MUSIC FOR THE CULTURE
Nikki Giovanni and the extremely gifted jazz tenor saxophonist, bandleader, and composer
Javon Jackson come together to bring us THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO NIKKI GIOVANNI.
Nikki Giovanni has illuminated our minds and hearts throughout the years. Poetry was her weapon of choice. Her words, prolific and insightful, have transformed our minds and shaped our lives. We look to her to find ourselves because she has been unafraid to speak the truth to power, bringing her into the hemisphere of other great orators and change agents, like Maya Angelo, Oprah Winfrey, and the Greatest of All Time, Muhammed Ali.
Javon Jackson came to international prominence as a member of the legendary Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. He has released 21 recordings as a bandleader and toured over 150 cities with great artists such as Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, Betty Carter, Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Stanley Turrentine, and Ben E. King. With credits in the world of television and film, he is a force to be reckoned with.
MONARCH: I have to tell you, I literally told my mother the other day , “Mom, you cannot believe who I’m going to interview.” In my little bit of 33 years as a journalist, this tops the cake. You came to Howard University when I was an undergrad, and you talked so eloquently about the importance of Blacks’ participation in the voting process. That really shifted my entire perspective just on politics and what that looks like for colored folk, for Black folk, for brown people. So thank you.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Thank you.
MONARCH: For those who may not know, please inform us on how the two of you met.
JAVON JACKSON: About a year ago, I went to the president of the University of Hartford, where I’m a professor, and informed him that I wanted to bring Nikki Giovanni to the university to receive an honorary doctorate and also have an opportunity for her to speak to our students and young people about firsthand experiences. It’s one thing for me to talk about the books and the history, but I think it’s so much more meaningful when those folks who lived it can come to the university. The president was able to get in touch with Nikki, and her schedule worked. So she came to the university, and that’s how I initially met her.
MONARCH: This question is a loaded one. How did the two of you decide to work together? And why name the project The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni?
JAVON JACKSON: I’ll take a stab at answering this. During the time she was there, we were sitting in the auditorium. In the auditorium, some music was being piped in by a great pianist by the name of Hank Jones and Charlie Hayden, and they were playing a duet of piano and bass and were playing some hymns. Nikki commented how lovely that was to hear, and it would be great just to hear more music like that because she loves jazz and loves hymns. So a lightbulb went off, and I thought I should take advantage of this situation. I asked her if she’d be willing to pick ten hymns, and that would be my next CD. Later at dinner, I expressed that I would like to work with her. Now, the title was influenced by an old movie, The World According to Garp, so I flipped it to The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni, and that’s how this all came to be.
MONARCH: I love it. I was raised on hymns. I grew up in a very traditional Southern Baptist church where we must know all of the hymns. Nikki, this question is for you. What about these songs made you feel they were right for this project?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I am a fan of Coltrane, and then I hear Javon and I’m like, “WOW.” So when I got invited to Hartford, I was eager to meet him. We started talking, and it was just wonderful. While eating, Javon mentioned that we should do something. People say things like that all the time, but Javon followed through. I was more than willing to make this happen. So I picked some of the songs that I loved. One of the songs here, the third song, is called “Night Song.” It’s not a traditional spiritual at all, but it was one of Nina Simone’s favorite songs and I was a friend of Nina Simone. So I said to Javon, “I can’t sing, but I would like to try to perform ‘Night Song’ for Nina.” He was just like, “Okay, go ahead. We don’t mind you messing up our album, lol.” You’ll understand that when you hear it. We have a lot of really wonderful music that has been brought up to date. That’s what Javon has done—modernized these hymns. It’s not a bee-bop, but the music has a modern tone to it. His arrangements are just wonderful. I’m very pleased to be a part of this, thrilled actually. I love the music and artwork associated with the production. It’s a beautiful album cover; I’ve been smiling ever since we got it. It’s so important to reach back and keep this music alive.
MONARCH: I agree. This music is a huge part of our culture.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: It’s just important to keep these songs and that part of our culture alive. Hearing what someone from the past was singing, reworked into a modern form, is simply genius. That is the genius of Javon.
MONARCH: For us, by us, and to empower us. My next question is for you, Javon. What about these songs and what about Nikki moved you to create and choose such a project to do with her, to collaborate with her?
JAVON JACKSON: Great question. As musicians, we listen to the music over and over and over to really internalize it so that as we begin to create our own perspective, we have something to work from. What was really wonderful for me is the great thing about our legacy as African Americans or Africans, however you want to say it, is that we come from a legacy that’s verbiage. So the verbiage that I got from those individuals or the verbiage I get from Nikki is inspirational. When I talk to her, it’s always inspiring. Like right now, it’s inspiring. It always fills me up. From that point, it was just a matter of trying to get the right tenor, if you will, and make sure we could have good transitions from the actual word, in terms of me playing the lyric on the instrument, into the solos. So it was a really gratifying situation. I’ve never actually collaborated with someone like that. Usually I pick a theme and I just come up with the material, but I allowed her to be my vehicle. That made it a really special blessing. I’m looking forward to showcasing the music with everyone.
MONARCH: That brings me to my next question, Javon. When you got the song list from Nikki and you and the band began to kind of bring this vision to life, how did that feel?
JAVON JACKSON: Once we get into the music, we never think about how we feel as much as if we are dedicated to what the mission is. So once we know this is what we’re going to do and this is what we’re going to play, then we let the rest of it take care of itself, and we try to get out of the way so that the music, again, can be helped by the Spirit. Because with the Spirit, it’s not going to matter anyway. We need the Spirit. We need God. It’s the big picture. And we need that big picture to come in and envelop us and help push us forward. In that way, I didn’t really worry about the end result, because we’re more concerned with just making sure the process is in order.
MONARCH: This question is for you, Nikki. Since you created the track list for this album, what do you want listeners to take away from it?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I want them to begin to think of what our people have created. You have to remember, as they came to America—it wasn’t America then, the Africans who were sold to Europeans, who were then sold and brought to this country—they didn’t have a common language. They didn’t know how the Nigerians spoke or how the Congolese spoke. The only thing they had in common was song, actually a moan. And they passed that moan along and it evolved into a language. That language grew and went on to actually influence if not make what we call the American language. All you have to do is listen to it.
MONARCH: When is this project going to be released?
JAVON JACKSON: The company is Megaforce that’s distributing the project. The plan is to release a track each month leading up to the full release, which will be available February 18 during Black History Month. The project will be on the website, and we’ll make sure it’s on Nikki’s website as well. Also, the first concert is going to be in Kingston, New York. We’re looking to do that in a church. It looks like we will be playing the Saratoga Jazz Festival, and we are trying to confirm the Kennedy Center. We’ll keep everybody abreast. The music is going to be available on all platforms.
MONARCH: So I’ll be able to go to iTunes and listen to it in the car, right?
JAVON JACKSON: Absolutely.
MONARCH: How can we stay in the loop of what you guys are doing individually? Nikki, Javon, what are you guys doing? How do we stay in contact for all things Javon and Nikki?
JAVON JACKSON: Good luck keeping up with Nikki Giovanni. I don’t know about that. My stuff is on the website (www.javonjackson.com), but I know Nikki is everywhere. So I don’t know how you can keep up with her.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I have no idea. I don’t handle mine. I’m so sorry. I don’t handle any of that. I don’t know how to do it. Javon has my phone number. I was half asleep; I had been up. I write at night, and I was half asleep and the phone rang. The only reason I answered it was that it was Javon. Otherwise, I would not have answered the phone. I think you can find all of these things. I just don’t do these things, and I know I should and I know I should be excited about them or something. I’m not uninterested; I just don’t do it. I think if you look up my name or something… Now it will be the two of us, so you’ll be able to see both of us and what we’re doing.
I’m so proud of this because I have such strong feelings about the spirituals, and I have strong feelings about keeping things alive. My last two books were A Good Cry and Make Me Rain, and we know that if you don’t water something, it will die. Of all the things you need in the world, food is a good idea, but you have to have water. You can go a long time without food, but you can only go about four days without water and you’ll be gone. I like to think that Javon and I are water in the spirituals and that they are growing. That’s what we’re doing. I just enjoyed it. I just think, to me, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m being foolish, but it’s fun. It was fun working with it. Every time I hear you, I’m like, that’s my Javon. I sound like a grandmother. That’s my Javon. I’m really very pleased to be working with Javon, and I’m really pleased to watch his career. It wasn’t because I didn’t know you, because I’m a saxophone person, but now it’s like, that’s my Javon.
JAVON JACKSON: I appreciate that.
MONARCH: I want to thank both of you for joining me. This has been truly an honor, and it’s been a gift. This has been so inspiring as well.
JAVON JACKSON: Thank you.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.