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Saxophonist Javon Jackson, poet Nikki Giovanni collaborate on album of gospel hymns, spirituals

A Black woman and Black man sit in a studio. She has a music stand in front of her; he is playing a saxophone.
Shaban Athuman
Nikki Giovanni and Javon Jackson in the studio.

"The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni" releases on Friday, Feb. 18. Here's how the renowned African American poet, activist and educator came to collaborate with a former Jazz Messenger.

“These songs are so important,” says Nikki Giovanni, a Maya Angelou Lifetime Achievement Award winner who came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s as a foundational member of the Black Arts movement following the publication of her early works: 1968’s book of poetry Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgment and 1970’s Re:Creation.

“They comforted people through times of slavery, and during recent years, we needed them to comfort us again. But a lot of the students today do not know about the history of these songs, and they should. So I’m out here putting water on the flowers, because they need a drink.”

The 78-year-old poet curated the 10 songs on the "The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni," and she makes a rare vocal appearance on the ballad “Night Song,” a song identified with her close friend, the late civil rights activist and High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone.

“Nina was a friend of mine, and I knew that one of her favorite songs was ‘Night Song,’ ” she explains. “And even though I’m not a singer, I told Javon I wanted to sing it because I just wanted Nina to be remembered.”

On "Wade in the Water," Christina Greer reads from Giovanni's poem "A Very Simple Wish."

“It’s the first time I worked in a collaborative manner,”Javon Jackson says. “The project is personal for me. I come from a lineage of devout Christians, and that has afforded me the chance to connect with that ancestral stream.”

Jackson, once part of drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, is a faculty member of The Hartt School at the University of Hartford and director of its Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz.

As he recalls, “Ever since I’ve been at the University of Hartford, I felt that the school would be well-served to bring great scholars of color and scholars who were freedom fighters and activists, if you will. So I brought in Dr. Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis and Michael Eric Dyson. Then in February of 2020, I brought Nikki Giovanni.”

The poet’s appearance at the university coincided with her receiving an honorary doctorate there.

“After Nikki spoke to the students, she noticed that the Hank Jones and Charlie Haden CD of hymns and spirituals (1994’s 'Steal Away') was playing in the auditorium," Jackson remembers. "She said she loved it and wanted to hear more, and just then I was hit with the idea. Two days later, after she returned to her home in Roanoke, I contacted her and said, ‘Would you be willing to pick 10 hymns? And that’ll be my next recording.’ She got back to me in a few days and gave me the 10 selections.”

For the recording, Jackson assembled the band that's on his last two albums, 2018's "For You" and 2020's "Deja Vu"— pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter.

“This music is something that people will probably be a little surprised to see coming from me,” Jackson says.

But for listeners, it feels like it's right on time.

Listen for "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" from "The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni" on KNKX Midday and Evening Jazz.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.