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Interviews

Wycliffe Gordon and Jay Leonhart: Humor in Harmony

By Published: January 15, 2007
AAJ: There's also a tribute to Ray Brown ["Missin' RB Blues" ], which is very loving. I assume that was your answering machine?

JL: I had an old answering machine years ago, then I said, "Oh, I'll just record it on my computer. I'll just stick it on there, that's Ray, what the hell." And all of a sudden he passed away, and there I am with two recordings [about arranging a golf game].

AAJ: He passed away on the golf course?

JL: No, he'd just played golf, he was in his room, he lay down, took a nap and had a stroke, and that was the end of it.

AAJ: A nice peaceful end.

JL: Yah... I don't know, I'm still pissed at him.

AAJ: For playing in that heat?

JL: He should've taken care of himself. He was what, 75? I wanted to see him grow old. I miss him. He was a huge influence on all of us. I knew him since I was 15 and he was 27. I used to see him in Washington with Oscar [Peterson] and Herb [Ellis]. And he was fantastic: one of the brightest human beings I ever met in my life, and one of the most talented. He helped me through my youth. When I said [sings] "he meant the world to me/his spirit set me free," believe me, it did. I saw another world, and that was the world I needed to go toward. And this album is part of it: one of the most joyous and beautiful records I've ever made.

WG: It is. It's also different from anything I've done.

AAJ: I think we need a whole new category for this.

JL: MacVouty—it's MacVouty! That's a term that Slim Galliard made up. He would go [growls] "Mac-VOU-tee!" If you listen to that radio, it's hilarious. It's just two guys being themselves. Slim Galliard would go into Birdland; they'd book themselves for six weeks, and it would be packed every night. One night while Slam Stewart played the bass, Slim Gallliard sat there, ate an ice cream cone and talked to the audience for the full set, and got a standing ovation. It was just that funny, and that good. Slim Galliard was a riot. And then all of a sudden he'd say, "OK, we've had enough of this gig and he'd just disappear. "OK, we're not comin' in next week, and the gig was over.

AAJ: And about your singing—where did you learn to scat like that? You both scat amazingly. Yours [Gordon's] sounds so much like Satchmo's.

WG: He was a major influence on my getting into jazz.

AAJ: I notice his picture in the place of honor, right over the desk.

WG: I love listening to singers. If I could go back, I would sing. Today, when I do master classes, I use a singing approach to developing jazz improvisation. If you can sing accurately and in tune, it means you hear it, you've internalized the music. I sing all the time. If there's an aspect of something I want to develop on my horn, like double tonguing [demonstrates], I don't wait 'til I can get to it, I sing.

AAJ: But where do you get those syllables?

WG: I kind of think of the sound I want my horn to make. On "Rhythm On My Mind," I scat through most of the song because I just never finished the lyrics.

JL: I don't do it like Wyclife. I do a smaller selection of syllables [demonstrates] but now, because of him, ZAH has become part of my repertoire.

AAJ: So has the didgeridoo, which you play on "Freedom Jazz Dance against Escoffery's tenor. Anything you want to say about that?

WG: First time I heard it was January, 1990. I'd just joined Wynton's band, and it was my first time going to Australia. I tried to play the didgeridoo—I couldn't get it, but the sound stuck. I tried different things; I heard about Jack Teagarden playing with the water glass. I made a semblance of that sound on trombone. Unlike the didgeridoo, the trombone is a chromatic instrument, so I could play different pitches.

The didgeridoo that the guy gave me in 1991 is the same one I'm playing now. It's a fun instrument.

JL: You don't buy one, you find it. It's a particular kind of branch that's hollowed out by a particular kind of termite.

WG: I don't play it the traditional way. They circular breathe; you can hear dogs barking, chickens cackling. I do those things also, but then I wanted to play songs. Mine is pitched in C, the first note on "Caravan." The first night Jay and I played at Dizzy's [Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center] was the first time I played it in performance, because sometimes I just play instruments alone, at home. I'd be home, playing with myself...

AAJ: Yes?

WG: ...with my instrument. So I started doing this thing, sleeping with my didgeridoo.

JL: Toast his bread! Toast his bread!

AAJ: Just a quick question for Jay about his new show, "Nukular Tulips," since I'm a big fan of The Bass Lesson (Chancellor Music, 2003) [the DVD of Leonhart's one-man show].

JL: I started the first one not knowing what it was about, but here there are two songs I want to do: a song called "Tulips," and one called "Nukular," which is about the pronunciation of "Nuclear" in our country. So "Nukular Tulips" is a show of absurdities, and it's working very nicely. I'm writing all kinds of new songs and trying to weave them together into a story. I just do it for the practice, to keep myself writing and thinking and remembering. Like Wycliffe talks about remembering lyrics—you've got to practice them, you practice the hell out of them, or else they go. They go, baby.


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Download jazz mp3 “Greensleeves” by Wycliffe Gordon