There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Just in front of the stately cream-colored duplex at 1 and 2 Logan Circle, a Neighborhood Heritage Trail sign displays a photograph of two young men sitting on the house’s front landing during the early ’70s.
In the foreground is Gil Scott-Heron, the visionary poet, writer, and musician most famous for his brilliant, withering critiques of America’s racism and injustice. Just behind him, holding a cigarette and smiling, is his lesser-known longtime collaborator, Brian Jackson. In 1972, they lived in an artists’ commune at 1 Logan Circle, where they wrote and recorded their seminal album, Winter in America. Over the ensuing years, they recorded more than 10 albums together before parting ways around 1980.
Jackson, 67, currently lives in Portland, Oregon, but during one of his many recent visits to D.C., he walked over to take a look at the sign. Now, he notes wryly, it may serve to legitimize his presence in the area. “It’s kind of ironic,” he says. “When I go by there, maybe I can show that to somebody if they want to arrest me for being in that neighborhood.”
Decades ago, Jackson could not have predicted his reason for returning to D.C. He has been here contributing to Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, a new album from local reggae ensemble The Archives. The album’s May 27 release on all music streaming platforms marks the ninth anniversary of Scott-Heron’s death, and a limited edition vinyl release is set for September.
For Archives keyboardist and bandleader Darryl “Trane” Burke, having Jackson playing flute and keyboards as well as providing vocals to an album that celebrates him is nothing short of a dream come true. “It’s like getting Paul McCartney on a Beatles tribute,” Burke says. “I’m still pinching myself.”
A veteran reggae musician, Burke came up with the album’s concept several years ago, after learning that Scott-Heron’s father, professional footballer Gil Heron, was Jamaican. “I had never heard any reggae covers of Gil Scott-Heron’s songs,” Burke says. “I think that’s because a lot of people don’t even know that his dad was Jamaican. But Gil’s music is very melodic. He’s almost like a poet singing, but when you break the songs down and listen to the melody line, they’re awesome songs.”
Burke discussed the project with Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton, who had released The Archives’ self-titled debut album on his Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label in 2012. Hilton signed on as co-producer and is releasing Carry Me Home on his new Montserrat House label. One thing led to another, and this fall, Montserrat House will also release an as-yet untitled solo album by Jackson. “We’re super excited about that record,” Hilton says. “We’re kind of doing it in a future-meets-past paradigm with a lot of analog synthesizers and really high-end gear.”
Burke grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and played bass before shifting to keyboards. “Every band I was ever in, the bass player was really good, so I had to pick up the keys,” he says. In the mid-’80s, he played in Total Control, a young suburban go-go band, but soon gravitated to reggae. By 1994, he was playing reggae professionally with Moja Nya and touring with Culture and other high-profile reggae acts.
He formed The Archives in 2011, and the group played originals and covers at weekly reggae nights at Patty Boom Boom on U Street NW. He has long admired Scott-Heron: “I think he was one of the most brilliant minds of his century.” When he reimagined Scott-Heron and Jackson’s songs as reggae, he knew immediately what they should sound like. “We’re doing a tribute record, but we’re not a tribute band like those bands going around playing Led Zeppelin covers,” he says. “I wanted to get the sound of The Wailers, Black Uhuru, early Steel Pulse. That kind of soulful roots reggae sound works so well with Gil’s music.”
While recording Carry Me Home, Burke found Jackson through percussionist Larry MacDonald, an alumni of Scott-Heron’s Amnesia Express band, who appears on most of the album’s tracks. (He found MacDonald through D.C. cultural activist and music promoter Dera Tompkins.) Burke contacted Jackson to ask if he would listen to the work in progress. “When I heard it, it felt as though the music we wrote was made to be done in a roots-reggae type style,” Jackson says. “They picked tunes that actually make sense playing them in that style, and, as it turned out, there are many. They dug down and found those that not only had melodic content that fit the melody and chordal context of reggae, but also that meant something lyrically, that had powerful messages and images.”
As they continued talking, Jackson suggested that he could add some flute or keyboard embellishment and possibly some vocals as well. Now, he is deeply gratified by the finished product: “It’s one of those albums where you really should put on some headphones or earbuds, and just live with it and breathe with it,” he says.
Carry Me Home consists of 14 tracks, half of which were co-written by Scott-Heron and Jackson. Joining the core members of The Archives—vocalist Puma Ptah, drummer Leslie “Black Seed” James Jr., bassist Pierre Stone, and guitarist Henri Tanash—are guest performers Jackson and MacDonald, as well as Afrobeat-go-go collective Crank LuKongo’s Matt “Swamp Guinee” Miller, vocalist Mustafa Akbar, and Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka. And on “A Toast to the People,” the first song that Jackson and Scott-Heron wrote together, one of D.C.’s favorite R&B singers, Raheem DeVaughn, provides sumptuous vocals.
“What I love about Raheem is that he’s the perfect bridge between the old school and the new school,” Burke says. “This guy can channel Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Brian McKnight; he’s just that whole spectrum.”
For DeVaughn, “A Toast to the People” has taken on a deeper resonance during this uncertain era. “The subject matter of this record really speaks to the trying times that we live in,” he says. “We still fight to endure. This song is recognizing those community leaders, the common man and woman, who deserve that toast of life, especially those ones who are most overlooked—first responders, nurses, and the quote, unquote, ‘essential’ workers.”
Another Carry Me Home track, Jackson’s “It’s Your World,” was inspired by an old-school greeting. “It played on the phrase that we used to say in D.C. a lot,” Jackson says. “When you walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hey man, how you doin’, what’s happening?’ And the other person would say, ‘Hey man, it’s your world.’ I was kind of ruminating on that.” He describes the result as a song about personal and musical freedom. “It’s a song about spiritual real estate,” says Jackson. “It’s about having the right to be who you are.”
Jackson first met Scott-Heron when they both attended Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University. It is a story well-polished by its retelling, about how, when the lanky young Scott-Heron first approached him in a music practice room, he had to move sideways through the door so his Afro would fit. Almost immediately, they started working together, and eventually they moved to Washington, D.C. “My most cherished memories are from Logan Circle,” Jackson says. “We used to call it the squircle, because it was really a square, but it was shaped like a circle.”
Later, they relocated to Arlington, where they shared a house and pooled limited resources with members of their group, The Midnight Band, which was mostly composed of fellow Lincoln alumni. “We just became really close friends and brothers, and we would wake up and just start writing,” Jackson says. “Our whole life was just writing music and being on the road.”
Scott-Heron died in 2011, and now, so many years after bearing witness to Scott-Heron’s struggles with addiction, Jacksons says his memories are not painful. “Actually it’s just the opposite—it was one of the happiest periods of my life. I’m happy now, but I can honestly say that I couldn’t have been any happier back then.”
Throughout the process of recording Carry Me Home, all participants were acutely aware of an undeniable truth: That Scott-Heron and Jackson’s raw and powerful songs, viscerally limning the raw struggles of black people in America, are as relevant today as they were four decades ago. “We’re still dealing with the same institutionalized racism, the same brutality,” Burke says.
In DeVaughn’s view, the rise of systemic right-wing racism makes Scott-Heron and Jackson’s work crucial listening for our time. “They say history repeats itself,” he says. “It’s almost like we’ve entered into a new millennial era of the civil rights movement. You think about what our brothers and sisters go through, and the LGBTQ community, also. Think about how, weekly, you hear these stories of police brutality or racial profiling, or you think about the hate groups that are online supporting violence. It’s kind of like the ’60s all over again, but with a new millennial flair.”
These days, when Jackson performs the song “Winter in America” in concert, audience members often ask whether he and Scott-Heron had some psychic vision of the future. “When we were writing, we were talking about the time period that we were living in,” Jackson says. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought nor wanted these songs to be relevant today.”
“I like to talk about Frederick Douglass’ speech from two centuries ago, ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’” Jackson continues. “I love that speech because it basically says, while you guys are celebrating your independence, we’re still waiting for that party. And you know it’s pretty much as relevant today as it was then: issues with voting, issues with health care, issues with housing, issues with racist supremacist terrorism. All those things are still happening.”
Nearly five decades after the Winter in America album, Jackson no longer expects to see his country change during his lifetime. “Look at Germany, which has faced a lot of their crimes, their most atrocious behavior. They have faced them, they’ve dealt with them, and they’re still dealing with them,” he says. “America, on the other hand, is still in denial. America has not even begun.”