Born in Burton-on-Trent and raised in Portsmouth, he started off learning to play the violin at age 11, but soon switched to piano.
A fan of The Beatles as well as Beethoven, he played his first gigs aged 16, in pubs, Naval bases and a Greek restaurant, both as solo pianist and in a jazz trio; at the same time, he was reaping the fruits of a scholarship he'd won to study composition at London's Royal Academy of Music.
He did not like the prospect of being a serious composer, and moved towards pop and rock. His first band was "Arms and Legs" which collapsed after two unsuccessful singles. Jackson then saved up money earned as a pianist at the Playboy Club to make demos of his own songs.
In 1978 a producer heard his tape, and got him signed to A&M Records. The album Look Sharp! was recorded straight away, and was released in 1979, quickly followed by I'm the Man (1979) and Beat Crazy (1980). The Joe Jackson band was very successful and toured extensively.
After the breakup of the band, Joe took a break and recorded an album of old-style swing and blues tunes, Jumpin' Jive (1981).
With Night and Day (1982), his natural eclecticism became more apparent. Body and Soul (1984), Big World (1986) and Blaze of Glory (1989) solidified Jackson's advance; it was at this time, too, that he began composing for films -- "Mike's Murder" (1983) and "Tucker" (1988). The instrumental album Will Power (1987), the double set Live 1980-86 and 1991's Laughter and Lust then led to another breakthrough.
Night and Day is considered a coming out album. It really makes sense from the lyrics of Another World through Real Men and ending with A Slow Song. Real Men was a very clear coming out song - "don't call me a faggot, not unless you are a friend." And in I'm the Man album, he says "The playboy leaves me cold, but it ain't because I'm gay."
In 1994, with Night Music, Jackson entered a more mature phase of creativity. Jackson's new direction was fully realized with 1997's Heaven and Hell, a song-cycle released in a new partnership with Sony Classical that has now yielded Symphony No. 1 (1999), for which he received a Grammy award.
Jackson's latest release for Sony Classical is Night and Day 2. The album explores the lives of a gallery of characters in New York over a 24-hour period.
Jackson's book, A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage was published by Public Affairs in the U.S., by Transworld/Anchor in the U.K. and other English speaking territories, and by Satzwerk Verlag in German translation.