Jared Michael Nickerson came from a musical family, so a life in music seemed pre-destined. He started playing piano at “a very young age,” picked up guitar in grade school, then switched to bass in high school “because I was playing mostly bass lines on the guitar anyway – I didn’t feel an affinity for chords.” At Chaminade High (in Dayton, Ohio), he was a classical percussionist; he was also a drummer in the marching band, sang in the Glee Club, and played bass in the Jazz lab band.
Nickerson recalled his early introduction to popular music: “Music was very different in the ’60s. Radio played everything, especially Ohio radio (AM). You would hear ‘Somebody to Love’ by Jefferson Airplane, followed by ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’ by the Four Tops, followed by ‘Hang On Sloopy’ by the McCoys. I feel blessed to have had those experiences during my musically formative years. I witnessed James Brown live at least three times a year; had a crazy collection of 45s and purchased LPs such as [Jimi Hendrix’s] Are You Experienced?, Love, Chuck Berry’s Live at the Filmore backed by the Steve Miller Band; was also a big fan of the Monkees’ tunes and TV show … stuff like that.”
Although anxious to pursue a career in music following his completion of high school, Nickerson opted to attend college due to “family pressure and scholarships.” He ended up getting a business degree, which he eventually viewed as “crucial and extremely beneficial,” but he regretted missing out on the Dayton funk explosion that was reaching national proportions thanks to the success of groups like Slave, Zapp (featuring Roger Troutman), Sun, Faze-O, (Ohio) Lakeside (Express) and the Ohio Players.
Following college, he returned to Dayton, honing his skills with a variety of bands before hooking up with Bob Pfeifer’s Human Switchboard, a band that had emerged during the new wave era. They made a move to New York around 1983, and it proved to have a profound effect on Nickerson’s career. The band wound down in 1987, and front man Bob Pfeifer made a solo album, After Words, and asked Nickerson to play bass on it. A video received some MTV airplay, and Pfeifer made an appearance on 120 Minutes which generated interest. On the eve of beginning a big tour, Pfeifer dropped a bombshell: “Bob [invited] me to lunch and [said], ‘I could do this tour and it could be a huge success and I’d still be broke.’” Having been offered an A & R position at a major record label, he opted to abandon his own group. Nickerson went “from getting ready to tour to looking for a gig.”
Nickerson has worked with a variety of performers in a variety of styles: He backed blues legend Charlie Musselwhite (“Who once told me, “If you’re early – you’re on time. If you’re on time – buddy, you’re late!’”); quirky popster Freedy Johnston, an experience that taught him how to “appreciate the strength of a good song with great lyrics – we could have a so-so performance, but the integrity of the lyric and chord changes would still create a strong impression on the audience”; and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, who believed that “technical mastery of your instrument and musical theory were paramount to create the desired effect – it was more how you played the song than the song standing on its own merits, which puts a lot of pressure on the musicians.” He considers the most fortunate break of his career, however, to be the time he spent with Matt Johnson and The The. It enabled Nickerson to “experience the real Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle, which went over the top when we opened up for Depeche Mode for over four months. That was crazy! We played all the big rooms around the country.”
Nickerson’s “sole Raybeats’ experience” came about due to his connection with drummer Don Christensen. The Raybeats hadn’t performed together in six years when the Brooklyn Academy of Music asked them to participate in an anniversary celebration. Nickerson had worked with Christensen a few times, including a project with Cynthia Sley. When the Raybeats were approached for the BAM celebration, Christensen recommended that Nickerson handle the bass-playing duties. Nickerson’s varied musical experiences and ability made him an ideal choice for an instrumental band that enjoyed pushing the limits of their genre. Nickerson was given recorded versions of the band’s tunes to assist him in learning the songs. The group then got together for “two or three rehearsals,” and they were ready to once again step in front of a live audience.
“[It] was off the hook,” Nickerson recalled. “The Raybeats’ room had a surfing motif that was way over the top.”
Despite being a one-off deal, Nickerson didn’t view his Raybeats’ experience as a job. “I’ve been fortunate to only play music I enjoy,” he stated. “It was a lot of fun and I always enjoyed playing with Don.” He also got along well with Pat Irwin, who sent him a thank you note after the performance, mentioning that Nickerson “brought new life to a few of their old tunes.” As for Jody Harris, he found him to be “kind of distant – but a hell of a guitar player.”
Nickerson’s three decades in the music business have taken him up to his current position, playing bass and handling the affairs for Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, “a conducted-improvisation-in-real-time tribe of forty-five players in the NYC area. We can have anywhere from 12 to 25 to 35 musicians on stage at one time. Due to the fact that a lot of the music is improvised, it allows me to play all the different styles I’ve developed throughout my career. I do all the booking and we’ve played all over the country and throughout Europe. It seems that everything I’ve experienced and learned has come to fruition in this group, so I couldn’t be happier.”
Additional bio on Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber homepage