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Javon Jackson: Wading In Spiritual Waters

Javon Jackson: Wading In Spiritual Waters

Courtesy Javon Jackson's website

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When you really get down to it, these spirituals are the story of America
—Javon Jackson
Saxophonist Javon Jackson, he of the sonorous tenor tone and the inquisitive musical mind, embarked last year on a musical project with a different twist.

Jackson, a follower of Sonnys Stitt and Rollins, is known as a a jazz fiend, one of the dauntless players of his era. His superb playing is marked by his tenure with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (a band he energized from 1987 until the legendary drummer died in 1990), and his associations with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Betty Carter and many others. The drummer on his first recording was Elvin Jones (Me and Mister Jones, Criss Cross, 1991) and he was selected by the great drummer Jimmy Cobb to be the tenor player for the 50th anniversary tour of the iconic Kind of Blue music in the sextet fronted by Cobb. His own recording and performing career has grown to stand on its own.

But he's also taken things from other genres, without regard for anything but his own judgment and taste. He played, for example, on Tupac Shakur's Keep Ya Head Up / Madukey Remix in 1993.

A highly evolved human being who sees things and calls upon influences beyond music and jazz, Jackson decided in 2021 to explore the roots of his religious upbringing, and the roots of the Afro-American experience, to do a recording of spirituals—with a distinct jazz flavor. The resulting album The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni comes at time of turbulence on the political and world landscape, exacerbated by a global pandemic. That backdrop was not the seed for the project, though the timing has some serendipity.

The project was born after Jackson met Giovanni, the first person to receive the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award. The 78-year-old poet was invited by Jackson to speak at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where the saxophonist is chair of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz studies. It was Black History Month, and he felt more needed to be done in terms of bringing African-American scholars and activists to the university to speak to young people about their firsthand activism.

"Dr. Cornel West, who's a friend. I invited him," says Jackson. "He was unbelievable. And Sonia Sanchez. Unbelievable. Angela Davis came. Unbelievable. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Then I reached out to Nikki Giovanni to talk. Not for music, but to speak about issues I felt would be very important for students of all colors to learn about during Black History Month," says Jackson.

As Giovanni spoke to students, music was being piped in. It was an album called Steal Away (Verve, 1994), a duet project with Charlie Haden and Nina Simone. She said, 'I'm not a singer, Javon, but I would like to sing on it.'" Jackson was happy to oblige. He also asked to use one of her numerous poems on the recording. With the help of Dr. Markeysha Davis, assistant professor of African studies and literature at the University of Hartford, the poem, 'A Very Simple Wish,' was selected. "It was perfect. And then I reached out to a friend of mine, Dr. Christina Greer, who's an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. So she read the poem. And she did a phenomenal job.," The poem is interspersed within the cut of the classic 'Wade in the Water.'

Giovanni's rendition of "Night Song" is not pertinent because she needs to sound like Carmen McRae. It's pertinent because she lives a life dedicated to civil rights and she sat beside Simone, a sister in the fight. She wanted to get involved and her recorded expression on the album is poignant.

Says Jackson, "We went down to the area that she lived in, the Roanoke, Virginia area. We went to a studio there, myself and the engineer. And she came in. We just let her hear the tracks. Did a little bit of a mic check. And then she did it basically in one take. It was emotional for me. Due to the confluence of it all kind of coming together. And also during that time, I just lost my dad to lung cancer. He was a devout Christian. And he never got to hear any music. So it was a definitely an emotional period for me. So the music takes on a little different meaning. Because he literally passed away in the middle of the session. I was going to stop. My friends and family said, 'Nah, man. You got to go back in there and keep going.' And they were right. I'm glad I have friends and family that told me to continue.

"When you really get down to it, these spirituals are the story of America. They speak to the oppression, the suffrage, in some ways defamation. But at the same time, they speak to optimism, love and hope and belief that things would get better in the midst of all of those things that those folks were enduring, that wrote these spiritual," says Jackson. "Because we don't know who wrote the spirituals. But whoever wrote, 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,' what does that tell us? They're optimistic because they didn't say 'all the time.' They said 'sometimes.' So they had a hope and a belief that the glass was half full. And they're right, because look at where we are now. Still a long ways to go. But things have progressed in some fashion. So that is kind of how I look at that and it's a way for me to honor what those individuals went through and that I stand on. Actually, America stands on their shoulders. Nikki, who was my co-collaborator, we stand on the shoulders of those individuals. What their hopes were and what they endured."

Most songs are at slower tempos, not up-tempo jazz, as befits the solemn and contemplative nature of the genre. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," however is an upbeat calypso, a bit of a nod to Sonny Rollins, who is a major influence for Jackson and who is mentioned in the album acknowledgments.

"It obviously, it speaks to death, or speaks to dying. But depending on who that person is, or where you live in the world, the music associated with it would be different. "Well, why would 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' have to sound the way maybe people in America would think it has to sound," Jackson says. "We did it as if someone in St. Thomas or Barbados or Trinidad—that might be how they decide to present 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' So we did it in that mind. But it was an opportunity for me to acknowledge my love for Sonny and the good fortune I have to have him as a friend in my life. And to have his counsel from time to time. So that was way to publicly acknowledge him and what he's done for me, musically, and what he's done for everyone and what he's been able to offer me personally."

Jackson said the music was recorded live in July 2021 at Telefunken Studios in South Windsor, Connecticut. The musicians did not wear headphones, but communicated like being in a club. That was a first for the saxophonist. His aim was to let the music flow naturally. It works. The emotions are strong, pensive, reflective, and the overall sound it stellar.

Jackson is bringing the music out on tour where he can. He did a concert in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Caroline that had Nnenna Freelon doing the vocals, as Giovanni had a scheduling conflict. The poet is making other appearances with the band on other dates through the year. "I'm really excited to have her in my life as a friend and to be able to make this historic recording because it's got historical meaning to connect with someone of her importance. And then also to do it in public is something I'm really looking forward to," he says.

This in-demand saxman will have other projects moving forward, including participating in a celebration of Charlie Parker's 100th birthday year, which was actually 2020, but the event was canceled because of COVID. It will be Aug. 14 at the San Jose Jazz Festival in California with Donald Harrison, Charles McPherson and Gary Bartz. He's also part of the new group Jazz by Five that involves Randy Brecker and George Cables.

"I really enjoy playing with with Randy," he says. "I've known him for a long time, and his brother [saxophonist Michael Brecker]. Randy's a really talented guy. It's good to play with people that make you see different bells. He's got all these different folks he's played with. A lot of the same people I've played with. Randy was a Jazz Messenger. And he played with Horace Silver, which I did. So it's just kind of a unique experience to play with a gentleman like him who is another generation, another perspective."

Jackson's experiences in music come from his childhood. His parents were from Missouri and he was born there, but the family moved to Cleveland and eventually Denver. His mother played a bit of piano and she and her husband both loved music. Their record collection became part of their son's musical DNA. From those records, "I heard a lot of jazz, everything from Ahmad Jamal to Gene Ammons. That was my dad's favorite saxophonist. He just loved the saxophone. Then I heard Miles Davis, Charlie Parker. And I heard all [his parents] contemporary music. They were listening to all the Motown music and Stax Records. Those kinds of things," he says.

"But when I got to start playing an instrument, I picked the saxophone. There were a lot of music in the house already. Like Dexter Gordon. My dad came home one day and he had a record. He said, 'Hey, I know what you're practicing for school. Can you play this?' I'd been hearing it in the house all the time. It was Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, a thing called Ammons and Stitt and the track was called 'Talk That Talk.' It was a blues and I ruined his record trying to learn solos. That was the first time I started learning solos. Sonny Stitt was my man. That was the guy I was most intrigued with, between the two. My father kept saying, 'Oh, you need to stick with Gene Ammons.' But my man was Sonny Stitt."

When Jackson was about 13, Stitt came to Denver and the youngster, accompanied by his father, was there. It was an experience he succinctly calls "life changing."

"I said, 'Man, I'm gonna do that for the rest of my life.' I got to meet him. He signed some records. My father took some pictures of me with him. That was the changing moment of my life—musically—was when I saw Sonny Stitt. In my mind I was going to live in New York, make records and travel all over the world, just like him. That was the goal."

Jackson studied saxophone in Denver and at first went to University of Denver. But through a friendship with Branford Marsalis, he was steered to Berklee College of Music in Boston. In high school, Jackson was part met of a McDonald's All-American band and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, who introduced the saxophonist to his brother Branford.

"I was aware of Branford because he had played with Art Blakey, who's somebody I wanted to play with," recounts Jackson. "I had the records of Art Blakey. My parents did. So I knew Blakey's history and legacy of giving young musicians an opportunity. I met Bradford, and he said, 'You should go to Berklee and you can study with Billy Pierce, who was a former Messenger. That was the blueprint."

So it was off to Massachusetts and Berklee, where he met Pierce and Donald Brown, a teacher at the school who was about to go back and re-join the Messengers. Brown "was a person that really helped me get the opportunity to audition, and teach me about the Messengers' inside culture. He was the reason that I got to audition. Being at Berklee was really good, too, because there are so many talented people. It's like being in a big ocean, man. You've got a lot of sharks in there. And that's good. Because it can keep things in perspective for a young musician. I was coming out of area where I was one of the stronger musicians in a smaller locale. So, at Berklee, you saw a lot of talented musicians. I'm happy with my time there."

Brown arranged the audition and impressed Blakey enough to get the gig.

"I was thinking, maybe I can stay in college and go with Art Blakey, which was a joke. After the first week or two, we played in New York. Then we did a couple of concerts—one in Baltimore and somewhere else. Then we went on a three-and-a-half, four-week tour. I knew at that point, I wasn't gonna be able to finish college at that time," he says. "But my mom was really insistent on me getting my degree. Because nobody in the family had gone to college and gotten a degree. That was really important to her. So I told her that I was leaving, but would eventually get a degree. And she stayed on me, man, until I did that."

The formal degree was minute in comparison with being a Messenger, as Blakey himself humorously pointed out.

In comparison, "Berklee was grade school. When I joined the band Art said, 'You're at Berklee, right?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Now you're at Harvard,'" says Jackson, chuckling at the recollection. "He wasn't lying, man. Everything was accelerated, times 10. You know what I mean? So, it was a great opportunity. I can't begin to tell you how much I owe Art Blakey."

As he progressed, his experiences grew along with his talent. Elvin Jones had sat in with the Messengers when Blakey had to miss a gig. That was the first meeting. For his first recording, Jackson reached out to the great drummer, who consented to play. "So that was another highlight, for Elvin to be there. He was such—wow—what can you say about Elvin Jones? He was such a supportive person of the highest order. A person that wanted to support and help people. It is so nice to look back on. You miss these individuals. You know what I mean? He was a giant. He was a genius. Absolute genius."

When Jackson moved to the Blue Note label, he reached out to a singer, Betty Carter, to produce the resulting When the Time is Right (1994). "That was a great opportunity to get closer to Betty and to get her perspective and her take on things and how she sees music. Being individual and taking risks and not worrying about mistakes and going for yourself as an artist. She really helped me crystallize that a little bit more," he says.

It was in New York, as he was developing, that he started taking notice of music from other genres that, while popular in the U.S., had not entered Jackson's world.

"When I got to New York I hadn't really heard a lot of non-black music," he explains. "I had heard Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops and the Motown sound. My mother loved Wilson Pickett and all that kind of stuff. I didn't know who Led Zeppelin was. I had never heard Three Dog Night. I had never heard Frank Zappa. Bob Dylan. I didn't know who any of those individuals were. And I'm not saying my parents were racist. They just listened to what they listened to. So when I got to New York, and Robin Eubanks was trombonist with Art Blakey, he started exposing me to some different things. And then when I got to Blue Note, Craig Street, the great producer, started producing me. He gave me some music. He said, 'Let's swap music of what we liked.' I gave him a bunch of things I liked. He gave me a bunch of things he liked.

"He had stuff like the Allman Brothers and Frank Zappa. I never heard of those. So, if you look at those (Blue Note) records, a lot of those things come from the suggestions that he gave me. And I heard it, I was like, 'Man, this stuff is great.' So I didn't feel like I had to just stay so streamlined, in a way. It allowed me to open up and I started trying all that stuff on recordings, really kind of long before a lot of folks were doing these things

"Since then, I did Carlos Santana and different pieces. Obviously, I love Muddy Waters and all that. Find different ways of finding myself. Because people were saying,' Oh, Javon is just this way' or 'he'll listen to this and it sounds like this.' And just like anything, you kind of get pigeonholed by what you like. And it's good sometimes to go outside of your comfort zone. So I had to find my own way to build a house. So if I picked a Frank Zappa piece, I didn't know anybody who knew Frank Zappa, that I was around. So it made me build a house my way. That's why I did some different kinds of things like that. It allowed me to still have to use some influences, but it kind of makes you find your own blueprint. That's why that occurred."

He did gigs with Les McCann and others, always learning along the way. The Cobb gig doing Miles' Kind of Blue kindled a fondness for the veteran drummer, who played on the legendary recording and many other Davis albums.

"Jimmy's my man," he says. "He was a real supportive musician. And he supported a lot of younger people. And he didn't take himself that seriously. Just loved to play. You hear him on records with Peter Bernstein and Brad Mehldau. It was a fun group to play that music every night. And get a real in-depth appreciation from those guys, and to talk to Jimmy about Cannonball Adderley, or about John Coltrane or Miles himself. You getting a firsthand perspective and a firsthand conversation about what the music was, which is really good."

His recordings, and association, with Dr Lonnie Smith was also important.

"I appreciated knowing him and I appreciated his fearlessness. He was not shy about being himself. I love Dr. Lonnie. I love that brother, man," says Jackson.

Other important influences have been Charlie Parker and Lester Young. "I love Wes Montgomery. I love Clifford Brown. And obviously the saxophone individuals, all of them. Don Byas, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and all the saxophonists that have come after that. Vocalists. I've listened to Sarah Vaughan a lot. I love Sarah. I love Billie Holiday. I really listen to her. I spend a lot of a time listening to individuals for the delivery and the way they do what they do. I listen to a lot of Art Tatum. So in that way, that helps with the broad perspective of it."

His love for jazz springs from the freedom it allows. "The democratic nature of it," he says. "Everyone is appreciated. And no one's scorned. Everyone has a place and everyone has a thing that needs to happen. Like the body, you need a heart and you need the organs to work together. And so that's, to me, what I see is great about jazz music. And the organic nature of it. And that you have to trust each other. They can't work without trust. Not really. The really great jazz groups, they trust each other.

"Again, it comes back to those spirituals. That's where it comes from. The ability to be a visionary. And you're okay with what may or may not occur because you don't know what's going to occur. So you got to have the belief, a willingness to see what happens and not know what's gonna happen."

Jackson, with his broad musical palate, also hinted at something even more out of the expected realm, after the Nina Giovanni project and other things sail away.

Jackson, a warm-hearted person, says in a sly tone, "I'm starting to think about my next project, which I don't want to tell you, because it's gonna be such a shock. I want to keep you in suspense."

"You will be shocked," he emphasizes with laughter. "I'm working on that now and I'm really putting a lot of time and energy into it. It's rewarding, this project I'm going toward."

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