JAZZ MEETS PIZZA by Adrianna Donat
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
D.D. Jackson serves up music for kids and grownups alike
You may not have met him yet, but you probably have heard the music of D.D. Jackson. If you have kids, you’ll be familiar with it thanks to shows such as Peg + Cat. Then again, if you are a jazz enthusiast, you may have some of his 13 albums. If you’ve watched the Emmy Awards, you may have seen him receive five nominations and take home two awards. He writes music that ranges from jazz opera to children’s programming. It’s not hard to find his music playing somewhere as you move through the day.
And if you live in Maplewood or South Orange, you may be lucky enough to run into him in town with his wife and two kids. “I fell in love with SOMA when we got here six years ago,” says Jackson. “I love the convenience to New York City here.” Jackson, a former teacher at the Harlem School of the Arts, is the coordinator of global jazz studies at Brooklyn College. He also has frequent gigs in the city, most recently on the Tonight Show accompanying its house band, The Roots, with Kristen Bell and Jimmy Fallon as they sang A History of Disney Songs. So proximity to the city is important to him.
“I love the multiculturalism of this community,” he says. “When everything seems so divided, it’s nice to find a progressive environment like this.”
If you spot Jackson at Palmer’s, you’ll notice he seems relaxed. But when you start to talk to him, you sense an intense energy, speed and nimbleness to his speech. It’s the same vitality you hear in his music.
Jackson was born in Ottawa, Canada; his parents named him Robert at birth, but as the second oldest of four children of a Chinese-African family, he soon acquired the nickname “D.D.,” which is derived from the Mandarin word for “little brother.”
Though he is a little brother, Jackson is a giant in the jazz world. He was branded a child prodigy in kindergarten when his talents were discovered by a teacher who insisted on having a piano in the classroom. Jackson asked for piano lessons and practiced for hours each day.
By age 6, Jackson was composing. He studied classical piano and started playing in the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa when he was 12. Eventually, he left Canada to study music at Indiana University, where he discovered jazz.
Many musicians make the transition from classical to jazz, but few are as successful as Jackson. In classical music, a musician learns to play pieces as the composer wrote them. In jazz music, the musician takes control of the music and improvises to suit the mood and occasion. Jazz requires a different type of musical skill. Jackson’s creative energy paired with his grounding in the classics make him well suited to this world of musical improvisation and innovation.
Jackson established his credentials by writing two jazz operas, Quebecité, in 2003, and [Pierre] Trudeau: Long March/Shining Path, in 2006. These works were both learning experiences and events that established him as a jazz talent. He drew inspiration from jazz greats such as bassist Charles Mingus, pianist Don Pullen and pianist-composer Jaki Byard.
Jackson’s most recent album, Live at Freedom of Sound, is a solo piano album with a range of jazz tracks that reflect both the teachings of his mentors and his own artistry. (The album, already available at ddjackson.bandcamp.com, and will soon be offered by Apple Music and Amazon as well.)
But what keeps him busiest these days is writing music for children’s programming. He was one of the composers for the children’s program The Wonder Pets and BBC Worldwide/Disney Jr’s 3rd and Bird, and wrote music for all 26 episodes of The Ocean Room. He won a 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Original Song and one in 2016 as Composer for PBS’s show, Peg+Cat.
“I consider myself an ‘artistic problem solver,’” Jackson says. “I strive to get to the essential conceptual truth of what the client is looking for, and express it in an original and supportive way.” This is an important skill set because children’s music direction is collaborative and highly creative work.
And now he’s using that skill set to score music for Amazon’s TV-series adaptation of Scholastic’s book Clifford the Big Red Dog, which aired its first episode this past December.
With so many opportunities to perform and create in New York City, it might be tempting to move from Maplewood. But Jackson says he’s quite content to stay. His wife, Liz Moglia, works locally as a communications and marketing consultant. They are happy to be bringing up their two kids here.
Plus there’s an added benefit of having colleagues in town. “There’s an amazing artistic and musical community here, with jazz musicians and orchestra players. It makes me feel at home. I have a friend in The Roots who lives here, and we've even carpooled.”
But it was pizza that sealed the deal. As Jackson explains, “When we first came to Maplewood, I went into the Roman Gourmet and knew I could eat there for the rest of my life.” Music and pizza. Sometimes it’s the basic things in life that help us know where home is.
Adrianna Donat is a freelance writer and children’s book author. Her most recent book, Mustache Fairy, is available on Amazon. She first heard D.D. Jackson’s musical talents in 2007 as a rabid fan of “The Wonder Pets!”