On the day that I go to hear the man many hail as San Diego’s preeminent straight-ahead jazz tenor saxist, he is playing piano. Sunday morning at Croce’s is the only gig that Daniel Jackson works anymore. He looks trim and elegant in a tailored charcoal suit and tie. “Do you sit at bars?” he asks, in a gravelly voice. “I’m older,” he adds, laughing. “Let’s sit at a table.” He grabs his iced lemonade and we sit.
Jackson has played professionally since 1958, and his responses are sometimes enigmatic, sometimes feisty. “Maybe this isn’t a good day for an interview,” he says at one point when he doesn’t agree with a question, pushing himself back from the table.
I tell him that when I was young, the late Hollis Gentry and I would watch him through the doors of the Crossroads club at Fourth and Market (now a Starbucks) and study his playing. He cracks a little smile. I prop my digital voice recorder on the table in front of him and explain how it works, that the little red light means it’s live. “Oh,” he says. “That scares me. It’s like a gun.”
How long have you been sitting in on piano?
“Not long enough.”
Not that your piano isn’t great, but do you still play sax?
“Yeah, but mostly in my kitchen. Sometimes I’ll do a concert over at Dizzy’s. That’s okay. But I don’t want to be in bars. I did that already. Nothin’ in there that I want. At some point you say, ‘Damn, I’m three quarters of the way to a hundred. Maybe there’s a party I don’t need to go to.’”
Your chord voicings and the way you build ideas inside of a song remind me of Erroll Garner. Do you teach keys as well as sax?
“I never had a piano lesson in my life. I wouldn’t know how to teach piano. Wasn’t anybody around to teach me how to play!” He laughs.
Have you always played jazz?
“I don’t know what that word means.”
But you are known as a jazz musician by your association with the guys who hired you. Who were they?
“Frank Butler. Billy Higgins. I had a lot of fun playing with Wes [Montgomery] when I was in the Air Force. I think he was a postman somewhere. I was just sittin’ in. I would write music for him because he couldn’t read or write [music]. He’d come up with some tune and he’d say, ‘Hey, man, can you write some notes down for me?’ And I’d do that.”
“Art Farmer. Jimmy Smith. Buddy Rich.”
Did you have to travel much?
“No. Well, when I was with Ray, I was on the road a bit.”
Is there any truth to the story that you were born on the back seat of a limousine?
“I’ve never heard that one. My mom told me that my father was a chauffeur. For a doctor. And that when I was ready to be delivered, he called the doctor and told him, and the doctor said, ‘Okay, bring your wife over to the clinic.’ Which was the Scripps clinic [in La Jolla]. Wasn’t a hospital yet. And it didn’t have any black people born in it. Not in 1937.”
Your favorite sax — do you still play a Selmer Paris?
“I have a 1959 [Selmer Paris] Mark Six.”
A lot of sax players prefer the older horns over the newer models.
“They have something in them that is special. Nobody laughs at God when they’re in a hospital. Nobody laughs at God when they’re in a war, right? After World War II was over, the craftsmen in France went to the battlefields and they picked up all the brass shell casings and they made horns out of those weapons.”
And when that supply of brass ran out…
“They used anything. You don’t know what you’re getting anymore.”
Advice for a beginning jazz musician?
“Go to a black funeral. That’s the root of it all. Black music. Go to a black church. But it’s best if you go to a funeral, because that’s where everything’s happening.”