Reuben Jackson is the new voice of jazz on Vermont airwaves
Reuben Jackson is almost painfully shy. As a photographer from Seven Days flutters around him snapping pics from increasingly unpredictable angles, he smiles and nods politely, clutching a lukewarm cup of coffee. He’s uncomfortable as the photog moves him into different lights, trying to coax a less awkward pose.
Jackson is clearly ill at ease as the center of attention. But put him behind the microphone in a radio booth, and this shrinking violet blooms. His thoughtful-but-hesitant speech pattern becomes smooth and easy, his words given weight by his rich, resonant voice. His cadence, though calm and almost hypnotically lilting, is self-assured and authoritative, especially when he’s riffing on his favorite subject: music.
Jackson, 56, is the new host of Vermont Public Radio ’s “Friday Night Jazz” program. He succeeds a man who was a virtual institution for local jazz aficionados: George Thomas, who hosted “Jazz with George Thomas” on VPR for the past 11 years before retiring this summer.
“I kind of feel like Larry Holmes after Muhammad Ali stepped down,” says Jackson of taking over for Thomas. “Who’s the heavyweight champion?”
He’s joking … mostly. And for what it’s worth, Jackson could do worse than to emulate Holmes (metaphorically speaking), who is regarded as one of boxing’s all-time greats.
“George is my hero,” he continues, his words shaded with genuine affection. Jackson admits to tuning in to Thomas’ program regularly over the years from his home in Washington, D.C., often while curled up in bed. It’s a habit he picked up as a kid, listening to late-night radio broadcasts both for the music and for what he calls the lyrical quality of a good DJ’s delivery.
“I always tell people the first rappers I heard were ministers and disc jockeys,” Jackson says. “That percussive pattern was as beautiful and entrancing to me as the music.”
He likens a talented radio jockey to a sherpa who guides the listener through the music and connects the historical, thematic and emotional dots. Thomas, he says, was a master.
“Just like a musician might have idols he’d emulate, I have programmers I idolize, either because of their knowledge, or delivery, or both,” says Jackson. “George is one of those people.”
The admiration is mutual.
“He has a great voice and a great delivery,” says Thomas. “And he knows his music.”
That’s an understatement.
Before moving to Vermont in 2011 to take a job teaching English at Burlington High School, Jackson served as the curator of the Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian Museum for 20 years. He is also an accomplished music critic, having written for a number of prestigious publications, including Washington City Paper and the Washington Post, as well as JazzTimes, Jazziz and All About Jazz. His reviews have also been featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
Jackson was born in Georgia and moved to Washington, D.C., as a child with his family in 1958. He says he started his musical education underground, literally.
“I heard everything from Earl Scruggs to [Italian violinist Niccolò] Paganini in my parents’ basement,” he says.
Jackson’s father was a voracious jazz fan who would often invite friends to the family basement to listen to records. Jackson recalls sitting at the top of the basement steps and eavesdropping. But it wasn’t just the intoxicating notes drifting from the hi-fi that captured his attention.
“I was intrigued by the names,” he says. “Thelonious Monk, Carmell Jones; they were musical in and of themselves. They didn’t sound like Chubby Checker.”
Neither did the music.
“I would hear this sound,” Jackson says. “I was entranced.”
“Under penalty of death,” he began sneaking his dad’s jazz records from their basement bin. Those risky childhood heists led him on a path that Jackson has followed ever since.
“I’ve been chasing music most of my life,” he says. “It’s been a constant pursuit of that beauty and possibility.”
Jackson graduated from Goddard College in 1978. The small Plainfield school is where he got his start in radio, DJing on the then-10-watt college station WGDR. But Jackson studied writing, not music, at Goddard. He’s an accomplished poet, which is a skill that Thomas says sets Jackson apart as a jazz scholar and DJ.
“He thinks like a poet,” notes Thomas, who first met Jackson through a shared love of poetry. He adds that the new host’s poetic instinct and gentle demeanor afford Jackson a broad appeal, something the oft-stigmatized genre of jazz has struggled to achieve.
“Things happen on several levels, simultaneously,” says Thomas of his successor’s on-air style. “So someone who is new to the music can enjoy it because the music is really good, while someone who is into jazz can appreciate his selections because of how diverse, how intelligent and how from his heart they are.”
Ultimately, Jackson hopes to use his new forum to challenge listeners, getting them to think beyond stodgy labels and outdated definitions and see jazz as part of the larger, always-evolving musical whole.
“What I want to expose people to is that the art form is not relegated to a certain time period,” says Jackson, who generally has little use for the term “jazz” itself. (He quotes Ornette Coleman: “Rock, classical, folk and jazz are all yesterday’s titles.”)
“The Winooski River doesn’t stop in Plainfield,” Jackson concludes, offering a poetic metaphor. “It keeps going.”
“Friday Night Jazz” airs on Vermont Public Radio  every Friday from 8 to 11 p.m.