It´s all about the family, and to make music that people can relate to
A couple of days after Vasti Jackson´s and Top Dogs fab concert at Nalen Club October 2017 this writer interviewed Vasti. 2011 Jefferson did an interview with him (issue 167), so this time I take off from what has happened since then. And that is plenty! Shortly after his festival gig in Norway 2011 Vasti (pronounced Vast-Eye) participated in a Robert Johnson celebration in Mississippi.
– Oh yeah. That´s what I did together with Steven Johnson, Robert Johnson´s grandson. We did a few concerts and released a single with the two of us. I was also with The Robert Johnson Foundation and did a theater play, ”Robert… ”. With a string quartet, viola, three violins, three horns. We presented the play in Natchez, MS, and the people loved it. We did a lot of research. We didn´t mimic Robert Johnson, but it was about to visualize his personality, wittily, emotionally and physically with his songs. Downright katharsis.
– We can do this stage show if somebody has the budget to do it. You know, it´s four strings etc. It´s not a big production, it´s midsize. We have performed it three times in Mississippi. If somebody is interested we can take it to Europe. When I return to Mississippi after this tour, I have three orchestrated shows with a 60 people orchestra and 200 singers.
Vasti Jackson with Top Dogs and Tommy Löfgren at Nalen. Photo: Hans Ekestang
But usually Vasti for the time being travel solo and does many acoustic concerts following the success of the CD “The Soul of Jimmie Rodgers” (2016), which was Grammy nominated 2017. Then he does a whole lot Jimmie Rodgers and some Robert Johnson acoustic. He proudly calls it “the bookend of American music”. Jimmie Rodgers had the epithet “The Father of Country Music”. “When I do that thing I feel like home. I cross from the roots over to modern stuff with electric guitar. I like to mix it up.”
– Bobby Rush won the Grammy with “Porcupine Meat”. But I did that album too! So I had two albums nominenated this year (2017) for a Grammy! Both in the same category. That has never happened before! Two nominated and one won. I´m musical director for “Porcupine Meat”. That is something for the records and I feel real honored. I have worked with Bobby 36 years (off and on). I worked with both the albums at my home in Hattiesburg.
2012 Vasti was invitated to participate in a world reaching project, “Playing For Change”. That included a number of artists and was presented twice at United Nations, and Vasti produced some of the material. “The latest tour (2014) with ´Playing For Change´ included Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones. Now we´re planning dates for a new tour 2018. We have 15 schools in twelve countries, it is schools in South Africa, Argentine, Brazil, The Democratic Republic of Congo…” At the time of writing this (April 2018) Playing For Change releases a CD, “Songs Around The World” with a number of musicians from many different countries. Over the years the whole project has recorded many musicians (amateurs and pros); of blues artists for example Taj Mahal, Billy Branch, Blind Boy Paxon and Tinariwen. Vasti Jackson has produced and play guitar with Buddy Guy and Dr. John. Playing For Change´s motto is: “Help to support music education across the globe. Listen to the music. Change the world!” Though Vasti points to that the organization not only is for support to music education, but also has a philanthropic agenda to help populations get cleaner water, things for to get a better climate and such.
With limited interview time and space in Jefferson it´s impossible to penetrate everything Vasti is involved in. The man seems to work 24/7 year round. A couple of selections from 2013: performed at Super Bowl in New Orleans; filmed and did the music for the movie “Black Bird”; Joy of Jazz Festival in South Africa with musicians from the Batiste family, where Vasti demonstrated the connection between blues and jazz.
2014 continued with the same frenzy: Participated in the documentary “Mississippi: Birthplace fo America´s Music”. Played at and panel discussion at Conference of World Affairs at University of Colorado, where his composition “Josiette” was performed by the TCWA Allstar Jazz Orchestra. (2017 he was declared “cultural arch-ambassador of Mississippi”, whatever that means; some kind of promotion I suggest.) And the-before-mentioned Playing For Change did a “Peace through music world tour”. In November Vasti wrote the signature song and played in the Robert Mugge film “Zydeco Crossroads”. 2015 Vasti received the prestigious Albert King Lifetime Award by Jus´ Blues Music Foundation.
Vasti talked enthusiasticly about the music in Brazil, where they have a talking drum called cuica. His comment that African drums were forbidden among the slaves in New Orleans, I don´t go into – we all know about that. 2018 Playing For Change plan to release recordings with the Brazilian talking drum, that Vasti has recorded. By coincident it becomes quite funny when I wonder if he plays cuica. “I don´t play that much. I´m a percussionist major in university (from) my scholarship; snare drum, bass drum, tympani, balafon. I´m mainly arranging, producing, playing guitar.” (It may sound like Vasti is bragging, but absolutely not, he´s just so enthusiastic and informative.)
I wonder how he manage to do everything. He has a home studio also, where he write songs and make demo and test recordings for himself and collegues. “I only go away for special programs, not every week. Most times I go by myself. It happens that I take a band with me, but mostly it is solo guitar. Sometimes I travel to events.” Vasti has two adult sons, Ardy and Keisean, who both plays drums, mostly at the home base of Mount Olive Baptist Missionary Church. (Vasti is deeply religious.) Sometimes one of them make a gig with Vasti or participate on a recording, but they have their own lives and occupation.
After the Jefferson interview 2011 came the CD “Stimulus Man”.
– “Stimulus Man” was a fun album to do, with uptempo music. After that I think we did “New Orleans: Rhythm Soul Blues” 2013. Everything is on my own label, VJM Records. And I produce it. And “distribute” via Amazon and CD Baby. I don´t try to be a pop star or some kind of phenomen. So I´m not interested in record companies that wants me to do a “record label album”. I´m not interested to make an album that sounds Malaco Records or one that sound Alligator. I could easily do it, you know, as I worked for those companies. I know how to do such albums. I make records that I want to do. That I feel people get something out of.
– I´m fully into the music as an art form for the people. That´s why I recorded “The Soul of Jimmie Rodgers” at home. It became nominated for a Grammy. I´m the producer. I´m the record company. Artisticly the production stand up on my own terms. And people who hear this music live, they really appreciate it. Some (business folks) heard it before it was released, and they didn´t really know to what kind of audience it should sell. For me it´s fully clear an acoustic solo blues record. People that like acoustic blues, and even those that like country will think that this album is interesting. And it has been proved. That is what make me believe in the music I record. That´s why I spend time and money. I don´t expect anybody to do more for me than what I do for myself in the aspect of time and investments. As an artist I want to communicate to people something that I believe is worth for them to listen to.
– Jimmie Rodgers´ estate loved it. They contacted me from the Jimmie Rodgers Festival in Meridian, Mississippi. I played at the festival. I was in a theatre play, “Jimmie Rodgers: America´s Blue Yodeler”. I played the character of “Hobo Bill”, who was a harmonica player that influenced Jimmie Rodgers´ Afro-American Mississippi blues, that he heard at Vaudeville theater before he got famous. I think that about 20 of his song titles have the word “blues”. On record it´s not that I imitate Rodgers. It´s all about how his music talks to me and how I re-create it (in my own way). I don´t yodel on the album. It´s about how these songs make me feel. I don´t try to sound like Jimmie Rodgers, because I´m not him. The project came out of respect and as a tribute to Jimme Rodgers´ soul. Because the soul of Jimmie Rodgers was blues. I can hear it, it permeates me. So it came all naturally to me.
– After that I recorded a couple 45s, because I have so much music ringing in my ears. You know, music never stops in my head. “I´m Still In Love With You” was a soul song recorded in New Orleans. We had the great arranger Wardell Quezergue, who did the strings and horns.
Vasti Jackson also plays theater. Here he is in Hell in High Water 2019
“Happy Things Given” was another single released in connection with Thanksgiving Holiday, where Vasti bring together gospel, blues and R&B in one song. “Thanksgiving is BIG! It is such an important time for family. A record company had never allowed me to record such ´Holiday music´. But this is IMPORTANT! It´s all about how people live. So with “Happy Things Given” I did it like a gospel quartet about how a family (in difficulties) lock themself together. Then I did a single, ´No More Christmas Blues´, because I wanted to do a Christmas song.”
– My next project? A new CD has just been released, “The Blues Made Me: Roots & Fruits”, and again it deals with family, and how music played a big role in my family. The liner notes I wrote myself about my family. The album cover is made by the great Mississippi photographer Chris Porter. (On the cover is) my grandfather Sammy Jackson, grandmother Mary Jackson, a cousin, Reverend Charlie Jackson, and also Little Freddie King. This is for real! It is no gimmick! I don´t have to make any artificial music. “Roots & Fruits” means that it it acoustic and electric. The roots is the acoustic and the fruit is the electric. Some of the songs I have recorded earlier, it is a compilation. One of my favorite songs is “Momma”, that I wrote for my mother. Next song was a teamwork between Sista Monica Parker (1956-2014) and me. I produced Sista Monica´s first album. At that time she had diagnosed with cancer. That (song “Keep On Living”) is about that you shall not give up, even if you´re sick or poor. When I thought about that song… It has a universal message. It can be about to prevent suicide, it can be about going through a divorce, it can be about to lose your job. (To) not give up, in spite of everything that is the pressures of life. It is a song people need to listen to. That´s why, as an artist, I believe it is important to speak the truth and to be engaged.
The interview in Jefferson 2011 ended with a “You ought to write a book!”. I mention that to Vasti and that it is still valid. “You have to do it!” (laughter)
– Yes, of course! I have plenty of stuff. When this happened with this Cultural ambassador of Mississippi thing it was so many interviews. People wanted to know so much about my life even from when I was a child, so I had to think back. From when I worked with McKinley Mitchell, Eddie Floyd, Percy Sledge, Geater Davis, Tommy Tate, things I had forgotten about. One can´t have everything in mind always. And to have met and worked with the great New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer, when I was 17. How one was influenced by all of them. The Jackson Southernaires… So many things.
Finally I asked Vasti to talk some about his years as bandleader for ZZ Hill for an up-coming article about Hill. But this interview was done in October 2017. When I transcribe this, 2018, Vasti Jackson is in the middle of a musical tour in Germany and Austria March-May, where he plays the character of Ike Turner, “Die Tina Turner Story: Simply The Best, das Musical”. Tina is played by Dorothea Fletcher. Wonder what will come up next time…