iDJ meets Brian 'Javonntte' Garrett, a man with one of the most fascinating backstories we've ever come across…
For anyone with a decent working knowledge of underground US house and techno, Brian 'Javonntte' Garrett shouldn't need too much introduction.
With a production CV that stretches back to the late 90s, Brian/Javonntte – which by the way para-rhymes with Provence, not Beyonce – has worked, whether as a musician, vocalist, artist-producer or remixer, with the likes of Amp Fiddler, Blake Baxter, DJ Romain, Sean McCabe, Scott Grooves and more, and his music's spanned an equally diverse range of styles, from house and techno to straight-up soul and funk, all of it often with a distinct jazz tinge.
Take last month's Virtual Dreams EP on The Jazz Diaries, for instance – tracks range from the Daft Punk-like vocodered dance-pop of Ride Like The Wind to the deep house-jazz-dub-funk excursion that is Outerbound. And with seven albums under his belt to date, there's plenty more where that came from!
So much so, in fact, that when his 'people' got in touch to ask about a Making Waves slot in iDJ, we had to say no: that's for newcomers, and Javonntte is no newcomer. Let's do a proper interview instead, we said – and then realised that there's actually very little information about the man out there. You'll read everywhere that he used to be a dancer for Aretha Franklin, for instance, but no one ever says how that came about.
So we rang him up and asked him… and discovered a long, storied saga that takes in not just Aretha Franklin but also Miles Davis, Slum Village and a spell inside a federal penitentiary. Stories of redemption are quite common in dance music, of course – we couldn't begin to count the number of UK DJs, label owners and promoters, for instance, who've told us, “I was a football hooligan/mugger/burglar… until acid house saved me”. But we've seldom heard a tale quite as enthralling – and, ultimately, uplifting and inspiring – as this one.
So here it is.
Normally with people who've been releasing records for 20 years, as you have, we skip the biographical stuff because it's usually a story that's been told time and time again. But yours hasn't, really. And I know you came into house music relatively late on… so how did it all start for you?
“Well, originally, I was into jazz. I started playing in high school. It was just something that was fun at first, then I got into a marching band, and from there I started gravitating towards jazz. Back then it was Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and stuff on the radio. But it all seemed a little bit far-fetched, because there wasn't a lot of musicians in the family.
“So I really took interest in jazz music at first, because I was a drummer at first. Then I wanted to play keyboards, but there were no piano players in the family, so my Mom got me some keyboard lessons. I took some lessons from Miles Davis, which my Mom arranged. Which was really, really deep, up in New Lake, Michigan – I got a chance to meet a lot of amazing musicians up there, and I started practising real hard, and – ”
Okay, hang on, let me stop you there! See, when I was 11 and I wanted to learn an instrument, my Mum arranged some lessons for me, too. But that was with a nice lady from Baildon, West Yorkshire called Pamela Lancaster – not Miles Davis! How did that come about?
“Well, my Mom was a union president, so she knew a lot of people, and she was kind of a DJ too. So when musicians came to town, often my Mom would get free tickets because she had a lot of connections.
“So she asked me one day, 'Do you want to take some classes with Miles Davis?'. And I'm laughing at her saying, 'C'mon mom, get real!' but she just stood there and looked at me and said, 'Do you want to take some lessons or not?'. So she took me up there, I met Miles, took a month's class – she paid him but it was kind of unusual, no one knew about it except me and my Mom – and I learned a lot of things from him, studying music theory and stuff.
“Back then though, I was still a kid. So I'd be there looking at him, and I'd hear him on the radio, but I couldn't really put the two together, you know? But I went on and just took the lessons. He was a brilliant guy.”
When exactly was this, then, and how old were you at that point?
“This was when I was 15 or so, and I'm 51 now, so I guess mid-80s.”
Okay. So there you are, something of a teenage prodigy I imagine if Miles Davis took that much interest in you… and then I know you ended up dancing for Aretha Franklin, so how did that happen?
“Well, Aretha's sister Erma was married to my father, so I would see her sometimes. And this one time, I was working taking care of kids and she asked me if I'd be interested in going on tour, but I said no, not really because, y'know, I was just trying to be a regular guy. But then my car got stolen and I needed the money, so I HAD to go try out for her!” (laughs)
It's a hard life, isn't it…
“I know, like, DAMN, I gotta go try out for Aretha! (laughs) And when I went for the try-outs she said, 'You need some money? Okay I'll try you out, 20 minutes”. Well, she tried me out, I got the tour, she gave me the part… and then we rehearsed 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for 12 years.”
Wow. Had you done anything like that before?
“No, I had not – and I actually quit several times because it was so hard. We had to learn jazz, we had to learn 1920s dances, and then we had to act as well, so I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't do this'. But Aretha had a talk with me, and it was hard at first, but it got easier. The touring was hard – jumping on buses from city to city, aeroplanes, it really took a toll on me those first two years. But then after that you kind of fall in, and I started really learning from her. She was my boss.”
So that takes us through to about, what, 30 or so? And somewhere along the way you discover house music…
“Yeah. Originally, I kinda liked house music but I didn't really understand it, until I was playing with Malik Austin, and one night Kai Alcé came up and introduced himself and I started working with him. I didn't really understand house music until I started working with Kai.”
And yet, being in Detroit, presumably you must have been exposed to house and techno music quite early on?
“Yeah, I'd hear it and listen to it and I liked it, I even made some records with the Nouveau Riche label in the 90s, but I didn't really get a good understanding of it. Kai opened the door for me and really taught me about house music, so I have to give him all the credit for it.
“Before that, I didn't really take it seriously: I'd put out some records but I was coming at it from a musician's point, like, 'Okay I'll play on it' but I hadn't really been bitten by the bug. But when I met Kai, he actually educated me on house, and now I tell a lot of musicians, 'Just because you can play an instrument, house music is not as easy as you think. There's a lot of components to it, a lot of different styles.' Kai educated me on all that.”
Well, there are a lot of styles in the house music you make, so that seems like a good point to move on to talking about that. Because two things strike me about your output: one is that you're really quite prolific – two albums in 2019, for instance, where some producers might manage one a decade – and the other is that you cover quite a lot of musical ground, from Prince-y things to techno and right across the board…
“You know what? I'm gonna be real honest with you: the reason I put out a lot of music like that, is because I had some problems with the law. I was a drug dealer, a long time ago, and I went to the federal penitentiary. But after six months in jail, it came to a trial and the judge said, 'You do music, don't you? Tell you what I'm gonna do: I'm going to give you immunity, but you've got to promise me you'll get on the straight and narrow, concentrate on your music and not come back here'.”
“And I told the judge, 'Sir, you will never see me again'. And he came to one of my shows! That really inspired me, because I thought I was never coming home. But see, there was a studio in the prison, and the warden saw me playing something and he was like, 'Why are you in here?'. Then he put on a concert that I played in – he even paid me, which was kinda crazy, being in prison but getting paid – and he was like, 'I'm gonna get you out of here'. So he called the judge, they excused me, I signed the immunity papers, and I haven't stopped since then. It was a miracle, really. So from there I just focused on raising my kids right and making music.”
“Okay, I was a drug dealer. But I never hurt anybody, and when I got caught and got sent to jail, I was scared! So when they retried me and gave me that second chance, I took it. I never thought those two guys would help me, but they did.”
Moving a bit more up-to-date, I wanted to talk about a couple of specific people you've worked with over the years, and how you came to hook up with them. Blake Baxter, first of all…
“I met Blake through a friend of mine, a DJ called Steve. Blake had a record store in downtown Detroit called Save The Vinyl, so I'd go down there to see Steve and he introduced me. And Blake was cool and said 'Let's see what you can do in the studio', and I actually ended up living with him for a few months. Blake taught me about techno and sound, he gave me my first microphone, and he signed me to his label.
“The record didn't do too well, so he dropped me, but he came back years later and said 'Hey, let's just record some music for the future'. He taught me a lot, and he was like a big brother to me.”
What about Scott Grooves?
“I met Scott Grooves through Blake. I didn't know who Scott was, I was at a party and this guy with shades was just staring at me. Then he walks up to me and says 'Blake's been telling me about you', he invited me to his studio and we did some things together. We ended up being good friends through the years and putting out a few good records.”
And perhaps most famously, you've also worked with Amp Fiddler…
“Well, Amp knows everybody in Detroit! But I actually first met Amp through Baatin from Slum Village, who used to live with me. They were all from the east side of Detroit. I used to go over to his house just to listen to him make music, for about a year, and he gave me the opportunity to play in his band and we ended up making some records together. But at the same time, Aretha was asking me to write a track for her album, which I ended up doing, so she kind of intercepted Amp.”
And coming right up to date, the reason we're talking today is because of your recent Virtual Dreams EP. There are five tunes on the EP – how would you describe them?
“ReggieTune – that's more of a feel-good track, something you would just meditate on. Get Down, that's more of a dance thing… it's funny, because a lot of times I don't really see tracks as dance tracks, they're more just something to listen to. But then I'll take it to the label and they'll say 'that's a dance track', so I guess it must be!
“Ride Like The Wind, now that right there is a driving track, it's one I made to play in the car when I was driving from Chicago to New York or something. But then I gave it to a DJ friend and he started playing it and people were dancing to it, so I guess it's a dance track as well. Out Of Bounds, that's strictly a mental track, a fusion kind of track to sit down and meditate to or something – a mental travelling track. And SOS, that's another feel-good track.”
But that EP isn't the only new music of yours to emerge lately, is it? Because I looked at your Soundcloud and in the past two months you've stuck about 22 million new tracks on there! So what's going on?
(laughs) “Well, I'm also experimental, too, because I also do rock & roll, I do ska, I do reggae, I come up with music every day. Like, I know a lot of dance guys aren't into country & western but some days I'll sit down and write three country & western tunes. Or I'll make a rock tune, or something new wave. And then sometimes I'll just do 20 house tracks.
“So Soundcloud is a chance for me to stretch my imagination, and those tracks are really just on there to be something for people to enjoy. A little bit of something for everybody.”
Does that help you keep your ears fresh in the studio, too? Sometimes, if I'm playing through a stack of house tunes, I'll go off halfway through and put on some Led Zeppelin or something – it's like in a perfume shop, when they get you to sniff coffee beans in-between the different scents…
“Yes, exactly. Sometimes I'll take a break from making house music and do something completely different, like a comedy song you might hear on kids' TV or something. Just take a break and go off into a different kind of music, exactly like you said. And yeah, I love Led Zeppelin too!”
Now here's the big question. You've been making house records for 20 years, you're someone the 'heads' know about for sure, but you're not a household name in the way someone like, say, Jeff Mills or Todd Terry is. But would you want to be? Are you quite happy just making a living and getting the professional respect, or would you secretly like to be up there on the main stage, headlining festivals in front of 100,000 people and so on?
“Well, let me put it this way. I toured with Aretha for years, I wrote a song for one of her albums, I've been on major labels, I've worked with and for celebrities… I've raised my kids doing that! But I've never looked at it as… y'know, some people know me, I did one big show here and people came, but as for being a household name? I'm just happy if people like the music I put out.
“If I can just get my music out and people appreciate it, that makes me happy. That's why I like putting all that music on Soundcloud, because I'll get people saying things like, 'I don't really like rock, but I liked that rock track you did', and that's what makes me happy. Just to be an artist and have people appreciate it.
“I mean, to go somewhere and hear a DJ play my tunes, or like today, to be talking to a journalist in England – that's priceless. But if I was a big name superstar as a house artist, could I still put out an R&B tune or make a rock track if I wanted to? I don't think people would accept it. House music is something I really, really, really love, but I love that this way, people just accept me as an artist. That's all I've been trying to do, is be a free artist.”
It sounds, from all that you've told me today, like coming out jail and getting really stuck into making music was a something of a rebirth for you…
“Oh, definitely. Coming out of jail, I managed to spend some time with my father, I was taking care of him before he died, and during those years, I started praying a lot and the Creator really showed me that through working hard and being diligent and treating people right… it really made me go through a rebirth. And the spiritual part is really deep, because that's something a lot of people don't want to go through.
“We don't WANT to go through the rebirth part, because that's the part where you need to criticise yourself, you need to look at your bad habits and your addictions and you have to stop doing them. That's the part a lot of people don't like to do.”
… and right now, you seem pretty at one with the world?
“Yeah. You know, I'm kinda like a hippy in a way – live and let live. My thing is, just try your best. Because what you put out, you get back – no one's perfect, but if people see that you're trying and you've got a good attitude, I think people will help you.”
Let's hope so… and let's hope that soon, this pandemic ends and we can get out there and spread some of that house music love and positivity around in person again, because I think the world needs a big dose of it right now.
“Yes, the world does. It really does.”
Words: Russell Deeks
Javonntte's Virtual Dreams EP is out now on The Jazz Diaries; Jus Move by Jonna feat Javonntte is out on Lumberjacks In Hell on 21 June
Follow Javonntte: Soundcloud