Adaron “Pops” Jackson: No Boundaries

One of Jazz St. Louis’ most beloved individuals is Adaron “Pops” Jackson. He’s been a part of the Jazz St. Louis family for years as a performer, educator, and accompanist for our WeBop program. He returns to the Ferring Bistro stage this coming Wednesday and Thursday. We caught up with Pops to learn more about his background and the upcoming show.

Jazz St. Louis (JSL): You grew up here, right?

Adaron “Pops” Jackson (APJ): I was born and raised in East St. Louis actually. I’ve been coming to the Bistro for a long time – performing… teaching.  But early on I remember it as a place to go to see amazing artists. You don’t think about it in the moment how much the music impacts you and one day you’ll be on stage.  As a student, it’s special for that.

JSL: Who got you started in music?

APJ: When I was a kid my mother bought a piano from an elderly woman for a couple hundred bucks. It just needed to be moved. My mom said she bought a piano and everybody has to take lessons. Every child in the house. I was 9 at the time. Eventually she gave us a choice to do what we wanted to do, but if we wanted to continue with the piano, we could. And I did.

JSL: Starting at 9 is a little late. Did you have a lot of natural talent?

APJ: Natural talent? Natural talent is practice. When I first started, I practiced an hour a day. Harriet Howard Lee was my first piano teacher. She had two baby grand Ballwins in her living room.

JSL: How did you transition into jazz?

APJ:  I got into jazz through East St. Louis Lincoln Sr. High school (at the time). The band director was Ron Carter. And at one time under his direction, East St. Louis Lincoln was the number one jazz band program in the country. Not while I was there though, could we claim that distinction (laughing). But we traveled all over the country and played with Ellis Marsalis and Arturo Sandoval. Ron actually left while I was there and went on to Northern Illinois University, which is a world-renowned program.

JSL: Was playing there intimidating for a freshmen in such a talented program?

APJ: Oh, yes. I didn’t have any experience playing jazz, but Carter was a great educator. And the band has such a culture of help and encouragement from older students. The upper classmen mentored the younger ones. The guy who mentored me was Frederick Wilson and is now a preacher in Chicago. His sister is Anita Wilson, who is big in the gospel world. A lot of people who went there are very successful now.

JSL: Who were some of your influences as a young musician?

APJ: Let’s see… Oscar Peterson. Wynton Kelly, Erroll Garner… but finding it was everything. We didn’t have the Internet. We had vinyl, and CDs were just coming up, tapes too. We would transcribe the music and solos, which were introduced through Carter. We would sit down as a group or alone. Listen to it, rewind, and play the notes. This was before you could slow things down. Mostly with tape recorders. Play, rewind, play. It wasn’t just about getting the notes right. You had to listen to how they were playing. Context matters. It’s important how they’re playing. My dad’s friends made mix tapes from their records that I could use. That’s the community I was in.

JSL: Any “aha” moments growing up?

APJ: There wasn’t one big moment. I remember all the performances in a way were transformative by the community. Creating with friends all together and having people want to be a part of it. Touching the earth together and experiencing life together. How can you not love getting on a bus with your friends to go to Disney World and perform? We were all doing what we loved. It’s not just memories of the time, but how it was embedded with our music and the emotion we put into it. The times with the music were my moments.

JSL: What about after high school?

APJ:  I went to college on an academic scholarship, not music. I majored in finance but switched at some point. I actually had enough credits in music classes to be a double major. I went through a couple of different periods and graduated in 4 years despite being a double major. First, it was a Music Performance Major then Music Education, then back to Performance.  My parents didn’t steer me away from it, because the education was paid for, but there were concerns about how I would make a living. It wasn’t “you can’t do this,” though. They let me decide.  

There was the idea that I would play music but major in something else just in case. But the problem is I couldn’t put the energy into the thing that I loved. I told them “this is what I want to do” during my sophomore year. I didn’t finish the course work for Finance or Education.

JSL: What was the transition like going from college to playing professionally?

APJ: Networking. It’s an industry in terms of performance. They don’t check diplomas. Can you work? Are you talented? Are you able to perform and get the job done?  Building that network and working as much as possible was key for me. When I first got out of school, I did some work in theater. Playing on stage for the shows. I traveled quite a bit doing that.  I ended up playing with the Temptations.

At the same time, I was networking and playing as much as possible. Then the MAXJAZZ (record label) people came to the Bistro. It was Rich McDonnell and Laverne Butler. MAXJAZZ provided me the opportunity to play with them. Laverne asked me to go to Europe on her tour.

JSL: Where did your passion for teaching come from?

APJ: I had good teachers. People who were good at their craft. You can be good at playing or anything, but you may not be good at teaching that thing. Teaching is a whole other thing. I love the discussion of ideas and philosophy, how we approach something musically, and how we think about it. The people for which you give encouragement and direction, they don’t stop. They come back with 1000%.

JSL: Tell us about this new position you have with UMSL

APJ: I’ve been teaching at the college level for years. I’ve taught classes at SIUE, SWIC, Lindenwood, St Charles Community College, and Wash U. The opportunity at UMSL came as a gift from the Stewards and a jazz degree program was birthed. There was only a minor before, but now it’s a major. I heard about the opportunity through academic journals, and it was a nationwide search. I didn’t tell anyone I was applying though. I got the job.

My role there now is to finish the implementation of the process of the minor to major. Accreditation needs to happen, so people can major in Jazz Studies this fall.

JSL:  Any advice for young players coming up?

APJ:  If the arts and music is something you want to do, approach every opportunity as if it were your last. Give 100% more to what the goal is. Give 100% to elevating the synergy of the experience. Take care of your own weight but be in a position to be a foundation for someone else in the ensemble to achieve their peak. The work you put in matters. But it doesn’t matter yesterday or the day before. It’s about how much work you’re willing to do today.

If you want to do arts and music, it’s a noble thing. It has the ability to affect people in great ways. How did jazz affect our political and social climate and the fabric of this country? How did gospel music shape western civilization? They shape society and culture at large. Pursuing it is to be part of living history.  The music teaches us who we are and helps us to explore the humanity of others. To play this music is to contribute to history.

JSL: What are your thoughts on the current state of jazz and where it’s headed?

APJ:  Not sure that anyone could tell you that. The future of it? For lack of a better thing to say… it’s right. There are innovators out there. The shape of where it will go is anyone’s guess, but there are no boundaries to the line of art or jazz. Charlie Parker said that there’s no boundary line to art. Music is your own experience. It doesn’t have a boundary. I’m encouraged by the fact that the music is distinct and we’re part of a lineage and part of a history. Because of the tradition and the fact that the tradition challenges us to transform people with the sound of our instruments, we can go anywhere. We can do anything.  It is music born of rebellion. How can it not be transformative? I’m excited to see what the future holds.

JSL:  What can our patrons expect from your show?

APJ:  We’re doing the music of Roy Ayers which can be described as soul/jazz. We will also be doing some of the music of Commonwealth which is a band I was in some years ago. Many of the people on the show were a part of that band. The band is Brian Owens and Sya Collins (Vocals), Jason Swagler (Sax), Shaun Robinson (guitar), Miles Vandiver (drums), Matt Henry (percussion), Bernard Terry (bass). It’s gonna be good.

Don’t miss Adaron “Pops” Jackson Group with two shows only, tonight and tomorrow night!

Buy your tickets now!