With all that Vasti Jackson has going on, he could be forgiven should he ever suffer through an identity crisis. He’s an exceptionally-gifted guitarist and singer. He’s a first-call orator, an ambassador for – and a Hall of Famer in – the state of Mississippi and he has a deep understanding of the blues and its long and storied history. He’s a clever song-writer and a skilled producer and arranger. And lest we forget, Vasti Jackson is also a natural under the bright lights of motion picture cameras and has appeared in several big-time movies and film projects.
But make no mistake about it; Vasti Jackson is not battling through an identity crisis. He knows precisely who he is and just what he does.
“Listen, I am music, OK? Anything you see beyond that is just an addition to that. Everything to me is music. My pulse rate, the sound of the engine in my car … if the water is boiling, if the wind is blowing, everything to me is rhythm and pitch,” he recently said. “Absolutely everything; everything I do, I equate with music.”
The Hattiesburg-based Jackson – who was inducted into the Mississippi Musician’s Hall of Fame in 2012 – has traveled the world for over three decades now, playing his brand of acoustic and electric blues, sprinkled with generous doses of jazz, funk and country. His tireless devotion to all things Mississippi led to his recent appointment as a cultural ambassador to the Magnolia State.
“I was honored with the prestige of being named a cultural ambassador to the state of Mississippi. Basically, it entails what I’ve been doing since 1989, which is promoting the culture of Mississippi the world over,” he said. “Over time, it’s my assumption that they became aware of that. As an official cultural ambassador, my task is to continue to share the great culture of Mississippi – of course through music, like blues and gospel and jazz and all other kinds – but blues is the foundation and bedrock of what I do. As it’s been said, ‘Blues is the root and everything else is the fruit.’ And that’s definitely true with me. But (as a cultural ambassador) I talk about everything in the wonderful state of Mississippi -which is the hospitality state – including the amazing culinary experiences. And as for music, wow! This where B.B. King and Elvis Presley are from and this is where the blues were born, as far as a genre of music.”
Mississippi was once at the epi-center of the Chiltin’ Circuit, a series of legendary venues that helped give rise to the now iconic careers of musicians such as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Johnnie Taylor – to name just a few. And although the state may not have as many clubs and juke joints that feature nightly live music as it did even 30 years ago, Jackson says there’s still plenty of music to feast on in Mississippi; you just have to know where to look.
“I live in the community and just like everything in life changes – we’re riding around in cars now instead of horse and buggies and we’re speaking on cell phones and so forth – change is something that we can’t run from. I find that what has happened is that you don’t have as many of those venues to play,” he said. “You have casinos – I did a song for the film Infidelity called “Casino In The Cotton Field” – and the song spoke about the imagery, like in Robinsonville (Mississippi), where you drive through there and where there used to be cotton fields, now there’s casinos. So the people that worked in that community back then would go to the juke joints and so forth, but now they go to the casinos, where you’ve got the buffet and the lounge where live music is playing. So that’s part of the demise of many of the common, local cafes and juke joints and establishments of that nature. So there are less places to play, but the culture is still vibrant.”
That seems to be especially true from the up-close-and-personal vantage point that Jackson has.
“A lot of people in places like say, New York, or wherever, or who write for magazines, they’re not in the community. It’s OK to speak to someone like me (about the still-thriving blues scene in Mississippi), because I’m in the community,” he said. “I’m not on the outside looking in, I’m on the inside looking out. So I can say, ‘Oh, yeah. There’s this little club in Hattiesburg and it may not be poppin’ every night, but they do have live musicians playing there.’ So by no means has it dried up.”
While it’s by no means some kind of well-kept secret, it may also not be that well-known that there are plenty of blues musicians still plying their trade in the Magnolia State that have neither left Mississippi, nor have they any huge plans at becoming the next big thing. In other words, those craving a face-to-face with the real-deal Mississippi blues would be richly rewarded with a visit to the state.
“You still have these pockets in Mississippi where people are playing music and they’re not looking to become professionals; they’re playing for strictly the love of it. In a family situation, a gathering at church,” said Jackson. “It is music that’s born of the love of playing music, which is the way it should be. If you want to know what’s going on in the Chitlin’ Circuit, in the village and in the neighborhood, come on in to the neighborhood. Don’t wait for someone to expose it at the IBC (International Blues Challenge). That’s great for what it is and the Blues Foundations and all these societies are doing fantastic things, but if you want to get to the crux of the culture, go where it is.”
While most blues lovers may not take the time to stop and think about it these days, a lot of the forefathers of the genre were looked at differently some four or five decades ago. Jackson easily acknowledges as much.
“B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland … it’s important to realize that those guys were pop stars in their hey-day. They were popular within the black community,” he said. “Robert Johnson was a popular guy during his present time. Those guys were important to the blues back in the day when they were pop stars and they’re important to the blues these days as blues icons. I love the foundation, the roots and the tradition of this music.”
One of the challenges that the modern-day blues is saddled with is its aging fan base. The music may be as essential and vibrant as ever, but the truth is, the same thing can’t be said of a vast majority of its audience.
“When you look at the demographics of say, people that were the same age that B.B. King was when he was a pop star, many of those people are dead. And the ones that aren’t are 80-some years old and they aren’t going and hanging out in the hot sun at these festivals,” he said. “They’re not spending too much time at the casinos, either.”
However, that doesn’t mean things are as bleak as they sound. A touch of updating and tweaking of the formula is all that’s really required.
“Just as the music evolved when B.B. King modernized it, just as we got on up in time and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, in his ‘second career’ modernized it from his first recording of “Gangster Of Love” to his later hits in the ‘70s and ‘80s (a blend of his blues with heavy dose of funk and a hint of disco), all he did was just update what he was already doing … he reinvented himself,” said Jackson. “So even though I love the people that honor the tradition of the blues – both acoustic and electric – that’s not where the culture is in ‘the hood.’ That ain’t where the culture is in the village, you get me? B.B. King was not trying to replicate or duplicate Robert Johnson. He was combining his life experiences to that and that’s what makes the blues vibrant.”
That line of thinking is exactly what has made Jackson such an in-demand bluesman – whether in Mississippi or across the ocean in Milan. Sure, he can play Robert Johnson tunes all day long with the best of them, but he’s always been dead-set on adding his personal twist to the music, pushing it forward instead of keeping it mired in the same place it’s been for 75 years.
“With me, even though I can play that old stuff – and I do – I mean I do a theatrical presentation on Robert Johnson (Robert Johnson – The Man, The Myth, The Music!) and I love the one guy sitting there with an acoustic guitar – but I also have a song called “My Computer Turned On Me.” It’s an acoustic blues song about a common and current problem (that people have with their computers acting up) that can make you mad or frustrated,” he said. “Now that’s a contemporary blues story. I’m not singing about being tired of picking cotton or driving my Terraplane. I may sing about driving my Prius, but not my Terraplane, you see? As opposed to catching a train, I’m catching a plane. That’s the blues, but that’s the modern blues. When I see people – with almost a sense of parody or buffoonery – trying to create a persona of someone in 1937 – it’s like, why? I understand the tradition, because I am the tradition. But the thing is, for the blues to become even more vibrant, it has to become current and intrinsic in the lives of people. The blues just have no boundaries; we should not try to restrict it.”
By no means is Jackson trying to set any kind of limits as to who can and who can’t play the blues. He’s quick to point out that all contributions are more than welcome. However, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that just playing the blues makes a musician a bluesman.
“Listen, I’m a musician, I’m a writer, I’m a composer, I’m an arranger and a producer and I work in all forms of music – jazz, blues, gospel, hip-hop, so I can look at things from a technical aspect without the culture. So I understand the fact that you can take a great guitarist and they can almost all learn the notes and the rhythm of a piece of music and they can walk out in front of an audience and play that,” he said. “But here’s the clincher – you can’t play a culture that you’ve never lived … you get it? You can play the song, but you can’t play the culture. What happens is, you have people that try to imitate the culture, but we people in the culture – we hear how un-natural it is. It can become a paint-by-number performance, because the people in the culture know that’s not real. There are people that don’t understand this, and they learn the song and go, ‘I’m a bluesman.’ But wait a minute, bro, you may be playing a blues song in a blues style, but you’re not a bluesman.” Jackson elaborates –
“In Mississippi, where it’s hot and it’s humid … and there’s mosquitoes, there’s a certain phrasing that goes along with all that. The timing in the music is more malleable (in the south). A lot of people don’t understand that metronomic time doesn’t work really well with the blues and jazz. Therefore, it’s so hot down here (Mississippi), that we have to breathe a little deeper … we have to take our time. Things are a little more drawn out and we sing almost like we talk down here. All the words are drawn out, so we play with a little more legato. And that’s got nothing to do with being black or white. Matter of fact, I’ve never met anyone that’s black – I’ve been to Africa four times and I know the color black and I’ve never seen anyone that color and I know the color white and I’ve never seen anyone look like that color, either. Black is an attitude and white is an attitude.”
Cultural experiences can be transient and move from one end of the country to another, undergoing a natural transformation along the journey. The way Jackson sees it, that’s all part of the process that has led to some amazing music being birthed.
“What Muddy Waters did was, he took that (Mississippi) culture up to Chicago and merged it with the culture of the inner-city … all the noise and everything. Then he began to experience the culture of Chicago and mixed it with his culture from Mississippi,” he said. “He mixed the acoustic and electric in both cultures. In New York, where they have the subways and everybody’s moving really fast, you get the jazz music where they play very much on top of the beat; life is much more hectic there.”
His grandmother – who was of Irish descent, had a deep love of country music and that helped heighten Jackson’s appreciation for that particular strain of music.
“I’m talking about country music like Hee-Haw and Grandpa Jones … like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I heard all of that stuff growing up and they had their style of blues,” he said. “Let me give you a blues song – “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” by Willie Nelson. That’s a blues song, but guess what? It ain’t the blues. That’s blues from another culture. Another example is “Frankie and Johnnie” by Jimmie Rodgers. Frankie shot Johnnie … that’s really the blues. But the world doesn’t embrace that as the blues like they do Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson and Son House blues.”
A veteran of numerous country and bluegrass sessions in Nashville, even though Jackson is well-versed in that style and is friends with a whole host of Music City pickers, he stops short of calling himself a dyed-in-the-wool country musician.
“Yeah, it’s the same thing for me; I’ve worked in Nashville and if you tell me to play a bluegrass song, I can learn the parts. But I’m not playing the culture. I’ve not lived in Appalachia. I can play the song, but there are certain things that you can only learn by going there and spending time there,” he said. “That will give you an understanding of that music and culture, especially if you’re around people who are not musicians. You see the pacing of life and the way they walk and the way they cook. All that comes through – especially sonically – when art is displaying life. I’m not saying when art is imitating life, I’m saying when art is displaying life.”
Jackson knows exactly what he’s talking about, because he’s been around music since way before he can remember and it’s always been a family affair.
“My family shaped me. Music was a vital tool that gave us joy. We didn’t have a car, but we had a piano in the pantry. That’s how vital music was to our family. I come up from five generations of musicians you can go back to; my grandfather (Samuel Jackson, Sr.), Little Freddie King (his uncle), Rev. Charlie Jackson (his cousin) … I grew up at the feet and in the lap of these people playing gospel and the blues. It was a family affair, where no one was trying to make money at.”
Those living room, front porch and church sessions around McComb helped make Jackson a musician before he ever knew he was one.
“It comes from being in a house where there was always music … it was just a fabric of life and a form of fellowship and joy,” he said. “Before I could make a decision on what I would do professionally, people were tipping me and paying money for me to play music. So before I could decide not to be it, I already was it.”
Partly because of his deep and thorough academic understanding of this rich form of music known as the blues and partly because he’s such a gifted musician and an engaging personality, Jackson has became involved in numerous television and movie projects throughout the past couple of decades. He was in involved in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues as an actor and also wrote the song “Train Rolling Blues” for Warming By The Devil’s Fire, an episode of the series directed by fellow Mississippian Charles Burnett.
Jackson also narrated and performed his original “Hurricane Season” in Last of the Mississippi Jukes; and was featured in HBO’s critically-acclaimed series, Treme.
More recently, Jackson worked on a multi-part documentary for PBS with Robert Mugge called Zydeco Crossroads that showed the blues’ influence on Cajun music and the Zydeco genre. He composed the theme song for the project, which is tentatively-scheduled for a fall, 2015 release date.
If that seems like a whole world away from the days when he was in his late teens and was just starting to get his feet wet on a big-time level, that’s simply because there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since Jackson’s first sessions at the venerable Malaco Records took place when he was barely 18 years old.
“They were hiring me because I could sound like older players. They hired me because I could sound like the people I spent my childhood with,” he said. “I was just doing what I was doing. The feel and the culture was in me, although I really didn’t know that at that time. Other people, having been around the culture, could hear that in an 18-year-old, though.”
When Jackson says he is music, he couldn’t strike the nail any more squarely right on the head. He is music and he is the blues. Heck, Jackson’s image was even used by H.C. Porter on the posters promoting the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards (BMAs) last year; that my friends, is music. And as long as Vasti Jackson has anything to say or do about it, the blues and the wonderful culture and people of the state of Mississippi are not going to fade away.
“Let me tell you something; the blues ain’t dying; the blues are not dying man. Now, if you think that someone sounding Charley Patton or Son House or Robert Johnson is the key to the blues being alive, you got it wrong,” he said. “There are blues going on right now and the blues don’t let someone outside of the culture define what it is. It is what it be, whether you’re aware of it or not.”
Visit www.vastijackson.com for tour info, video and downloads.
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.