Javon Jackson Becomes Chairman Of Jackie Mclean Institute
September 08, 2013
As the new chairman of the prestigious Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford's Hartt School, Javon Jackson brings solid credentials as a teacher/mentor and as a highly skilled practitioner of the art of jazz.
Jackson's thick resume presents a high-definition portrait of the 48-year-old modern jazz tenor saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator who's as much at home on campus as he is expressive and inventive in the grooves of jazz improvisation.
Emerging into prominence during his invaluable, life-shaping stint with drummer/jazz guru Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from 1987 to 1990, Jackson has toured and recorded with an array of jazz giants including Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones, Donald Byrd, Ron Carter, Betty Carter, Cedar Walton, Stanley Turrentine, Lonnie Smith and Les McCann, among many others. Just recently, he performed once again with the esteemed 84-year-old drummer Jimmy Cobb, an NEA Jazz Master, in a run at the Village Vanguard, Manhattan's jazz mecca.
As a first-call sideman, Jackson has appeared on more than 135 CDs and 14 recordings as a bandleader, including six highly acclaimed recordings for Blue Note Records, the longtime blue-chip jazz label. As a composer, he was commissioned by the Syracuse International Film Festival to compose a full-length score for the 1927 silent film thriller "The Lodger," a tale about a Jack the Ripper-like serial killer that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
While Jackson has honed a distinctive, original style, , the globe-trotting saxophonist/scholar has enormous respect for and encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history, including, of course, the rich heritage of the tenor saxophone from Coleman Hawkins (the founding patriarch of the jazz tenor) and Lester Young, on through such early personal favorites as Joe Henderson, John Coltrane and other greats.
Jackson has a bachelor's degree in music from the Berklee College of Music -- completed while touring with jazz heavyweights -- and a master's degree in music from State University of New York at Purchase, where he recently was a professor. He loves the one-on-one teaching experience and has conducted clinics and lectures at colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad. He served as an assistant professor of jazz at Long Island University from 1996 to 1998, and at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College from 1999 to 2007.
Whether in class or on the bandstand, Jackson says it's all about sharing knowledge. He learned so much about the craft and leadership skills directly from master performer/teachers such as Blakey. Besides teaching the technical side of music, he's happy to share the wealth of his experience with his students. In some ways, he says, this communing of knowledge and experience with students in a classroom is analogous to what he does as a performer, creating expressive music in a club or a concert hall where, through his art, he also shares his life experiences with his listeners.
Jackson feels linked in a deep, spiritual way to his friend, the late Jackie McLean (1931-2006), the alto saxophonist, educator, activist and founder of the nationally recognized jazz program at The Hartt School.
After joining The Hartt faculty more than four decades ago, McLean created Hartt's African-American Music Department, eventually transforming this major accomplishment with a giant step into a full degree-granting program, which the University of Hartford renamed in his honor in 2002 as the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz.
McLean's brainchild, one of the nation's early jazz degree programs, today has a faculty of top-ranked musician/educators, including his son, noted saxophonist/composer Rene McLean, and a legion of nationally acclaimed graduates. Among those graduates are alto saxophonist Sue Terry, the program's first jazz degree graduate, and tenor titans Jimmy Greene and Wayne Escoffery.
Along with being the new chairman, Jackson also comes aboard on the West Hartford campus as an associate professor of jazz, a role fitting for an administrator who loves teaching. Besides serving as the educational and administrative leader for the institute, the former New Jersey resident will teach, work with ensembles, and assist in recruitment and development efforts. As chairman in the newly created tenured position, Jackson succeeds Peter Woodard, associate professor of piano and pedagogy, who had been serving as the interim department head.
Just before getting set up in his freshly repainted office on campus, Jackson chatted with The Courant about everything from how he first got hopelessly hooked on jazz as a kid growing up in Denver to his reflections on his job and his role as the apostolic successor to the chair once held by Jackie McLean.
Q: Basically, what are your thoughts about coming in as the new leader of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz?
A: It's a tremendous honor. Jackie was a friend and mentor for me, so to come in and be part of what he established, just in itself, is humbling. In that spirit, I'm looking forward to spending time with students, giving them some input or insight and thoughts as they pertain to being a professional musician and other aspects of life itself. The position itself is great, particularly at this institution, which without question has great meaning and depth.
Q: So you knew Jackie McLean long before you took this job?
A: Absolutely. First of all, I heard jazz music growing up as a child. So I had Jackie McLean in my house even then. When I joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Jackie would come around and went with us when Art took current and past Jazz Messengers on a five-week tour of Europe.
I was around Jackie, Curtis Fuller and Benny Golson (all famed former Jazz Messengers) from morning until night for five weeks. We didn't talk about the school, but the day-to-day conversation was about music and heroes like Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins or Bud Powell. So there was some kinship formed, and Jackie was always available and accessible to everyone.
Q: Over the years, Jackie brought a lot of great musicians to the program to give master classes. Did you make that run?
A: Yes. Later after the Blakey tour, Jackie brought me to the school to do a master class. So I got a chance to see the school and spend time with him. I talked to him on many occasions, and I'd call him every year on May 17 to wish him a happy birthday.
Q: Have you thought yet about new directions that the program might take under your leadership?
A: Probably it would be a bit brazen just to come in and make some kind of wholesale changes. First of all, it's a strong program. It's got world-class musicians that are here now. The thing for me will be to come in and get a chance to know everybody and to immerse myself in the community, and then go from there in terms of maybe some ideas and directions, which I will have.
But I don't know that today there is anything that I would say, "OK, this absolutely has to change." I think that would be silly.
Right away, just being a good teacher, a good professor involves facets of this position that I can get to. Obviously, I have my own particular style, but on Day One I don't know that I would try to implement anything.
Q: You left your undergrad studies at Berklee to go on the road, but still somehow managed to get your degree. Why was that?
A: I just always felt that I wanted to keep learning and keep building. After I got my undergrad degree, it was musicians like Ron Carter who pushed me along, inspired me to study more.
After I joined Art Blakey, I kind of left school, but my mom wanted me to get the degree and I promised her that I would get it by correspondence, some way or fashion, which I did. After I told Ron (Carter) that story, he said, "Well, what's keeping you from getting a master's?" "Well, nothing," I said. He said, "Well, do it." I said, "Why?" He said, "Do it." I did. So the idea that you can't put the two together, college and performance, I don't really support.
Q: What do you get out of the teaching side of your career?
A: We're all professors. I'm not trying to lessen what I'm doing as an educator, but Art Blakey, who had no formal degree, was like a professor passing on information. So for those who never got to know Art Blakey, hopefully I can give them some insight into him, or show some of the devices or the attitudes he had about how to go about being a musician. And it's the same for other musicians I knew who have passed like Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd.
These are all artists I worked with who 17-year-old students today won't get a chance to know but maybe can get a little insight into them, as well as into Jackie McLean, through me. Jazz is a continuum. So this is the passing of the baton. It happens on the collegiate level, and also happens on the bandstand with individuals who do not have degrees.
Q: What about the difficulties you can encounter when teaching?
A: If the student doesn't understand something, I have to do a better job of explaining it to him or her. When it works, we all get a rush. Teaching should actually do as much for me as it does for the student being taught.
Q: So teaching is not a one-way experience?
A: I don't know of anything being one-way. Everything is two ways. If it's one-way, then the person who's teaching is self-centered.
Q: What was your experience like with Art Blakey, who's so renowned as a master mentor for scores of musicians like Jackie, yourself and everybody from Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis who served apprenticeships with the Jazz Messengers?
A: Art was all about sharing and all about the music feeling right, or swinging, as we say. He was all about growing and being better as an artist, being better today than you were yesterday, and for being better tomorrow than you were today. He wanted to show you what he went through so that hopefully that would allow you to go ahead and do what you would want to do. He was very disciplined in terms of the way he wanted the group to present itself. And the big thing for him was to always take a moment to let the audience know you appreciated them being there.
Q: You got hooked on jazz when you were a little kid. How did that happen?
A: From my earliest memory, I heard music in the house, different styles. My mother loved John Coltrane. My father loved Gene Ammons. As a kid, I listened to Sonny Stitt, Miles (Davis) and 'Trane (John Coltrane), Ahmad Jamal and Charlie Parker. Once I started to play saxophone at 10 or 11, I tried to imitate some of the players I was hearing all the time in the house.
By the time I was in my early teens, my father and mother would take me out to see these great artists performing live whenever they'd come to Denver. When I was 13, my Dad said, "I'm going to take you to see somebody." I begged him to take me to see Sonny Stitt. We saw Stitt and a few months later Dexter Gordon, two months later the Modern Jazz Quartet or Stanley Turrentine. It was just unbelievable.
Q: Do you remember any specific album among your parents' great collection?
A: When I was 13, my father had some recordings of Art Blakey, and one of those was "One Night at Birdland." So I read the liner notes on the back of that album and started doing my research and said, "Man, I want to play with him!" I was about 14 when I said that. So when you look back and realize that you got to achieve some of your goals, you've got to pinch yourself and say, "Man, I got to play with Art Blakey!"
Q: What drew you to the tenor?
A: I was in high school and playing alto in my senior year when a chance came up to be in a citywide ensemble. There was already an alto player. So the only way I could get in the ensemble was as a tenor player. So I took up the tenor and never looked back.
Q: Technique and musical knowledge are, of course, invaluable assets. But how important is the expression of feeling in music?
A: I think the music that we all really love, whatever style it is, emotes something. There should be some sense of feeling. If you get that, you love it.
Q: How else is that sense of spirituality manifested?
A: When I walk into the school, I know that Jackie's presence is there. For me, that's spiritual.
It's such a great opportunity to be part of the Jackie McLean lineage. It's like receiving the baton from Jackie. And I also have the utmost respect for his wife, Dollie, who was always there to support Jackie all those years, and for what they accomplished with the Artists Collective (a venerable Hartford community cultural and educational center that McLean founded and ran with Dollie, a charismatic miracle worker in her own right). We're talking big-time stuff, man.
Knowing Jackie, I know he would say to me about succeeding him, "Look, man, Javon, go do it! Go do it, man!" He'd say, "You're one of my babies, Go do it."
I believe that Art Blakey's spirit is still with me in a spiritual sense. I believe that Freddie (Hubbard) is with me, and all the other artists I've been around over the years, musicians I turned to for information like Eddie Harris, Stanley Turrentine and Joe Henderson. When you hear their music, their spirit is still all out there.
Q: What's it like playing with Jimmy Cobb, the last living player from Miles Davis' 1959 classic album, "Kind of Blue"?
A: I've never seen Jimmy play a gig where he doesn't give 100 percent. That's the way it is with all the artists we've been talking about. They never come on stage thinking, "Ah, I'm just going to get through this one tonight." As Blakey would say, "When you go on stage, treat this opportunity as if it's your last because it could be."
Q: What do you think about coming to Hartford?
A: I'm old friends with faculty members like Nat Reeves, Rene McLean and also Steve Davis, who was with me toward the end of the Jazz Messengers when Blakey died in 1990.
Hartford is no mystery to me. You're not sending me to a city in Alaska. I know the city. I know some of the good restaurants. Obviously, you know better ways to get to some places than I do, but I've played in Hartford 10 or 15 times, including with Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Jimmy Cobb and with my own band with Curtis Fuller.
Q: Every couple of years or so, critics, as self-appointed coroners, love to declare that jazz is dead? Is it?
A: That's a no-brainer. It definitely has a future. Today, colleges across the country and throughout the world teach jazz. It's out there. There's an awareness of jazz artists today that wasn't there 20 or 30 years ago.
Q: Can formal college training be a replacement for what you learn by actually playing in clubs?
A: Performing artists have to understand that while they're learning in the classroom, ultimately they'll get many of their best experiences and learning tools by going out into the field. No matter what they learn in a classroom or what I might teach them in an institution, they've got to go out and play in front of an audience to make sure it works.
It's like we're in a laboratory putting these concoctions together, but you've still got to go out and try it out on the audience to see if the concoction works. Somebody's got to drink the potion. You keep putting these concoctions together, but somebody's got to drink them.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at