Giving a voice for two decades


Associate professor Cliff Jackson played at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony this year, and learned to play piano at his hometown church in Gary, Indiana.

Associate professor talks musical upbringing, MLK Day

By Cheyene Miller

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Born in a city famous for raising talented musicians, associate professor Cliff Jackson first discovered his passion for playing the piano when he was 5 years old. 

Originally from Gary, Indiana, home to famous musicians such as the Jackson family and Deniece Williams, Jackson’s musical upbringing took place within the walls of his childhood church, where his pastor’s wife gave him piano lessons. He also learned from Eva Brooks, mother of actor Avery Brooks, famous for his roles in “American History X.”

“I was with one of them every day,” said Jackson, who serves as a vocal coach for the UK Opera Theatre. Jackson performed his graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music and later worked at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

After spending about 10 years in New York, he met UK Opera Theatre Director Everett McCorvey, who offered Jackson a position at UK. Jackson came to UK in 1992 and retired in 2011. He returned about a year later because, he said, he could not stand to be away from the profession he loves. 

Jackson specializes in classical music and works primarily with Opera Theatre singers on their roles, aiding them with their language, music and style. He performed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Heritage Hall on Monday, playing piano for the vocals of Miss Kentucky Clark Janell Davis.  

“Two of the pieces she learned just last week. So to get up and be able to perform in front of this many people and not fall apart is a testament to her talent,” said Jackson after his performance alongside Davis at the event. 

Jackson said he remembers reacting to King’s assassination, and how the civil rights leader changed race relations in America. He said King was someone everyone should embrace.

“If you look at the way things are in the South now, all of that is a result of Dr. King’s efforts,” Jackson said. 

Reflecting on how far race relations have come since UK first began to accept black students in 1949, Jackson recalled a time when he stood in line to get lunch on campus, and a white student in front of Jackson offered to pay for his meal. He said the student did not know him, and they hadn’t said anything to one another, but the student showed him generosity anyway.

“I thought, ‘Would this have happened 50 years ago?’” Jackson said.  “It was a random act of kindness.”

Through all of his performances and recitals, Jackson said he “gives God all the credit” for everything.