“I had been teaching privately since I was a student at Berklee College Of Music. I specialized in walking basslines at the time. None of the guitar instructors at Berklee were teaching my comprehensive walking bassline method. After leaving Berklee I would have the occasional private student or jazz workshop. In 1999 bassist Rufus Reid hired me for a program at NJPAC called Jazz For Teens. That’s when I really started taking teaching seriously. “Ron Jackson
Surprisingly I had not heard of Ron Jackson until I received a CD review request from Ron’s “people”. I really enjoyed what he had to offer and the more I learned about him, the more I felt a yearning to learn more and was delighted when Ron agreeed to do this exclusive featured interview for Jazz Guitar Life!
In this interview Ron shares with us his early years, how he switched over to the 7-String and what makes a pop tune worthy of being “Jazzified”. A very enteraining read if I do say so myself! Enjoy 🙂
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JGL: Thank you Ron for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?
RJ: I’m in my mid fifties, they say that the fifties are the new forties.
JGL: I’m hoping! lol…now…for those who are unaware of you, could you give Jazz Guitar Life readers an elevator pitch of who Ron Jackson is?
RJ: I’m Ron Jackson, a master seven string guitarist. I teach musicians how to find their own voice in jazz, through education and mentorship.
JGL: Whereabouts are you located?
RJ: I moved to Teaneck, NJ before the pandemic, after living in Brooklyn for years.
JGL: Before we begin, how have you and yours been during COVID?
RJ: So far me and my loved ones have been lucky to have not gotten sick. Unfortunately some friends have been sick and a few passed away.
JGL: So sorry to hear that. It has touched us all in one way or another to varying degrees, sadly. Have there been any positive outcomes on your side during this difficult time?
RJ: Yes, I was able to work harder and gain an extensive social media following. Also, I was able to raise money for my new album. After the album dropped on February 25th, 2022, I was awarded a tour grant, and organized a month-long tour of the Midwest and West Coast March 5-April 3.
JGL: Nice!! I’m assuming with your current “Whatever’s Open Tour 2022” that gigs are slowly coming back? Great title for the tour by the way 🙂
RJ: Thanks! Yes gig’s have been on and off, but mostly on.
JGL: Good to hear. Let’s go back a bit. How old were you when you picked up the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
RJ: I started at 11 playing rock, after hearing electric guitar on Elvis Presley vinyls. I’ve always been interested in all styles of music.
JGL: How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
RJ: One of my friends in high school encouraged me to see Pat Metheney live in concert. After, I also saw John Mclaughlin, Paco De Lucia, Al Di Meola and Miles Davis with Mike Stern. They were all amazing!
JGL: Agreed!! Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
RJ: Pat Metheny, George Benson, Mike Stern, John Scofield. There’s just so many. And yes, they have changed a bit as I seem to be listening more to other players in other genres.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
RJ: Tosin Abassi from Animals as Leaders, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, so many people..
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life – guitarist or not – as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
RJ: Pat Martino, George Benson, Melvin Sparks, Mike Stern, Bucky Pizzarelli , Ted Dunbar, John Coltrane, Micaheal Brecker, Herbie Hancock…
JGL: I guess the “why” speaks for itself with cats like those! 🙂 As you mentioned Bucky, in the liner notes of your latest release Standards and My Songs you mention the fact that the great 7-string Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli influenced you greatly to take up the 7-string. Can you expand on how this came to be and what has been the outcome?
RJ: I was studying the Freddie Greene style of comping with Bucky. Freddie was the master of this style, but during those lessons Bucky did his best to convert me to seven string. “The six string is the old guitar and the seven string is the new guitar!” he would tell me. And it was just a matter of time before I took the plunge. That plunge started in 2012!
JGL: Wow! Very cool. How have you adapted to the low A and has it changed/affected your playing at all?
RJ: I’ve adapted pretty well using the low A string. I use it to play basslines, intros-endings, and solo guitar. Most importantly, I’ve recently started to play the Low A in my jazz improv solos.
JGL: Nice! Do you still grab the 6-string from time to time?
RJ: I play the 6 string all the time. Most people I teach and most of my famous jazz guitar friends can’t play 7 string at all. My saying is this, once you play 7-string you can always play 6 but not the other way around. There’s a big learning curve.
JGL: I can only imagine! Speaking of guitars, what was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
RJ: My first guitar was a Fender Jazzmaster. LOL 🙂 My main 7 string is an Eastman 810CE-7 string. I’m having a Benedetto 7 string custom built right now. I ordered it last summer and it should be ready in a few months.
JGL: Nice! Ya can’t go wrong with a Benedetto! What other gear are you using?
RJ: I play mainly with no effects even though I own almost every effect out there…I have tons of gear. Five Kremona guitars, one is a 7 string nylon called the Fiesta. I have two D’Angelico 6 string guitars that I endorse, An Excel-1 and a Premier Excel. I use them for 6 string jazz instructional videos.
JGL: I know that you play in all kinds of situations including Broadway shows and on motion picture soundtracks. Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations or are you switching out gear all the time?
RJ: My main set-up for my own gigs is just my 7-string guitar plugged into my amp with no effects, just a little reverb. I do have almost every guitar effect pedal. I use those only when asked or the situation needs it.
JGL: Sounds like the best of both worlds. Now…just out of curiosity…is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
RJ: I’d say all the masters (I’d say most people would love to play with these people). Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter…so many!
JGL: True! Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what have you done to make this choice work for you?
RJ: Ever since I was 11 years old I wanted to be a musician. To make this work, I knew I had to make sure never to take a day job. I find that’s what can hold you back from being a pro musician. Gotta keep your eyes on the prize with laservision.
JGL: Well it looks like that mindset has worked nicely for you! I read that you attended the Berklee School of Music on a scholarship studying jazz composition and arranging. How did the scholarship come about and what was your experience studying at Berklee?
RJ: I had a few scholarships from high school and at Berklee. I recall that they were mainly music achievement awards.
JGL: Prior to that, did you study privately when you were coming up and if so, with whom?
RJ: Unfortunately, there was no real guitar teacher in the small town where I went to high school and there were no jazz clubs or music near me. I was self taught and learned from friends.
JGL: In hindsight – and if you could do it all over again – would you still study in a formal academic setting or would you prefer a more personal one-on-one approach of private study and getting your a** kicked on the band-stand early on…lol 🙂
RJ: I would love to study again in college. The problem is having free time to study. I barely have time to practice. I think it’s great to get your butt kicked.
JGL: As mentioned, you have been featured in a variety of music settings from solo guitar to Broadway Pit work to large ensembles to pretty much everything in between. Is there a musical situation that you enjoy the most and if so, why?
RJ: I really love recording as a sideman (less pressure than leading your own record date), performing live, leading my own band and playing my own original tunes and arrangements of jazz and pop covers.
JGL: Well now…since you have brought this up…two of your most recent releases Standards and Other Songs (2019) and Standards and My Songs (2022) feature familiar Jazz tunes along with pop songs like Drake’s “Passion Fruit”, Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” and Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”. How do you assess a tune’s “Jazz-ability” for lack of a better word?
RJ: I think any song can be converted to jazz, but the songs that stand out to me are the ones that I already hear and imagine in my head as jazz, usually songs I really like. Arranging popular songs into jazz has been done plenty of times before. Like the 1969 Hammond organ version of the pop tune “More Today Than Yesterday”.
JGL: Are there certain properties that you are looking for or can any tune be “Jazzified”?
RJ: I pick tunes that I really love. Let’s say that touched me. I can almost instantly imagine any tune into jazz. I basically conceive and arrange non-jazz tunes into jazz. LOL
JGL: And for curiosity’s sake, why do it when there are so many other Jazz Standards you can play/record?
RJ: I feel that this is uncharted territory for jazz musicians. Also I think that this helps bring a new audience or converts listeners, drawing them to jazz. I just had a radio interview and the DJ said that I helped convert people because of my arrangement of “Brandy”.
JGL: Nicely done Ron! And speaking of things “nicely done”, you have been “…selected as the winner of the 1996 Heritage International Jazz Guitar Competition. He has also been a recipient of the 2012 Donald Knutson Memorial Development Fund and the 1991 and 2000 Meet the Composer Performance Fund.” If you can talk a bit about these wonderful moments and what experiences did you walk away with?
RJ: The Heritage International Jazz Guitar was a really great experience. First, it was the first time I attended the NAMM show. I got to meet Mel Bay, Davis Byrne and most importantly Seymour Duncan whom I’ve been friends and endorsed by him since 1996. The Donald Knutson Memorial Development Fund and Meet the Composer Performance Fund grants where composition grants. By the way, I was just awarded the Jazz Road Grant from South Arts in February 2022. I was able to bring a whole band for the first part of “Whatever’s Open Tour” in March. My tour lasted one month and I played in 9 states!
JGL: Wow! That’s great! Your mentioning Mel Bay brings to mind another aspect of being a Jazz Musician, the passing of information to others. On your website bio it states that Ron Jackson “…currently teaches guitar at Jazz at Lincoln Center, The New School, Midori and Friends, and is the founder and director of the website www.practicejazzguitar.com. Ron has held master classes, concerts and workshops at Jazz at Lincoln Center-Jazz in the Schools, The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Escuela Creativa Musica in Madrid, Spain and California State University.” That’s a lot of teaching…lol 🙂 How did you get into the educational side of things and what sets you apart from other educators?
RJ: I had been teaching privately since I was a student at Berklee College Of Music. I specialized in walking basslines at the time. None of the guitar instructors at Berklee were teaching my comprehensive walking bassline method. After leaving Berklee I would have the occasional private student or jazz workshop. In 1999 bassist Rufus Reid hired me for a program at NJPAC called Jazz For Teens. That’s when I really started taking teaching seriously.
JGL: Nice! Do you also teach privately and if so, how can one approach you for lessons?
JGL: Is there a specific level of student you are looking for?
RJ: I teach all levels. My youngest student, who is eight years old, has been studying with me for almost a year now and we even did a virtual recital on ZOOM. I’m personable enough to make people feel comfortable and not intimidated while learning.
JGL: That’s a great skill to have to complement the learning process. Switching gears a little…in 2003 you founded the independent music label Roni Music where you recorded – and released – at least eight albums as a leader. Is Roni Music still happening today and what was the impetus for starting up the label and going down the indie road as it were.
RJ: Yes, the label is still going strong. The reason I started the label is that I was trying to get signed but with no real interest or lame offers, Anyway, tough luck for them. I love owning my masters and pocketing all the revenue from my sales and merch : ) LOL
JGL: LOL! ‘Nuff said!! I believe your daughter Lucia is also on the label? How is she doing professionally and are there other artists on the label as well?
RJ: Lucia is doing well. She also is a dancer and teacher. Recently, she has been dancing more than singing, mainly because of the covid pandemic but also because she started a family – I am “Baba” to two wonderful little girls (3 years and 9 months old).
JGL: Beautiful Ron and congrats to all 🙂 You have obviously found your stride in this business and seem to be doing quite well and I assume will continue to do so. How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player and are there any “tips or tricks’ you can lay on those interested in doing the same?
RJ: I’d say that to hang in there, be yourself, don’t depend on anyone but yourself to be successful. Practice, practice, practice and find a niche. Most importantly, release a new album (or project) annually or at the most every two to three years.
JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature, has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to the music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you/did you face on your instrument and how do you/ did you work at getting over them?
RJ: I was always very insecure about my playing, about other guitarists, and other people’s successes. I always used to worry about what people thought about me. It took me years and years and finally, I don’t care anymore.
JGL: Well that mindset has seemed to work for you. It’s obvious – from taking a look at your website – that you’re not “afraid” of the power/potential of marketing. How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side?
RJ: I feel that jazz musicians don’t do enough to market themselves. In comparison, other genres do just fine to market themselves nicely. There’s nothing wrong with letting people know who you are and putting yourself out there. I use TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and more recently Twitter. Each platform has a different audience. I try my best to cater to each one.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
RJ: Of course. I was thinking that today. What if I had a regular day job where I worked all my life, had benefits, health insurance, vacation pay etc. I would be retired by now. If I was retired, I would be bored out of my mind! The reason why I still play music is because I am stuck with it. That is, I never gave up. Also, after all these years, I don’t know how to do anything else.
JGL: LOL…I hear ya Ron!! So then, when you’re not on the band-stand or in the recording studio, what do you like to do to unwind?
RJ: I love to exercise, travel and sight-see, shopping, restaurants, swimming, going to the beach, and believe it or not, hanging out and seeing live music.
JGL: I believe it Ron! 🙂 Tell us…what does the future hold for Ron Jackson?
RJ: My goal is to keep going with music. Learning, listening, practicing, composing, arranging, performing, finding new ways to get better and taking chances with music. Most importantly, never giving up.
JGL: Awesome Ron! Sounds like a great sentiment to end our chat on. Thank you so much Ron for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I wish you much success in all your endeavors!
RJ: Thanks so much for having me! I’m honored and humbled.
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