Javon Jackson Extends the Tradition


Javon Jackson’s latest album is titled For You.

(Photo: Dave Banks)

Saxophonist Javon Jackson’s latest album—For You, a self-assured post-bop statement released on his own label, Solid Jackson Records—is in many ways an homage to the musicians who have meant the most to him.

The program includes a swinging rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Backstage Sally,” along with two songs by pianist Cedar Walton (1934–2013), whom Jackson describes in the liner notes as “a major mentor and close friend.” There are original compositions dedicated to Freddie Hubbard (a onetime employer), Pharoah Sanders (who once lent Jackson a mouthpiece before a show) and McCoy Tyner (with whom Jackson has performed at the Blue Note).

The collection of tunes suggests that Jackson is a man who respects the past, but isn’t afraid to put his own stamp on things.

“We usually write for people,” the tenor saxophonist said during an interview at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. “I got that from Jimmy Heath.”

When Jackson came onto the scene in the late 1980s as a promising new member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, he was lauded for a neo-classical approach, with a dry tone that recalled Joe Henderson and John Coltrane.

“That was a conduit for me to meet all of the musicians that I would later work with,” said Jackson, who went on to play alongside such stalwarts as Ron Carter, Louis Hayes and Elvin Jones.

Jackson, 53, serves as a role model and mentor for younger musicians, as he keeps the tradition alive not only onstage, but also in the classroom. For the past six years, he has served as the director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at The Hartt School, part of the University of Hartford. In 1968, McLean established the African-American music department and later the jazz studies degree program there.

“Knowing Jackie as I did and the kind of person he was and his commitment to starting that jazz department, it’s been an honor to follow in his footsteps,” Jackson said. “I want to help the next generation of musicians as much as I can. I try to offer some input or advice on music or business to [help students] get along … because we all need some help.”

Jackson devised the curriculum for a master’s degree in jazz at the school, a process that took him two years. The program was launched this fall.

Along with his education duties, Jackson still finds time to perform and record. On For You, the bandleader employs his working quartet: pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter. And in 2019, the group, which has played together since 2013, plans to release Déjà Vu.

“[Jackson is] always searching for new ground, but always in the tradition of those guys, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane, of course, who he loves,” Williams said. “Some people, they’ve played it very safe, they know what they know, and they stay within those bounds, but he’ll step out. It makes me play better. It gives me that much more freedom.”

Jackson happily remains, at this point in his fruitful career, a searcher.

“I’m still as energized as ever to keep writing and try to keep developing as a musician,” he said. But the saxophonist also feels a deep responsibility to pass on what he’s learned to the next generation of musicians.

“The students won’t get to know Art Blakey,” Jackson said. “They won’t get to know Freddie Hubbard, they won’t get to know Elvin Jones or Cedar Walton or Charlie Haden or Betty Carter. But they can know them through me.” DB

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