WINTER IN AMERICA
Over forty years ago, pianist, flautist and composer Brian Jackson agreed to collaborate with his musical partner, writer, and poet Gil Scott-Heron to embark on an independent record production that would soon be known as Winter In America. The year was 1973 and after recording two previous albums together for Flying Dutchman Records, Gil and Brian had decided to go it alone and produce a record totally independent for themselves. The following events described are what led to that critically acclaimed landmark opus that pre-defined their ten year, nine album history of recording partnership, as well as a legendary collaboration that would define the fertile consciousness of the Afrocentric, social-political music landscape for generations to come.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Jackson was a super-smart advanced student from Erasmus Hall High School who attended the prestigious Lincoln University in Pennsylvania at an early age of 16. Due to the university’s status as one of the United States’ first historically black, private institutions, cranked out many alumni such as Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, the first Nigerian President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Melvin B. Tolson, Arthur Ashe and others. It also drew the attention of a young Gil Scott-Heron, who had moved from the Bronx to attend. Both Jackson and Heron claim that it was author and poet Langston Hughes that clamped their decision to attend Lincoln.
The year was 1969 and Jackson was a Liberal Arts Major who could never stay away from the music rehearsal rooms in the music center. It was there that he met Gil through the acquaintance of tenor vocalist, Victor Brown, who also became a musical collaborator with them for many albums following their introduction.
During that time, Gil was working on his novels The Vulture, The Nigger Factory and his book of poetry entitled, Small Talk on 125th Street and Lenox. Feeling unfulfilled by the universities curriculum and stifled by his desire to write, Gil left Lincoln to pursue his writing career. “When I start to really get into writing, I can’t deal with whatever else is going on. So there, I was hung up between wanting to write and reading Euripides. I split and wrote.” Gil explains and he moved back to New York, but this time, he resided in the lower Manhattan, Chelsea area of the city which was populated by a mixture of ethnic cultures, especially that of Latino and Hispanic that Gil felt comfortable sharing an urban griot experience with his creativity.
Gil’s books received some notoriety and success in the literary community as he quickly became a local celebrity in the spoken-word, poetry realm. This caught the attention of Bob Thiele, previously known for the John Coltrane/ Archie Shepp Impulse recordings that had launched a new independent label called Flying Dutchman Records. Thiele offered a then 20 year old Gil a recording contract to duplicate his book of poetry into a spoken-word album, since that was gaining popularity with The Last Poets, journalist Pete Hamill and others at that time. The Flying Dutchman label soon went on to release over 60 albums with recording artists such as Leon Thomas, Gato Barbieri and Lonnie Listen Smith. Prior to recording Small Talk on a 125th and Lenox, Gil had reservations about signing. Gil felt that it was redundant to record the book of poetry and would rather record prolific musical compositions with his new musical partner, Brian Jackson. However, Thiele refused, but was open to producing such records after they guage the success of Small Talk in 1970.
The record was a success, and a few months after the album’s release, Thiele requested that Gil and Brian come to his office and perform a couple of songs. They gladly accepted the invite and performed “A Toast To The People” “Pieces of a Man” and “I’ll Call It Morning.” According to Jackson, the next thing Thiele said was, “So, who do want on the album?” And Pieces Of A Man was the result in 1971 that featured musicians Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Pretty Purdie and David Spinozza as well Brian Jackson. They followed up with Free Will in 1972, around the same time that Gil was attending Johns Hopkins in Maryland to receive his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. Ironically, Jackson had been kicked out of Lincoln University and living back at home with his parents in Brooklyn. Broke, shamed and depressed with a feeling of disappointment and failure looming over his head, Jackson tried to stay positive while performing live gigs with Gil following the mild success of the two records.
Jackson elaborates on his coming of age and higher learning. “I was really a shy kid and I didn’t talk or socialize much. I spent most of my time at my piano writing poems. I really didn’t feel that socially equipped. I felt if I could communicate through music and poetry, at least I would have some outlet. I had skipped the 3rd grade. I went from 2nd to 4th grade and I was a little dude. That’s like going from toddler to a pre-teen. All of the other kids were so much bigger than me. My birthday is in October, so I had to wait all year to celebrate getting older, so it was like I was nearly two years younger than everybody else. So, I had issues communicating at an early age. That makes a big difference when you’re a kid. It had a direct influence on me. So by the time I got to Lincoln, I was only 16 years old. I should’ve been 18, so that messed me up. Fortunately, I hooked up with my big brothers, Gil, Victor and Eddie Knowles. Those were like my big brothers. That was my saving grace and eventually I started hanging out with older people.”
As for Jackson’s expelled status, he states, “I did well in the subjects that I wanted to, but it was a bad experience for me. I thought to myself, this is a black school! We’re going to learn some black stuff! But when I began studying the humanities the curriculum was talking about the classics…the pantheon. I was excited, and I expected to discuss people like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, but instead we dove into Horace Mann, Chopin, Beethoven and Sergei Rachmaninoff! Don’t get me wrong, I really dug those cats, but this is a black school. Can we mix it up a little bit? Can we talk about Dostoyevsky and also talk about WEB Dubois in the same sentence? I mean why not? This was the sixties and seventies, you know what I mean? We had just finished fighting in Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush for a more relevant history program. We were actually boycotting so that we could get a black history agenda, and we did succeed. But some kids got their heads beat in for that. So, when I get to Lincoln, I was thinking, finally, a place where we don’t have to fight for that. Then I get there and realized that they don’t have a black history curriculum and a black oriented sociology program. They did have a political science program with a guy named Phillip Phoner who was a political scientist. So, if you wanted to deal with anything remotely related to anything going on currently, you had to take his class and study with him. So, we were studying 20th century music, and they mention WC and Revel, but I kept wondering when we would get around to Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington? The response was, ‘No, well that’s jazz. We’re only talking about classical music.’ And I was like, so… your point is? We’re going to have a real problem here. I believe I was born in the wrong time, because now I could’ve just gone to Phoenix University online and been done! They wanted me to actually show up to class for that shit! I couldn’t do it!” Jackson laughs, reminiscing. “Obviously, I knew I had to create my own agenda, read my own books and come to my own conclusions, which is what I spent my life trying to do. Eventually I went back to school. I’m actually in school at Long Island University now getting my Masters Of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in digital audio.”
As for the recording contract with Flying Dutchman, that deal was signed to Gil, and he signed away all of his publishing. “We were kids.” Jackson admits. “We kinda had an inkling of what we were getting into to. We asked if we could get 50% or 30% but Thiele wasn’t down. Thiele said that he really wasn’t making any money out of the deal and that the only way to keep this business going is with the publishing. So, three albums later, Thiele wanted to sign another contract and we asked if we could get some publishing, and he said no, not even a piece. That was when we began calling him Bob Thief. So we asked ourselves, what the hell is a producer anyway? The only money we saw was from the gigs we were doing.”
Gil and Jackson managed to save up $4,000 and decided to record their own record, based on their extreme poverty and local popularity. While Gil was getting his Master’s degree in Maryland, he invited Jackson to come down and work on the new album which also provided an escape from the shame of his parents. They hung out in Washington D.C. often and found a large dilapidated house that served as an artist commune in the Logan Circle neighborhood of D.C. near the borderline of Maryland. There they met a group of interesting artists who shared the house with them and formed a family type of bond.
Coincidentally, there was an artist who lived there named Paul Cole whose paintings consisted of spiritual, mystical and ethereal artwork on the walls. “I remember one night, I heard a knocking on the walls. I went to the door, and discovered no one there. I would practice and work on music in my room. I practically had the entire downstairs to myself. The stairs were real creepy and loud so you couldn’t just play games and run upstairs. There were three adjoining rooms, but there was no one there. Later the next day, when the sun came out, I noticed the paintings had dripped down the wall. Dripping similar to a Salvador Dali painting, and it happened more than once. It was winter time so it wasn’t hot. Dude, that happened often. That was the spooky part. And I wasn’t under the influence of anything!” Jackson laughs. “Everybody felt that there were a lot of spirits in that house. Everyone had their own floor. What Gil heard was rats. He would say, ‘Man, I heard something too.’ The rats knocked over all the cans in the kitchen and were running around in the house. But, the rats couldn’t have done that to paintings on the wall. He woke up one day and saw that something ate a big hole in his trash can, so we knew there weren’t ghosts in his apartment. Those were rats!” Jackson recalls.
Jackson and Gil would often venture out into the city and hang out, witnessing the elements of street life. “Logan Circle. Man, that whole area was made up of hustlers, pimps, whores, junkies, winos and eight liquor stores in a one block radius. We’d sit out on the stoop, hang out and talk to the people. They would just go into it or be arguing amongst themselves. It was just so much happening. Our original thought for the album was to do an audio book. A musical novel. The whole idea was based on a guy coming home from Vietnam and how he ran into disrespect, got hooked on drugs, lost his family and had a lot of problems. We tried to incorporate that into the album. Nam was killing people. Nam was killing people when they came back. We tried to encapsulate that feeling but it was too damn depressing. We were experimenting with dark concepts based on what Marvin Gaye had been doing and what Stevie had done with Where I’m Coming From and Music of My Mind, Earth Wind and Fire, Roy Ayers, Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas. There was a wealth of artists who were addressing that stuff like John Coltrane; and if you wanna go dark let’s talk about Miles Davis and Live Evil and Bitches Brew. Herbie Hancock was following Ron Karenga at the time, so it was a lot of that stuff going on.”
Regarding the process, they recorded at D&B Studios, a tiny eight-track studio in Silver Spring, Maryland with engineer Jose Williams. “We were only recording vocals and piano so we only needed eight tracks. Gil and I were on the same page, so the music would always come first and then we would talk about it.” Drummer Bob Adams and bassist Danny Bowens arrived on the last day of recording, adding rhythm, percussion and a warm bottom to some of the tracks including “The Bottle”, “Rivers Of My Fathers” and “Peace Go With You, Brother.”
The irony of Scott-Heron’s and Jackson’s music can be multiplied by the album’s artwork, conceptualization and timely significance of that 1970 – 1980’s era of truth injected lyricism and nonconformist bridge of musical composition. The duality of this duo’s songwriting, passion and purpose always preceded them, as they would often place a title track of an album on the following project, initiated by Winter In America. Although the LP title was changed at the last minute from Supernatural Corner, they released the song “Winter In America” as a 12-inch single, and placed it on the following LP, The First Minute of a New Day. Naturally, the track “Beginnings (First Minute of a New Day)” can be found on the following LP, From South Africa to South Carolina. Respectively, this clever approach to precursor their own music became an unsung trademark of their collaborative style and timeless encounters with the record industry, capturing the undaunted attention of Arista mogul, Clive Davis for their incorporated string of guerilla-soul-fisted and successful album run. Consequently, “A Toast To The People” was the first song ever composed by the two, with the tenor-fringed help of singer and friend Victor Brown in the rehearsal room at Lincoln University in 1969.
Jackson is currently on tour with M1 (of Dead Prez) and the new Midnight Band as well as working on a tribute album dedicated to his long-time muse and icon, Horace Silver.
For more info visit www.brianjackson.net
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