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Jazz ‘During the Trump years we needed spirituals to comfort us again’

Chris Searle speaks to saxophonist JAVON JACKSON on the release of his new album: The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni

THE tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson was born in Carthage, Missouri in 1965 and grew up with jazz-loving parents in Denver, Colorado. His powerful hornplay found him playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1987-90), Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and Charlie Haden, but in recent years he has turned to more academic pursuits, and in 2013 he became chair of the Jackie McLean Jazz Institute at the University of Hartford.

He told me: “In 2020 I invited the celebrated civil rights activist and poet Nikki Giovanni to our institute. While here she listened to the Charlie Haden/Hank Jones album of hymns and spirituals, Steal Away. She loved it and later I mailed her a copy, asking her to pick 10 spirituals which would be my next recording project.”

“I'm inspired by Nikki’s activist life and poetry. Her work is an inspiration for the younger generation’s struggle for equity and inclusion for all our people. She gives renewed strength and energy going forward. I used Nikki’s poem A Simple Wish on the Wade in the Water track as a platform for my solo and its musical phrases.”

I asked him, why an album of spirituals? “For me, they speak to the story of America in the way they have shaped the blues and as an art form, and other genres that have developed since, and the strife and everyday things that African Americans have dealt with during the 1960s to now.”

Giovanni added how “spirituals comforted people through times of slavery. During the Trump years we needed them to comfort us again. I’m here putting water on the flowers” — as she does on Jackson’s album singing Night Song with an intense and poignant beauty.

Jackson explained how “spirituals say so many things. In Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, the melody and the word ‘sometimes’ — not all the times, speaks to the fact that even at that time we felt that things weren’t always as bad as they seemed, although sometimes the individual also felt they were in a seemingly unbearable situation.”

I told Jackson that listening to his soulful notes, the lyricism of pianist Jeremy Manasia, David Williams’s earthborn bass and McClenty Hunter’s rhythmic, uplifting drums, I was reminded of Paul Robeson’s empowering voice. “The track I've Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned starts with Trinidadian David Williams playing the melody with bowed bass, and in my mind I thought how cool it would be to have the melody bowed with the voice of Robeson. So his voice certainly influenced the recording.”

I asked how he thought his great past drumming maestros, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, would have thought of his album of spirituals. “They would have been happy that I collaborated with Nikki and that I did my research,” he said. “That was the big thing with both Art and Elvin — that the music required study and research. So I hope they’d hear that.”

How did he think youth would respond to the album? “There is an ebb and blow that shows that music like this doesn’t have to be downtrodden. The youth will see this, and that we all stand on the shoulders of history. And we try! Hopefully all people, especially Americans, can go back to this music and other compositions of past times, and give us all the spirit and energy to go forward.”

Jackson’s album revives the freedom qualities of the spiritual, its emancipatory dynamism and collective cry of resistance that Giovanni’s long life and struggle embody. It brings history, rebellion and joy into the very heart of sound through Jackson’s mellow and rapturous notes and his confreres’ empathetic musicianship. Truly a big and beautiful album with a mighty theme of sustenance, solace and defiance.

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