Ernie Jackson ’87 can tell you exactly when he first became interested in the music of Justin Holland, the 19th century Black American classical guitar composer and arranger.
It was Jackson’s freshman year, 1983, and the centennial year of Wagner College. To mark the occasion, classical guitar instructor Ed Brown had organized a concert, “Popular Song Hits of Wagner College’s First Year, 1883.”
“During [that concert], I heard ‘Rochester Schottische’ played by fellow classmate John Salvaggio,” Jackson told Jayson Dobney of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The piece’s importance lays in the fact that it was arranged by Justin Holland, the first Black classical guitarist to emerge during the 19th century. Being that I was the only Black guitarist to ever be in Wagner College’s guitar program, I immediately felt a connection with Justin Holland’s story and life.”
After Jackson graduated from Wagner in 1987, he began his career as a musician, producer, teacher and scholar, eventually becoming co-director of music production at Queensborough Community College.
In 1995, he published “The Music of Justin Holland” with Cherry Lane Music, which launched the music publisher’s American guitar series. The book contained transcriptions of 10 pieces either composed or arranged by Holland, a biography, and Jackson’s CD recording of all 10 compositions.
In 2013, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to make a video series of musicians playing period pieces on its collection of historic guitars, Jackson was asked to play something on the Met’s post-Civil War Martin guitar.
That Justin Holland arrangement from the Wagner College centenary concert, “Rochester Schottische.”
As the years went by, the reputation of Ernie Jackson’s scholarship on Justin Holland continued to grow. When the latest edition of “The Classical Guitar Book” included an entry on Justin Holland, with an engraving of Holland’s portrait, it also included a photo of the cover of Jackson’s book, tying the two inextricably together.
In 2021, when Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media decided to produce an episode of their program, “Your Classical,” featuring the music of Justin Holland, it was only natural that they turned to Ernie Jackson, who would be interviewed throughout the hour-long broadcast.
There were only two problems: Who would play the music? And where to record it?
Early on, Ernie got Covid, which affected the use of his right hand — and the recording schedule. They decided that Ernie would play one piece himself, and they would recruit four other guitarists to play the remaining 25 Holland pieces to be recorded. (Only half of the recorded material is featured in the broadcast.)
The other problem — where to record it — was solved on a location-scouting expedition to the Wagner College campus. They needed an especially quiet location in which to record Justin Holland’s classical guitar compositions and arrangements.
“Ernie said, ‘There’s this black-box theater up at Wagner, I’d like to give it a look. What do you think?,’ ” said recording engineer and QCC professor Robert Anderson, Ernie’s longtime colleague and friend, on the MPR broadcast.
“He also mentioned in passing a chapel, which sounded more interesting than a black-box theater,” Anderson said. “It ended up being, really, a large parlor in a building that’s not too far removed, timewise, from the period of time when this music would have been performed.”
And so, over the first weekend of June 2021, the Knubel Chapel in Kairos House and the gazebo between Cunard and Parker halls were turned into recording studios.
“The only noise issues we had were some loud turkeys and the occasional plane flying overhead,” Anderson said.
Jackson said he was pleased with the outcome of the project, especially because “it will show other young Black guitar players that this is something for them, so we won’t be such a novelty. I was somewhat of a novelty, and I think there are so many people out there who have the same aptitude as me who would never approach it because they don’t see enough people who look like them.”