‘Jackson Miller’ is a new band, the brainchild of drummer, composer and sound designer Rodney Green, which will be in London for the first time this Sunday. In this project he takes a new view of how a collaboration between what’s classically called jazz and urban hip hop and DJ culture can work. In this interview with Helena Kay, Rodney talks about the band and where its name comes from, the other musicians involved, saxophonist Nicole Glover and bassist Tyrone Allen II, the inspiration behind their titles, and playing with the greats (Mulgrew Miller, Joe Henderson, Charlie Haden) – and a forthcoming album.
Jackson Miller are playing at Pizza Express Dean Street on Sunday 1 March at 8pm. Rodney will also be leading a free clinic 4-5pm at Pizza Express, which will mostly be for drummers but is open to everyone.
London Jazz News: How did you get to know Nicole Glover and Tyrone Allen II and how did the trio start?
Rodney Green: The trio started when I put together another band that I was trying out called Mean Flo Green. I knew Nicole as we had done a gig or two in the past. I realized that people like myself weren’t giving women a shot so I called Nicole to try out in this band and she worked out great. Mean Flo Green went away but I kept Nicole and I’m very glad that I did.
I first heard Tyrone at this bar way out in Brooklyn and then I had him come and play at my studio and then that was that. He’s on my new record and he’s interesting because every time I play with him I hear new things that he can do. So that’s Jackson Miller, for right now.
LJN: Where does the name ‘Jackson Miller’ come from?
RG: It’s kind of a homage to the last two bandleaders that I had the opportunity to work for. Charlie Haden’s dog was named Jackson Reinhart and so he would always say stuff like ‘solid, Jackson’ and he would call a lot of people Jackson, if he didn’t know your name he would call you Jackson, so that’s kind of a tip of the hat to him. I worked with the great Mulgrew Miller from the time I was about 16 until his untimely death about seven or eight years ago. It originally started as the name of my company, but I liked it so much that I wanted to use it as my band name. I wanted something that we could all vibe with and feel good about, but wasn’t the Rodney Green Band or something like that, I don’t like that, I wanted it to be a band name but I didn’t just want something kind of arbitrary that had no actual relation or kinship to me. If you want to hear more about that whole idea I have a video on my YouTube channel called Updating Jazz which talks about what we’re trying to do with this aggregation.
LJN: What inspired the title of your upcoming album This Might Not Work?
RG: That’s something I say all the time, I’m constantly asking myself a couple of questions that are kind of like my guiding light. Or certain feelings that are like my guiding light, that help keep me on track. Some of the other questions I ask is ‘is this corny?’, ‘is this stupid?’, ‘is this not as cool as I think it is?’, and the other thing that I’m always next to is ‘this might not work’. When I have those feelings I know that I’m in the right place, that I’m not doing something where I know how it goes all the time or that I know everything is going to work out, but I believe that it’s going to work out and I think that if it works I’ll have something special. That’s what Jackson Miller was all about when I first started wanting to use samples. Before, I didn’t know anything about samples. Up until about a year and change ago if you had asked me about people who did that I would’ve said something negative like they should just learn to play an instrument or that’s not real music or something to that end, when the truth of the matter is it’s very difficult and to play these machines. I’ve worked on it for the last year or so, it’s a whole other instrument, you’ve got to work on it every day. Hence ‘this might not work’. I was playing with it as a title and then it just kind of stuck.
LJN: Tell us a bit about the samples you use?
RG: I search around for things. I guess the first thing that inspired me to even start wanting to use samples was a friend of mine asked me if I was to play over samples or anything like that, what would I do? There’s a recording on YouTube of Max Roach playing along with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and I was talking about using the same sample, like a redo of Max Roach’s version. I hadn’t even done that until very recently. Then I was writing a tune for another record, a record with Gary Smulyan where it’s the first time I used what now is called This Must Be Deep. I was watching this Gil Scott Heron video over and over again on DVD and after we recorded it and the tune just didn’t sound right, I didn’t change any of the changes but I realized that the sample, or the story that the guy tells that inspired the song was part of the song, so that’s when I realized how important these samples were and how they could speak for me. You know I don’t sing, I don’t write lyrics, but it helped me to further tell a story in a way that I hadn’t previously had access to and so I love it. I get to talk to millions of people through my music, and really talk to them and tell them what the music is about and not let the meaning of the thing be changed or misconstrued.
One of my tunes Camden is about Camden, New Jersey where I’m from which at the time when I was born was the crime capital of the United States. The police department quit, they called in the National Guard. That’s where I grew up and that’s what that song is about. So I really like that. And now that’s where I am, this part of my life is going to be about sound design and about giving people access to the music, more instant access to the music. I feel like it’s very arrogant of us, if you don’t sing, you can’t tell a person what a song’s about, and sometimes that’s cool, but how do you write original music and get me to connect with it, if you don’t sing? So this is my way.
LJN: How did you come to play with Joe Henderson and what was that experience like?
RG: I was roommates with Eric Lewis at the time and I was good friends with Stefon Harris and Joe [Henderson] was doing this thing where he was going through different drummers, he was looking for a drummer to do what he liked and Stefon and Eric, as has been the case with most of my gigs, whether it was Charlie Haden or whoever, people just kept saying my name. The bandleaders had never heard of me, but they would call someone else and that person would say have you heard Rodney Green? That kept happening, and so finally I was at Jazz Ahead, the last one that Betty Carter herself did, and I was in my hotel room and I got a phone call from Joe Henderson. To this day I don’t know who actually gave him the number to where I was, this is pre cell phone. It was a very expensive phone call because he would ask me ‘do you know my song such and such?’ and I’d say ‘yeah I know it’, and then he’d put the phone down and start playing it for me over the phone and he did that with about six or seven of his tunes before he finally gave me some dates. I was both exhilarated and terrified because I did not want to know what that phone bill was going to be. But it was like man Joe Henderson’s playing a concert for me over the phone! It was incredible. So yeah that’s how I started playing with Joe. He gave me the template for how I deal with music to this day because before that I had an unhealthy respect for the people I was playing for, on the bandstand that is, and he really helped me understand that the drummer makes or breaks the band, and if the drummer doesn’t feel like he can direct traffic or conduct the band the way he needs to, the music won’t be positive. One day when we were going on stage I said man I’m so happy to play with you Mr Henderson and he was like no no no, when we go on that stage we’re all equal, and hearing him tell me that really helped me understand that you do your job and help the folks around you no matter who they are, follow the music, and so that’s why Jackson Miller is not called the Rodney Green group, because it’s a group effort and I need my folks, I need them to feel comfortable and play and I’ve got to play, so, here we go.
LJN: My next question you’ve kind of already answered, but has working with an older bandleader like that influenced the way you now lead your own bands with younger musicians like Nicole and Tyrone?
RG: Yeah, a matter of fact it’s also why I decided that I needed to be a bandleader was because I felt like the style that was most effective in my growth is missing. We had so many new bandleaders, or bandleaders who hadn’t been in as many bands as someone like I have been in, or made as many recordings as someone like myself, so having that thing of, you know, with Mulgrew asking me what I wanted to play, or having that thing where we don’t play a song the same tempo every night. One of my songs Camden, the band has to look to me and say which version are we playing tonight, or which way are we going to do it, because we have several ways that we’ll play a tune, and these are the little tips that I’ve picked up from people like Charlie Haden, Mulgrew Miller, Joe Henderson, people like that. A song is just a vehicle, you can drive it fast, slow, there’s not one way that it goes all the time. One time I was talking to Mulgrew and I was telling him how inspiring it was to be playing with him etcetera, etcetera, and along that same point with Joe Henderson, he looked at me and he said you know Rodney, I want to be inspired too! As if to say it’s not all one-way traffic. At the time the idea that I could inspire him was such a revolutionary idea, I mean this guy played with everybody, from Roy Haynes to Tony Williams to Art Blakey, what could I play that could inspire him? But so much of life and so much of music is about knowing what’s possible, or believing that something is possible, and then that’s the only way to start to be able to find it.
LJN: Anything else you’d like to add?
RG: Come hear the music. I could talk all I want and you could read and you could see things on Instagram or whatever, but there’s nothing like hearing it and feeling the situation live, so come hear the band.