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PAUL JACKSON, JR.
Interview by Bridgid Brousseau
"I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years. I’m living the dream and I’m thankful every day. " ~Paul Jackson, Jr.~
Fusion/Urban, Jazz composer, arranger, producer and guitarist, Paul Jackson Jr. is one of the most recorded guitarists in history. Yes, in history!
Bridgid: You knew that you wanted to become a professional musician at fifteen years of age. How did you know?
PJ: In retrospect I think it was the Lord. I was going into electrical engineering. I was a math and science major and one day something just clicked. I played the guitar and decided that I wanted to be a musician. It’s really as simple as that. I don’t think that you find careers, I think that they find you. Sometimes it happens in your 30’s or older. It just happened for me when I was fifteen. I’m just grateful. It’s so important that young people are exposed to different things as my mom and dad with me. Exposure was the key.
Bridgid: You’ve recorded eight albums thus far. Which one is your favorite and why?
PJ: My latest one, “Stories From Stompin' Willie.” Every progression is a favorite because what I try to do is play better and better. I’m playing and writing better so each one becomes my new favorite.
Bridgid: I love that answer! Tell us more about “Stories From Stompin’ Willie.”
PJ: “Stompin' Willie” is a name that George Duke gave me. I hadn’t done a record in a long time. It features artists Jeff Lorber, Tom Scott, Patrice Rushen, the entire Ricky Minor Band, Byron Miller, Michael Lington and Karen Briggs.
Bridgid: How did George Duke come to give you the nickname “Stompin' Willie?”
PJ: It was a very interesting progression. He used to call me "PJ" and there are only a few people that call me that. Then he started call me "PJ Wiggle." Then he started calling me "PJ Wiggle Stomp." He then shortened that to "Wiggle Stomp" and from that came “Stompin' Willie.”
Bridgid: That is quite the transistion! What would you say is one of the most memorable moments you had with him?
PJ: There were so many great moments. Working on hit records like “Stay With Me Tonight” that he produced for Jeffrey Osborne, “Let’s Hear it For The Boy,” that he did for Deniece Williams, Rachelle Ferrell’s first record and also “Better Days,” that he did for Dianne Reeves.
PJ: The bigger fact is lesser known. George had a song called “Bus Tours.” It’s a a really difficult song to play and he wanted me to play it. When I got to the studio I said “George, I can’t play this song." He said “yeah, you can play it. Take it home, learn it and come back tomorrow.” So, I took it home and I learned the song. It’s singularly the hardest song that I’ve ever had to play. George had the confidence in me. That’s how he was. He always had confidence in you and was always in your corner. He also played keyboard on “I Came to Play” which is the first song in which I was nominated for a Grammy. I think “Bus Tours” is the most memorable.
Bridgid: At what point in your life did you realize that you were going to be doing this the rest of your life? One might call it that “I have arrived” moment?
PJ: Probably when I was about 21 years old and I was working with the Jazz Crusaders with Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Stix Hooper. Those were heroes of mine growing up. Being in the studio with them was that "moment." I was really doing what I had always dreamed of and then to hear the records on the radio sealed it.
Bridgid: What does it feel like to hear your music on the radio?
PJ: I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years and it’s still amazing to me. I’m living the dream and I’m thankful every day.
Bridgid: You play various genres; Jazz, Fusion, Rock, Pop and Funk. I could see how the flux from Jazz to Funk or Fusion would be rather smooth but I imagine that it would be more difficult to transition from Jazz to Rock or Pop. How do you make that transition without one genre sounding like other? For example, a true painter can change the style of a piece from modern to baroque with the stroke of a brush. How do you do that with a guitar?
PJ: I never really considered myself a Jazz or Funk musician. I just consider myself a musician. It’s a skill set. A skill set is knowing what do to in each situation. It’s not so much a motivation. It’s about different approaches as a musician. You study, listen, investigate and add those different channels to your skill set and when the situation calls for it you just pull out of the bag.
Bridgid: You carry an enormous bag! You even have some gospel in it.
PJ: Yes, I’ve done a lot of work with Bee Bee and Cee Cee Winans, Donny McClurkin, Derrick Hodge, T.D. Jakes Ministries and Amy Grant to name a few. I’ve done many Gospel and Christian records.
Bridgid: The list of artists you’ve worked with is incredibly expansive. In addition to, as you mentioned working on "The Tonight Show" and "American Idol." How do you pick and choose?
PJ: I try to utilize my time in the best possible way. I pick projects that are going to be meaningful and projects in which artists are very serious about their music. Those are really my criteria. I’m just grateful when people want me to play on their music.
Bridgid: You teamed up with Paul Reed Smith to design the JA-15 guitar. What made you want to design a guitar?
PJ: We were going after a certain sound. I had played Paul Smith guitars for about four years and his favorite Jazz guitar was a 1959 Gibson Byrdland. He wanted to design a guitar that was better than that. Everybody who hears that guitar says “man, that guitar sounds good!” That’s what we set out to do and I think we did it. “The JA-15 Guitar; see it, hear it and you’ll buy it!”
Bridgid: You have an instructional video, “The Science of Rhythm Guitar.” What was the impetus behind this particular project?
PJ: The reason I decided to do it was because I felt like there was a deficiency in guitar capabilities. I thought the approach to teaching guitar players bass on a lot of what we do was incorrect. I felt that rhythm was looked at as afterthought which couldn’t be further from the truth. One thing that Ray Parker, Jr. told me is that "for every guitar solo that you’re going to take you’re going to play at least ten rhythm parts." I told him it was probably closer to twenty. So, I focus on rhythm while the other guys are focusing on soloing because for one thing, I can work more. Other things that people don’t think about when it comes to rhythm and guitar is harmony, chord structure and chord progression. There really is a science to playing great rhythm guitar. I felt like I wanted to address those deficiencies.
Bridgid: Many of the artists that I have spoken with are working diligently fighting the ongoing battle to keep music programs in our schools. What are you doing to keep that momentum going?
PJ: I do a lot of school concerts and things for high schools and elementary schools. It’s really important. If you keep kids interested and exposed to things they don’t have time to get into trouble. There’s a strong correlation between math, science and music. It’s of paramount importance that kids have music in schools.
Bridgid: Three of your guitars were stolen. How did that happen?
PJ: I came home from work and parked my truck in the driveway. I had a music idea in my head and I went upstairs to work on some music. I worked late into the night and fell asleep forgetting to put my truck into the garage. When I came out the next morning they were gone.
Bridgid: Did you ever find them?
PJ: It’s a very interesting story. I got one of them back. A buddy of mine who is also a detective for the LAPD followed a lead. He pretended to be me. He took a female officer with him and basically did a mini sting operation, took the guitar back and put the guy in jail.
Bridgid: We are living in desperate times for sure. The world is in chaos! I think music provides such an escape in so many ways. Aside from music, what brings you peace?
PJ: Well, that’s interesting because I actually have peace every day. My relationship with Christ really dictates for me that I have peace. The fact that the Lord knows everything, has all power to be everywhere at the same time and that he can run my life better than I can helps me relax. When the Bible says that he gives us peace that surpasses all understanding, that gives me peace on a daily basis. I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about things. The Lord is in control.
Bridgid: What’s your favorite Bible verse?
PJ: Proverbs 3: 5-6: Trust the Lord with all your heart; and lean not unto thine” own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Acknowledge the Lord in all of your ways and in everything; your finances, relationships, purchases and everything else. There’s nothing too small for the Lord. Even the most minute part of your life can be given to the Lord because he cares about it.
Bridgid: If Jazz was just one color to you what color would that be and why?
PJ: I think if Jazz were a color it would be either gray or black. To me, Jazz encompasses everything that you learn about music. It involves technique, feeling, improvisation, melody and harmony. It involves everything but if you put all the colors together in one pot, what color would you get? I think you would get either gray or black.
Bridgid: You work or have worked on "American Idol," "Celebrity Duets," "Greatest Hits" and "The Tonight Show." How do those gigs compare to being on the road?
PJ: We just finished the last season of American Idol. We did a total of nine seasons. We did the Tonight show for three years almost four years.
PJ: I feel that God gives you opportunities on every level. Doing “The Tonight Show” was probably my favorite, single job as a musician because it involved doing everything that we had learned; playing live, with other artists and recording. It was a nine-to- five situation. We would go in at 11:00 a.m. and we would be out by 6:00 p.m., five days a week. You could plan your life like “a normal person.” We had clothes there, so I could go to work in sweats and when I hit the stage I’d be suited and booted. It was just a great situation! Of all the gigs I’ve done, if I had to pick one as the single, best gig, it would probably be “The Tonight Show.” It involved everything that we had learned musically.
Bridgid: Are there any artists from “American Idol” that you would like to work with or have worked with?
PJ: This past season, La’ Porsha Renae was just outstanding. I’d love to do a record with her. I just finished doing a record with Fantasia. She’s absolutely amazing! We have an acoustic version of her song “No Time For It.” It's just me, Fantasia and the producer, Ron Fair playing vibes. It came out really good. It can be viewed on YouTube. Also, I haven’t recorded with Carrie Underwood but I’d like to. I’ve worked with Ruben Studdard but I haven’t recorded with him yet. So, there’s quite a few.
Bridgid: You’ve worked with the greatest artists who are still with us. Are there any artists that have passed away that you didn’t get the opportunity to collaborate with that you would have liked to?
PJ: I would have loved to work with Ruth Montgomery. I got the chance to work with Ella Fitzgerald. My mom’s favorite Singer is Sarah Vaughn and I would have loved to have worked with her. I’ve worked with Nancy Wilson and that was amazing.
Bridgid: What’s your compositional process?
PJ: For me songs usually start with a groove, bass line or drum beat. I remember a song I wrote called “A Waltz for Wanda.” I was on the road with Whitney Houston and we were backstage getting ready to perform. A melody came to me so I wrote it down on a napkin, went back to my hotel room and composed the song. Sometimes I’ll even hum something or record it on my phone. It comes different ways.
PJ: With Michael Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” I went to the studio and he wanted me to play a solo on the song. He put a tape in and plays him singing the solo the exact way he wants me to play. I did it phrase by phrase. So, the solo on the song is exactly what Michael sang.
PJ: I’m probably the only guitarist that recorded with Michael Jackson after he passed away. When he passed away I played on the song “This is It” that he had composed and also “Love Never Felt So Good.”
Bridgid: When is the last time you cried tears of joy?
PJ: That’s easy! When my son graduated from college.
Bridgid: Tears of sadness?
PJ: That’s all of the time because there are so many things happening in the world that just break my heart: the murders, the hungry not having food and those being persecuted for the cause of Christ. So, I cry tears of sadness all of the time.
Bridgid: Where can we catch your upcoming performances?
PJ: I’ll be at the Long Beach Jazz Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival, I’m working on quite a few things.
Bridgid: Tell us something about you that you would like for us to know that we might not. Anything at all.
PJ: My biggest hobby at this point is old cars and motorcycles. I have a 1987 Harley Davidson FXRP, which is an old police bike. I also have a 1969 Oldsmobile 442 and a 1966 Chevy El Camino that I drive every day.
Bridgid: Wow! Now that's pretty unique! It’s been and honor and a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much. This made my day!
PJ: Thank you!
Woodshed Jazz Magazine
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