The sun was beaming down on a backyard in southern France one recent afternoon as the pianist, flutist, vocalist and composer Brian Jackson answered a video call on his phone, preparing to do something that, until recently, he hadn’t done in decades: take questions from a journalist about his new album.
Jackson, 69, will always be known for the decade he spent as musical director alongside the revolutionary poet, musician and activist Gil Scott-Heron. But since the end of their run, he’s nearly vanished from the public eye. Three and a half years Scott-Heron’s junior, with an agreeable but retiring vibe, he was historically most comfortable in the passenger seat. Which is to say, he’s a phenomenal navigator, but not a natural leading man. These days, though, after spending decades as an information technology specialist at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, he has found his way back to music. And slowly but surely, the world is finding out about him again.
“I spent 35 years trying to figure out how to tunnel back to my computer at home and write music,” said Jackson, clad in the dark T-shirt and thick-rimmed glasses that have become a late-career signature. “I swear, there is no device or method that I didn’t look at, in terms of how to write music while I was at work.”
Jackson and Scott-Heron split in 1979 after creative tensions led Jackson to take a step back, and Scott-Heron re-signed to the record label as a solo artist; Jackson later learned his name had been written out of the publishing company they’d founded together, Brouhaha Music. He managed to pull together one album as a leader — the eclectic, nu-jazz-adjacent “Gotta Play,” from 2000 — and performed occasionally, but without the benefit of royalties, Jackson mostly plunked away at his desk job.
“I had all this music in my head,” he said. “I tried everything. And the only thing that worked was actually retiring.”
The release on Friday of “This Is Brian Jackson,” an album of previously unheard (but not entirely new) music, will punctuate what have already been a busy past few years: Jackson has collaborated with hip-hop royalty, started a podcast with the activist and death row prisoner Keith LaMar, toured Europe, and earlier this month accepted a lifetime achievement honor at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Music Awards.
As he spoke, Jackson stood outside a house belonging to his wife’s family, and he watched out the corner of his eye as their 5-year-old twins played in the garden. After a lifetime waging battles against American racism and capitalism — in song and deed — Jackson said he’d had enough, and planned to relocate full time to France.
“I’ve raised three other kids in that hateful, spiteful situation that we call America right now,” he said. “If I just didn’t have kids, I probably would stay in the States and fight it out. But I don’t want to do that to anybody else who didn’t have a stake in that decision.”
Throughout the 1970s, Scott-Heron and Jackson produced a stream of musical protest and critique that may be unmatched in the American canon. Their songs cut at the United States’ founding ideals and drew connections between current events and their misrepresentations in mass media. Together, they used words and music to ferret out hypocrisy, and to write a road map out of what they called “Winter in America”: the post-civil rights movement chill that had set in by the mid-70s.
In the process, Scott-Heron — who died in 2011 — earned the nickname “the godfather of rap,” though really their music touched on a broad sweep of the Black musical and literary tradition. The D.J. (Little) Louie Vega, who’s collaborating with Jackson on an album project, remembers seeing breakdancers in hip-hop’s early days flipping across the South Bronx pavement to “The Bottle,” a smash from 1974 by Scott-Heron and Jackson that addressed the effects of alcohol in urban Black American communities across the country.
“At the time, Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Herc were rocking down the block from my home,” he said. “You’d hear ‘The Bottle’ playing and the breakers doing their thing.”
“The Bottle” was the lead single on “Winter in America,” a now-classic album and the first on which Jackson was credited as a leader alongside Scott-Heron. And Jackson’s contributions weren’t just musical. “I rarely wrote lyrics for Brian Jackson melodies without Brian giving me a point of reference for direction,” Scott-Heron acknowledged years later.
One day in 1975, Scott-Heron came to Jackson with a ballad that he had written called “Beginnings (The First Minute of a New Day).” For the first time, he asked Jackson to take lead vocals. Jackson put in a stirring performance, charged with vibrato and channeling the song’s mix of mourning and catharsis. At first, he was shy to sing the song live, with Scott-Heron backing him up on Rhodes while he took center stage. “But by the third, fourth night, I’m snatching the mic off the stand; I’m going back and forth across the stage,” he said. “Around the fifth night, I drop to one knee, and the girls start going crazy. The next night, Gil says, ‘OK, we’re not doing “Beginnings.”’”
“This Is Brian Jackson” is an album of never-before-released (but not entirely new) music, punctuating what have already been a busy past few years for Jackson.Credit…Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times
It was an indicator of choppier waters ahead. The pair was quietly growing apart, mostly over musical disagreements that had gone unaddressed, and after a series of half-confrontations, Jackson decided to step away from the role of music director. Scott-Heron — whose childhood traumas had vested him with a serious fear of abandonment — took it as a cue to cut ties.
“I can see this now as a 69-year-old man, but I wasn’t equipped to understand those things at that age,” Jackson said. Soon, Jackson stopped receiving royalty payments from Brouhaha; he’s never gotten them since. It didn’t help that Scott-Heron was developing a dependence on cocaine — first powder, then crack — that would ultimately derail his own career as well, and sometimes left him scrambling for money.
Jackson did freelance work for a while, playing with Kool & the Gang and Phyllis Hyman, among others. And he shopped around some demos that he’d made with help from the engineer Malcolm Cecil, who had produced a few of his and Scott-Heron’s albums. But over a dozen labels turned them down, and in 1983, he went to work for New York City, where he stayed until he retired in 2017.
Immediately, collaborators started coming out of the woodwork — particularly artists of a younger generation, like Vega, who were eager to touch the hem of an idol. By mid-2018 Jackson was recording regularly with Daniel Collás, a producer known for his work with the Phenomenal Handclap Band, putting together what would become “This Is Brian Jackson.”
The album features two songs drawn from recordings he made in the late ’70s with Cecil and members of the Midnight Band. Another is a tune that Jackson recorded back then during a session at Electric Lady Studios in New York, for the soundtrack of a Black indie film, “The Baron.” Those tapes had been lost, so he and Collás recut the song from scratch.
“Our mission was to make that album that I would have done back in ’77 or ’78, now,” Jackson said.
Not long after he started recording with Collás, Jackson was approached by the famed hip-hop producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, who had just started a project called Jazz Is Dead centered on collaborations with musical elders. The album they made together channels the spirit of Miles Davis’s early ’70s jazz-rock, and was released last year.
Jackson and Collás’s recordings made their way to Peter Adarkwah, the head of the British label Barely Breaking Even (a.k.a. BBE Music); he immediately decided to release them as an album. Part of the label’s mission, he said, is “restoring lost-and-found artists who deserve a bit more time in the spotlight.” Jackson perfectly fit the bill.
Jackson’s devotion to radical politics has not dimmed in the years since he worked with Scott-Heron, and after learning about Keith LaMar’s cause, he decided they should do a podcast together. Jackson starts every episode of “Pieces of a Man” with the same introduction: “In this podcast, which is really about survival — both spiritual and emotional — we look at the lies we are uncovering and the truths we are constantly discovering that help us to extract the splinters of society from our minds.”