An interview with javon jackson
by Ralph A. Miriello
With a long list of credentials to validate his considerable talent, Javon Jackson has established himself as both a popular and accomplished tenor saxophonist. He remains a bit of an enigma for many fans who may be confused by his recent musical directions as a leader. Given that he played an important part in the late Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers until the maestro’s death in late 1990, his solo career has been a departure from his mainstream roots and perhaps a bit of a quandary for straight ahead fans. He has chosen to mix it up with a series of recent recordings that span a gap between popular soul/funk music with his hard bop jazz roots in a way that is both daring and honest to his intentions.
Javon Jackson, photo by Jos L. Knaepen
Careful listening reveals a talented, thoughtful player that is consistently exploring a repertoire of popular music in an attempt to both expand musical horizons while still retaining his musical integrity. In this attempt he follows in the footsteps of his heroes like Lee Morgan, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. All these artists have found inspiration beyond the traditional standards and forayed into the contemporary music of their respective times. Jackson’s style produces a purposefully rounder, fuller and more subtle tone than many of his frenetic contemporaries, no matter what the musical format.
But just when you think he has gone off on a no holds barred funk-a-thon, Jackson shows up as the sole, subtle journeyman saxophone voice on the veteran Jimmy Cobb’s straight ahead New York Times recording reclaiming his mainstream credentials. If disciplined restraint and an attempt to bridge popular music with thoughtfully executed improvisation deserves to be admired than Jackson’s work is certainly admirable. Also, his music is just plain fun to listen to with a faithful dedication to maintaining the rhythmic bottom that allows one to tap out the beat while still retaining a bit of an edge in the delivery.
At only 42 years of age he is at the crossroads of when seasoned experience meets still vital energy to produce some really extraordinary moments on the tenor. A careful watch of his future musical direction would be well warranted for those fans who have identified the special spark so often heard in his playing. His enigmatic soul will no doubt continue to explore and surprise all the while maintaining his personal view of musical honesty.
We caught up with the ever-working Jackson, via telephone, at his home in New Jersey. where he had just returned from a West Coast tour with the “Turbinator" -- keyboardist, Dr. Lonnie Smith. We talked about his past, his current recordings and his future plans.
You attended the Berkelee to school of music in Boston. What years were you there and what fellow musicians did you meet there?
Well I can give you a few. I knew lot during that time. … Mark Whitfield, he was my room mate, Jacky Terrasson, Cyrus Chestnut , a saxophonist name of Sam Newsome, Delfeayo Marsalis, a drummer named Will Calhoun that was part of a group called Living Color, a rock group.… There were so many people that I am probably missing some names, there was a lot of people there, but that gives you a kind of an overview of some of the people..
Did you find that the school was a very important part of your musical education?
Yes I would. I would consider the opportunity great because I met a lot of really wonderful musicians that were students and faculty. The city itself, in terms of being able to go out very frequently [was great] … to hear world-class musicians. Growing up in Denver that wasn't available to me as it was in Boston. There were a lot of clubs.
How does Boston rate to you and a jazz mecca compared to say New York?
Well it is very close to New York. I don't think anything really compares to New York but I will say that Boston has a very strong jazz musical environment. A lot of great clubs there and … a lot of musicians teach in the area, not just in Berklee, but in many of the colleges and universities in the area. So I would say it ranks very high!
You clearly chose to take the somewhat traditional route of apprenticeship for jazz musicians by having spent time with luminaries like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones and Cedar Walton. What inspired you to take this route?
Well its kind of the route most musicians take in terms of apprenticeship with certain instrumentalists as they're coming up and they get this opportunity. . . . If you look at the history of jazz musicians, it kind of works like that. . . . There is an apprenticeship in certain musical groups and from there you develop, acquire leadership skills to go on and be your own leader. I think it's good. I think when you get all these different perspectives it helps one to get a nice firm grasp and then to develop one's own instinctive voice.
Your sound has been compared to Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, Maceo Parker and even at times to Grover Washington Jr.. Do you agree with any of these comparisons?
Well, everyone comes from somebody. After awhile the jazz Diaspora is a family, so I would say you might hear some Joe Henderson definitely. Stanley Turrentine was an influence. I'm definitely a fan of Grover Washington Jr. I'm a fan of Maceo's, so I mean it's all relative. Those musicians [have] probably listened to some of the same things that I’ve listened to so there's probably some correlation there. I wouldn't discredit the statement.
You have been reported to have said that this “school of Blakey” was one of the most important learning experiences of your career. How so?
Art Blakey made a life long mantra to support young musicians and their endeavors. It goes all the way back to Lee Morgan or Clifford Brown or all the different individuals that had this time with Art Blakey. I was happy to be part of this school, if you kind of want to call it a finishing school. It was its own unique school. You had the Duke Ellington school of music, the Duke Ellington school was the big-band [school]. . . . You have the Miles Davis school or the Horace Silver school. You have all these different schools that helps support and develop different aspects of the music.
Photo by Jos L. Knaepen
Who do you feel most influenced the sound of your playing?
Couldn’t say any one person. It would be several. Saxophone wise it would be Lester Young, definitely Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt, I don't know if I said Stanley Turrentine, to musicians like Lucky Thompson. There is a lot. I gave you eight to ten but it could easily be thirty.
Any other instrument player that influenced you?
Definitely, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock McCoy Tyner, and I didn't mention Wayne Shorter [before] who has had an impact on me. Art Blakey without a doubt. Recently I was on the road with Al Foster and I got a great appreciation for his artistry. There has been a lot of musicians that influenced me.
Who would you consider to be your contemporaries? What musicians playing today that you like?
On the saxophone or in general?
As a tenor player in particular.
Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, a gentleman named Gary Thomas, I'm a fan of his saxophone ability. Again I feel uncomfortable citing just four or five. …let me just say I am a fan of all these musicians, in terms of their ability to get out and do it and continue to do it
When compared to other players of your instrument, reviewers have used the words 'fuller' and 'measured' to describe your technique. Do you consciously try for the rounded, less biting approach to the instruments sound or has it just evolved as part of finding your own voice to?
I don't know what that means -- fuller or measured? … I am always trying to develop the saxophone to a certain level in terms of technical prowess. For me any musician that we talk about in any genre is identified by his sound, not what they play but the way they play it. So if I put the CD player on, and it wouldn't take four or five seconds to recognize Miles. At the most four or five seconds to recognize Coleman Hawkins… so to me the trick, the real great ability is to be identified. If somebody identifies me, that's better than not been identified at all. In my mind I'm just trying to be an honest saxophonist. For me tone is important, sound is important, the ability to get around on your instrument and to be challenging to yourself, but also to deliver something that will have some meaning to the non-musician as well.
Many people equate passionate playing with a flurry of notes and stunningly fluid arpeggios, you don’t seem to use this in your music a great deal. Do you feel you can emote more from a more measured, sparse rendering?
It just depends. You look at a guy like Miles Davis. If you listen Miles Davis take a solo after Coltrane, it might not be as many notes as Coltrane but [they have] the delivery and the meaning and at the end of the day they both have the same amount impact to me. Both can be impactful but the ability is to be flexible to what is asked of you…. In certain situations I base it on just what I feel. Today maybe more so than in the past. . . . We're in a testosterone age. We're trying to -- and I'm including myself -- were trying to impress each other as opposed to being honest to what we are delivering. If I'm honest to what I'm delivering it doesn't have to be a lot of notes
Many jazz greats have translated contemporary popular music into a jazz format; some with mixed reviews. You once attributed the exploration and integration of the more popular music of the sixties and seventies into your repertoire to the influence of Craig Street, your former producer at Blue Note. Did this retrospective approach to the music you grew up with strike a chord in you?
Yeah. Again, Craig helped me because during that time at Blue Note I was making a lot of records that were supportive to the history and the genre before me in terms of an acoustic sense … of jazz originals. I met Craig and we decided to share music. So he gave me [his] music and I gave him some [of my] music. His set of music was all over the map. One of them was the Allman Brothers, then it would be Muddy Waters then it would be Duke Ellington…where as my thing was down a certain road. So it kind of opened me up. When I grew up, guess what, I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire or Stevie Wonder in addition to my parents having Charlie Parker in the house and Miles Davis, Amhad Jamal... I wanted to record a Frank Zappa song when I was on Blue Note at that time with Craig. I didn't know anybody that recorded a Frank Zappa song, besides Frank. . . . So it allowed me to be completely clean with my blueprint….. I try to find some diamonds in the rough, if you will, in terms of recording so that it allows me to say [to myself] what do you bring to this Javon?
You wrote a song called "Richard’s R.A.P," which you recorded on your latest Palmetto release Now and is dedicated to the great bassist Richard Davis. Do you know him personally and what is the source of this dedication?
There's another musician who I didn't mention who had a big influence on me. Richard lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin. Periodically . . . I'm up in that area with him doing concerts. We established a really, really close relationship. I don't know how to qualify him as a big brother, as an uncle, as a father. He calls me a son. I just look at him as a person who, although he is in his seventies, he talks to me as current as anybody; very current and very supportive. There was one particular time when I went . . . to perform with him. He has an organization called Retention Action Project, it's a race-based group that tries to ease relations in that area and all over the country. . . . so I wrote something. . . . It's called "Richard's R.A.P." [Retention Action Project].
He crosses over to classical hasn’t he?
Oh, absolutely. He had a great relationship with Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. Very respected bassist, and a musician who is quite open to different styles of music.
Your most recent recordings, like Now and Easy Does It, definitely have a funky groove to them. Are you attempting to reach out to a cross over audience in the hope that they will be introduced to jazz through explorations in funk or do you just really dig the groove?
I would say I just like the music. It's an opportunity for me to deliver some music that I feel close to and that I'm a fan of. At this particular period, I like delivering the music, with an edge I might add, but with that kind of bottom in terms of the rhythm and the palette of the band.
Are you concerned that some of your more traditional listeners, who might be looking for your hard bop sound may be disappointed or turned off to this more popular music oriented direction?
I never really try to consider all that because if you come to a show, it's not like I've totally abandoned any of what might be deemed straight ahead material. Even on that record Now I recorded "Richard's RAP," which is not really a funk song or "I Remember You," which is a ballad. I still like to think that I'm involved in other projects that support my interest and my willingness to develop more so [than] as a pure saxophonist. . . . Sometimes you just want something that's funny or sometimes something that's simple. So there's always a balance to our lives.
You’ve played with Freddie Hubbard, a player who has great velocity, dynamism, as well as lyricism to his playing. Freddie has attributed the problems with his lip as being the result of overplaying. He even went so far as to caution younger players to not over-blow like he did. Did his experience effect or alter your playing style or intensity?
No. What Freddie was speaking to was more of a brass related situation. I attribute that to the nature of a brass instrument more so than my instrument. I'm sure that everything being relative, there is something in there that I could make relevant to me. I don't really look at it like that. I do look at it that, as we tend to grow and we tend to live in this world, things change, sometimes at the drop of a hat.
A year and a half ago when I lost my mom, I lost other people before like Art Blakey and grandparents, but when you lose somebody [like that] it just got really close. It lets you know that this thing is not forever. We believe it's forever, and it is forever, but not in this existence. So that's what I meant. . . . Things can change and you have to just appreciate individuals. I appreciate Freddie because he still one of my closest friends and he's been a big supporter of me and I've learned a lot from him. I think what happens when you do so many great things you are held up to that forever. So Freddie's always being held up to Freddie in 1969 or Freddie in 1975 and he's just Freddie. Sonny Rollins is Sonny Rollins. I read one time where someone wrote [complaining that] Sonny only played two hours because in the past he's played three hours. Why not just appreciate that he played those two hours?
But that's what happens when you do something really great. Guess what, that's what you're held up to. So you're only as good as the last thing you done.
That’s a little cruel isn’t it?
I guess it's cruel but that's the way the game is played. So when you get into the arena and your Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or John Coltrane or whoever, you do the very best you can and you don't worry about the naysayers. Everybody’s got an opinion. The bottom line is your opinion. . . . Let that be your guide.
Since you been out as a solo artist you have had an affinity for the use of jazz organ in your groups. You have played with such masters as John Medeski, Larry Goldings and most recently with Dr. Lonnie Smith. What attracts you to this old school format?
Well Dr. Lonnie was first before the other guys that you mentioned. He was the first organ player I recorded with. There was a lot of jazz records in the house and my mother was a big fan of the saxophone. In terms of John Coltrane she liked how smooth he was in terms of fluidity. My father liked saxophone, but he like Gene Ammons. Gene Ammons did a lot of organ records. So I grew up with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt together and Jack McDuff , Big John Patton, Jimmy Smith. Most of the time when I'm doing something I kind of hear the artist and then I can go after the particular artist. I like the organ, but I hear Dr. Lonnie more so than just have the organ there. More so Dr. Lonnie’s sound or on the other records John Medeski’s [sound] or . . . Larry Golding's [sound].
How did your relationship with Dr. Lonnie start?
I met Dr. Lonnie when I was with Art Blakey. I've known him from that period of time. I was a big fan of Lou Donaldson, another close person who's been supportive. I also did a pretty extensive tour with Dr. Lonnie, drummer Idris Mohammed and a guitarist named Dave Stryker. That was the first long-term tour we had done. . . . I appreciate his artistry, very much and I am a fan.
Unlike many of your fellow sax players, you have incorporated vocalists into your recordings. Lisa Fischer and Eve Cornelious come to mind. Many saxophonists seem to avoid vocalists in their groups. What is it that you like about working with vocalists?
Well I have been spoiled. The first tour I did with Art Blakey in Brazil, we were opposite Sarah Vaughan. Later the first CD I did on Blue Note, the producer was Betty Carter and the vocalist on that CD was Diane Reeves. Later I did a CD and Cassandra Wilson was the vocalist on one of my tracks. . . . So I have just been a big fan of vocals. Most of the musician’s that I know from yesteryear or even the great ones today talk about how important words are and the lyrics are. So I've always had a willingness to . . . want to be around a great song stylist in terms of lyrics.
Very few saxophonists actually work with vocalists. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman come to mind, but not many.
Sonny Rollins did a great record with Earl Coleman. . . . Most all of these people that we mentioned like vocals. Charlie Parker, as told to me by Jimmy Cobb, was interested in doing something with Dinah Washington . . . and he did great recordings with little Jimmy Scott. All these musicians . . . they all have a great love for vocals.
How do you determine the format of instrumentation that you want to hear prior to cutting an album? Is it a function of who was available or do you have a specific instrument format in mind?
It’s never who's available. I always consider who I want to play with [first]… and that determines who I call. More so I think of the individual, then comes the instrument.
One review of your album Easy Does It described it as a session that emoted this sense of everyone having a good time, having fun and making music. Is it always an exercise of joyful creation in the studio?
Not always but most of the time it is. I don't think that recording was any different than me listening to Cannonball [Adderley] talking to musicians before [one of his recordings]. They all went in there, were good friends and they had good times. I just can't believe that Kind of Blue wasn’t a lot of fun for them at that time.
Serious as it was?
Well how you determine what is serious? Why is it serious? It's hard to qualify what serious is. Having a relationship with Jimmy Cobb, who is the last musician alive that was at that session, I don't think he would say that. So it just depends. Somebody says A Love Supreme is serious, well it's serious in the focus and its dedication. . . but it's hard to say. At the end of the day it's a swinging record. But that would be a question I love for you to ask Jimmy [Cobb] some time.
It's been said that you are a believer in Duke Ellington's sentiment that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Within the context of good music, in your opinion what factors makes good music really great and how do you try to achieve great music?
I think that [Duke’s sentiment] works for me. That's a question with no one particular answer. All I know is that really, really great music is honest. The first thing you have to do is be honest. When you are honest to yourself, you can be honest to the listener. You can be honest to your fellow musicians. You can be honest to whatever it is your trying to deliver.
You have been on the faculty of SUNY Purchase as an assistant professor of Jazz education. Are you a student of jazz is history and do you still teach?
I do not teach at [SUNY] Purchase any more, that ended in September. I am a fan of it [jazz history] because I was a student. I was supplied information from Art Blakey. In some ways the schools have kind of taken on what I was fortunate to be the last part of. Which is being part of the group, or unit or band and having a great bandleader deliver and support you and kind of give you the tricks of the trade, give you on-the-job training while he took you all over the world. It's becoming somewhat different now. There are not as many bands, so more musicians tend to go to college. There are a lot of great artists who are in the universities teaching
I remember when Art Blakey, we found out that he was ill, we were young people and emotional about it, he said listen….” if you mention my name once a day I'll live forever.”
Many accomplished musicians have a difficult time financially and they find some rewards in the halls of academia. More importantly they get something out of teaching. What did you get out of teaching?
I still do [teach], I just don't teach at [SUNY] Purchase. I still do a lot of master classes. The statement that you made that allowed musicians are not financially successful, I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. There are a lot of people in general who are not financially successful. That's because, the one thing, they spend more than they make. That's a problem with society…
In your experience has race ever trumped talent in the selection of a player for a particular group?
The fact that you mention race; race is an issue in this country and in the world, but for me, I would rather look in the mirror. If I get a gig or I didn’t get an opportunity I don't want to say, if I had only been that color or if I’d only been in this situation that he was in, because I've been asked that before. I’m always a firm believer in you get what you deserve. That doesn't mean that someone deserves not to be successful. Sometimes. . . I look at myself and say . . . What did I do wrong? Not necessarily wrong but how can I make a better decision in the future or better choices? I like to feel that it all boils down to choices. It's having vision for yourself and trying to see that thing through . . . and being willing to make some mistakes. As Art Blakey said to me . . . 'If your not making any mistakes I know you're not trying!'
Have you ever heard it expressed that jazz music was a type of music that could only be truly played by African Americans and not everybody?
Not really. . . . If you're doing something and you really connected to what you trying to do it doesn't really matter what anybody else's says anyway. I will say this: the music that were talking about it is based on the African-American lifestyle. There's no denying that . . . . Art Blakey said . . . 'Once an idea has been established or presented to the world,' and this is a quote from him, 'it's available to the world to utilize.' But, show some respect and give some credit to where the music came from. . . . It doesn't mean that you have to be African-American to enjoy it or African-American to play it. Anyone can enjoy it and anyone can play it and it's been supported by non African-American people, to a great degree. So we need all those parts, and again it's not wholly African-American. To be an African-American means you're part of a lot of different Diasporas, if you will. Because it is always hard in this world, you never get something based on one thing. It's always a series of small things. No it’s more than that and actually the guys or the gals that really win are the people who focused on the subtleties. Because it's not what you see it's what's unseen.
Who have you always wanted to play with but never had a chance?
Many people. Stevie Wonder, Prince, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin. . . . There's a lot of different people.
Is there a new point of departure that you want to explore in your future projects? Like a new musical direction?
It would be hard for me to qualify in words and I don't really know if I have an answer for you. I am trying to develop what you hear me do on Now and trying to develop as an artist.
Where will you be playing next and who will be in your working band?
I'm playing in Boston with the Javon Jackson band, which consists of myself, David Gilmore [guitar], a bassist named Kenny Davis and Rudy Royston a young drummer who I like a lot. Then the next performance I’m doing is a collective group I'm doing with Benny Green . . . at the Iridium. Myself, Benny Green, a bassist named Corcoran Holt, the great Al Foster is the featured guest and another special guest will be Wallace Roney on trumpet. That's the most immediate thing that's coming up in about a week and a half.
Many musicians struggle with music as a business. Some older, extremely talented musicians have found themselves in dire straits after a long and musically successful career. You seem to have figured the business side out pretty successfully. Do you have any words of advice to upcoming musicians about how to handle business?
Remember that it is a business; that's the first thing. It's a great opportunity to play music and to do something your entire life, to do something you have been doing from the time you're a child. Dizzy Gillespie was a great businessman. Eddie Harris was a businessman. Ron Carter is a businessman and they [are all] great artists. I think Miles Davis understood the business. There are a lot of musicians who understand the business, it just depends on what level. Again it gets back to a simple idea. . . . Are you spending more than you're making? It's awareness. It's a cycle, a vicious cycle sometimes. . . . It just goes from one generation to another. There are a lot of people out here speaking to that. Bill Cosby is speaking to [it], in terms of the African-American male, doing some things to better themselves. Go out and get that information; get that book see what he has to say.
He has gotten a lot of flack for it.
Yes, but guess what? He believes in it, he's honest. So he is not really concerned. It all goes back to honest. He is being honest with himself. He is trying to leave the world a better place, so whether you like it or not doesn’t matter. Everybody didn’t like Jesus and he was for good. . . . You can't be liked by all people. You have to feel a certain point that they respect you for stepping out there and trying to be honest for yourself. . . . I don’t have it all figured out but you have to have the vision, and after the vision comes action.
As a family man does the road take its toll and how do you deal with it?
I am trying to find a way to balance business versus non-business. It's a constant challenge, but if you have people in your life who support you and understand what you're trying to do and you try to do your best to support them on the other side, you can work it out.
Your only 42 years old so you have a whole lot of music left to play. Do you have any personal goals and how do you want to be perceived by the listeners and your peers?
I have a lot of goals. Some I probably don't want to share. . . . Sometimes you start sharing it and you jinx yourself. But I definitely have goals. Some within the next few months and some that will be over the next two or three years. Personal commitments to myself in regards to being a better individual and I hope that doesn't come off corny but really I'm just trying to grow and do better on a daily basis.
Regarding what my peers and friends think. I want them to think what they want to think. . . . I just hope they would see Javon as an honest person, one who's trying to do good, one who's trying to get more than he receives. Coltrane gave more than he received, not that he didn’t receive, but he gave a whole lot. Sonny Rollins is giving. He seems to be the kind of individual who is committed to giving more than receiving. It's not about receiving as much as it’s about giving.
When you're playing do you believe you channel or tap into something beyond you?
Yeah, I'm very spiritual. So I believe there is something working behind me, or in back of me, I feel there is a energy, there is a spirit that is being delivered. It’s always there.
On your latest release with Christian McBride, Jimmy Cobb and Cedar Walton called New York Time you played a straight ahead style with these masters in a traditional quartet format. How did this come about?
It's not my record. It's a collaborative record, but it’s really a Jimmy Cobb record. But we all supported the recording with our music. I just played what the music called for. I couldn’t play what I played on Now on that CD. It was a Jimmy Cobb conceived idea. That band will be performing next April at the Iridium.
Do you find yourself seeking out some of the older players from time to time and is it inspirational?
Absolutely, yes to both. I seek them out and I look forward to opportunities to play with them. If I get a call phone call from a Cedar Walton or I get a phone call from a Ron Carter I am elated! I try to do my best to be available.
With the younger guys like Christian McBride and Benny Green is there more of a sense of exploration and more dynamism?
No. Energy can be different, but I wouldn't say it's any less dynamic [with the older musicians]. I mean it wasn’t any less dynamic playing with Elvin Jones than playing with anyone else.
How did the Jackson/Green project come about?
Last year Benny did a tour with me and after we finished he said we had a lot of fun and we should sit down and talk about doing something again maybe together, something collaborative. So we sat down and had dinner over it. We decided that we would try it. Let's get together periodically and played together, because we had played with each other quite a bit with Art Blakey and later Freddie Hubbard.
Any surprises for your fans coming up?
[I] did some touring with Les McCann, he did some touring with me, right now we're in the midst of planning some extensive touring with Les and the Javon Jackson band. So I am looking forward to that and some other ideas I am trying to work on. I don't want to jinx them but [I have] some special projects that are in the works. I try to keep things moving forward, keep pushing and trying to keep challenging myself.
Well thank you Javon, we appreciate your time and candor.