by Brett Levine Photo by Jerry Siegel
“I grew up in a family that was part Irish and part African-American,” Christophe Jackson says, laughing, “so I always understood that country and bluegrass music were as influential to my thinking as the blues or jazz.” Jackson, a classically trained pianist, holds Bachelor’s degrees in music and biology and a Master’s in music performance. He is now completing PhD research in performance arts medicine in the Department of Biology at UAB, where his research has been instrumental in developing framework evaluations for voice performers. Couple this with his recent appointment as a co-director of the Save Our Sounds initiative at the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and you have a performer who loves music as much as he loves ensuring that current and future generations will have the knowledge and skill to keep performing.
“I don’t really classify myself as a classical or jazz musician,” he remarks, as he speaks of his regular recital schedule and jazz performances. “I think of myself as someone who wants to express a range of ideas, with their different moods, thoughts and nuances, and music is simply one of the languages I use to have a conversation.” At the same time, Jackson continues to focus on his classical training, studying regularly with the renowned pianist Yaakov Kasman. “I think that with any skill, there comes a time when the ability to improvise, to phrase more subtly, to understand the emotional qualities of the works can really add to my understanding of a work. I love having the opportunity to work with musicians like Dr. Kasman, because he helps me understand the long journey of moving from a performer to a virtuoso, a journey I’m obviously very much still on,” Jackson says, laughing.
Jackson, who began playing at the age of five and performed for the first time at eight years old, sees playing as a means of community engagement, a way for him to have a dialogue with musicians and performers he respects. “By moving between a range of musical realms, and by performing classically, in jazz groups and with many other musicians across a range of styles, I get the opportunity to work with everybody,” he says. This collaboration is central to everything Jackson does. He uses his knowledge of performing to inform his research, and his skill as a performer gives him validity when speaking with or working with other musicians.
“For me,” Jackson explains, “it is important to always think around music in a nuanced way. Sometimes, for example, it isn’t really the notes that are difficult. Instead, it is the phrasing, which is the moment when a musician inserts his or her own personality into the conversation.” It is the conversation itself that grounds all of Jackson’s thinking about the capacity of music itself to create unique opportunities in the arts and the sciences. “What I know from experience is that music brings performers from diverse backgrounds into a common space with shared goals,” he says. “But like with any conversation, we never know what someone is going to say before they say it. So when I play jazz, for example, I know that technique won’t be enough to move the audience. It isn’t about impressing them simply by playing a flurry of notes. Instead, it is about a conversation with other musicians, through music, where we share the hope of creating opportunities for each other to shine and to break down barriers.”
Jackson’s recent appointment as the co-director of the Save Our Sounds initiative is the culmination of his initial focus on the intersections between the performing arts, science and music. Understanding that musicians often have no baseline understanding of their capabilities and capacity physiologically, Jackson and the clinic are beginning a series of voice evaluations that may help prevent injuries or create better opportunities for health. “I’ll be working between UAB and New Orleans, building bridges for performance arts medicine, as soon as I finish my dissertation!” Jackson says. “For now, however, apart from my writing, I want to continue working with musicians I respect, having the opportunities to grow as a performer and to play as much as possible. Whether it is classical, jazz, country, bluegrass or blues, I just want to be a part of that ongoing conversation.”•