by Michael Goldberg
Monday, August 4, 2003
Grooving To The Stanley Jackson Trio
Remembering an early experience with jazz
I had never heard of the great jazz organ player, Jimmy Smith, nor of pianist Horace Silver, when, at age 14, my mind was blown by the Stanley Jackson Trio.
Stanley Jackson was a very cool black dude who played a portable electric organ, a Vox instrument as I recall. His trio was, naturally, rounded out by a bass player and a percussionist. Jackson was just a couple of years older than I. He always wore a black cap; it was kind of like an inexpensive version of a Russian fur hat, only it was made out of some kind of thick, plush synthetic material. He had a slight moustache, just a hint of goatee, and a warm smile that could melt a glacier. He lived in Marin City, which was the closest Marin had to a black ghetto at the time.
During the summer of 1968, every Friday evening, a large room at a church in Mill Valley was turned into the "Coffee House." There was a stereo and, near it, some old milk crates filled with the cherished albums of another local musician, a blues singer/harmonica player named Mark Adams. Each week, there was live music. One time the Holy Modal Rounders showed up. More often, it was a local artist or band, such as the Stanley Jackson Trio. Kids making music for kids.
My time at the Coffee House was quite meaningful. It was part of my coming of age. It went along with growing my hair out, learning to defy my parents, becoming an individual. It was the first "club" I attended on my own, without my parents. It was a place where teenagers could hang and socialize.
I got stoned for the first time during an evening when I attended the Coffee House. In one of my high-school classes, there was this cute girl named Cookie, with long straight blond hair; I was sweet on her and used to let her copy my work. At the end of the school year, as a "thank you," she slipped me my first joint. (Now I understand why she was so spaced-out so often!) I would have preferred a kiss, but that was not to be.
I had, of course, been reading about drugs and the psychedelic experience for several years. Timothy Leary had gotten major national media attention, as had the San Francisco counterculture. From what I'd read, getting high was really something. Now, thanks to Cookie, the time had come for me to find out for myself what this was all about.
When school was out that day, I climbed up into the bushes above the school and smoked some of it. Nothing happened. Someone had told me that one might not feel anything the "first time." Hmmm. That night, after arriving at the Coffee House, I went across the street into Old Mill Park and smoked the rest. I remember feeling kind of funny, but not "stoned." "This stuff is not what it's been hyped to be," I remember thinking. So much for my first '60s experience with drugs.
The music of Stanley Jackson, to a young kid, was a whole other thing. If one could get high listening to music, Jackson's music got me high. Toby Byron, a good friend who hung at the Coffee House with me, now describes Jackson's group as a "funky organ trio" playing "soul-jazz stuff." That pretty much captures what they were about. Jackson would improvise during what I thought then were original compositions. I was a huge fan of a new group called The Doors, and I was hung up on the sound of electric organ. Part of the Jackson group's appeal may have simply been the chance to see and hear an electric organ up close.
Jackson's sound was, I now know, strongly influenced by the pop jazz of the early-to-mid '60s. Yet he couldn't help soaking up aspects of the underground rock that was then in full bloom in the San Francisco Bay Area. He would take off on long improvised excursions that were both trippy and soulful.
Other than Miles Davis, who my parents had taken me to see, Jackson was the first live jazz I experienced. And in contrast to the Davis performance (which took place at a large hall at a time when I was hung up on the simple pop of The Beatles and really couldn't hear what Davis and his combo were up to), I could stand just a few feet away from Jackson's group and become completely immersed in their sound. This was my music at myclub and it hit home. It was so exciting. I dug it so much that one night I dragged a big reel-to-reel tape recorder to the Coffee House and made a recording. I wanted to be able to listen to the music of the Stanley Jackson Trio at home, in my room.
During the past five months, I have become spellbound by the music that fits under the large umbrella labeled "jazz." Most recently, I was watching a documentary about the great Blue Note label when I heard a melody that took me back many decades to the Coffee House, to the Stanley Jackson Trio. The piece of music was Horace Silver's "Song for My Father." I've heard this before, I thought, and in my mind I could see Jackson bent over his keyboard. I'm now sure that this was one of the compositions that Jackson performed.
Horace Silver wasn't the only one Jackson was listening to (and learning from). I'm sure he studied Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder, which featured pianist Barry Harris, and of course Jimmy Smith himself, who was a much-imitated jazz institution by the mid-'60s.
If I were to hear the music today that Jackson was playing way back when, I'm sure I'd be disappointed. Now that I've heard Jimmy Smith, delved into many of Silver's classic albums knowing what the greatest jazz sounds like the music of Jackson's and my youth would certainly sound immature, not fully formed. Or, as my old friend Toby put it the other day, "on reflection, pretty limited."
Yet at the time I was mesmerized and inspired by Jackson and his trio. He was proof that a kid attending the very same school I attended could make what I thought at the time was "great music." Hearing Jackson play, I could understand that the rock stars I saw on television came from the same places that my friends and I came from. I'm sure that experiencing the Stanley Jackson Trio at the Coffee House was, in a way, my introduction to the D.I.Y. mentality I would make use of in the years to come.
Jackson never became a star. But when I did a Google search on the Stanley Jackson Trio, I found that there's still a version of the group gigging in the Bay Area. I found a listing for a show they did in late 1999, a benefit for the Marin City Boxing Club, which had "approximately 60 children currently enrolled and participating in the program," according to an online press release. That Jackson's still making music, all these years later, is reassuring. In a world where "success" is equated with "stardom," it's good to know that some musicians keep making music just for the sake of making music.