Alexandra Jackson’s surname is like gold in the city of Atlanta. And so is that intoxicating voice seems to beam directly from her soul, showering you with rich, mesmerizing harmonies that bathe the senses and massage the heart.
The celebrated singer, songwriter, musician and arranger comes full circle as she returns to the city where her musical influences emanate to perform as a featured act during the 36th Atlanta Jazz Festival— the very musical extravaganza that her legendary father, Maynard Jackson, started when he transformed the city as mayor.
Alexandra Jackson will perform select cuts from her recently-released album, From the Start, which Jackson chose to record at the very high school where she was first started singing jazz.
“I thought it would be so fitting to record my first jazz album where it all started, with the people who influenced me musically, and the great musicians with whom I had played for years,” she said. “It was a full circle, and one for which I am very grateful.”
One of the songs that Jackson will perform at the nationally-renowned festival is “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” the lead single that derived its influence from one of her greatest musical inspirations as a child, Sarah Vaughn.
“One of my mentors gave me my first album of Sarah Vaughn,” she recalls. “When I heard that song, it became an immediate favorite of mine. I was singing it for fun, and it was one of those songs that people loved most of mine.”
Singing is in Jackson’s DNA. Both sides of her family passed down the hereditary trait that now pulses through her veins (“My father was a great vocalist; his favorite artist was Prince,” she said), and her great aunt, Mattiwilda Dobbs, was the first African American to sing at the main opera house in Italy. Singing is like breathing to Jackson and jazz is her oxygen.
Even though she loved jazz from an early age and sung in the choir and musical theatre, it wasn’t until Jackson’s high school band director at The Lovett School who convinced her to focus on jazz that Jackson had an epiphany. Soon after, Alexandra was a soloist with living legend Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center through the nationwide high school jazz band competition, Essentially Ellington. After that experience led her to sing in Switzerland, it was pretty much a wrap about what Jackson’s career path was going to be.
“That whole high school experience changed the course of my life. I thought I wanted to go into sports medicine. I wanted to be a sports team doctor,” she recalls of that life-changing detour towards her life’s calling. “That was what I wanted to do since I was 7 years old.” Jackson subsequently studied jazz at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., after considering studying at the likes of NYU, UCLA, Spelman, Howard and the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Jackson is part of the new wave of jazz artists who are bringing the original American musical art form back into the mainstream. Just as Jackson is coming back full circle with her new album, so is her beloved art form.
“I went to perform in the Montreux Jazz Fest (in Switzerland). There is an appreciation that is rarely seen here. The more I speak to people about it, the more I found out that other people feel the same way,” she says, passion dripping from her every word.
“It’s not that Americans don’t appreciate jazz, but it’s just how (Europeans) tune in and how they show their appreciation. Its like you were going to a Jay-Z concert here (in the States). Jazz artists over there are treated like royalty. Jazz is treated over there like rap and pop is over here,” she continues, elucidating to audiences about the origins of some of those beloved hip hop tunes. “A lot of the rap songs today are sampled off of old jazz hits. People like Jay-Z and Nas, some of their hits were sampled off of jazz songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. People here the songs and they say ‘oh, wow, that’s Jay-Z.’ but they don’t know the history behind that song.”
Because of artists like Jackson, who is riding on an uninterrupted upward trajectory toward stardom, younger music fans are getting acquainted with this unique music form born in urban America — as well as the sonic gems it birthed that teens and tweens are listening to today. The woman who performed the National Anthem for President Barack Obama’s presidential rally at Georgia Tech, and who was the featured performer at the 2010 Atlanta Inauguration for Mayor Kasim Reed, Jackson is positioned for that royal seat right here in America.