When Karl Jackson applied for the position of chief audio technician for “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band (USMB) fresh out of DePaul University in 1995, he really didn’t think he’d get the job.
Founded in 1798 by an Act of Congress, the USMB is the oldest continuously active professional musical organization in the nation, with a stated purpose of providing music for the president of the United States and the commandant of the Marine Corps.
“I thought I didn’t have a hope,” Jackson says, “but they interviewed me and within a few months I enlisted in the Marine Corps, moved to Washington, D.C., and went to work.”
Strictly speaking, it was a little more complicated than it sounds. “When a person joins ‘The President’s Own’ they have to secure a secret security clearance for access to the White House,” he notes. It’s a process involving multiple interviews with defense intelligence and, understandably, a thorough background check. “They visited every place I’d lived and talked to people I’d known.”
There’s a lot more to Jackson’s job than working high-profile government functions. The USMB plays approximately 500 shows annually and Jackson’s roles range from mixing and recording those shows, to engineering sessions featuring the USMB and some of the world’s most accomplished musicians at the Corps’ dedicated rehearsal/recording facility, to preserving and archiving USMB recordings (some of which date back to 1889).
Although initially surprised he got the position, in many ways, Jackson’s background makes him an ideal fit. He remembers first becoming interested in technology as a child growing up in Buena Vista, CO.
“My father was an electrician, so I had a soldering iron in my hand from a very early age,” he says, laughing. “I remember helping him wire up an organ for a friend of ours when I was really young.” He also had a parallel interest in music and played trumpet throughout high school, then in college, and, for a time, semi-professionally in the Washington area.
It was actually one of Jackson’s teachers at DePaul who suggested he apply for the USMB. But it wasn’t the first time a teacher had an influence on his career path. Jackson says, recalling a school music teacher, Harold Creswell, who was crucial to his early development as a musician. “He was one of the first people to take me aside and say, ‘you know, you could be really good if you applied yourself ’.”
The message was simple, but it stuck and gave Jackson something to focus on at a time when he was just beginning to consider what direction to take long term.
Like Jackson, many of his six siblings are technically minded. “I have four brothers who are engineers, and a sister who’s a math teacher.” There’s also a family connection to the military, he adds.
His father served as a submariner after the Korean War, and two of his brothers currently serve in the Air Force and Navy. In college, however, a career in the military wasn’t on his radar. Rather, Jackson’s own instinct to serve others manifested itself in his volunteer work for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and community literacy initiatives. He also worked for a time as an intern in various Chicago area recording studios.
As it turned out, however, his degree, with its dual emphasis on the sciences – physics, electronics and mathematics – and music theory and performance, made him an ideal fit for the Marines. “Being able to sit down with a complex score, discuss it with the conductors and musicians and edit based on the score is absolutely essential in this job. You have to have strong score reading and musical chops.”