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Golden Tones: Saxophonist Daniel Jackson’s Lifelong Quest

Daniel Jackson has been playing the saxophone since the 1940s. As a teenager, he hung out in front of San Diego’s earliest jazz clubs on Imperial Avenue. Tonight the local jazz community will celebrate the musician, thanks in part to a 2010 City Council declaration establishing Daniel Jackson Week. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone visited the musician at his home in Southeast San Diego.

The first thing you see when you walk into Daniel Jackson’s modest home in Southeast San Diego is his piano. It’s from the early 1900s, and Jackson bought it for $100. It takes up half the front room, with his bed in the other half. Jackson’s first and everlasting love, the saxophone, sits on a stand close by. One could assume Jackson gets up from bed and begins playing music immediately.

Jackson is 76. He’s always been thin, and often appears in a stylish shirt wearing glasses an architect would envy. He shares his home with longtime partner, artist and singer Dorothy Annette. Her colorful paintings cover the walls. Stray cats wander about their property. A long-haired creature lounges on the front hood of a car, within earshot of the piano, ready for the daily concert.

This house was built in 1902 and it’s the house that Jackson grew up in.

Photo by Angela Carone

Daniel Jackson is considered a local legend. Every January 24th marks the beginning of Daniel Jackson Week, launching a series of concerts featuring Jackson and other local musicians.

Photo by Nic McVicker

Jackson grew up in this house and still resides there today. It was built in 1902.

It was in this front room that Jackson heard the tenor saxophone for the first time. During the 1940s, his brother Fred was in a band with tenor saxophone player Harold Land (who went on to play with the Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet). They often practiced at the house and Jackson would hide around the corner and listen. “I heard that tenor saxophone and I was like ‘That’s it!’” shouts Jackson. “That’s where I want to be for the rest of my life is on that sound.”

Jackson in his backyard with his mother, Johnnie Beatrice Jackson and his sister, Johnnie Bee Gee.

One person Jackson credits with helping him stay on that sound is his mother, Johnnie Beatrice Jackson. Right above his piano is a black and white photograph of her, sitting straight and proud. “She was a strong woman. I have a lot of respect for any woman but a woman in her situation was really something,” says the soft-spoken Jackson, shaking his head in wonder. “She came through like a champion.”

A typical house in "the Quarters," an area of La Jolla where black domestic workers lived. Jackson was born in the "the Quarters."

Johnnie Jackson lived with her husband and three children in the Quarters, an area of La Jolla where black domestic workers lived. She was a maid and her husband a chauffer. But after her husband died of throat cancer, Johnnie moved her three children (two boys and a girl; Daniel was the youngest) to the house in Southeast San Diego.

“She had a great job in front of her: to raise three children, uneducated, a black woman in white America,” says Jackson.

For many years, Jackson’s mother managed to pay for his saxophone lessons on a maid’s salary. But she reached a point where she could no longer afford it. Jackson was 15 when she broke the news to him. Refusing to give up his music, Jackson made a deal with his saxophone teacher: he’d mow his lawn for lessons.

It was on his teacher’s front lawn that Jackson had an experience he’ll never forget. A little boy, about 8 years old, approached Jackson as he was working. “He said ‘Hey!’ and I said ‘Hey!’ Then he said, ‘Do you live in nigger town?’” Jackson was shocked. He responded: “ ‘Who are your parents? What are they teaching you?’ ”

Today, Jackson is considered a local legend – one of the founding fathers of San Diego’s jazz scene. Not only has he witnessed much of its history, he’s helped write a good chunk of it.

He’s been a tireless performer, collaborator and composer. He’s given lessons to many of San Diego’s notable musicians. I sent over a list of names he’s reportedly taught over the years, but Jackson claims he didn’t teach any of them. Dorothy Annette says the musicians often tell a different story. Jackson’s humility is also legendary.

Jackson did leave San Diego for short stints. He joined the Air Force, hoping to go to Japan and save enough money to buy his mother a house. He found himself in the exact opposite of Japan - he was sent to Idaho during a frigid winter. Jackson marveled at snow drifts.

In the late 60s, he toured Europe with the Ray Charles band. Jackson says most people don’t know it, but Charles was a brilliant saxophonist. “He gave us a concert once,” says Jackson. “It was terrifying. The saxophone was so hot, steam heat was rising from it, and melting into these golden globes of tone.”

After that tour, Jackson returned to San Diego. But making a living as a musician has always been a struggle, even to this day. Jackson taught himself to play piano, a skill that proved vital for his survival. He says he learned the piano for romantic pursuits. Women would ask if he knew a particular song, and he’d reply: “OK, give me the music. I’ll go home and learn it and I’ll be back in a week.”

All that seduction paid off (probably in more ways than one) when Jackson got a gig playing six nights a week at the Hotel Del Coronado. “I never made that much money before in my life,” says Jackson.

Photo by Hiro Ikezi

Jackson taught himself to play piano. In addition to playing concerts, he's played at Croce's Jazz Bar in downtown San Diego for thirty years.

Jackson still plays piano at Croce’s downtown. He’s been there for 30 years. It was his temporary absence from Croce’s that led to a City Council declaration establishing Daniel Jackson Week. Then-councilmember Donna Frye was dining at Croce’s and missed Jackson’s piano playing. She led the charge for Daniel Jackson Week to take place beginning every January 24. The week’s events include performances from Jackson and an all-star line-up of musicians (see below for this year’s schedule).

Photo by Hiro Ikezi

Jackson performs at Tango Del Ray.

As a young musician, one of Jackson’s idols was the great saxophonist James Moody, who died in 2010. The guys in Jackson’s neighborhood used to dole out nicknames and they called him “Young Moody.” Jackson explains, “I loved his music so much and I was trying to sound like him.”

Photo by Hiro Ikezi

Daniel Jackson playing tenor saxophone. Jackson also writes original jazz compositions.

Many years later, Moody showed up to watch Jackson play. The next day they spent an afternoon hanging out at Moody’s house in San Diego. At one point, Moody went upstairs and came back down with two grocery bags full of saxophone mouthpieces from all the years he’d been playing. He gave them to Jackson. “That mouthpiece over there is from one of those bags. I found that mouthpiece and it’s a good mouthpiece for me,” says Jackson.

Photo by Angela Carone

Jackson takes a break outside of Croce's in 2007.

Later he discovered that Moody’s name is etched into the brass mouthpiece. Jackson says that he told Moody’s wife “James is always with me now. Wherever I go I play that horn and he’s always there.”

Jackson says he’ll keep on playing music until he can’t anymore. “It’s a labor of love,” then adds with a whisper “and a quest to experience some part of divinity.”

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Concerts during Daniel Jackson Week:

Friday, Jan. 25, at Dizzy’s (4275 Mission Bay Drive) with George Bohanon, Marshall Hawkins, Joshua White, Brett Sanders and Dorothy Annette ($15).

Saturday, Jan. 26, free solo piano concert 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m at Croce’s ((802 Fifth Ave., Downtown)

Wednesday, Jan. 30, solo piano from noon to 1:00 p.m. at the Encinitas Library (540 Cornish Drive, free).

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