Javon Jackson: Finding Uplift In The Guiding Tradition Of Sonny Rollins And John Coltrane

By Christine Passarella for All About Jazz 


It was a bitterly cold day in January 2013. I had endured a move from Long Beach, Long Island in October 2012, having to leave my beach house for good after the unsettling nature of Super Storm Sandy came down hard on the barrier island. I longed to get back into the city as the new year began, yearning for normalcy which includes listening to great live jazz. I decided to traverse into Manhattan; the traffic was heavy due to the fact there was only one lane open in the Midtown Tunnel going into the city. It would be okay; I knew the short cuts as my daughter lived on the Upper West Side. I arrived just a little late. My daughter agreed to meet me at the well-known jazz club Smoke on Broadway for an evening of America’s Classical Music. It was a special evening, celebrating National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb’s birthday. I parked my car and there was my daughter waiting for me. The Upper West Side club was packed, and in the darkness, the people at the tables all blended into one another. With flickering candlelight, the audience was illuminated in the sultry amber shades of intimacy.

To my surprise, the host put us at a table right by the stage. As we were taking our seats, the quartet was already playing their first song. On saxophone was a tall, Prince Charming-like figure playing one of the most beautiful jazz ballads in the world, originally brought to my consciousness by saxophonist John Coltrane, crooner Johnny Hartman, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison on the legendary eloquent album, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. I immediately felt bathed in a sense of romance as the sounds of the treasured song “My One and Only Love” wrapped me in what it means to be in love and why life is worth living. So close to the band, I could touch their shoes if I wanted to. That is when I first heard saxophonist Javon Jackson play live. Jimmy Cobb was indeed on drums, joined by George Cables on piano and John Webber on bass. It is always stunning walking into the magic of stellar jazz music at its highest level. During the evening they also played Sonny Rollins’ “Saint Thomas,” John Coltrane’s “Mr. PC,” and “Mr. T.J.,” an original composition by Javon Jackson. I introduced myself to Mr. Jackson and Mr. Cobb after the show. Meeting Mr. Jimmy Cobb seemed somewhat surreal as he played on the masterful album Kind of Blue with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I came prepared with an elevator speech for Mr. Cobb, telling him about the Kids for Coltrane curriculum that I was implementing in a New York City school, sticking to brevity knowing he just finished a late gig.

On this winter evening, Javon and Jimmy both listened with embracing ears and smiled at me with appreciation as I shared my efforts in teaching elementary school children infusing jazz music in our day to day curriculum to elevate the intellectualizing and artful thinking in the learning process. It was a moment to be cherished sharing my work with these two great musicians. That would not be the end of my connection to Mr. Jackson, but rather the beginning of a friendship.

The Evolution Of Music And Friendship

As time moved forward, I came to hear more of Javon Jackson’s music with its depth and beauty and consider him part of the growing circle of friends that have enhanced my life since I started to teach with John Coltrane as my guiding light in 2006. Recently Javon said of our connection, “You are my extended sister on Long Island.” I too consider him family, a younger brother, one I am incredibly proud of. As I write this column, I am surrounded by the lovely colors in the palette coming out of his latest album Déjà Vu. Being touched by his version of “Autumn in New York” as the weather changes here on the East Coast, the fall breeze kissing my shoulders as I type, brings memories of many autumns in New York and hopefulness in the tornado-like torment of the pandemic. A song written by Javon devoted to his dear father “Mr. T.J.,” which I first heard him play live that evening back in 2014 at Smoke, is one of the selections. Déjà Vu also includes “Martha’s Prize,” “Raise Four,” “Venus Di Mildew,” “Limehouse Blues,” “My Shining Hour,” “In The Kitchen,” and “Rio Dawn,” which will wrap you in the majesty of his brilliant saxophone playing with his quartet.

One has only to listen to Déjà Vu to know in Javon Jackson is a man who takes the art form of jazz to a level of excellence. In these difficult times, his music can heal the heart, soothe the soul, and calm the nerves that pandemic isolation, politics, and the dissonance in the uncertainly of what is next in society can bring. Listening to Javon playing Jimmy Heath’s composition, “Rio Dawn,” is medicine for the soul. Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane have told us that their life stories are expressed through their horns. Javon’s music is a translation of his human spirit as well, filled with the possibilities this life has to offer. He is a man of an extreme belief in positive energy and the bliss one can achieve, and he has done just that. One of the books he finds most uplifting is The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. The agreements discussed in the book include the following: be impeccable with your word; don’t take anything personally; don’t make assumptions; and always do your best. Ruiz states, “True freedom has to do with the human spirit.” There is no denying that Javon is guided by freedom, love, and integrity.

Foundations Matter

When you get to know Javon, it is clear he is a man of excellence, with a desire to always keep reaching for the highest standards in music and humanity. Learning the love of Black music as a child born in Missouri, he would soon pick up a saxophone and never look back. His father and mother loved music. His mother was fond of Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, and Nat King Cole, and his dad was a big Gene Ammons fan. Javon showed a deep interest in music. Seeing Javon’s gift in music, his dad supported him by purchasing a saxophone of high quality, showing his son that he believed in him and was willing to invest in his happiness. He learned the African-American values of being supportive with respect, dignity, and kindness from both his mother and father. Seeing Sonny Stitt with his father inspired him even more. It was when he saw Dexter Gordon perform live that he became deadset on being a professional musician.

The greatest among us, I believe, have infused the brilliance of those who came before them. Javon learned about and appreciated the lives of extraordinary people in and out of the music world. As a musician, he played with some of the most extraordinary jazz musicians ever to have created music. Jackson was embraced by older mentors. He has a humble and grateful nature that speaks to the warmth of his heart and tender soul. For Jackson, it is all about expression and communicating the essence of creativity. When Javon was in high school, he was selected to represent his state of Colorado in McDonald’s All-American High School Band where he met Delfeayo Marsalis who was representing Louisiana.

Delfeayo introduced him to his brother Branford, who saw his talent and promised to call him and check in on how things were going musically. Javon’s friends kidded him, saying, “He is not going to call.” Sure enough, he not only called, but he also came by the house and discussed the best musical and academic path with Javon’s parents. Already in a local college, the family was so inspired and convinced by Branford that Javon would transfer to Berklee so he could achieve his goals, which would include playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. His talent could not be denied; he received offers to travel the world and perform with more extraordinary stars in jazz who embraced him into their groups, where he could learn, gig, jam, and perform, allowing himself to evolve. Taking a break from college to travel as a professional jazz musician, he would get his degree a few years later. The opportunities flowed after playing with the great drummer, composer, and bandleader Art Blakey.

Javon was elevated by learning the traditions and seriousness of what it means to be a jazz musician by performing around the world with masters, like the great Elvin Jones. He is grateful to have performed in his quartet, absorbing the genius of the legendary drummer. Great mentors have made a world of difference to Javon Jackson, and he gives back to others in the same way.

Javon is a confident man with an understanding of the culture that produced him and holds up that gold standard which makes him a star. I had the privilege of hearing Javon live again a few times at the Village Vanguard and at Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Every time I attended one of his gigs, I was walking into the best of America’s classical music which is rooted in the African-American experience. I remember one night at the Village Vanguard, I introduced him to my dear friend, mentor, and fellow Coltranian legendary philosopher, Dr. Cornel West. The warmth between the men was immediate, so much so I had to ask them if they were already friends. I came to understand that the connection through their culture was already thick, which created a bond even as strangers.

Raising Consciousness

Traveling the world helped Javon recognize the oneness in who we are on earth.

Cornel West and Javon would develop a deep respect for one another. When Javon took on the position leading the Jackie McClean Institute at Hartford University in Connecticut, he had an idea to help raise the consciousness at the University, with a focus on music students and a desire to have students learn about Black culture directly from the people who blazed the trail courageously. “You can’t create art without courage, discipline, and being tied to a tradition,” states Dr. Cornel West.

It made perfect sense when Javon invited Dr. West to speak to his students and the community. Javon found him to be even more magnificent, gracious, and generous than he could have imagined as he watched him with the students. “Students are still buzzing from him…He is such a magnet with people hanging on every word.” After West’s electrifying seminar the program blossomed further, with visits from other luminaries such as Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Michael Eric Dyson, and Sonya Sanchez. Javon wants the community to hear firsthand the lessons from the lives of social justice leaders.

Another treasured accomplishment for Javon was when he nominated his hero, the legendary Sonny Rollins, to receive an honorary doctorate at the University of Hartford in 2015. It was an experience that both Rollins and Jackson hold in a very special place in their hearts. It was indeed a privilege to have such a legend accept the doctorate at the University of Hartford as well. The great Sonny Rollins, whose corpus includes the masterful Freedom Suite with a deep focus on social issues, received the much-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011.