Burton Lynn Jackson
1914 - 1997
Burton L. (Burt) Jackson, a virtuoso marimba player, is regarded as one of the greatest performers of the instrument in the 20th century. He was a star pupil of Claire Musser, premier performer and maker of mallet instruments that bore his name.
Jackson was born and raised in Evansville, Illinois. He graduated in 1930 from Evansville Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school that closed in 1935, and then attended Madison College, a self-supporting Adventist school in Tennessee. In the summer following graduation, he had tried to sell religious books without success and then chose to go to MC, where a student could literally work his or her way through in a rigorous work program.
While there, he heard someone perform on the marimba and was immediately entranced by the instrument and its sound. The following summer, while staying at home, he went to Lyon and Healy, a music store in Chicago, where he met Claire Musser, sales and marketing manager for Deagan keyboard mallet instruments. Jackson talked about his interest in the marimba, which led to his taking lessons from Musser.
In spite of the fact that Jackson had not studied music previously, his progress was remarkable. Within two years, he had so impressed his teacher that when Musser formed a 100-member Marimba ensemble to perform in the 1933 Century of Progress World Fair in Chicago, Jackson was one of the five section leaders for that group. Since the group was formed primarily to promote Deagan instruments, Musser introduced a special model of the marimba for the occasion. The ensemble was scheduled to play afternoon and evening concerts for seven consecutive days. Burton's sister, Irma Trivett, later recalled what happened next:
When Burt heard about the schedule, he went to Musser and reminded him, "Remember, I won't be playing Friday night. I think you should take my marimba out for that concert so there won't be an empty instrument at the front." Musser said "No way. The instrument will stay. " My uncle went to hear the group and to see Burt play at the Friday night concert, even though he was an Adventist. The next time he saw Burton, he asked, "Where were you?" Burt said, "Why Uncle Charlie, you know why I wasn't there!"
Two years later, Musser formed another 100-member group named the International Marimba Symphony Orchestra, in which Jackson was again a section leader, for the purpose of touring in Europe. Special marimbas known as King George models were created for the trip. Although the first concert was scheduled in England to start the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the reign of King George V, a dispute between musicians' unions in that country and the U.S. prevented them from disembarking in England.
They proceeded to France where they presented their first concert in Salle Playel, a concert hall constructed below street level. The reception for their program of mostly classical music was less than enthusiastic, and part way through the program, conductor Musser departed from the listed numbers in an attempt to retain that part of the audience that hadn't left the hall. They continued on to Brussels, Belgium, where the reception was better.
When they tried to enter Germany, the Germans refused to let one of their players, a Jew, enter the country. Musser was offended and refused to proceed with the tour into that country. They returned to France to give one more concert, which went better than the initial one, but by this time, they were out of money and the Deagan company had to wire them $10,000 so that they could return to New York.
What had been a disastrous venture ended in triumph, however, when the group played in Carnegie Hall in New York, to a full house. Although the program was a success, it did not generate enough income to cover the overall expense of the tour.
In 2005, Rebecca Kite in an article she wrote for the August 2005 issue of Percussive Notes about marimba performances in Carnegie Hall, lists that program as the first to be given there on marimba. She also mentioned that a number of players from that group would have distinguished careers, listing Burt Jackson as one of several listed by name.
In spite of all that had happened on the trip, Jackson talked about it for the rest of his life. For a young man in his twenties, it was an adventurous and memorable introduction to Europe.
Jackson completed a B.Mus. in marimba performance at Northwestern University in 1949, studying with Musser, who taught at the school from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. A year later, he graduated with a second B.Mus. in music education from NU. He completed an M.Mus. at the University of Michigan in 1955 and subsequently started work towards a doctorate at NWU.
From his earliest years Jackson enjoyed giving lessons. He taught music at several Adventist academies, including Upper Columbia in Washington state, San Pasqual in California, Mount Vernon in Ohio, and Adelphian in Michigan. He taught at Southern Missionary College, now Southern Adventist University, for two years, from 1957 to 1959, and then moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he taught music at the Florida State Penitentiary for nearly a decade.
Throughout his adult years Jackson had practiced incessantly, developing a phenomenal technique and musical phrasing that impressed all who heard him, including Musser, his former teacher and lifelong close friend. Although he tried touring as a soloist, playing mostly for high school audiences and other community groups, for a couple of years after moving to Jacksonville, he was unable to make enough money to continue.
Jackson moved West, to Washington state where he taught in a junior academy near Seattle and in Napa Junior Academy, now Napa Christian Campus of Education, north of San Francisco. He then lived in Walnut Creek, California, where he became an insurance agent for Farmer's Insurance, a career he pursued for at least a decade until illness forced him to retire. He was residing in St. Helena, California, near Pacific Union College, at the time of his death in 1997.
During those years, he developed a close relationship with his nephew, Terry Trivett, a professor at PUC. Trivett later expressed regret over his uncle's situation and for the fact that Burt had never recorded any of his recitals or repertoire.
The sad thing is that with his training and reputation he was unable to leverage it into a more satisfying career. I would see Burt selling insurance and would say to myself, "Oh man, this is so pathetic." There is nothing wrong with selling insurance, but it seemed sad for someone who was a world-class musician with real talent.
We tried for years to get him to make some recordings of his music. He was always going to do that, but only when he could take some time off from selling insurance to practice and get ready to record.
He continued to play his instrument in his final years, until he could no longer stand because of complications from diabetes and neuropathy. In the end, he sold his instrument to one of his students.
References: Interviews in January 2008 with Burton's sisters, Irma Trivett and Violet Goodge, and nephew, Terry Trivett; The Making of a Drum Company: The Autobiography of William F. Ludwig, (The 1935 European trip); Rebecca Kite, "The Marimba in Carnegie Hall and Town Hall from 1935-62," Percussive Notes, August 2005.