“Our people were not uneducated, they were not graduates”, said iconic poet and Virginia Tech English professor Nikki Giovanni, sitting at an oak table in her dining room, which is overflowing with art and books, on a drizzly day in Christiansburg, Virginia. together, and we call it church. … But what it is is community.
An acclaimed poet, activist and scholar, Giovanni has made Virginia his home for the past 20 years, living in the southwestern part of the state, outside of the capital fray or the intellectual hub of Charlottesville, where many other scholars of his prominence make their homes. She’s “an Appalachian,” a Tennessee-born woman who feels connected to the small communities of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
In February, Giovanni and Javon Jackson, an accomplished tenor saxophonist and professor of jazz studies at the University of Hartford, released a collaborative album, “The Gospel according to Nikki Giovanni”, with reimagined interpretations of centuries-old spirituals and hymns, selected by Giovanni and invigorated by Jackson’s passionate playing.
Jackson says he sees their album as a creative way to share American history with younger generations. In response to the question of why they chose the spirituals, Giovanni asks, “Why not?” She points to the strong community bonds black people forged under the yoke of slavery and the musical art form they created in the process, called spirituals.
“They are America’s history,” says Jackson, who at 21 joined legendary drummer and bandleader Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “[Spirituals] talk about so many aspects of the way of life that we live in America, which at that time was suffrage, was oppression, was brutality. But outside of that, there was always a sense of hope, belief, and optimism that things would get better.
Giovanni explains that “no one would ask: ‘Why did we learn to read Little Red Riding Hood?’ … We don’t ask that question. Because we accept the fact that we should know,” she said, her dark eyes piercing, knowing. “I’m saying you have to accept that it’s also a way, as Javon says, of telling the story.”
The poet and author of dozens of books is a cultural authority on “telling the story” and being a story writer in her own right. In the 1960s, Giovanni helped found the black arts movement: a celebration of black literature, visual arts, music and theater, as well as “the cultural section of the Black Power movement in that its participants shared many ideologies of black self-determination, political beliefs and African-American culture”.
The duo’s creative and musical collaboration germinated in February 2020 when Giovanni, at Jackson’s invitation, spoke with students at the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford, of which he is the director.
“She was supposed to sit with the dignitaries, but she went right away and started singing,” recalls Jackson, a tall man who sports a gray three-piece suit and a neat afro. He came from Charlotte, where he is giving a concert the following evening, to take part in this interview. He and Giovanni smile in unison with the memory of the occasion, when one of the world’s best-known poets mingled his voice with Jackson’s students and colleagues in what he describes as a “jovial and warm moment “.
- Shaban R. Athuman
- Javon Jackson and Nikki Giovanni.
During the event, Jackson says they listened to recordings of various musicians performing spirituals, an art form that “has its roots in the informal gatherings of enslaved Africans in houses of worship and meetings in outdoors called brush arbor meetings, bush meetings, or camp meetings in the 18th century,” according to the Library of Congress.
Jackson remembers hearing Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, a great jazz duo, play spirituals such as “Steal Away.” “And [Giovanni] was commenting on how much she loves spirituals, and I love spirituals and of course jazz. She loves Billie Holiday, she loves Lester Young, she loves all my heroes,” he says.
“One of [Jackson’s] students, I think his name was Michael, when I finished my speech and everything, there was a grand piano, a little quarter grand,” Giovanni says, his voice excited and hesitant. She spreads and wiggles her fingers on the dining table, now serving as an invisible piano. “And Michael sat down and played, and we [were] all singing together. You see, I can’t sing… but that’s what I love about spirituals, you don’t have to be able to sing.
By the end of the day, the pair had struck up a friendship and hatched a plan: They would work together to create an album celebrating the music of their ancestors, with the express purpose of educating others about spirituals.
“I just don’t like the idea that children – the young ones I should say, the younger ones – don’t know about this music, what it teaches us and how it comforts us,” says Giovanni. “And anything that can get you through 200 years of what we’ve been through has got to be important and good…and still very, very helpful.” It is comforting.
Giovanni selected the spirituals for the 10-track album, and just over two years after they first met, “The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni” was released on Jackson’s label, Solid Jackson Records, on February 18. included is not spiritual, but equally sacred: “Night Song”, a standard by revolutionary jazz pianist and singer Nina Simone, is, for Giovanni, the most personally significant song on the record.
“I had the pleasure of hearing Nina sing it several times,” says Giovanni, a note of nostalgia bordering his lyrics. Giovanni, who says Simone was “a dear friend”, sings the album’s melody, a musical departure from his making of written words.
For Jackson, the most significant melody is “Wade in the Water”, the album’s third song.
“Because the poem on ‘Wade in the Water’, the last line is ‘I have in mind to build a new world…I want to play.’ And we could probably all sit down in our own way and say, “I have in mind to build a new world. Right?”
Ultimately, what people glean from the album is their own business, Jackson says.
“We put it on the table…for the next person to take the plate or eat the food we leave,” he says. “So in a way, it’s none of my business… I’d like people to like it and appreciate it and like it, but that’s not my motivation. My impetus is to share something something close to my heart.
Giovanni’s own hopes for the impact of the album go beyond today’s listeners – and even the Earth’s atmosphere.
“I’m a space freak,” she said flatly, with no hint of apology in her tone. “If I could go to the galaxy, I would take a saxophone. Because if there’s one thing the whole galaxy would react to, it’s the saxophone. Everyone loves the saxophone. And I would just ask Javon to play a few notes, and whatever life form there was, they would come and say, ‘Now what is this?’ … And I’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s a spiritual one.’
‘What is that?’
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Javon Jackson’s name. Style regrets the mistake.