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Javon Jackson: Finding Uplift in the Guiding Tradition of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane

Photo credit: Alan Nahigian

Christine Passarella By

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It was a bitterly cold day in January 2013, I had endured a move from Long Beach, Long Island in October 2012 having to leave my beach house for good after the unsettling nature of Super Storm Sandy came down hard on the barrier island. I longed to get back into the city as the new year began, yearning for normalcy which includes listening to great live jazz. I decided to traverse into Manhattan, the traffic was heavy due to the fact there was only one lane open in the Midtown Tunnel going into the city. It would be okay, I knew the short cuts as my daughter lived on the Upper Westside. I arrived just a little late. My daughter agreed to meet me at the well-known Jazz club Smoke on Broadway for an evening of America's Classical Music. It was a special evening celebrating National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb's birthday. I parked my car and there was my daughter waiting for me, the Upper Westside club was packed, and in the darkness, the people at the tables all blended into one another, with flickering candlelight the audience was illuminated in the sultry amber shades of intimacy.

To my surprise, the host put us at a table right by the stage. As we were taking our seats the quartet was already playing their first song. On saxophone was a tall, prince charming like figure playing one of the most beautiful jazz ballads in the world, which was originally brought to my consciousness by saxophonist John Coltrane, crooner Johnny Hartman, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison on the legendary eloquent album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. I immediately felt bathed in a sense of romance as the sounds of the treasured song "My One and Only Love" wrapped me in what it means to be in love and why life is worth living. So close to the band, I could touch their shoes if I wanted to. That is when I first heard saxophonist Javon Jackson play live. Jimmy Cobb was indeed on drums, joined by George Cables on piano and John Webber on bass. It is always stunning walking into the magic of stellar jazz music at its highest level. During the evening they also played Sonny Rollins' "Saint Thomas," John Coltrane's "Mr. PC," and "Mr. T.J" an original composition by Javon Jackson. I introduced myself to Mr. Jackson and Mr. Cobb after the show. Meeting Mr. Jimmy Cobb seemed somewhat surreal as he played on the masterful album Kind of Blue with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I came prepared with an elevator speech for Mr. Cobb telling him about the Kids for Coltrane curriculum that I was implementing in a New York City school, sticking to brevity knowing he just finished a late gig.

On this winter evening, Javon and Jimmy both listened with embracing ears and smiled at me with appreciation as I shared my efforts in teaching elementary school children infusing jazz music in our day to day curriculum to elevate the intellectualizing and artful thinking in the learning process. It was a moment to be cherished sharing my work with these two great musicians. That would not be the end of my connection to Mr. Jackson, but rather the beginning of a friendship.

The Evolution of Music and Friendship

As time moved forward, I came to hear more of Javon Jackson's music with its depth and beauty, and consider him part of the growing circle of friends that enhance my life since I started to teach with the greatness of John Coltrane as my guiding light in 2006. Recently Javon said of our connection, "You are my extended sister on Long Island." And I too consider him family, a younger brother, one I am incredibly proud of. As I write this column, I am surrounded by the lovely colors in the palette coming out of his latest album Deja Vu. Being touched by his version of "Autumn in New York" as the weather changes here on the east coast, the fall breeze kissing my shoulders as I type, brings memories of many autumns in New York, and hopefulness as the changing seasons bring in fresh beginnings even in the tornado-like torment of the pandemic. A song written by Javon devoted to his dear father "Mr. T.J." which I first heard him play live that evening back in 2014 at Smoke is one of the selections. Déjà Vu also includes "Martha's Prize," "Raise Four," "Venus Di Mildew," "Limehouse Blues," "My Shining Hour," "In The Kitchen," and "Rio Dawn" which will wrap you in the majesty of his brilliant saxophone playing with his quartet.

One has only to listen to Deja Vu to know in Javon Jackson is a man who takes the art form of jazz to a level of excellence. In these difficult times, his music can heal the heart, soothe the soul, and calm the nerves that pandemic isolation, politics, and the dissonance in the uncertainly of what is next in society can bring. Listening to Javon playing Jimmy Heath's composition "Rio Dawn" is medicinal for the soul. Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane have told us that their life stories are expressed through their horns. Javon's music is a translation of his human spirit as well, filled with the possibilities this life has to offer. He is a man of an extreme belief in positive energy and the bliss one can achieve, and he has done just that. One of the books he finds most uplifting is The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. The agreements discussed in the book include the following; be impeccable with your word, don't take anything personally, don't make assumptions, and always do your best. Ruiz states, "True freedom has to do with the human spirit." There is no denying that Javon is guided by freedom, love, and integrity.

Foundations Matter

When you get to know Javon, it is clear he is a man of excellence, with a desire to always keep reaching for the highest standards in music and in his overall humanity. Learning the love of black music as a child born in Missouri, living in Ohio for part of his childhood with his family, they then finally settled in Denver, Colorado. He would soon pick up a saxophone and never look back. His father and mother loved music. His mother was fond of Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and Nat King Cole, and his dad was a big Gene Ammons fan. Javon showed a deep interest in music. Seeing Javon's gift in music his dad supported him by purchasing a saxophone of high quality showing his son that he believed in him and was willing to invest in his happiness. He learned the African American values of being supportive with respect, dignity, and kindness from both his mother and father. Seeing Sonny Stitt with his father inspired him even more. It was when he saw Dexter Gordon perform live, he became dead set on being a professional musician.

The greatest among us, I believe, have infused the brilliance of those who came before them. Javon learned about and appreciated the lives of extraordinary people in and out of the music world. As a musician, he played with some of the most extraordinary jazz musicians ever to have created the music. Jackson was embraced by older mentors. He has a humble and grateful nature that speaks to the warmth of his heart and tender soul. For Jackson, it is all about expression, and communicating the essence of creativity. When Javon was in high school, he was selected to represent his state of Colorado in McDonald's All-American High School Band where he met Delfeayo Marsalis who was representing Louisiana.

Delfeayo introduced him to his brother Branford, who saw his talent and promised to call him and check in on how things were going musically when his schedule would have him in Denver. Javon's friends kidded him saying, he is not going to call. Sure enough, he not only called, but he also came by the house and discussed the best music and academic path with Javon's parents. Already in a local college, the family was so inspired and convinced by Branford, Javon would transfer to the Berklee School so he could achieve his goals and that would include playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. His talent could not be denied and offers to travel the world and perform with more and more extraordinary stars in jazz embracing him into their groups where he could learn, gig, jam, and perform, allowing him to evolve into higher levels of musicianship. Taking a break from college to travel as a professional jazz musician, he would get his degree a few years later because it was a desire his dear mother had for him. The opportunities flowed after playing with the great drummer, composer, and bandleader Art Blakey.

Javon was elevated by learning about the tradition and the seriousness of what it means to be a jazz musician by performing around the world with master musicians. Included in the list of master musicians influencing Javon is the great Elvin Jones. He is grateful to have performed in his quartet, absorbing the genius of the legendary drummer. Great mentors have made a world of difference to Javon Jackson, and he gives back to others in the same way.

Javon is a confident man with an understanding of the culture that produced him and holds up that gold standard which makes him a star. I had the privilege of hearing Javon live again a few times at the Village Vanguard and at Dizzy's at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Every time I attended one of his gigs, I was walking into the best of America's classical music which is rooted in the African American experience. I remember one night at the Village Vanguard, I introduced him to my dear friend, mentor, and fellow Coltranian legendary philosopher Dr. Cornel West. The warmth between the men was immediate, so much so I had to ask them if they were already friends. I came to understand that the connection through their culture was already thick, which created a bond even as strangers.

Raising Consciousness

Traveling the world had him recognize the oneness in who we are on earth. Bringing his expertise in jazz, and hearing and appreciating other genres of music, including meeting some of the best artists in rock and roll for example while on the tour broadened his palette as well.

Cornel West and Javon would develop a deep respect for one another, and when Javon took on the position leading the Jackie McClean Institute at Hartford University in Connecticut he had an idea to help raise the consciousness at the university, with a focus on the music students and also a particular desire to have students learn about the black culture directly from the people who blazed the trail courageously up close and personal. "You can't create art without courage, discipline, and being tied to a tradition," states Dr. Cornel West.

It made perfect sense when Javon invited Dr. West to speak to his students and the community. Javon found him to be even more magnificent, gracious, and generous than he could have imagined as he watched him with the students. "Students are still buzzing from him...He is such a magnet with people hanging on every word." After West's electrifying seminar the program blossomed further, with visits from other luminaries such as Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Michael Eric Dyson, and Sonya Sanchez. Javon wants the community to hear firsthand the lessons in the lives of social justice leaders.

Another treasured accomplishment for Javon was when he nominated his hero, the legendary Sonny Rollins, to receive an honorary doctorate at the University of Hartford in 2015. It was an experience that both Rollins and Jackson hold in a very special place in their hearts. It was indeed a privilege to have such a giant accept the doctorate at the University of Hartford as well. The great Sonny Rollins whose corpus includes the masterful Freedom Suite with a deep focus on social issues received the much-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011.

In the Spirit of John Coltrane

For John Coltrane's birthday every September 23rd I drive over to Pinelawn National Cemetery to meditate and pray. I sit on the grass under the oak tree that is a canopy over his gravesite. This year was a little different as I was joined by Dr. Cornel West. We made a decision to call Sonny Rollins right from the gravesite so all our spirits could be in unison. As I heard the phone ring from Coltrane's resting place, as the call was traveling to Sonny in upstate New York, I felt a sense of experiencing a miracle. Cornel held the phone in his hand and through the speaker, I heard Sonny Rollins say hello.

Cornel responded with his joyful words of love and warm greetings, and within minutes I was formally introduced to Sonny Rollins a man I have been trying to speak to since I started being guided by John Coltrane's music infusing it in my life's work in education. I had a wish to speak with Sonny to tell him about Kids for Coltrane and the positive impact it has on children. It was not until this opportunity on Coltrane's birthday would I have a beautiful exchange with master musician and deeply spiritual intellectual Sonny Rollins. He said, "Lady it is so wonderful to hear your voice," after Cornel told him he was putting Christine the founder of Kids for Coltrane on the phone. The message was filled with respect for both me and Dr. West. It was clear Sonny felt all would be fine if people who understand the vital message of loving one another, keep doing the work that brings society together in any way they can contribute. Sonny believes in a higher power. It felt like I was hearing from the heart and soul of God himself. Cornel and I were both rocked by the majesty in the moment. I am certain that Cornel and Sonny will continue their growing bond, and for me, speaking with Sonny that day from that sacred place was an infusion of nourishment to continue following this soulful journey of being a force for good. On the 1958 linear notes from his album Freedom Suite, Mr. Rollins stated "America has deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as its own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity."

In 2020 Sonny Rollins has little hope for political change but more hope that change will come from each individual doing what it is right and just. He has stated, "All we have given to this country, what have we gotten back, inhumanity.... I am fighting for personal understanding of what we are here for...There is a bigger picture, I believe in the Golden Rule, do unto others as I want them to do unto me, that's how I want to live." On September 7, Sonny Rollins and Dr. Cornel West went deep into the meaning of being black in America. Mr. Rollins was interviewed by Dr. Cornel West and Professor Tricia Rose on the podcast The Tight Rope celebrating Sonny's 90th birthday. During the interview, Sonny commented on Javon Jackson and his peers in music, "Brother Javon Jackson, Kenny Garrett, Kamasi Washington, all these brothers, they got the message. All they have to do is keep doing what they are doing... All those brothers are wonderful great people...God gave them a beautiful gift for a reason, to play." He also said the following statement about his dear departed friend John Coltrane which brought me to tears, "John Coltrane was a prophet of our time... Mr. Coltrane lifted us all up. He was a beautiful brother. He was a saint."

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