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Wycliffe Gordon and Jay Leonhart: Humor in Harmony

By Published: January 15, 2007
AAJ: You don't fret, you slide. I talked to Chris Brubeck a couple of years ago, who plays both trombone and bass. And he's always sliding up and being tongue-in-cheek and it just occurred to me that this kind of instrumentation is conducive to humor, somehow... because of that slyness?

WG: I'm not sure, but when you have the slide, you can get between the cracks, which can be a good thing, vocally, and a very good thing when you play in tune. You can actually imitate the human voice. You can do that on a valve instrument, but it's not as natural, I think. So what that has to do with humor, I don't really know; you have basses with frets and you can still slide up and down the instrument... But then there's all the possibilities you can get on a slide trombone.

AAJ: You do a lot of talking on the CD with your trombone... a lot of commenting on Jay. Sometimes it sounds like a daft old lady waving her umbrella at him.

JL: He plays the trombone from when it was first invented 'til tomorrow; he covers all those areas. I played with a lot of trombone players that played in different venues, different areas—none of them could cover everything. Mr. Gordon comes the closest.

But then he's a creative guy.

AAJ: You think?

JL: Yeah, I do.

WG: My mom said that I was. But I got a spanking sometimes.

JL: Me too. Hey, maybe that's it—we both got spanked when we were kids.

AAJ: Yeah, maybe that's the commonality. I'll have to look up spanking and humor.

WG: Spanking and humor, and while you're there, look up whupping.

JL: The only thing I have to say about this is think how much better we would've been if they'd never touched us. I got the crap kicked out of me when I was a kid—several times—in the cause of discipline, you know.

WG: I burned my dad's car when I was a kid... We lived in the country and before they had the landfill we just burned trash in our yard. We hated raking the yard, but then burning the trash and watching something burn. I was always fascinated with burning stuff. Maybe I would be considered a pyromaniac, at age six?

AAJ: Naaah. Just a kid.

WG: Toilet paper. We were burning toilet paper, and the wind blew it in the car window and it got on the floor, so we were stomp, stomp—but we didn't know how to put out a fire. And the lady across the street saw the smoke coming out of my father's car. Luckily he came and got us, my brother and me, or I probably wouldn't be here today. My mom was the disciplinarian; my father didn't have to. By the time my mom got through skinning us alive, there was nothing left.

JL: Was the car ruined?

WG: It was melted on the inside—the plastic by the steering wheel—but you could still drive it.

JL: I ask because when I was about seven, I got in my father's car and saw these little handles, and thought, what are all these little handles for? And we lived on a big hill...

WG: Oh...

JL: In a forest.

AAJ: Uh-oh...

JL: I started doing handles, and twisting things, OK, and I got bored, and I walked away from the car. The next thing I knew, about ten minutes later somebody said "Mr. Leonhart, your car just rolled halfway down the hill into the forest and it's completely destroyed." And, "The last person we saw coming out of the car was your son Jay."

Yeah... and then BAM... BAM!

Wycliffe Gordon / Jay Leonhart

AAJ: So you have this childhood car thing in common as well as the whupping. And forests... Hmmm... could be something there... anyway, back to This Rhythm on My Mind. This isn't really a comedy CD, but it is jazz with humor.

JL: We do get serious on the record, and it's quite beautiful. For instance, on the songs "Mood Indigo" and "Home for Supper."

AAJ: Maybe I'm overemphasizing the comedy aspect, but it's so refreshing to see a sense of humor in jazz, which is sometimes so deadly serious, with people pontificating all over the place...

WG: There's something I want to say about that. I think the music is serious. And there was a time period when cats associated anything funny with being an Uncle Tom, or with comedians in black face, like Stepin Fetchit. But that's not what we're doing. If I'm working with my band, I make sure I cover something from the swing era. I'll play something serious—yeah, you've got chops, you can play changes—but then I want to do some old good ones like "That Old Feeling," a song that people are gonna want to sing with you. They'll tap their feet. I'm serious about having fun. I want people to have a good time. I don't want them to clap just because we're done.

JL: We have a big responsibility. People walk in, they're giving an hour of their lives to you. When you walk on that stage, you'll play some serious music, but then you're also gonna be nice to them, you're gonna be gentle to them, you're gonna make them laugh a little bit. You'd like them to be happy that they came for that hour. So therefore you have to take them through a range of stuff. And there's a lot of serious music on there, some complicated stuff—I mean, we do Eddie Harris ["Freedom Jazz Dance," with Leonhart's lyrics]. That's a tribute to a very complex man.

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