In the late ‘90s, sought-after drummer and Southern University percussion teacher Herman Jackson had little interest in seeing his name in lights.
Working with dozens of stars through the years - including Willie Nelson, Al Green, Chuck Berry, Joe Tex, Johnny Adams, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Stanley Clark, Eartha Kitt and Boz Scaggs - Jackson enjoyed being a supporting player. What’s more, being a member of the band meant he didn’t have to deal with the headaches that come with leading a group.
That was then, this is now.
“Life changes,” Jackson said now that he’s the leader of a big band. “I discovered to be a good leader you have to be a good follower. So, after being in so many different bands with so many different kinds of leaders, it’s easier to be a leader. I know what to expect from musicians, and I treat them the way I want to be treated. On both ends, it makes it a lot easier.”
Jackson started his big band about a year ago. Having played just a few gigs so far, the band is set for a concert of 1960s soul and rhythm-and-blues music Saturday, Sept. 3, at the Manship Theatre’s Hartley/Vey Studio. With special emphasis on the music of the Motown and Stax record labels, dancing definitely is allowed.
Jackson, like so many of his generation, grew up loving the hits released by Detroit’s Motown and Memphis’ Stax. Motown brought Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and many more to radio stations and record shops across the land.
Stax rang up a great list of hits, too, performed by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MG’s, Jean Knight and more.
“I’ve been in jazz bands, I’ve been in R&B bands,” Jackson said. “So the big band is a culmination of that.”
Saturday’s event features three singers and a 12-piece band including a four-piece horn section. The performers are working from written arrangements by Jackson and Roderick Paulin as well that rhythm-and-blues staple, the head arrangement.
“Normally you think economics when you deal with stuff like this, but I just wanted to do something fun,” Jackson said. “Hey, I want to do this just for the sake of doing it and see what happens.”
Jackson envisions a series of big band concerts and recordings, including a show devoted to big-band crooners.
For Jackson, a protégé of Southern University’s late, beloved jazz pedagogue Alvin Batiste, versatility has always been the name of the game.
“Good music is music played by people who can play,” he said. “Bad music is played by people who can’t play. Mr. Bat, he always wanted to get people who were R&B players and turn them into jazz guys. Because once you have a groove, everything else is lagniappe. “So I tell young kids today, it doesn’t matter what you like, the bottom line is you need to be prepared for whatever you’re asked to do as a musician. And that’s the reason that I’ve been able to sustain myself. I play all styles of music, all styles of music are valid.”
Batiste also taught his students to be perpetual students armed with healthy skepticism.
“I know that whatever the latest technology or trend would be, Mr. Bat would have to check it out,” Jackson said. “And one thing he always told us, when someone tells you something, don’t take it for face value, check it out for yourself.”
Despite his decades in music, Jackson has yet to release a CD under his own name. That may change due to his big band plans and a possible project with his brother, musician and American Idol judge Randy Jackson.
“Every time I thought about doing a recording, something else happened,” Jackson said. “And to do it right, you really have to spend time getting the music together. If you’re gonna put your name on something, you want it to represent you well.”
Jackson’s other plans include forming an all-star band with his brother.
“Randy wants to do some stuff back here in Louisiana,” he said.
Jackson followed his brother to the TV screen this year through his appearances in nine episodes of the New Orleans-set HBO series, Treme. He plays a drummer in a band led by principal character Antoine Batiste, a trombonist played by Wendell Pierce.
“I have an easy part. I’m acting like a musician.”