“…he invites people to come in and be a guest teacher or guest instructor. So I got a call from him one day, somebody had mentioned my name to him and he asked me if I would like to do one of these guest instructor things. I said, ‘Sure I’ll do that.’ So I did one, and then a student said, ‘Well, bring that guy back,’ you know <laugh>. So I went back and did another one and they said, ‘Oh bring him back again’.”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 influences, his association with Rodney Jones, and shares more of his early years with us all. If you’ve never heard of Mike Jackson before…you’re in for a treat. Enjoy 🙂
If you missed Part 1, click here.
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JGL: So, tell me your relationship with Rodney.
MJ: You know, I’d never really met him way back when, but he does these online guitar instruction things…
MJ: …And he invites people to come in and be a guest teacher or guest instructor. So I got a call from him one day, somebody had mentioned my name to him and he asked me if I would like to do one of these guest instructor things. I said, ‘Sure I’ll do that.’ So I did one, and then a student said, ‘Well, bring that guy back,’ you know <laugh>. So I went back and did another one and they said, ‘Oh bring him back again.’ So I’ve got three of them now I think.
MJ: Yeah, It’s really good. He does it on Zoom. Sometimes he might have like 20 or 25 guys there. They’re all over the world, you know, Germany and France and wherever. So that’s how I got to know Rodney. I guess he heard me play. So he says, ‘Mike, I wanna come up there and see you.’ So one day I got a knock on the door He was at the door, you know—he came by one afternoon and we played a little bit. He’s a great guitar player. I just love his playing.
JGL: Yeah me too! I basically just got introduced to him after I spent a lot of time talking with Russell Malone. He’s the one that hooked me up to get to know Rodney. Rodney and I yesterday spent the whole day talking and he’s…I mean, I’m telling, you, it just turned my life around, man. I tell you, he’s something.
MJ: Yeah. He’s a good guy. He knows music very well. He knows jazz. And you see him on Facebook a lot. I always tell him, ‘Man, you’re so good ‘cause you’re constantly playing,’ you know? <Laugh> Like he’s on it every day, you know?
JGL: Yeah. He’s played with, like…everybody. I mean, a real “who’s who of” famous people. it’s an easier question to ask ‘who haven’t you played with’ when it comes to him!
MJ: Yeah. Now I’ll tell you an interesting story too. He mentioned to me when I first started talking to him, a guy named Nathen Page, did he ever tell you about Nathen Page?
MJ: Nathen Page was a Washington DC guitar player that was back in the sixties. He was the guy that all of the guitar players in DC looked up to. You know, he had made the move from playing R&B and playing jazz and he was doing it very well. So I really looked up to him and I kind of emulated his style a little bit. So apparently somewhere along the line, Rodney heard some recordings of Nathen Page, and he was a big fan of Nathen’s. Page was very unusual in his style of play, regarding the harmonies he used and stuff like that. Do you remember a group—Doug and Jean Carne?
JGL: Yeah, actually, I do. And I know that Rodney played with Jean Carne…
MJ: Right. Well, Nathen Page did a recording with Doug and Jean Carne. I can’t remember the name of it now, but Rodney could tell you. And so we have that kind of a connection and I can hear a lot of Nathen’s styling in Rodney’s playing. And I think I have a little bit of that too.
JGL: Are there albums in particular that I should look for from Nathen Page?
MJ: There’s probably some stuff…I would look him up on YouTube.
JGL: Okay. So now tell me about this situation where you were down-sizing and you found an Ampex multitrack reel to reel tape in the closet.
MJ: Well, that’s very interesting. Did you hear any of those tunes? They’re on Band Camp.
JGL: I didn’t hear any of them yet. I just saw the story on your website and I thought, ‘Well, I gotta make sure I ask him about this.’
MJ: Yeah. I guess it was some stuff that I decided…well, I think it was 1981.
JGL: It’s said it was a day in April, 1980.
MJ: Yeah. 1980. Okay. So I was living in New Jersey at the time and I knew a guy that had a studio in his basement and I said, ‘I’m gonna record some stuff.’ So I went and recorded five original tunes, but then I forgot about the stuff, you know? I had that big Ampex—like I guess it was a one inch, you know—those huge reels. And it was in my closet for years and years. And then last year, when I was getting ready to move from my house, I sold my house and got an apartment. I found that tape, and I was talking to Rodney at that time. I said, ‘Rodney, you know anybody that could…’ cause you know, sometimes it’s hard to get the music off of those old tapes, because they’re old, you know? And he said, ‘Well I know a guy in New York City that can do it. So I took it to this guy in New York. He was able to get the tunes off and convert ’em to digital files.
MJ: So it was really interesting to hear that stuff. It was much better than I expected it to be.
JGL: Now, who was playing with you on those?
MJ: You wouldn’t believe this—I don’t remember who it was! It was a bass player, a keyboard player and a drummer and me and I don’t remember the guys that played on that set. I honestly don’t.
MJ: You know, I can see the piano player’s face in my mind’s eye, but I, I just don’t remember…the whole thing just kind of got forgotten, you Know?
MJ: But the music was not bad. I could send you a link to BandCamp and you could check it out.
MJ: But here’s another thing. I got a call from a drummer in Washington, DC named Ben Secundy. And, and I hadn’t heard from him like 40 years. He said, ‘Mike, I was going through my closet. I found an old reel to reel tape of a gig that we played in 1970.’ And it was a quartet. And I know who all these people were. It was Ben Secundy on drums and a great organ player named Garland Butts. He was the best organ player in DC at that time. And then a tenor player named Gene Foster. And so I was 25 years old at that point, you know? But anyway, to make a long story short, he was able to get that tape converted. And it was like a whole gig. It was two sets of music, from one night in 1970 <laugh>. So I’ve got the CDs—I’ll send you the CDs of that.
JGL: I would love that.
MJ: I mean, I was just learning to play jazz. Then when I listened to it, I wasn’t entirely happy with what I was playing, but you know, it’s like a time capsule, you know?… it was what it was, you know?
JGL: And what instrument did Garland Butts play?
MJ: He was an organ player.
JGL: And then Gene Foster on tenor?
MJ: Yep. And you know, I was 25, Ben and I were about 25 at the time. And then Jean and Garland were older guys. You know, thinking back on it, I was honored to be playing with those guys, and Gene Foster was kind of a mentor to me, you know?
JGL: The whole concert was taped?
MJ: Yeah. It was two sets at a club. it’s probably maybe 14 tunes, I believe.
JGL: Do you know what the club was?
MJ: It’s called Jackie Lee’s Lounge.
MJ: Jackie Lee’s lounge. Yeah. I’ll send it to you. I think you’ll find it. Interesting. Look, it’s not perfect. And it’s not a professional recording or anything, but you can hear it. and you can hear the people in there. And the applause…it’s like, as I said, a time capsule of what was going on in the DC music scene at that point, you know?
JGL: So you don’t live in, you’re not in DC anymore?
MJ: No, no, I’ve been in New York for 40 years.
JGL: Oh, okay.
MJ: Well, you know, I played, I was in Chicago in the in the mid-seventies, I guess from ‘74 to ‘77.
MJ: And do you remember a guy named Red Saunders?
JGL: Yes. Yes, of course.
MJ: I went out there and I met Red Saunders when I first got there around 1974. And he kept me busy the whole time I was out there. I was there about three or four years. And he was a well-known guy in Chicago, you know, I guess he was back from the big band era and all that.. He was a drummer. But he had a lot of contacts and he was well connected with the musicians union and all that. And yeah, he was a good guy. He kept me busy the whole time I was in Chicago.
JGL: So what have I not asked you that I should, that people wanna know?
MJ: <Laugh> oh God, I don’t know…I guess we’ve covered most of this stuff about my life. I just I love to play, you know. Obviously I don’t play as much as I used to, especially since all this pandemic business came up.
JGL: Have you done any teaching at University or do you teach privately?
MJ: I’ve done a lot of private teaching. Not as much now as I used to, but I’ve done a lot of private teaching.
JGL: And how much time do you spend looking at jazz guitar books in terms of method books? Or do you do any of that stuff?
MJ: Not much anymore.. I don’t feel as motivated as I used to. Although Rodney has gotten me… I mean, when Rodney first started calling me, I was hardly playing at all, you know?
MJ: Yeah. I mean, the guitars were sitting there and I would look at ‘em and just barely pick it up. And especially after the pandemic came in, nobody was calling me to play gigs. And so it just was nothing happening.
JGL: Right, I remember feeling the same way too during that time…
MJ: But Rodney has gotten me going again, especially when he told me he was coming up here. I said, ‘Oh my God,’ I said, ‘Hey, I guess I better to get in there and do some practicing. And try to get back on. And one day he knocked on the door. There he was, you know? I think my playing’s okay. It’s just that with this pinched nerve situation, and the stiffness of the fingers and all that…I can still play. But I don’t feel like I have the facility that I used to have.
JGL: Who do you listen to when you’re listening to jazz guitar? Who still moves you?
MJ: I like Russell Malone a lot. Because Russell is totally different than everybody else, you know?
MJ: But I don’t listen to a whole lot of guitar players really, I’m a big fan of Keith Jarrett the piano player.
JGL: Oh, me too.
MJ: I can remember a time when I would listen to him and picked up a lot of things from listening to his style, and the way he plays. I listened to a lot of his style.
JGL: it was that Facing You album in 1972, I think.
JGL: The very first album on his ECM label.
MJ: And also the trio stuff. I like the trio stuff. The Standards.
JGL: Oh yeah. With Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.
MJ: Yes. And I was lucky enough to hear them in person down at the New Jersey in Newark at the Performing Arts Center down there. They had a concert there; a friend of mine and I went. It was really worthwhile. I love his playing. I love his style. I’m a big fan of Hubert Laws too.
JGL: Isn’t he (Hubert) a DC person?
MJ: I don’t think so. I didn’t know him from there. I’ve never met him in person, but he made an album. Oh, what was the name of that album? Oh, it was called Morning Star.
JGL: Oh, okay.
MJ: I’ll tell you—that was a very influential album, I think it came out about 25 years ago or something, but it was just a very… I would encourage you to check that out—it really influenced my playing a lot.
MJ: Yes, yes. Very much.
JGL: What was it about that album? ‘Cuz that’s a rare thing for a guitar player to be that much influenced by a flute player.
MJ: I think it was just a way that he put together his kind of a melodic style that he had, and the way the lines were connected and everything…when you listen to that title track tune, “Morning Star,” you’ll see what I mean.
MJ: And I just picked up a lot of the licks there. Some things I actually picked up directly from the album. But a lot of it, you just try to get a feeling for the style of it. And the same thing with Keith Jarett, I would copy certain things, but basically I would just try to get a feel for how he was phrasing things.
JGL: Right. So that leads to another topic, kind of related directly to what you just said, which is playing by ear versus reading music—sight reading or just charts or whatever.
JGL: So are you more trained by ear?
MJ: Pretty much. Yeah. That’s the way I started out. And you know, later on I did learn to read music a little bit, you know. I can read enough music that I can teach young guitar players how to read and all that, but I’m not a great reader.
JGL: Yeah. Most guitar players aren’t, so welcome to the club. <Laugh>
MJ: Yeah. I pretty much kind of learned on the bandstand really, you know?
JGL: Do you do any college teaching ? Have you related to the college or academic end of things at all?
MJ: No. No, I haven’t done that. And I know a lot of people who have done that, but no, I never did that. And you know, it’s funny…are you familiar with Billy Hart? He and I used to play together when we were teenagers.
MJ: You know, back on the… <laugh>, I don’t know what you’d call it, not the ‘Chitlin circuit,’ but just kind of the local rhythm & blues, pop music stuff, you know? And Billy has had a tremendous career. I mean, I think he’s recorded like 500 albums or something like that. and he’s played with Wes Montgomery and all these different people…but yeah, he and I played together. The first gig I ever played where I got paid was with Billy Hart. I think I was 14 years old. He was probably about 17 or 18. He was a couple of years older than me. And we got paid ten dollars to play this gig <laugh> you know?
JGL: That’s like around 1958, Huh?
MJ: Yeah. That would’ve been the late fifties. That’s right.
JGL: Wow. So did you ever actually meet west Montgomery?
MJ: I never met him in person. Never heard him in person.
JGL: Was his playing at all influential on your guitar playing?
MJ: You know, it’s funny, not as much as Kenny Burrell, or some of the others. I think at the time that Wes Montgomery got popular, everybody was trying to do that octave thing…
JGL: Yeah. Yeah.
MJ: And not doing it very well. And even today you hear people who don’t do It very well. So I just kind of made a conscious decision not to go that route. You know what I mean?
JGL: Yes I do.
MJ: And occasionally now I have certain little things that I’ll do where I’ll play some octaves, but by and large, that’s not a part of what I play. So yeah. I just kind of stayed away from that style, but I certainly liked and appreciated his playing. He was a great player.
MJ: But it was not something that I wanted to emulate, you know?
JGL: Do you do any chord solo-type stuff?
MJ: Occasionally… in fact, you heard that recording of “In Your Own Sweet Way”. Did you hear that?
MJ: Well, on that solo, I play an entire chorus of block chords.
MJ: And normally I don’t do that <laugh> but I did it on that tune. And I’ll tell you a story of how I did it. I used to play at a club in Newberg, New York, and a guy used to come in there and he was just…you know, he was one of the customers. And he also turned out to be a piano player as I found out later. And he was telling me, ‘Oh, Mike, I love your playing.’ He said, ‘Mike, sometimes when you solo, you should just use just chords—totally. And I’m thinking, ‘who’s this guy telling ME how I should be playing?’ I know how to play, you know?
MJ: But anyway, I, I started thinking about what he said. And so from that point on, I did start to do it a little bit. And on that particular recording, I played one whole chorus—just playing chords.
MJ: Yeah, it adds a whole new level of sort of heightened intention, it adds, it adds a new layer. I mean, I think that’s one of the things that people loved about Wes—because he played single notes. Then he doubled it with octaves. Then he doubled that with four note chord solos.
MJ: And you know, something interesting about that: He never varied from that. He always started with single notes. Then he went to the octave, then he went to other. If you hear other people doing it, they’re all over the place, you know?
MJ: They might play a couple little octave things, then they’ll go to something else and they’re all bouncing back and forth. But he was very methodical about how he did that.
JGL: Yeah. His way had a logic and natural build to it.
MJ: Yes, yes it did. I always appreciated the way he did that.
JGL: Okay new subject area: We’ve never talked about amps and stuff.
MJ: Yeah. So I have I about three or four amplifiers. I used to use tube amps only, but you know, I had an old AMPEG amp that had the flip top, you know?
MJ: The one with two 12-inch speakers. It was the best sounding amp I ever had.
JGL: They’re so heavy though.
MJ: They weighed about a hundred pounds, you know? And then I had Fender amps. As a matter of fact, when I met George Benson back in ‘68, he and I got together. He was staying at a hotel near the club. So he told me, he said, ‘Well, bring your guitar over tomorrow afternoon, we’ll play some,’ you know. So I took my guitar over there and I took an amp with me. It was a Fender Concert amp. Remember the Concert amp that had four 10-inch speakers?
JGL: Yeah. That thing is pretty big.
MJ: And it was a nice amp, but I took it over and he wanted to buy it from me! <Laugh>
MJ: Cuz I guess he wanted an amp that he could keep in the hotel or something. I don’t know. And I didn’t wanna sell it, so I didn’t sell it to him, but I always regretted not selling it to ’em—because not long after that I loaned it to somebody and then I never saw it again.
JGL: Oh, you’re kidding!?
MJ: Yep. Fender Concert. And that was a great amp.
JGL: Yeah. Somebody else obviously knew how good it was and decided to keep it!
MJ: Yeah, that’s right. Those amplifiers had a very warm sound. You know, those old tube amps. So now I have a JazzKat. You familiar with JazzKat?
JGL: No, I’m not.
MJ: Yeah. JazzKat. I don’t know if they make it anymore.
JGL: No, I never heard of it.
MJ: It’s 140-watt solid state amp. It has an attended speaker and, and then I have an old Polytone. I think it’s a Mini Brute V, I believe. It’s probably about 15, 20 years old. That’s a 12-inch speaker. So I take that sometimes if I need a little more… if it’s gonna be a louder gig.
MJ: But it’s a little heavier for me to haul around, but I mean, both of those amps are lighter than the old tube amps, you know?
JGL: Right. Ok, next question: if there were younger people who you would give advice to about making a career out of playing guitar, what kind of elderly advice would you give them about the playing or recording—or anything that you’d pass on to them that they could learn from you?
MJ: I have one piece of advice that I give to anybody that’s starting out, and it’s something that I did not do. And I always regret it. And that is to focus on your own music, your own original music, you know? Write your own stuff and do your own music.
JGL: Yeah. That’s pretty good advice…
MJ: I mean, you can do other people’s music too, but I didn’t spend enough time focusing on my own. I’ve written things that have come up with, and some other ideas and tunes that I’ve forgotten. I never really did anything with it, you know? Never wrote it down, never recorded it. And I always regret that.
JGL: How many songs did you have like that?
MJ: Well, I mean when you listen to this BandCamp stuff, there’s five tunes on there that I wrote, you know? At least those I did get down and I did record them. But for the most part, I just didn’t focus very much on original stuff. And I regret not doing that ‘cuz I think I’d be better off today if I had.
JGL: You know, I actually, …you surprised me with that. I mean, it’s a great answer, but I, for some reason—I thought what you were gonna say was ‘learn the business part,’ because the music part is what most guitar players get but the business part is what most people don’t ever get right.
MJ: Well, that’s true. And it kind of goes along with what I said, because when you write your own music, then you got the copyrights and then other people play your music and you make money from that, you know what I mean? So, yeah—do original music, you know? I wish I had put more time and effort into that.
JGL: Were you ever involved or interested in getting a record deal or anything like that to sort of further your career? Do you ever regret not having it if you never did it? Or did you ever find a deal that wasn’t a good one?
MJ: Well, you know, those five tunes that I recorded in 1980– I think that’s why I did those. And when you listen to the music, they’re kind of in a contemporary light jazz style, you know what I mean? I think the reason I made those was to try to get somebody to record me. I knew some guys at that time who were in Philadelphia and I remember going down there, they had a record company down there. Philadelphia used to be a big center for recording, they had that whole ‘Philadelphia Sound’ thing going.
JGL: Yeah, that was like an R&B and soul-type of music vibe at the time.
MJ: Right. But I knew some guys that I was hoping would put this stuff out, ‘cuz it was kind of a contemporary sound. It wasn’t really jazz, you know, it wasn’t, you know, like a bebop type of thing. But when you hear the stuff, you’ll see what I mean by the style, it was similar to what you might have heard George Benson doing in those days.
JGL: Okay. Was there any particular record label that you would’ve liked to have been on?
MJ: Well, I think I contacted…what was that name? Creed Taylor had at label.
JGL: Oh, CTI.
MJ: Yes, CTI. I think I did reach out to them and I probably sent them those tunes, you know, I’m pretty sure I sent them that tape of those recordings, but I never…nothing ever came of it. And then I just put the tape away and forgot about it.
JGL: When did you move to New York?
MJ: I moved to Chicago in ‘74 and then I moved to new to New Jersey in ‘77. Then I moved to New York in ‘81. And then I’ve been up here, not in the city. I’m about 60 miles west of New York City, Northwest of New York City. So I’ve been here for since ‘81.
JGL: So when you were in New York in 77, were you gigging in town and doing stuff then?
MJ: Very little, very little playing in the city. Cuz I didn’t know a lot of guys in the city, most of the places I played were either in Northern New Jersey or upstate New York.
JGL: So that’s where you earned your reputation as a monster jazz guitarist…
MJ: <Laugh> I guess so…I dunno.
JGL: I mean, it’s really amazing. Like, everybody talks about you; it’s sort of like the unknown legend the people who know, know –and the ones that don’t–like me—just don’t know…., but when I talked to the cats, like Russell and Rodney… I think Ed Cherry talked about you, too, man. It seemed like all of the cats knew about you, except me! [laughs]
MJ: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s nice to hear.
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