The impact of jazz on the worlds of literature and poetry, both stylistically and as…
The impact of jazz on the worlds of literature and poetry, both stylistically and as subject matter, is well documented across the diverse works of numerous influential authors — Jack Kerouac, Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, and the list goes on. On The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson), a new album by tenor saxophonist and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers alum Javon Jackson, the iconic civil-rights era poet referenced in the title personally selected age-old hymns and spirituals that, in turn, Jackson reinterprets within the tonal poetry and artful phrasing of his versatile quartet. With the exception of John Coltrane’s recordings, the album marks a rare occasion in which jazz is at the service of poetry and spirituality, and not the opposite, as an expansive world of urgent storytelling opens up to shape it. Here, the magic happens through the combined perspectives of one of the best-known and most celebrated poets of our time and a gifted bandleader who cut his teeth playing with legends.
“When we look at these spirituals — and Nikki’s said this to me before — these [were written by] poets,” Jackson says during a Zoom interview from Hartford, Connecticut, in January, alongside Giovanni, appearing from her book-lined home office in Roanoke, Virginia. “I mean, they’re giving us a certain poetry, a certain language, and through the suffrage and the turmoil they’re experiencing they gave us this great narrative that no matter what, we’re still going to persevere, we’re gonna get up every day and we’re gonna try to sing our way through this, which is pretty incredible.”
“There’s no question that these songs are going to continue as long as there’s a human voice,” adds Giovanni. “Yet, we have to remember that they grew out of a group of people who did not have a common language. When we think of slavery, we know that many of the people who were enslaved did not speak the same language. Different groups were put together, so they had to find a way to communicate. And the only thing they’re going to have in common is a song, and it wasn’t even a song then, it was a tone [hums] and somebody’s gonna pick it up and they’re gonna realize that we are communicating through this sound and the sound is going to continue to come.”
Jackson and Giovanni first came together in February 2020 as educators. Jackson, the Director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford, had invited Giovanni, a Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, to present a lecture to his students during the occasion of Giovanni receiving an honorary doctorate from Hartford. Jackson had been inviting Black and Latino scholars, activists and freedom fighters — including Dr. Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis and Michael Eric Dyson — to lecture at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford and he had had his sights on Giovanni. A founding member of the Black Arts movement in the ’60s and ’70s, Giovanni has authored 28 books and received numerous accolades, including the Maya Angelou Lifetime Achievement Award, the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award and the Langston Hughes Award. She was also nominated for a spoken-word Grammy in 2003 for a self-narrated collection of recorded poems titled The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection and just last year reissued three of her albums from the 1970s on vinyl for the first time, on the Modern Harmonic record label: Truth Is On Its Way (1971), Like a Ripple on a Pond (1973) and The Way I Feel (1975).
Known for her irreverent style as a poet and social commentator, Giovanni, 78, is an eloquent conversationalist who isn’t afraid to veer off into mind-bending topics related to the expansiveness of the universe and the role of music as a truly universal language that humans will rely on while galaxy-hopping in a somewhat-distant future.
“Just like you, I’m a fan,” Jackson quips.
As Jackson tells it, during their initial meeting at the University of Hartford, Giovanni had stayed behind in the auditorium to talk to students after delivering her lecture. Suddenly, she realized that Steal Away, a collection of hymns and spirituals by Hank Jones and Charlie Haden, was playing in the background. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s great. I’d love to hear more of that.’” At that very moment, Jackson was struck with the idea of collaborating with Giovanni. Two days later, he called the poet and asked if she would be willing to curate his next album with a selection of hymns and spirituals. “She got right back to me a week or so later with her 10 selections.”
“I never dreamed that he might want to be bothered with an old lady, you know, and see what I thought,” Giovanni says. “I had done my part to say this is what I love.” Addressing the saxophonist, she continues, “And you brought your sound because you know more about the music. I just know about the emotion and I know about the history, and that’s how we got it together.”
[caption id="attachment_44292" align="alignleft" width="900"] Nikki Giovanni (Getty Images/Jack Robinson)[/caption]
While the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the project briefly, Jackson resumed work on the album in the summer of 2021 alongside his band, comprising pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter — the same lineup that appeared on his 2018 album For You and his 2020 follow-up, Déjà Vu. Through its 10 songs, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni transcends time, space and the struggles of an era to revel in the universality of music as language, emphasized by Giovanni, and to offer hope. The program encompasses nine spirituals and one jazz standard, “Night Song,” composed originally for the musical Golden Boy and interpreted by a long list of vocalists, including Giovanni’s close friend, the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone. In a nod to Simone, the multi-faceted Giovanni delivers a rare vocal performance on “Night Song.” “I said, I really would like to sing ‘Night Song’ because I knew that Nina loved it,” Giovanni says. “When you listen to it, it’s a beautiful song, and of course I can’t sing. Maybe if I had had another chance in life, maybe I would have been one of those singers in a café society, smoking a cigarette and bringing some of these songs alive. I wanted to keep that song alive for a friend who I think needs to be kept alive.”
Jackson, who had already recorded the instrumental portions of the song, flew to Roanoke to record Giovanni’s vocals. When she arrived at the studio, Jackson recalls, “She says, ‘Well, you know, I need a little help.’ She sits down, he’s [sound engineer Patrick Smith] getting Nikki set up, we do a quick run-through, and then we go back; the first time, I had been playing some kind of ad lib stuff behind her and Patrick said, ‘Well, let’s let Nikki try it by herself.’ One time, boom, done.” In one sitting, Giovanni sang “Night Song” with the kind of deep, emotional authenticity and intrinsic “now-ness” of an inspired live performance. At times the imperfect crevices of Giovanni’s voice crack under the weight of vulnerability and the inner turmoil of quiet introspection tinged by melancholy and abandon, all against the backdrop of a narrative that exalts the banalities of life. The sweeping strings and ethereal harp in Simone’s rendition are replaced by Manasia’s delicately flowing piano, while Jackson’s warm tenor brims with a nuanced lyricism segueing into Giovanni’s compelling vocals.
The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni opens with Hunter’s rhythmic drum shuffle on “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” a spiritual recorded by Paul Robeson in 1937. Jackson adheres closely to the original melody, which is infused by his honeyed tenor tones, before Manasia delves into a spirited piano solo. “Well, of course ‘Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel’ was gonna be the opening song,” Giovanni says. “That’s the Constitution of the United States.” (“Didn’t my lord deliver Daniel,” the lyrics posit, “and why not every man.”)
“Wade in the Water” is the perfect confluence of music, poetry, history and spirituality. Composed in the mid-to-late 19th century, the song, which references Israelites’ escape from Egypt, was widely believed to be associated with the Underground Railroad, its lyrics transmitting encoded messages to runaway slaves on how to avoid being tracked by bloodhounds. In Jackson’s capable hands, “Wade in the Water” is revived in the minor key by a mid-tempo swing that offers a glimmer of hope, punctuated by Williams’ deep rumbling bass lines and Hunter’s syncopated beats. Jackson’s vigorous tenor solo and Manasia’s no-frills piano is followed by a provocative spoken-word recitation of Giovanni’s poem ‘A Very Simple Wish,’ courtesy of Christina Greer. Jackson had reached out to Markeysha Davis, an assistant professor of Africana studies and literature at the University of Hartford and an expert on all things Nikki Giovanni, to help him select the right poem to complement the piece.
“So, I went to her and I said, ‘Could you come up with something that would fit as a bridge between this rendition, and we’re going to go to a 6/8 kind of, if you wanna say, Coltrane, spiritual kind of setting,’” Jackson says. “She came back with this poem. It has a very simple message and a very simple wish, and I said to myself, Man, it was just perfect. The poem says, ‘Twice in our lives we need direction, when we’re young and innocent and when we’re old and cynical.’ That means that we’ve got to have a way for the people with experience to help the people without experience and for the two to mesh, and if they just support each other, this thing could just pass along in such a nice way. And the way she’s laying it out, at the very end, she says, ‘I want to build a new world.’”
Naturally, Coltrane’s indelible imprint runs like a watermark throughout The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni. As a former member of Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner’s band, and while playing for Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s otherworldly drummer, Jackson says he was able to get closer to the iconic saxophonist through the camaraderie he shared with them. “I got an opportunity to speak to them about John and they all felt, and said, that he was an angel on Earth. They just felt that kind of person, that kind of spirit.” Coltrane’s own sublime epiphany, documented in his seminal recording A Love Supreme, the reigning example of spirituality in jazz, is subtly felt on tracks such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a song about the African-American experience of being uprooted and stripped of a culture, identity and mother tongue that recalls the subdued vibes of Coltrane’s “Equinox”; and on “Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord,” which is reminiscent of Coltrane’s influential civil-rights era requiem, “Alabama.”
“Well, I mean as a person and as a musician I have such an immense respect for him because he was such a humble and dedicated servant to the music,” Jackson says. “And if you listen to A Love Supreme, basically he just wants to let the world know that he loves God. So, he’s a beacon for me as a jazz musician because he’s a person that’s revered in so many different ways, but again it’s just the nature of his dedication and the human hours that he put in his craft, and to do that there’s just a certain humility that I respect.”
“When Nikki came to the university, we got in the car and I was listening to John Coltrane playing ballads, and she said something I never thought about, she said, ‘You know, John Coltrane, when he plays it’s very childlike at times, it’s like a little child just kind of throwing little phrases out.’ And I had never seen it like that, and it was just so much freedom, and so much creativity, but the willingness to kind of step out. Like the great Wayne Shorter said, ‘The definition of jazz is I dare you.’”
A Giovanni favorite from her Baptist church upbringing, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” rides on a circular beat and radiates exhilarating Southern gospel verve. She compares it to the dependable car that she refuses to trade in for a newer model that may likely not come with a CD player. “I want to be able to put a CD in so that I can listen to Javon and me, to [spiritual composer and arranger] Moses Hogan … . As long as that car will start in the morning, I’m gonna keep it, because I’m leaning on that and I count on that and that’s what wakes me up and that’s what gives me company. If you’re having a bad day, put a spiritual on, it just … it comforts you.”
“I’ve Been Buked,” another Giovanni favorite, was sung by Mahalia Jackson in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King also delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The song holds special meaning for the poet: “‘I’ve been [re]buked, and I’ve been scorned, I’ve been talked about sure as I’m born,’” Giovanni recites. “It’s very important because that third stanza says, ‘But I ain’t gonna let down my religion, children, no, no, I ain’t gonna let my religion down.’ It makes you realize that what we see today is not everything. You see, that’s what music does — what we see is only what’s in front of us, but that’s not life, life is about tomorrow, it’s about that next day and that’s what music does … . It’s what I love about the way that we have come from a moan to the spirituals to the rhythm and blues, to jazz.”
Both poet and musician express hope that listeners will take comfort in the music and enjoy the timeless message of The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni. “It’s a flower and spring is coming,” Giovanni says. “I sincerely hope that people look at it just like it’s gonna bloom, and I think Javon did such a great job of taking it to the next step. So, the reason I’m keeping my car [with the CD player] is that I can put my album in and I can hear Javon talking to me and it makes me happy.”
“I think it’s great just to be able to say I made some history with someone like Nikki Giovanni,” Jackson says. “So for me, I get a chance to reflect on that, and at the same time to know that two people can just come together, with no real expectation, in a real organic and honest way and just present something to the world. And I think that’s kind of really what art is. There’s no ego, there’s no overconfidence about it, it’s just trying to let people know where we are and getting some music that anyone can listen to.”