Dancin’ With Duffy: An Interview With Nashville’s Jazz & Big Band Drum Legend, Duffy Jackson

“I’ve dedicated my whole life to the groove, and helping people understand that certain feeling that takes over your spirit when you start to enjoy music that you normally wouldn’t listen to.”

On a beautiful fall day, I spent part of an afternoon sitting on the second floor of Acme Feed and Seed chatting with Duffy Jackson, a jazz and big band drummer who’s played since before he’d mastered the alphabet. His father was Chubby Jackson, a famous jazz bass player in the 40s and 50s, having played with an onslaught of famous jazz icons, and naturally, when Duffy was born, his life’s path had pretty much been carved out.

Duffy’s childhood and adolescence would be spent playing gigs on local television and clubs in New York City and Chicago either with his dad, or with a number of jazz icons including but not limited to Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington, The Count Basie Orchestra, and many more all before he finished high school.

Duffy was one of the first people I saw as I approached the Acme doors, as he appeared to be the greeter. He wore his signature glasses, secured tightly to his head with a brown elastic strap partially bending his ears. We chatted by the host stand for a bit, along with the actual Acme host, a lovely and vivacious woman who laughed and joked with us from the get go. Soon after, James Pack, a world-renowned dancer would join us, before Carson Bedenbaugh, who put our meeting together, would bring us upstairs to get down to brass tacks.

Pack and Jackson work together, as Pack brings his elite dancing skills and dancing friends to Duffy’s shows, bringing the audience energy and excitement to a fever pitch, eliciting others to come join in on the fun. Duffy expressed much thanks to Pack and the element he brings to the monthly Way Back Wednesday shows Acme puts on, and other shows they do together.

Duffy is a captivating story teller and loves to joke, what with his Joe Mantegna-like smooth grit voice. He often expressed how grateful and blessed he’s been in his life, and is very inspiring with his overall love and zest for life. He was an absolute joy to listen to, and it was hard to fathom some of his jazz music history tidbits.

So without further adieu, Duffy in his own words.

Music Mecca: I know you were quite young when you first started playing drums, but can you talk about how you got started and your introduction to the jazz world?

Duffy Jackson: I was born July 3rd of 1953. In 1957, my dad was recording a big band album in Chicago. And there was a famous drummer that played with my dad in The Woody Herman Orchestra, his name was Don Lamond. And he became my first teacher when I was four years old. Now, he’s the drummer on the Bobby Darin record Mack The Knife and Beyond The Sea. He’s the guy playing those wild drum rhythms and fills on those two hits for Bobby Darin. So Don stayed with us in Chicago for two weeks while he was recording, and he saw that I would take a set of bongos off the mantle that my mom gave my dad for a birthday gift- and my dad hated the bongos by the way, because it covered up the bass notes. But I would get the bongos off the mantle and start keeping time with the records I’d hear playing around the house. So Don went and got me a bass drum, a snare drum, one cymbal, and a hi hat, and taught me how to go, “chh chu chu chh.” Now I say I’m a 2 and 4 dude in a 1 and 3 world. That means that I’m feelin’ 1, 2 ,3, 4 (snaps fingers in between numbers) as opposed to 1, 2, 3, 4 (snaps fingers in a different rhythm). There’s a pulse that any human being can latch onto, and start to feel a healing of the heart and soul that the groove gives you. I’ve dedicated my whole life to the groove, and helping people understand that certain feeling that takes over your spirit when you start to enjoy music that normally you wouldn’t go out of your way to listen to. I look at it like hey, jazz is an art form, like rap music is an art form. Not that you have to be subservient to it, but you have to keep an open mind to see what’s positive about it. And Swing music has been around for many many years. It’s happy music, you know?  The younger generation, they’re not having as much fun as they think they are listening to loud hard rock or whatever. The main thing is it doesn’t swing. When you say, “hey, I’m not a jazz drummer, I’m a swing drummer,” there’s a difference. Because when I play jazz with really proficient musicians who can stretch out and improvise, I have more of a modern approach to accompaniment. But when I’m swinging, and I’m in charge of the band and picking the tunes, then I can gear the music towards an audience who’s craving an alternative approach to what they’re being force-fed by the industry. I’m a big fan of many styles of music that probably I don’t feel like playing, but I keep an open heart about it, and I respect the musicians that are really great at doing it.

MM: What was it like growing up with a famous jazz bass player for a dad?

DJ: My father went into television during that time. He was the host in Chicago and New York of the Little Rascal films. And in New York City there was a local morning show, and my dad had access to the ABC local musicians on staff, so at eight in the morning, you’d hear an 18-piece band swingin’ so hard. Now all the guys were all drunk or stoned or stayed up all night, but the thing is my dad had little kids dancing and singing in front of the band. He had three basses with faces on them that he made voices for, and this was way before Sesame Street or any educational shows for kids. And then they’d show The Little Rascals movies. Now I was on that show I’d say at least 150 times. I was on TV about 300 times in total between the ages of 5 and 12. My life has been a fantasy dream world what with performing and entertaining. I’ve been fearless. I could walk on to Carnegie Hall stage tonight and wail my brains out and not think twice. It’s just an attitude where you know you’re being part of a happening, where you’re being utilized as part of a team that’s creating a wonderful experience musically for people. And I believe people are starving to be entertained by this music, because it’s happy, swing jazz.

MM: So I read that you’ve played with jazz icons such as Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald and many more before you’d even graduated high school. Can you talk about those experiences and how they came to be?

DJ: I was on a TV show in 1960 on CBS called “I’ve Got a Secret”.  And my secret was over the summer, I put together a jazz band and we played “C Jam Blues,” which was one of Duke Ellington’s great compositions. I got out front and conducted, and at the end, I jumped up in the air to cut the band off, and I split my pants on camera. But the main thing is that I was on that show in 1960, and it was my first network experience. To play with Woody Herman’s band in concert many times, and sit in with Count Basie’s band when I was 12, to be invited three times to sit in with Buddy Rich’s orchestra when I was 14, 17, and 19, was unreal. And when I was 18, I graduated from Miami Beach High School in my principal’s office, because he said Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Merle Jackson, and Teddy Edwards needed me to play at Shelly Manne’s Manne Hole in Hollywood, California, and that was my graduation present from school. My dad went and got my cap and gown and accepted my diploma. (laughs) I went to California and played with all those great musicians, and I was the toast of Hollywood for three weeks. I had many famous actors and actresses sitting right next to me while I’m playing, it was really surreal. Then I became Lena Horne’s drummer. There was a great drummer by the name of Louie Bellson and he was married to Pearl Bailey, and one of the greatest drummers of all time. He and Buddy Rich were super close. Louie had gotten me the job as Lena Horne’s drummer when I was 18, just on his recommendation. My father and Lena actually had an affair in the 40s before it was fashionable, so she treated me like I was her son. I played her first engagement after her husband, Lenny Haden, who was also her conductor for over 45 years, had passed away. Lena’s father, her husband, and her son all passed away in six months, and Lena almost had a nervous breakdown over that. And there was a famous comedian Alan King, and he went to Lena and said, “hey, you need to get back on that bandstand and sing your heart out right now,” and I was her first drummer when she did that. So I did a whole year’s tour with her. Then I decided I wanted to play more jazz and big bands. So I played with Lionel Hampton who was one of the best vibraphonists of all time. Then with Count Basie, and I mean that’s really my niche in music. I can play beautifully in a trio or whatever, but when I’m in the driver’s seat of a big band, that’s where I can take you to places that you’ve probably never been before. I have some very special arrangements that my father passed down to me that no one else has and they swing so hard, and they’re very danceable. But what we’re doing at Acme right now is a very special concept of bringing that big band sensibility to almost a new audience, and with a quintet. We’ve got a sax, trombone, organ, and guitar, and a lovely lady singer, Crystal Miller, who sounds like Ella Fitzgerald. The people are gravitating immediately to the groove from the first beat, and I’m very thrilled to be associated with the Acme people right now in doing this, to bring my feeling of the groove to a whole new audience. And I attribute a lot of this to James Pack, being able to know the dancers that would appreciate what I do, and we’re putting our energies together to make this happen. I couldn’t pull this off without James.

At this point, James Pack takes over for a bit to explain the Acme Swing Night in more detail.

James Pack: We’re doing monthly dances right now, and it’s the last Wednesday of each month. And starting in the New Year, we’re talking about doing it twice a month. And this is about the fifth or sixth time we’ve done this. They’re (Acme) trying to do a throwback series here, where they have a variety of old school type bands. And this is the oldest, and I think it’s the one people most want to come out and dance to. The thing is, there’s not jazz music on Broadway. That just doesn’t happen. You wouldn’t expect to go to Broadway and hear jazz music. There are locals coming out to this thing who do not come to Broadway. The folks I know, the locals, do not come downtown, period. But for this they do. They come down for Duffy, those who know about him. I feel like Acme in general is distinct from the rest of Broadway. You don’t see real dancing, really. People will get together and bounce around to some Honky Tonk music, but this is quality dancing. These are good, actual dancers, not people who came and decided to dance.

At this point, our food had arrived, and it was time to put the discussion on hold. The power of food (tacos) is fascinating.

MM: Of all the legendary artists you played with, which one or two did you enjoy playing with the most and why?

DJ: My first exposure was The Count Basie Band from the late 50s. My dad and I were in Downbeat Jazz Magazine, and there was a big picture of us when I was 5 years old, and the caption underneath read “All I want to do is go on the road with The Count Basie Band.” Now at 5 years old I knew what my destiny was. So I ended up playing with the band when I was 12, and when I was 19, the famous drummer Sonny Payne who played in that band for many years, his wife had passed, and Count Basie called my dad, and said, “hey can Duffy come to Daytona Beach and play two days with us?” I was hanging out in Palm Beach partying, and my dad called me and said, “Basie needs you in Daytona in 5 hours!” Now they didn’t have the turnpike in Florida yet, so I’m driving up US-1, driving very fast, going through red lights and everything. I end up arriving 20 minutes before the downbeat. Sonny ended up saying, “I’ll play tonight and you play the next two nights.” So I didn’t even end up playing that night, which was a relief. So I sat in front of the band and had three shrimp cocktails, a big steak dinner, and 12 Cokes, and I was blown away by the band all night. Later, when I was 26, I ended up being the youngest player to be hired by Count Basie at that time.

MM: I see where you were on television with Sammy Davis Jr. in the 70s. What was that experience like for you at such a young age, and what was Sammy like?

DJ: So in 1974 through 1976 I played with Sammy Davis Jr. That was the most unbelievable education on how to accompany a superstar entertainer who still utilized great big band music for entertainment. I took a lesson on show business from Sammy, and he was also a great drummer. We did a couple of things with two drum kits. When it was time to perform he was always great, despite certain physical ailments as he got older. Sammy knew exactly how to keep an audience entertained, and I learned from one of the masters.

MM: How long have you lived in Nashville, and what made you choose here as oppose to other music market cities?

DJ: I’ve been in Nashville almost 11 years. I was living in South Florida, Pompano Beach area, and went through Hurricane Katrina storms, and my wife and I weathered those storms. Anyway, I had enough of that weather, and a friend of mine invited me up to Wartrace, Tennessee. I ended up playing for almost five months at a Bed and Breakfast place, and it took me almost 18 seconds to get to work. There was one blinking red light, and the police presence was Bubba. My favorite part of living there was the chicken at the gas station. Unfortunately, the gentleman who hired me went out of business, and I got stranded in Wartrace, which is a country song I’m working on. (laughs) So I started coming into town and playing gigs, and people started hearing about me. I really have to thank Vince Gill and The Time Jumpers for permitting me to jam with them. I had some surgery when I first came to town. I was told I had a 95% blockage of a main artery, and I had to get a pacemaker and a stint immediately. All of a sudden, I have a $92,000 hospital bill, and word got around, So Vince Gill called the hospital and got it chopped down to $20,000, and he paid it. That’s who Vince Gill is, okay? He makes a million dollars every 12 seconds playing the Glenn Frey parts with the Eagles. I offered to loan him ten bucks but he didn’t think that was funny. (laughs)

MM: How do you feel about the modern state of jazz music today?

DJ: I’m happy to be alive first of all. Everyday is a blessing. To be able to interact with people that thrive when this music is played, and that they want to experience a little taste of Duffy-itis, as far as the groove is concerned anyways, is incredible. Everyday is a possibility to plant seeds of love and happiness into people’s hearts with the groove. I’m the naked bass player of Nashville. I play my dad’s bass every morning totally naked. The thing is, I’m a student of the rhythm section. I don’t play guitar because it stings my fingers.

MM: You don’t get calluses gripping the drumsticks?

DJ: Well it depends on what you do before the job. My dedication is to take as much time as I need to prepare myself to be great from the first second I have to turn it on. My dad used to say, about the audience, “get them before they get you.” Now if I’m working hard and the audience is saying, “hey when’s this guy gonna be finished?”, then I’m not doing my job correctly. But if I tickle your musical funny bone, and I take you on that magic carpet ride of the groove, then I gotcha.

One amazing thing about playing with the big band over at Woolworth’s is that ladies dance with ladies, guys dance with guys, and they’re just so happy that they’re sharing that feeling with one another, it becomes a happening. I wish the world could be more accepting of that approach. A lot of people say in today’s industry you have to reinvent yourself every 12 hours or something. I do what I do, and I’m probably the only person that does what I do. My dad used to say, musically, stick to your guns. Don’t be a poor imitator of anyone else. And get out there and put as much energy as you can into the event. Sometimes an audience will sit very quietly like an oil painting, and be subservient to the jazz musicians that demand your respect by not talking. I want people to go nuts when I’m playing, as long as I can still hear myself. I want people to react. I am the groove, and provide an animalistic gut instinct of how you feel with tempo and groove. You have to play different tempos too, and keep their attention. That’s the thing- I’m a non-competitive, egoless musician. I surround myself with the best musicianship I can possibly afford. The main thing is we’re working together to make it a happening. No one else in town is doing this. 

Dancin’ With Duffy will take place this Wednesday, October 30th, at Acme Feed and Seed. For info on the event or to RSVP, visit the Facebook event page HERE.

“There’s nothin’ like a live band kickin’ it.” 

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