Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Paul Jackson's electric bass lines gave backbone to Herbie Hancock's Headhunters band in the 1970s. A product of San Francisco's Latin funk scene, his finger-picked bass style were a departure from the slapping favored by his contemporaries, and were the group's defining buffer between the keyboard work of Hancock and the drumming of Mike Clark and Harvey Mason.
Born in 1947 in the California bay city of Oakland, Jackson showed early promise, beginning lessons on the double bass at age nine. Jackson also played the bassoon and the piano as well as a teenager, and performed with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and studied formally at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Some of his first documented recordings came with guitarist Eddie Fisher in February of 1969 on the album The Third Cup. In 1970, Jackson recorded again with Fisher in St. Louis, Missouri for the Cadet LP The Next Hundred Years. Jackson is also heard on multi-instrumentalist Oliver Sain's 1973 album Main Man.
Living in the San Francisco Bay area, Jackson was in contact with many well-known musicians from the scene including Coke and Pete Escovedo and Carlos Santana. Coke Escovedo, the uncle of Sheila Escovedo, formed a band with his brother Pete called Azteca, which fused a large horn section and funk rhythm section over the Latin-inspired drumming of the Escovedo brothers. The Azteca band released their self-titled debut in 1972, with Paul Jackson on bass. Many of the songs sounded like cousin tracks to the early Santana albums, as Jackson's bass work was largely subtle compared to his later work in jazz fusion.
Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had experimented heavily with free-form music with his first fusion outfit the Mwandishi band. He disbanded the group after 1973's Sextant and reformed with a new band, the Headhunters, which featured Jackson on bass. The band entered the studio in the fall of the 1973 and recorded the fusion masterpiece Headhunters. The album is chalked full of deep, group interaction and complex funk songs that explored fast, hypnotic tempos and also slow, relaxed tempos with many of the compositions written by Hancock except for "Chameleon,"which was written during a group jam session.
Other songs of note from this album include the rearrangement of Hancock's 1960s hit "Watermelon Man," the organic sounding "Vein Melter" and the over the top, Sly and the Family Stone-inspired "Sly."
In 1974, Jackson recorded with vocal group the Pointer Sisters and can be heard on the songs "Love in them There Hills" with Hancock and drummer Bill Summers and on "Grinning in Your Face" with a young Bonnie Rait on slide guitar. Jackson recorded once again with Hancock in 1974 for the album Thrust. Building on the foundation of Headhunters, Thrust was another album that showcased the innovative quality of Jackson's bass lines. His use of finger picking, one of his prime devices in establishing his signature sound, is heard on the track ""Actual Proof," in which Jackson sets the stage with drummer Mike Clark with a razor sharp, penetrating bass line. Other songs of note from the album include "Butterfly," which has gone through several different incarnations on later Hancock releases.
Jackson was the driving force behind Hancock's 1975 album Man-Child, which was a clear extension of the previous two Hancock releases, focusing heavily on funk beats and rhythms. Jackson's bass line on "Hang Up Your Hang-Ups" is a prime example of his use of low end notes and high notes in establishing the pocket. His high register notes on this track as well as with some of the songs from Headhunters are deceptive to the ear because they sound so much like a rhythm guitar.
Riding the successes of Hancock's albums, the Headhunters group released their debut album Survivial of the Fittest in 1975 and it contained the hit song "God Made Me Funky" and featured the Pointer Sisters on vocals. The opening drum track on "God Made Me Funky" has been sampled by many different hip-hop artists, most notably the Fugees for their 1996 multi-platinum album The Score. Jackson also appeared on tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine's 1976 album Everybody Come on Out Now and Carlos Santana's 1977 album Festival, which further validated Jackson's diversity and skill level in multiple genres.
Jackson made appearances on all of Hancock's remaining albums of the 1970s up through 1980's Mr. Hands but as Hancock started transitioning more towards commercial oriented music in the early 1980s, the Headhunters band were relied upon less and less. During a 1978 tour of Japan, Jackson took some time out to record his first solo album Black Octopus.Although originally only issued in Japan, the album was finally released in the United States with four additional bonus tracks some twenty years later. It features Jackson in usual form, employing bass grooves that walk the line between funk, disco and jazz. Songs of note include the funky cut "T-Bolt." The Headhunters released an additional album without Hancock in 1977 entitled Straight from the Gate.
In 1985, Jackson moved permanently to Japan. While in Japan his career has taken on more of an educational role but he continues to perform and is an active member of the Japanese music scene. In 1987, Jackson conceptualized Jazz for Kids, a concert series which was aimed at exposing African-American music and culture to Japanese students. The program has proven to be a success, with performances in over seventy-five schools across Japan with performances in Europe as well.
In 1998, Jackson and his Headhunters bandmates, including Herbie Hancock, reunited for the 1998 Verve recording The Return of the Headhunters. The band toured the world in support of the release, reinvigorating both fans and critics alike with their funk-inspired fusion. In 2002 Jackson was a participant in bassist Mike Gordon's movie Rising Low, which chronicled the death of Allman Brothers/Government Mule bassist Alan Woody and the efforts of guitarist Warren Haynes in recording a tribute album with bass luminaries from all walks of music industry.
Now in his early 60s, Paul Jackson continues to live and perform in Japan. He is currently an educator and has been awarded the keys to the cities of Osaka and Fukuoka for his musical contributions. Paul Jackson's signature finger-picking bass style had an enormous impact on the development of electric bass technique, and without his contributions to Headhunters, Herbie Hancock's jazz-funk fusion might not have occurred.
Select Discography as Paul Jackson
Black Octopus (Toshiba/EMI, 1979)
The Funk Stops Here w/Mike Clark (Enja, 1992)
with Herbie Hancock
Headhunters (Columbia, 1973)
Thrust (Columbia, 1974)
Death Wish (soundtrack, Columbia, 1974)
Man-Child (Columbia, 1975)
Flood (Columbia, 1975)
Secrets (Columbia, 1976)
V.S.O.P. (Columbia, 1976)
Mr. Hands (Columbia, 1980)
with the Headhunters
Survival of the Fittest (Arista, 1975)
Straight from the Gate (Arista, 1977)
The Return of the Headhunters (Verve, 1998)
Azteca (Arista, 1972)
with Carlos Santana
Festival (Arista, 1977)
Contributor: Jared Pauley