By Jordannah Elizabeth for New York Amsterdam News
Nikki Giovanni is known for her profound presence as a groundbreaking Black poet. Considered the “Poet of the Black Revolution” for her leading role in the Black Arts Movement which stemmed from the powerful era of the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement, Giovanni has given the world over 20 poetry collections from 1986 through 2020.
Musically, she has recently decided to explore a collaboration with jazz saxophonist, Javon Jackson, who in 1987 played as a member of the iconic jazz group Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
Both artists, musician and poet, have come together to create an album of gospel and Black spirituals under the title “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni.” The music is transcendent and Giovanni takes a moment to lend her singing voice to a small portion of the mainly instrumental jazz record which also includes pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter.
Giovanni and Jackson spoke to the Amsterdam News about their new album and the impact of their joining as one of this project.
The group will perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 11 with Little Simz.
AmNews: How did this project, ‘The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni” come into fruition?
Nikki Giovanni: [After] Javon had invited me up to the school to speak to his students, I think he twisted the arm of his president to honor me with an honorary doctorate. Which was wonderful.
It was a really, really snow day up there in Massachusetts. I thought, “Oh, nobody’s gonna come out.” Actually, we had a wonderful group. After the president presented me with the doctorate, one of [Jackson’s] students (Michael) sat down at the piano—there’s a baby grand there. He started playing spirituals. We had been hearing “Steal Away” on the way over, and I had commented to Javon how much I love spirituals. And Michael sat down and started playing it. I guess there were about five or six of us. We started singing…well, I can’t sing. They started singing! I was singing along with them and it was just wonderful.
[Before] we had to leave Javon said, “We ought to do something.” And I said, “My goodness, yes!” You know how people say it but they don’t mean it? We heard back from him; he said “Send me some of your [favorite spirituals].” And I did.
[To Jackson] I was listening to us, Javon, and I realize you tell a story. You’re not just showing off; you’re telling a story with that sax.
Javon Jackson: Well, I’m humbled by that. I appreciate that.
[To Jordannah Elizabeth] Like you’re a fan, your mother’s a fan, I’m a fan. I wanted Nikki to come to the university and speak to the students about her first-hand thoughts on things, and her life, from her own lips. For me it’s been such a blessing from that point; now to continue to have a relationship with her, to have done music together (we got some touring coming up)…I’m on cloud nine.
AmNews: How did your experience and understanding of Black spirituals inspire this project?
Giovanni: We moved to Cincinnati [when] I was a baby. There was no Baptist church near where we lived, so Mama became AME. But my grandmother—I lived with my grandmother most of my teenage years—and
Grandpa were Baptist. And of course church opened every Sunday.
I’m always sad when children don’t go to church because they think church has something to do with religion, which maybe it does. But mostly church has something to do with community.
The kids had to go to Sunday school, which we did. You get ice cream at Carter-Roberts drug store but you had to be back at church on time. You had to be sitting down when the choir walked through. I always sat with Grandma; Grandpa was a deacon, so he sat with the deacons. And you heard “What a Fellowship.”
I know the Jazz Messengers and I know saxophones. When we started talking about this project, I really wanted some of the songs that I love so much to be brought—I don’t want to say up-to-date because they’re never not going to be not up-to-date. Anything that gives you comfort for 300 years, it ought to give you comfort now. Those songs offer so much. When I hear “Don’t Open My Mouth to the Lord/That I never will turn back/I shall go see what the end shall be.” I thought, yeah you need that because that gives you the strength to go and see what the end will be.
Jackson: I agree with everything Nikki mentioned. For me it’s been interesting because once I got these choices of Nikki’s it gave me a chance to go back and do some listening to these incredible artists. Whether it’s Sweet Honey and The Rock, Moses Hogan, Jesse Norman, Etta James. It gives me such great appreciation of these lyrics, sung by these incredible people.
When I got these choices I just wanted to make sure that I could at least have the proper emotion and the delivery that these artists do when they deliver these lyrics. They’re telling a story and also sending messages to each other during that time, about what they were enduring. We see one side, which is the tremendous strife struggle. And then the other side is the hope and love, belief that things will get better. Not for them maybe, but they got better for us.
So we’re trying to do our best, for what we’re enduring, to make it better for the rest. And that’s the reason I reached out to someone like Nikki to talk to the students. It’s time for us to take the baton. She passed it. It’s time for the rest of us to run the race.
AmNews: Nikki, what would you like the next generation to take from this album?
Giovanni: When you find someone as incredible and wonderful and as talented as Javon Jackson, who’s willing to work with you, who says “Why don’t we do something?”—you take him at his word and do your part.
Take advantage. There are so many talented people in the younger generation. It’s time for you all to hook up and take a chance. Javon could have said “I wish I had time…” He had another album planned and he made the change to be able to work with me on this. And that was a dare that he took with his career. And I’m just so proud he was willing to share it with me.
We have one song on the album, “Night Song,” that is not a spiritual. But Nina Simone was a friend of mine and it was her favorite song. So I said to Javon “Do you think we can add this?” He said yes. I said “Do you think I can sing it?” And he was kind enough and said yes (because I’m not a singer). But his saxophone is so beautiful behind it.
I wanted to do that for Nina. I’m so sorry Nina is listening to it in Heaven and not on Earth because she would just love it.
Javon says “Night Song” is the highlight of the album.
Jackson: Everyone likes “Night Song” the best because it was such a shock to see this piece being sung by Nikki. On The New York Times it was a Top Select in [their] Gospel Journal. Everyone says it’s very reminiscent of Billie Holliday. Billie Holiday to me was a storyteller through her words.
Music is an aural art, and so it comes from the ear. The music is passed on from word-of-mouth, generation passing it on the [next] generation. Reach out to these incredible folks that we stand on the shoulders of—they’re right in front of us. Connect. We have the same kind of belief in love.
I’m very honored; we haven’t started touring yet. I’m looking forward to it. The CD came out about a week ago. We got a lot more things to do publicly with it. The band is so happy—they’re going to be on stage with Nikki!