“So I played with Jack McDuff. He sat in with us and played… and he actually took my phone number. And a couple of months later, Jack McDuff called me. He was… I don’t know where he was, he was in Pittsburgh or Detroit or someplace. He said, ‘Mike, I need a guitar player. Can you come out to where I am?’ And I was not able to do it. I was married at the time. And I had been on that tour in Europe for three months, you know. And my wife was not happy to see me go back on the road again. You know what I mean? So I had to say no to Jack McDuff…“Mike Jackson
It’s not everyday that one gets to speak to an unknown legend, but that’s exactly what Jazz Guitar Life writer and researcher Dr. Wayne Goins recently did. In this exclusive Jazz Guitar Life interview, Mike Jackson – who was born in 1944 – speaks about his years coming up, his playing with a young Marvin Gaye, and how he met George Benson. He also reflects on what could have been when confronted with having to make life/career choices, and much more. If you’ve never heard of Mike Jackson before…you’re in for a treat. Enjoy 🙂
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JGL: I’m so happy to be able to talk with you. You are a somewhat of an “unknown legend.”
MJ: <Laugh> I…I wonder about that. <Laugh>
JGL: <Laugh> No, I think you are…so many guitarists whom I love and respect just sing your praises.
MJ: <Laugh> well, I appreciate hearing that.
JGL: It’s nice to be able to spend time with you, thanks to Russell (Malone) and Rodney (Jones) who both have been basically giving me all this information about you. I hadn’t heard any of this music on these self-published CDs you have here. This is like early Christmas for me!
MJ: Yeah, well I always tell Rodney he rescued me from obscurity! <laughs>
JGL: Well, you know, it’s funny, I mean he really kind of did because…I had never heard of you and had never heard your music, but man, I took one listen to one of those tracks (on his album) and I’m like, oh, this guy is a monster!
MJ: <Laugh> well, I appreciate that. I think I was playing better then than I am now… I’ll be 78 next month.
JGL: So you were born in 1944?
MJ: Yep. June 8, 1944.
JGL: So I did some homework on you—I always try to do my background research on people before I call ’em. So talk to me about the Stella guitar, the flat top acoustic guitar you got.
MJ: Well, that was the first guitar I owned. I was 12 years old and my mother bought it for a birthday present; she picked it up at a pawn shop around the corner from our house. I grew up in Washington DC.
JGL: And so from what I understand, “Honky Tonk” by Bill Doggett was like the first song you learned.
MJ: That was one of the first tunes I learned to play. Yeah. Cuz that was a popular tune at that time.
JGL: Yeah. And it’s not that hard to play on guitar. It’s like those low E and A strings.
MJ: That’s right…that’s right. Yeah, I always played it in F though.
JGL:. So,… talk to me about Bill Harris a little bit.
MJ: Well are you familiar with Bill Harris?
JGL: No, sir.
MJ: Bill Harris was a blues guy, basically. He played blues himself and sang, but he also used to accompany quartets, you know—vocal groups that were big in the fifties and sixties. He was a guitar player for the Clovers. They were a doowop group, and every group in those days had a guitar player that kind of traveled with them, you know? And so they would perform with the guitar player.
MJ: And I did a lot of that myself back in the early sixties and all that.
JGL: So I see on your website where you wrote that Harris pioneered the classical style of jazz that Charlie Byrd adopted for himself.
MJ: He really did. He actually did, you know, Charlie Byrd studied with a guy named Sophocles Poppas who was a famous classical guitar player. And Bill Harris studied with him too. And then Bill started adapting those classical finger-style things to jazz tunes. And he was doing that, way back, you know, and he did it even before Charlie Byrd did it! I don’t know if Charlie got the idea from him.
JGL: Now Poppas, that sounds Greek to me.
MJ: Yeah. Poppas was a famous classical guitar player and Bill Harris studied with him.
JGL: Charlie Byrd was one of the first people I saw playing jazz holding his guitar like a classical guitarist.
MJ: That’s right. Well, he became famous doing that. You know, Bill Harris never became famous doing it. He made a couple of records, which are probably still available somewhere. But yeah, Charlie Byrd became famous and then he got into the bossa nova thing, you know, which was a good fit for the classical style. And that really put him out there, you know?
JGL: So you studied with Bill Harris and, he taught you the same kind of technique?
MJ: No, not at all, actually. <Laugh> I didn’t do the classical style.
MJ: And I took lessons with him, I would say for maybe a year or so when I was 12 or 13 years old.
JGL: what style of music were you in at the time? Were you into jazz yet? Or were you just playing all kinds of stuff?
MJ: I was playing mostly rhythm and blues, you know, R&B. That was the thing that was happening at that time. I was accompanist for singing groups and solo singers in the beginning then started playing with bands. Drummer Billy Hart was with us in those early days. He went on to become one of the best drummers of all time and played with Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Betty Carter and many others. As I recall he was touring with Wes at the time he passed away. I had my first paying gig with Bill – I was 14 and he was 17 – we made $7.00 as I recall.
JGL: And then you started doing the chitlin’ circuit stuff, right?
MJ: Oh, absolutely. The Howard theater in Washington and the Royal Theater was in Baltimore, and the Apollo in New York; they were all part of the theater circuit. But there were other music venues on that circuit, like John Brown’s Farm in West Virginia, Evan’s Grill in Maryland, The Market Inn in Richmond, Virginia, and Smalls Paradise in New York. There were many others.
JGL: What are some of your memories from the Apollo?
MJ: Well, I played the Apollo a couple of times. And <laugh>, you know, I did, I enjoyed doing that when I was there. I was accompanying a guy who was the MC his name was Henry Lamont. They used to call him “King Henry Lamont” and he was a singer and an MC. And so when he would do the MC thing in the theaters he would also do a set of tunes. So I accompanied him on the tunes that he did.
JGL: Wow. Okay.
MJ: Yeah, he was a very well-known MC in the theater circuit.
JGL: So at some point it seems like your career shifted somehow, maybe toward the things that were happening in Detroit.
MJ: Well, I used to play with a band called the Esquires in Washington DC. And we worked with a booking agent named Rufus Mitchell, he was in Baltimore; he was the brother of Blue Mitchell, the trumpet player.
MJ: Yeah. Rufus Mitchell was his brother. Rufus was a booking agent. So when groups would come through DC and Baltimore and those areas to perform, we were kind of like a house band, so he would book us to play, to accompany these various people. So we played behind Motown groups, you know, the Marvelettes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and many others that were not Motown, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, Baby Washington, Solomon Burke and many that I can’t recall.
JGL: You played with Marvin Gaye?.
MJ: I played with Marvin Gaye first when I was a teenager. Yeah. He was a DC guy too,
MJ: And we used to do talent shows in Washington, DC, we performed together in a lot of different talent shows, but we were all young. We were like 17, 18 years old.
JGL: So this is before Marvin Gaye went to Detroit and did all the Motown stuff?
MJ: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
JGL: Wow. Okay. That’s fantastic.
MJ: I knew him, we came up together as teens. In fact, he went with a group called Harvey and Moonglows first, you remember?
JGL: Yes, I do. That was a doowop group.
MJ: Yeah. Harvey Fuqua was the guy, for the Moonglows. He ran that group and I guess he was a tenor or bass in that group. And then he hired Marvin to perform with them. I accompanied them on some gigs in DC. So this was before he even went to Detroit, you know, this was prior to the Motown.
JGL: Right. Okay. So let’s talk about 1968, when you started first jumping into jazz and you started playing at the Pitts Hotel Lounge.
MJ: Yeah, it was very interesting because up until 1968, I had been playing rhythm and blues and popular music and all that type of stuff. And in ‘68, I went on a tour of Germany and England with a singer named big Al Downing. He was kind of a… I don’t know how you would describe it. He was kind of a Fats Domino type of performer. So he would sit down at the piano and he would play and he would sing blues and all of that. So I went on a tour with him in Europe, you know, mostly in England and Germany. And that was in 1968. And when I came back, I took the gig at Pitts hotel, ‘cuz I had been going around to jazz clubs sitting in here and there playing with people. And I knew I wanted to play jazz. So Pitts hotel was the first time I really got to play a jazz gig.
JGL: was It a regular?
JGL: Was it a regular gig?
MJ: Yeah. It was a regular jazz gig. It was a with an organ group
JGL: Bill Clark on organ and Vance James on drums?
MJ: Bill Clark. Yep. Vance James—have you heard of Vance James?
JGL: No, sir.
MJ: Yeah. Vance James was a drummer and he went on to play with Jimmy McGriff and some other people.
MJ: Yeah. I played with those guys there, and that was a regular gig and that really is what got me into the world of jazz and I pretty much never went back to playing popular music again…I kind of stayed in the jazz world after that.
JGL: So how about you tell me some stories about when you played with Jack McDuff and, and Milt Jackson and Johnny Hartman?
MJ: Well, yeah, those guys would come into Pitts Hotel when they were in town performing at other places. People would come to Pitts Hotel after their gigs and they would play. So I played with Jack McDuff. He sat in with us and played… and he actually took my phone number. And a couple of months later, Jack McDuff called me. He was… I don’t know where he was, he was in Pittsburgh or Detroit or someplace. He said, ‘Mike, I need a guitar player. Can you come out to where I am?’ And I was not able to do it. I was married at the time. And I had been on that tour in Europe for three months, you know. And my wife was not happy to see me go back on the road again. You know what I mean?
JGL: I do. I know exactly what you mean.
MJ: So I had to say no to Jack McDuff and really I look back on that and I say, well, maybe that would’ve been my chance to get, some real national exposure playing jazz, you know?
JGL: I had two experiences like that with Jimmy McGriff. I actually had to turn him down twice.
JGL: Yeah. The first time he came in 1983, I was in Chattanooga getting my Bachelor of Music degree and he wanted me to play with him, but I was like, ‘I gotta finish my degree.’ I said, ‘but if you come back next year, I’ll be happy to join you cuz I’ll be done.’ And he came back the next year and he literally asked me again and I said, ‘I can’t go with you ‘cuz I got a chance to get my Masters degree and I can’t go.’ My jazz teacher had given me a full tuition graduate assistantship—I just couldn’t say no.
JGL: That’s a horrible story for anyone to be able to say they turned down Jimmy McGriff twice.
MJ: That’s… yeah…and then you look back and you say, well, ‘what would’ve been different if I had done that,’ you know? Right. You know, if I’d gotten out there and gotten some national exposure; and you don’t know what that would’ve led to, you know? But…
JGL: Yeah. But you know, some things aren’t meant to be.
MJ: Do you know a guitar player named Wayne Boyd?
JGL: Wayne Boyd?
MJ: Yeah, he played with Jimmy McGriff. I guess I met him back in the eighties and he was playing with McGriff. He was with McGriff for a long time.
JGL: He still alive?
MJ: I heard that he passed away. That’s what somebody told me.
JGL: Okay. [ed.note: Boyd died in December 2004 after a long bout with cancer, after playing with McGriff for more than 25 years.]
MJ: He was a nice guy.
JGL: Tell me about your style being influenced by Barney Kessel.
MJ: Yeah. I used to listen to a lot of his recordings back in the day. You know, he made a recording with Andre Previn (“Carmen”). I remember that was the first time I heard him and I used to listen to that, try to play those things, you know? I listened to Johnny Smith a lot. You remember Johnny Smith?
JGL: Oh yeah. That stuff is almost impossible to play.
MJ: Yeah. I used to try to attempt to play that stuff. Those guys were, were a big, big influence on me, and Howard Roberts too. And Grant Green was always one of my favorites.
JGL: That’s the most soulful one of all of them. Boy, I’ll tell you what—he could get greasy.
MJ: Yeah. I definitely enjoyed his playing. I was lucky enough to hear him live at Well’s in Harlem around 1964 or thereabouts.
JGL: And Kenny Burrell and Wes of course…
MJ: Yeah. Kenny Burrell, all those guys. And then later on, of course, George Benson, you Know?
JGL: Yeah, so tell me—what’s your George Benson interaction?
MJ: Well, I met George…I’ll tell you a funny story. I met George in 1968. I guess a lot of things happened in 1968, but he was playing at a club in Washington, DC called the Zambezi Lounge. And a friend of mine was playing with him. A guy named Hilton Felton… he’s deceased now too. Hilton Felton was the organ player. And so I came into the club one night and, and so Hilton said, ‘Oh George, this is Mike Jackson. You know, he’s the local guitar player he’s great!’. And so George said, ‘All right, come up and play.’
So, you know, so he wanted me to sit in and I didn’t have my guitar with me. And so I had to play his guitar, a Guild archtop acoustic, which I was not used to and little did I know that he used to use these really heavy guitar strings. I don’t know if he still does, but they felt like fifteens [.015 mm. gauge], you know? He asked me to come to his hotel the next day to play a little bit and bring an amp, which I did, a Fender Concert amp, the one with four 10-inch speakers. He didn’t show me anything but I got to watch him up close. He wanted to buy my amp but it was the only one I had, so I was not going to sell it to anybody. Not long after that I loaned it to a guy and never saw it again! That’s life.
JGL: Oh my God.
MJ: So I got up there on that guitar and was like…you know, you get that horrible sinking feeling, you know?
MJ: And I I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, I’m not gonna be able to get anything out of this guitar. So, you know, I played a couple of tunes, and it was okay. But I was not happy with the way I played. … I always kind of made a rule after that when I sit in to bring my own guitar, you know?
JGL: Yeah. Just one of those life lessons, right?
MJ: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. But he was playing Guild guitars in those days. His Guild had a hole in the top, almost like a flat top, but it was not a flat top. I never saw another one like it.
MJ: And it was a nice, it was an archtop acoustic at that time I was playing a Gibson 335.
JGL: Oh, that’s totally different than a Guild, isn’t it?
MJ: Oh, absolutely. And I had been playing R&B and stuff, so I had lighter gauge strings on there, you know? And so to go from that, to his guitar, with the heavy strings, it’s like… but yeah, he always used those heavy guitar strings. I think he still does.
JGL: Well he’s got his own custom-made set of strings now made by Thomastik.
MJ: Yeah, that’s right. he uses thomastik. That’s right.. But they’re like, they’re fifteens, man! Absolutely.
JGL: See, I can’t do that.
MJ: They’re like industrial strength, you know, <laugh>, I’m not kidding you. I can use twelves and thirteens. Now I do use a slightly heavier gauge string, but, but fifteens is a little much for me.
JGL: Yeah. I think my gauge goes from 12 to 52.
MJ: Yeah. And you know, as I’ve gotten a little older, I had some pinched nerve issues in my wrists and my elbow. So I had surgery on both wrists and the left one came out pretty good, the right one I still have some issues with, you know…just with numbness and weakness in some of the fingers, you know?
MJ: But, you know, I can still play. I don’t play as probably as well as I used to, but I can still do it.
JGL:, Do you play anything regulars? Who do you play with?
MJ: I had a gig today, my private gig up in Connecticut, and since the pandemic, you know, a lot of things dried up. But in the last couple of months, gigs are just starting to pick up again, you know? So I posted a couple of things. A couple of gigs. we played up in Connecticut last week. Rodney [Jones} came by, which was nice, ‘cuz he lives in Connecticut. So it was pretty close to where he lives.
In Part II of our interview, we will get Mike Jackson to tell us all about his wonderful relationship with Sir Rodney and more 🙂
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