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Remembering Reuben Jackson 

Reuben Jackson. Photo courtesy of Rootstock Publishing.
On Feb. 16, Reuben Jackson passed away at the age of 67. He was a celebrated poet, radio host, educator, music critic, and jazz scholar, and his connection to the central Vermont community ran deep.

Born in Georgia and raised in Washington D.C., Jackson moved to Plainfield to attend Goddard in 1975, after learning about the college when he found himself flipping through the Saturday Evening Post at a party. It was at Goddard where his lifelong connection to radio began, when he became one of the very first DJs at campus radio station WGDR. 

Llu Mulvaney-Stanak, station manager of the now community-owned WGDR, describes radio as one of Jackson’s first loves.

“His generous spirit, brilliant mind, and authenticity shined through the microphone,” Mulvaney-Stanak says. “When Reuben was on the air, it was just you and him. Those moments of connection, from human to human, voice to ear, demonstrate the power of radio. We will all miss him dearly, but as we say in radio, radio waves go on forever, so we know Reuben is still out there both talking to us and tuning in.”

On March 9, WGDR hosted a radio remembrance in Jackson’s honor, and friends were invited to share stories and create a “celebration space” to commemorate him. Among the many contributors to the two-hour program was the longtime host of Vermont Public’s “Morning Edition,” Mitch Wertlieb.

“I was proud to have called him a friend,” Wertlieb said. “When you were in conversation with Reuben, it felt a little like time stopped. It felt like that was the only conversation that mattered. There was a gravitas to his speaking, in a way that sort of enveloped you.”

On and off the radio, Jackson’s passion for jazz fueled a lifetime of professional pursuits. He devoted 20 years to Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where he served as the curator of the Duke Ellington Collection, a vast assortment of artifacts connected to one of the world’s most renowned jazz musicians. His music reviews were published in The Washington Post, JazzTimes, DownBeat, and featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” From 2012 to 2018, he hosted “Friday Night Jazz” on Vermont Public, treating listeners to his encyclopedic knowledge of music and his smooth, baritone voice, a job he affectionately described as a “high-tech version of playing records in the basement.” Jackson eventually returned to Washington D.C., where he worked as a jazz archivist at the University of the District of Columbia.

Throughout the years that he spent in Vermont, he was a frequent visitor to Buch Spieler Records in Montpelier, and store owner Knayte Lander remembers him as a friend and someone who was “deeply deserving of applause.”

“Reuben was the person who would come into the record store, and he would tell you the truth about the way things were, and you wanted to listen,” Lander says. “Whatever record he pulled out of the bin, that’s what you wanted to listen to.”

Lander recalls a DJ set that Jackson once did at the record store, in which he featured only records that he’d bought at Buch Spieler in the seventies.

“He loved Buch Spieler Records. He would get sentimental just being here in the space,” Lander recounts.

Several of Jackson’s poems will be on display at Buch Spieler as part of April’s month-long PoemCity event, and PoemCity’s 2024 Anthology book will also be published in his honor. The dedication page will read, “Dedicated to Reuben Jackson (1956–2024), poet, educator, jazz scholar, radio DJ, music critic, and Vermonter at heart.”

Jackson frequently explored the connection between music and poetry, and some of his poetic work is directly inspired by the jazz artists that he revered, in poems such as “for cassandra wilson,” and the recently anthologized, “for duke ellington,” from his 2019 collection “Scattered Clouds: New & Selected Poems.”

Jackson celebrated the release of the book with an event at Bear Pond Books in October of 2019, an occasion that Bear Pond’s owner Claire Benedict remembers fondly.

“It was a wonderful evening with many friends, and we cherish the memories,” Benedict says. “We will miss Reuben so much, he was a sweet, wonderful man and such a talented poet. He was a big fan of Bear Pond and we were big fans of his.”

A new book of poetry by Jackson, titled, “My Specific Awe and Wonder,” is expected this fall from Rootstock Publishing. The volume will contain 30 of Jackson’s poems in addition to a collection of tribute pieces written by those who knew him well. 

Samantha Kolber, Rootstock’s owner, recalls the joy of working with Jackson and the honor of considering him a friend. “One of my first encounters with Reuben was years ago, when he led a workshop for PoemCity about jazz and poetry,” Kolber says. “He was so friendly, so loving, and his voice could melt butter. When I read his poems, I hear his voice.” 

Kolber says that despite his great affection for Vermont, much of Jackson’s poetic work addresses the racism that he experienced throughout the years he spent in the Green Mountain State. She describes his love for Vermont as a “bittersweet love.” 

“That experience is juxtaposed with the sheer beauty of this place that doesn’t always treat people with the same reverence,” Kolber says. “When he sent me this work, he called it, ‘a love poem to Vermont, with all the potholes.’” 

Rootstock plans to donate all sales of “My Specific Awe and Wonder” to a scholarship fund set up in Jackson’s name at the University of the District of Columbia. Jackson’s partner, Jenae Michelle, designed the fundraiser to support students interested in poetry and jazz as a means to “extend his generous spirit and allow him to continue to help others.” 

Likewise, when considering the impact that Jackson had on those who knew him, Kolber says, “More than anything, I want his legacy to live on.”

Donations to the scholarship fund set up in Reuben Jackson’s name can be made at gofundme.com/f/celebrating-the-life-legacy-of-reuben-jackson

for duke ellington

music is your mistress;
demanding constant love
and international settings.
as always, you stroll beside her.
again, grumpy orchestra
springs into elegance at the drop
of your hand.
even so, there are casualties.
the years pass.
you bury rabbit and swee’pea,
run your fingers across the black keys,
dip the color into your hair.
cancerous nodes
rush toward a harrowing cadenza,
pen kisses paper,
a lover
in no particular hurry,
the music reveals itself
a negligee black note at a time.

—Reuben Jackson

from “Scattered Clouds: New & Selected Poems,” Alan Squire Publishing, 2019