Meet Derek Gordon
“ Culture is what makes us human. It's an essential part of who we are as human beings. I think that it's the one thing that lasts. ”
Derek Gordon has just gotten onboard at Jazz at Lincoln Center as Executive Director. He comes in at a historical time.
Gordon joins JALC after serving as Senior Vice President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - the nation's performing arts center - for over 12 years. He was responsible for overall planning, management and supervision of the programs and operations for the Washington, D.C. organization's education department and jazz programming.
Lisa Schiff, Chairman of the Board of JALC, says "It gives me great pleasure to announce Derek Gordon's appointment. He has had a highly successful 12-year career at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and brings enormous energy and talent to Jazz at Lincoln Center."
JALC CEO Hughlyn F. Fierce proudly announces, "Derek Gordon is uniquely qualified to further the mission of Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as celebrate this landmark season in our new home. We're honored to add such a talented and respected industry executive to our team."
JALC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis joins the welcoming committee. "Derek's background makes him exceptionally suited for Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center," Marsalis smiles. "He brings an impressive amount of experience in overseeing a performance arts organization and the skills needed to usher in our new facility. As we look toward the future, we celebrate the integration of the arts and how jazz has enhanced our cultural life."
Following is an exclusive interview with JALC Executive Director Derek Gordon:
AAJ: Welcome to New York. You've got a full plate in front of you...what do you have planned for the year coming up?
Derek Gordon: My plan is taking care of the business at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Clearly we have a season that is prepared for us by Wynton (Marsalis) and the rest of his programming staff. At the same time we will be learning how to make the most of our new home at Frederick P. Rose Hall. Consequently, we have a steep learning curve relative to the capabilities of the facility and also managing the increased amount of staff and activity. It's quite a step up in terms of our total operation.
AAJ: How important is culture?
DG: (thoughtful pause) Culture is what makes us human. It's an essential part of who we are as human beings. I think that it's the one thing that lasts. I think the music that we make, the art that we create, these are the things - over the centuries - that we will be remembered for and we will be judged by. So, I think that working in the performing arts, the visual arts, represents the most important work that can be done for society.
AAJ: I agree with that. Yet, it seems that the first thing they cut in schools is art...some sort of art program. But when you look back at history, you look at the culture of a society.
DG: The arts have always been used to celebrate, to commemorate and really to teach. So, I think it's short-sighted for those educational administrators, when the first thing to go are the arts programs from the curriculum...because if you look at the way we learn best and actually the way we begin to learn initially...it is almost totally arts-driven. Its' through sound and color and movement and through those basic elements we learn to maneuver throughout the world as human beings. We learn to read and to write and to communicate and to create our environment. The arts continue to be the means of communicating who we are and understanding one another through their cultural expression, which is generally represented somehow either through their music or their movement or their visual arts. It's inescapable that our creativity is an essential part of who we are. It has to be nourished in schools and for many students, it is the one thing that keeps them grounded and effective in school, it's the one area that they succeed in. While for another student, it might be sports, but I might add...that's movement, that's kinetic learning. For others it will be dance...it will be drawing and spatial reasoning...or it will be musical. It is essential to give those students the opportunity to thrive and to support other learning through their interests and their ability to excel. The same goes for the athlete or the chess player or whatever interest it might be.
AAJ: Do you remember back to a single instance that thrust you into the arts?
DG: The arts were always part of my upbringing. As a child, I listened to jazz recordings constantly because my mother would play them. Folks like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, even the Platters. This was my introduction to music. I went through parochial school in Baton Rouge and sang in the church of course. That was another passion for music. I began to learn about the world...about languages, about history...all through music. I'm a real opera fan. I majored in voice in college. I have a Masters in Vocal Performance. You can learn a lot about history and the cultures across the world through operatic music or through their popular music. I was recently listening to the Charlie Haden recording where he was doing the Boleros, "The Nocturne" I believe is the name of it. And you think, well that was probably happening while we were listening to Cole Porter. That was the Cuban equivalent to Cole Porter, but that sound represents who they were as Cuban musicians as people. That's why that music is so embedded in the consciousness of the Latin culture. So we have certain cultural encoding in a way. The great thing about that, is that we have something we can share. What Jazz at Lincoln Center allows us to do is share in the genre of jazz...to celebrate all of the cultures that connect to jazz. So if we're listening to Toshiko's (Akiyoshi) original compositions, that are clearly influenced by her Japanese background, or whether we're listening to Maria Schneider's work, which has a different element, very American, but not in terms of African American or Latin American, so there are so many facets to jazz. We have Dutch jazz. It really is a universal language. Wynton refers to it as being very democratic because it really does allow for everyone to bring, who they are, to the table. To participate together, but to reflect their individuality while - at the same time - being part of a group. I think that's what we really look for in a democracy.
AAJ: So you come from Louisiana...down near New Orleans, the "birthplace of jazz"...
DG: I come from Baton Rouge, which is about a 45-minute drive from New Orleans. While I know that New Orleans says that they have all the jazz musicians, there were a few in Baton Rouge. (smile) Some I'm sure you're familiar with. Alvin Batiste - one of the great clarinetists. Ellis (Marsalis) was from New Orleans. So it's kind of a happy coincidence that Wynton and I come from the same part of the world.
AAJ: So where do we go from here?
DG: My first order of business is to really solidify our operations because of the increased staffing that we are experiencing...along with fundraising, so we can build and expand. There are many ideas that we'd like to explore'working in different genres of music that relate to jazz, much of which is introduced through this upcoming season with Frederick P. Rose Hall. With these venues, we have much more opportunity to explore...even farther...and partnerships that will be explored as part of that. So we need the experience of working in this space, working with partners, and then we can see what our growth curve is going to look like. We also need to identify resources and increase our sponsorship and support for this very important work. Education is essential to what we do and, as one might expect, it's generally not a large money-maker. Consequently, we do need to find interested and committed sponsors to help us expand the scope of our education programs, which are truly exceptional in quality. And with the scope of those programs, we need to find a way to deliver it to more and more communities and to really create more opportunities for jazz lovers to celebrate and support jazz. So I think that's more than enough for a beginning objective. (smile)
AAJ: Jazz at Lincoln Center is a non-profit organization. We have to raise money to promote jazz. That's what we're doing right now.
DG: Absolutely. And there's something's that we'll do that will not be big money-makers - by their nature - but they're important, artistically. Because we're a non-commercial producer, we're not in it just for how much money we're going to get out of it at the end of the day. We're doing it because of the importance of the music. When we are celebrating that particular artist, we're providing a quality opportunity for audiences to really experience that particular area of the music. Those are things that we must raise money for, to ensure that there's a very broad palette that we're able to draw from as we present jazz - which is America's contribution.
AAJ: Is there anything you'd like to say to our readers in closing?
DG: There's no other place in the world like Jazz at Lincoln Center...and with our new home...that's even more true. We welcome everybody to come and enjoy and to celebrate with us. We want to make sure that they know how welcome they are and how glad we will be to see them when they come through our doors. The doors open October 18th and we'll be open every night from that point on. And you can always visit us at www.jalc.org .
Note: Since this article was written, Derek E. Gordon has been promoted to President/CEO for Jazz at Lincoln Center.