Earlier this year, guitarist Ernie Jackson — a 1987 music graduate of Wagner college — got a call from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a most unusual gig: Would he play the Met’s 1860s-era Martin guitar for a video series featuring all the playable guitars in the Met’s collection?
In August, he made the recording, surrounded by marble Renaissance statuary from the Castle of Vélez Blanco.
His rendition of the “Rochester Schottisch,” a 19th-century piece composed by W. H. Rulister and arranged by Justin Holland, was released this week on YouTube. (You’ll find the video at the end of this story, below.)
How did this gig come about? There’s a little history behind it.
Jackson first heard the “Rochester Schottisch” when he was a freshman music major at Wagner. His classmate, John Salvaggio ’87, played it in a concert of the Wagner College Guitar and Lute Ensemble, under the leadership of instructor Ed Brown. The year was 1983, the centennial year of Wagner College, and to mark the occasion Brown had organized a concert of “Popular Song Hits of Wagner College’s First Year, 1883.”
The piece stuck with Jackson — as did the story of Justin Holland, one of America’s first guitar virtuosos, a prominent teacher, composer and arranger who, like Jackson, was African American.
After finishing at Wagner, Jackson continued his studies in classical guitar at the Manhattan School of Music under David Starobin. It was there, in a studio full of top-notch guitarists from around the world, that Jackson decided that he wanted to make his mark as the rare African-American man in the world of classical guitar.
“I’m the black guy from Brooklyn. I felt out of my league,” Jackson told me. “I’m just a funky guy who can do it.”
In 1995, his book came out: “The Music of Justin Holland, 1817–1887: Ten Solo Pieces Arranged by the Prominent 19th-Century African-American Classical Guitarist.” Jackson had spent a year doing archival research, transcribing manuscripts and studying with Ed Brown again before completing recordings of the pieces.
In 2004, he performed Holland’s dazzlingly virtuosic arrangement of “Home, Sweet Home” with the Richmond County Orchestra.
But Jackson is a man with many musical irons in the fire — he has taught guitar, music production and audio engineering at Wagner College and at Queensborough Community College, where he is now a tenured professor and leads the jazz ensemble. He’s also the man behind Jamsire Ernoir, who “delivers more than a few jaw-droppers and knuckle-busters” in the instructional video series “Fingerstyle Funk.” He felt like he was basically “done with classical guitar” — until he got the call from the Met this summer. A former student of Jackson’s and current member of the Metropolitan Museum’s Visiting Committee for Musical Instruments, Stephen Griesgraber, thought of Jackson to play the Martin guitar because he knew of Jackson’s peerless expertise in the music of Justin Holland.
The Met’s musical video series features guitarists including Jackson’s old teacher, David Starobin, as well as the young virtuosos Jorge Caballero and Vladimir Gorbach. The recordings are available on the Met’s website and in display kiosks in the museum.
— Story by Wagner Magazine editor Laura Barlament