New York City.

On a recent afternoon, Jackson sat in his comfortably appointed living room, teeming with everything from a well-thumbed All Music Guide to Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, to discuss his first North Texas performance in 15 years. He'll take the stage at Oak Cliff's Kessler Theater on Saturday, not far from where he used to perform twice-weekly gigs as a teenager with saxophonist James Clay.

Jackson begins our conversation with a startling revelation about the past decade and the toll being a professional musician can take on the body.

"I basically retired," Jackson says. "My left arm went numb and ... they wanted to operate on it because all the nerves had scar tissue on 'em from playing the drums."

Jackson consulted with a neurologist, declined surgery and spent several years undergoing physical therapy to regain strength.

Last year, Jackson had a heart attack while en route to the Moers Jazz Festival in Germany, underwent an angioplasty and, incredibly, checked himself out of the hospital to play his set with guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs. (Jackson returned to the hospital after the performance.)

Through it all, he has never stopped composing, and recently unveiled a handful of new works via YouTube.

Although he cut his teeth on the familiar supper-club staples, Jackson soon moved past the easily accessible material and began aligning himself with fellow sonic explorers like Albert Ayler and fellow Fort Worthian Ornette Coleman. It was these experiences that taught Jackson the value of knowing where you want to go.

"The kind of music I play, you have to rehearse," Jackson says. "It's more difficult here [to find collaborators].... I've gone through so many guitar players. They all want to play the regular jazz standard songs.... I learned from Albert -- I realized these people worked on what they were doing. We rehearsed all the time."

Saturday, he'll be joined onstage by Gibbs, violinist Leonard Hayward, trumpeter John Wier and guitarist Gregg Prickett.

Later this year, Jackson will travel to Bar Harbor, Maine, for the American premiere of some of his classical compositions. He maintains a thorough website, and credits the Internet with saving his music and creating an awareness of his contributions to jazz.

"Hindsight is 20/20, but at the time, you're so immersed in what you're doing, you don't see that you're making landmarks," he says.

Beyond that, Jackson plans to keep moving, searching the world for rhythms and translating them through his beloved drums, for as long as he is able.

"Since having this angioplasty, I wanna play now -- this is like a warning," he says. "I've always wanted to make people happy. And if I have this gift to do that, you have to try to do that as best you can."

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