Meet Austin’s Funk Prodigy D-Madness

Blind purveyor of soul, hip-hop, and reggae takes us behind the curtain

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

"We don't have to be sentimental about it. It's fine. I take no offense. I am blind. That's pure and simple."

It's important you listen very carefully to Dwayne Jackson.

"But, I don't know. I would say I see differently than ... I don't usually use the word 'blind' too much."

Tuning in to Jackson's frequency, most will encounter a line of communication knotted by intentional static, from which you're forced to wrench meaning. No surprise, then, that the preternaturally talented Austin multi-instrumentalist becomes his truest self behind an arsenal of sound devices. Singing and playing two or three instruments at once in his longtime local outfit the D-Madness Project, he plies a brash amalgam of funk, soul, hip-hop, and reggae.

In doing so, Jackson attenuates the distance between his congenital blindness and the blindness of those who will not, and cannot, see. After the applause dies down at his Stay Gold and Big Easy Bar & Grill residencies, and playing bass with soul vocalist and saxman Ter'rell Shahid, the distance widens once again, yet the auditory impulse never ceases for Jackson. Life's purpose and primary protection mechanism, music remains a fortified gauze between himself, those he loves, and the world's unending difficulty.

Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago once wrote in his subversive novel Blindness, "Blindness is a private matter between a person and the eyes with which he or she was born." That relationship becomes nuanced into contexts the seeing cannot perceive. So deeply fixed are these realities for Jackson that they naturally bleed into his speech and become subtle parable. Jackson repeats himself often, perhaps hoping each duplicate word exits increasingly corrugated for your comprehension. He seeks to be fully understood and his voice and music to be heard, completely.

He'll take you behind the curtain, if you'll listen intently, even in his simple explanation of crossing busy thoroughfares.

"You know 45th and Lamar?" he asks. "That's a hell of a street to try and cross at 3 o'clock. Sometimes I'll get halfway across the street and someone will try and help – grab my arm. I'll tell them, 'You can let go. I've got this under control.'

"It's an interesting dynamic. Now, some people just forget that I'm blind, so when I do need the help, they don't help. When I need the help, no one's there. When I don't need the help, they're all over the place.

"There's a fine line, let me tell you."

Master Blaster

Debuting in Dallas on March 5, 1971, Lorenzo Dwayne Jackson Jr. was born to Jacqueline and Lorenzo Jackson, the latter of whom didn't stick around. Coming from a line of unique characters, he was preceded by sister Teresa and arrived before the fiery Kimberly, who passed in 2014 from natural causes. His mother initially found her middle child's blindness "shocking."

"At first, [doctors] said he wasn't blind," she explains. "They said his eyes hadn't grown yet, and that once they did, he'd be able to see. So for probably about close to a year, they told me that his eyes might develop to where he might be able to see.

Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago once wrote in his subversive novel Blindness, “Blindness is a private matter between a person and the eyes with which he or she was born.”

"I was hurt, but he was so cute. I loved him, you know, from day one. When they said he'd never be able to see, I said, 'Well, you know, I accept that.'"

Her son didn't – at least not as a limitation. According to Jacqueline, as a young prodigy, Dwayne once told an incredulous Merv Griffin on his late-night TV show that he wasn't blind at all.

"One time, he said he could see colors," says his mother. "He could almost tell you what you had on. Sometimes he would tell you what color you had on – and you really had that on. So we wondered, you know? He never accepted the fact he was blind."

Mark Collins, who used to run the Mercury on Sixth Street and was something of a benefactor to Jackson, describes him as being able to navigate city blocks without the aid of a cane. He'd simply memorize the steps necessary to reach a venue he wanted to patronize.

A soprano in her Pentecostal church, Jacqueline says her son began drumming at 3, and was playing music in church by 5. Dwayne makes mention of a Stevie Wonder single that his church-drumming father spun for him, though he doesn't recall the song title. What drew him in was the self-expression.

"I remember moving my head back and forth to it," he says. "When the song was over, my father said, 'By the way, he's blind and he did everything himself,' and I just exploded. I don't know what got into me, but whatever it was I got inspired. I was trying to figure out, you know, knowing that I was blind, what I could do in this world since I couldn't see nothing."

In 1983, Jackson relocated to Austin to attend the Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired. Throughout his tenure there, studying classical and jazz, he learned piano, baritone sax, trombone, and bass. Jackson also became an award-winning violinist in high school, traveling to Europe and Canada with the jazz band.

"He played the violin to where it would almost make you cry. I could not believe it," says his mother. "And he could play nonstop. I've seen him stay up 36 hours just playing music, pretty much anything he could put his hands on. It kept him happy.

"He just, I don't know," she pauses. "I don't know what he would do without music."

Jacqueline says she was terrified envisioning her son out on his own, trying to make it.

"I was frightened, but I'm a mom, you know, that's my son. I had to realize that he was a grown man. That's one thing, he just said, 'Mom, you have got to stop worrying about me. You got to stop worrying about what is going to happen. Trust me.'"

Drop It Hard!

Upon graduating in 1993, Jackson joined his first big group, signing on for bass in homegrown reggae/funk fusion outfit Tribal Nation. He came to the band naturally. Guitarist Jay Williams worked at the School for the Blind and had long recognized his innate musical talent. For the first time, Jackson played legit instead of sneaking away from school in search of opportunities to perform.

Tribal Nation became the first in a long and still-growing string of acts wherein Jackson blew audiences away. Aside from the D-Madness Project and his residency backing Ter'rell Shahid, Jackson rings the bell with Black Blind Rooster, a trio configuration with drummer Michael Hale and bassist Yoggie Musgrove. Dopeiam, a soul/alt-R&B duo project with singer/model Azurah Vibez (Whitney Stewart), could bear fruit in the form of an album to go along with his three other full-lengths.

2008's Funk Fest is a hard-charging, futuristic funk set Cameo might proudly call their own. His most recent album, 2012's Clown Royal, is more traditional R&B/soul with some delightful surprises and unintentional satire. Jackson's best work remains the jazz and hip-hop-infused Equinox. Delayed six years and released alongside Funk Fest, the bittersweet album features Austin legend Bavu Blakes, frequent collaborator and close friend Andrae Van Buren, and current Keeper vocalist Yadira Brown. Each disc emanates entirely different from the others.

Stevie Wonder, who Jackson finally met and played with after a 2015 tour date at the Erwin Center, may be his supreme influence, but Jackson's thirst for untethered individuality makes soul-jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, also blind, a more suitable spiritual cohort.

"Y'know, I didn't stick to one label of whatever music," says Jackson, stating the obvious. "'This is where it's supposed to be, and this is where it's done, and that's it.' Y'know? I was pretty defiant in music. I broke the rules, and I didn't care."

Frequent collaborator Christopher Edwards notes Jackson's unique style behind the kit.

"What he does is he puts his drumstick between his ring finger and his middle finger," explains Edwards. "And he uses his right hand to play the bass drum sometimes, make paradiddles and stuff like that with the bass drum. That was something I'd never seen anybody do in all my years of observing drummers.

"His ability to keep time – where most drummers need a metronome to make sure that the track is staying on point – he needs none of that," continues Edwards in awe. "So his timing is probably one of the most beautiful things. It's almost superhuman."

"This is a meter right here, all the time," explains Jackson with a smile, pointing at his head. "I've been playing with this thing so long that I can manipulate that meter anytime I want to and still come back. It all fits. Me and the meter, we get along pretty well."

Austin rapper-turned-scholar and Hip-Hop Humpday veteran Bavu Blakes says he found his voice working with Jackson.

"I think his ability to listen, and adapt, is crazy," says Blakes. "His processor is different. He already had Google Fiber when everybody else still had the AOL disk."

What'd I Say

"Nothing is separating him from being as big as Gary Clark Jr.," emphasizes Van Buren, speaking of his friend. "Nothing. And he's been around longer."

There's no easy answer to why an artist with such overwhelming talent and skill has not risen to greater heights. Make no mistake, Lorenzo Dwayne Jackson Jr. isn't "talented as far as Austin goes." Though lacking the industry machine-grooved shine and sparkle of Austin's mainstream national artists, he's a generational talent.

If Jackson entertains any frustration on this front, he understands the cause. He attributes the moment he decided to play his own instruments. He says "that's when the dynamic changed." Mark Collins, who executive produced Equinox and put on the vaunted Hip-Hop Humpday, believes musician intimidation and fear are deeply involved and persistent.

"People like to put stuff in a box or categorize it," he explains. "So how do you do that with someone you can't categorize? What I would see, for example, is him sitting in with a band that needed bass for a song, and he would tear it up. It would be busy, but just badass. Then people would go, 'He's a great bass player, but he's just too busy.'

"Unless they agree artistically with what's coming out, or saw a way it could benefit them, then they were just like, 'He's great, but that's not my style.'"

There's also the omnipresent macro, day-to-day management of being a blind man trying to make a living in Austin, and therein lies Jackson's continual paradox. He must get up early to manage himself and to organize rides to get to gigs on time. If he resorts to taking taxis, he has to worry about paying and receiving correct amounts of money. Once he arrives at each venue to unload and plays his gigs, he must make sure he's going to receive accurate payment for his superhuman efforts.

In truth, it’s paramount to note his stubbornness and ego, a predictable by-product of genius. His mother recalls this street attitude during an audition with the Dixie Chicks.

Though he claims not to dwell on it, Jackson admits that enjoying his craft can be "challenging" given the aforementioned prep. It constitutes a daily grind few musicians must withstand to continue playing. And yet there's more to the disconnect between Jackson and an outsized greatness everyone interviewed believes he's long deserved.

In truth, it's paramount to note his stubbornness and ego, a predictable by-product of genius. For example, and as a microcosm, Jackson doesn't like to repeat himself – unless it's so that you can understand him. His mother recalls this street attitude during an audition with the Dixie Chicks.

"He started to play and they were telling him to do something another way, but he would not do it," she says. "He was stubborn that way. Sometimes I think he probably would have gotten a little further [if he had listened]. He didn't want anybody to tell him what to do."

There have been other similar situations like this, where one could wonder whether Jackson was protecting himself from being boxed in, or cast as a sideshow novelty. Then again, refusing to "play the game" retains its own downsides.

"Austin is one of those cities that, unfortunately, holds grudges for stupidity sometimes," acknowledges Van Buren. "Throughout the years, things have occurred throughout Dwayne's career, some bridges, some stones, some stumbling blocks. [Success] depends on the type of people musicians surround themselves with, whether or not they have some aid. I'm sure Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles had to deal with the same type of things, but for them, they had a better business framework behind the music.

"That's what Dwayne is missing. He doesn't have the business side to match his musical genius."

I Only Have Eyes for You

Lorenzo Dwayne Jackson Jr. stood for nearly our entire two-hour interview in his apartment. He didn't sit for longer than 30 seconds before he was up on his feet. Neither did he play a tune on the keyboard in his living room. He wasn't comfortable with someone he didn't know in his personal space.

"It's hard for a lot of people who aren't hip to what his day-to-day life is," says Lacey Wiseman, friend and unofficial/official manager. "It's definitely a struggle for someone who's just sitting on gold all day, and he knows it. He's very proud of who he is, and what he's been able to do. He would not give his blindness away.

"His mom has said so many times that she wishes she could give him her eyes. And he says it's not necessary: 'What I have is exactly what I need. I need other people to be aware that it's here.'"

In a town of supposed weirdness, constantly searching for distinction, this blind man wants to be seen – in totality. As Saramago writes, "I don't think we did go blind. I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see."

Lorenzo Dwayne Jackson Jr. isn't helpless. He's a man capable of small miracles. He doesn't need your pity.

He just needs your help before he makes it into the middle of the street on his own.

The D-Madness Project squares off against Calvin Johnson’s Chapter: Soul from New Orleans at Antone’s on Friday, Aug. 4.

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Dwayne Jackson, D-Madness Project, Tribal Nation, Yoggie Musgrove, Black Blind Rooster, Dopeiam, Bavu Blakes, Stevie Wonder, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dixie Chicks

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