We Lost a Giant: Remembering Daniel Jackson

The beloved San Diego musician and mentor passed away Sept. 3

In the early hours of Sept. 3, San Diego jazz saxophone legend Daniel Jackson died at the home of a friend after a long struggle with cancer. He was 77.

Jackson’s career included tours with Ray Charles and Buddy Rich; a recording with Lenny McBrowne and performance with Wes Montgomery. It was upon the San Diego jazz landscape, however, that Jackson left his most indelible imprint, as a musician, bandleader, teacher and life force.

"Daniel has been very instrumental in teaching individuals," said Charles McPherson, another jazz icon who resides in San Diego. "He’s been a mentor to many of the younger players in San Diego. It’s the kind of personality Daniel had: He was a person who didn’t mind giving. When I say giving, I don’t mean money. I mean time and energy. By him being a great player and kind of a senior citizen, he was influential and willing to share his knowledge. And he did do it, probably more than most of us."

Mr. Jackson’s musical roots in San Diego extend to a time when jazz played a vibrant role in the African-American community, as he told me in a 2013 interview: "There were so many places in the late '40s, early '50s. Just in my neighborhood, you could work twice in one night! You had people returning from the war, so the place was flooded with musicians. There was the 2/5 Club, which was at 25th & Imperial. I worked there with my brother at 6 o’ clock in the morning! There were clubs in the Mexican neighborhoods, like the Las Palmas -- they had big bands and dancing. Again, in my neighborhood, you had the Elks Club, and they would bring in all of these fabulous blues artists like Bobby 'Blue' Bland, so you could work, for dances or parties, or in all these clubs. Sometime around the '70s, all that work started to dry up."

"I first met Daniel in the late-'70s," contrabassist Mark Dresser said. "He was a great saxophonist, composer and wonderfully essential pianist who wrote some classic tunes. When they gave him a special award and a celebration for him at the old Croce’s, I drove down to play a set with him. I was sick with a fever, but wasn’t going to let him down."

Dresser last played with Jackson during a solo gig at the Encinitas library.

"I had this inevitable feeling that I was going to play with Daniel even though it was a solo gig, and I didn’t have my bass," Dresser said. "So I borrowed Tommy Babin's bass and played the whole set with him. It was beautifully magical. Love his music, music-making and feeling! I’ll miss him."

"I moved to Barrio Logan as a teenager," said pianist Turiya Mareya, the mother of Jackson's daughter, Leticia Jackson Banker, during an interview last year. "And at that time, Daniel was doing a radio show at what used to be the old Black & Tan Club on 30th and Imperial. They were broadcasting from there, and he did a jazz show, and he announced that he was teaching classes. So at 17, I went down there. He was definitely one of my prime influences. There were a lot of terrible things going on at the time, and his pieces were 'message pieces' that were also intended to uplift people."

"I’ll never forget his energy, his spirit," Gilbert Castellanos, the 2013 San Diego Music Award Artist of the Year, said over the phone on Thursday morning. "When we were playing shows together -- he never wanted to rehearse; he would never want to talk about what we were going to play, but some of the most spiritual nights I’ve ever had playing music were with Daniel."

McPherson confirmed Jackson’s verbal minimalism and soft demeanor: "When he did speak, you'd almost have to strain to hear him. He's sorta deadpan, too. The looks on his face -- they weren’t necessarily expressive. It was almost the same look, no matter what. If an elephant came into the room, the look on Daniel's face would be no different than if a human being came into the room. The deadpan was just a part of who he was. That was his style. That's who he was. A very smart man, very giving, with an aura of almost comical mystery. All in all, a really good person."

Violinist Jamie Shadowlight was a close friend who experienced Jackson’s generosity firsthand: "When James Moody passed, he wrote a song called 'Memoirs,' and he asked me to record it with him; when I asked why violin and not sax, he replied that it wasn’t the violin but my spirit. He gave me the handwritten music for that piece, and on top of it, it had my name. We were family. Spirit family. And he knew I always had his back, front and side with love. So there was this deep trust that was the ocean that all actions floated on. He was always just there. Whenever he walked into a room, I would sit a little straighter, be a little more aware; his presence would bring a dignity to the room. And when someone you love leaves this world, they exist inside you."

Perhaps the final word should go to Castellanos: "Let’s put it this way: The scene in San Diego will never be the same again -- or sound the same -- without Daniel. He had such a huge impact on so many of us; his music will live forever -- without a doubt -- but it's going to take a while for people to get over the fact that we've lost a giant. And I just want to thank [Jackson's companion and caregiver] Dorothy Annette. She really took care of him until he passed away. To have somebody like that by your side, I think that makes a huge difference -- not everyone gets that."

Jackson is survived by his ex-wife, Judy Jackson; son, Daniel Jr.; daughter, Leticia Jackson Banker; and grandsons, John and Jackson Banker.

Rest well, sir. Bravo for a life well-lived.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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