Greg Tardy: Wherever He Wants Me
This past August, I did a concert with The Greg Tardy Quintet at Small's Jazz Club in New York City. The performance was significant in that it was the first time (except for one other gig earlier in the month) that I had shared the stage with tenor saxophonist Tardy in nearly a decade. I decided that he was a musician who would be interesting to interview for jazztruth, so I arranged to meet him before the gig. We sat down in the back office of Small's to discuss the past, present, and future.
George Colligan: We are here with Greg Tardy at Smalls. Just to let you know that my interview style is in the development stage, so it's pretty loose. So I will mostly just let you talk about whatever you want.
Greg Tardy: [laughs] Uh-oh!
GC: So you had a hiatus from playing jazz?
GT: Yes, that's correct. I had about three and a half years off the scene. I took a little bit of time off, and to make a long story short, anybody who is familiar with my music knows that I am deeply a follower of Jesus (Yeshua). And for years I had felt like I wanted to get deeper into Christian ministry, so I spent some years involved in a music ministry at a mega-church in Times Square. But I found that over time I was being led to get back to the jazz. Also, I had a major injury to my handssome carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, which made it impossible to do the work at the church anyway. So it seemed like everything was pointing me back towards playing, so I'm very happy to be back.
GC: Did you go through any kind of musical withdrawal?
GT: Yes, the whole time! I'm a jazz musician. I love jazz, and I never stopped loving it. I was just trying to go the direction in which I felt God was leading me to go, and that's where I was supposed to be for a while. Now he's got me back on the jazz scene, and I'm very happy about it. Sometimes it's good to take time off! It's a chance to re-think things and to get re-energized. I feel more psyched about the music now than when I stopped.
And also, I never totally stopped playing, because at the mega- church, I was doing a lot of contemporary gospel stuff like Israel Houghton, and I was transcribing a lot of gospel music. That helped me to learn more about compositionabout contemporary writing. So It wasn't a total throwaway, musically speaking. There are a lot of high-level musicians playing gospel music these days. So even though I wasn't playing my horn outside of services, I was still immersed in musicjust a different kind of music.
GC: You are recording for the Danish jazz label Steeplechase. You've done how many CDs for them?
GT: I've done four CDs for Steeplechase. The latest is going to be released within the next month. And we'll probably do another one soon. [laughs] Hopefully you'll be on it!
GC: We'll talk about that! But I remember a long time ago, we spoke a bit about your experience with a major label, on Impulse. I don't think there is any musician now who has not been affected by the changes in the music industry. And I think it's interesting that you have so many determined musicians who are still making music despite the challenges. I have personally never recorded for a major label as a leader, but I'm curious, what did it feel like to record for a major company, to have it come to an end, and to press on regardless of the setback?
GT: It was a real blow to me after getting dropped by the label. I did one CD with Impulse, and The Hidden Light was going to be the follow-up, but we were fortunate to be able to do it for the J-Curve label. But I learned that the music business is not necessarily about music!
I felt good about my Impulse CD, Serendipity. It was a strong CD, and we had good backing. The label supported it, and we did some touring. But the business changed. Impulse and Verve merged, and half of the jazz label musicians got dropped. I think it made some people some more money, but it also hurt a lot of young up-and -coming musicians who needed to be heard. And the way the labels are now is so different. I actually feel blessed to have recorded anything at this point. But recording for a major, if anything, helps to get your name out there. Unfortunately, a lot of great players who deserved to be heard by a larger audience never got that opportunity. So I'm not that sour about itI'm counting my blessings.
Jazz is definitely going through a rough time but I believe the music will survive. There are so, so many musicians who should be getting more attention, young musicians and old. And I believe that eventually something is going to happen that will put jazz back out there in the public arena again. What will it take? I don't know, but I'm expecting some kind of change.
GC: When are you going back out on the road with a band?
GT: Actually, I just accepted a teaching position out at the University of Knoxville. So I'm teaching a lot more these days. During the semesters, I'll be mostly busy with that. But during the summer break and the winter break, I really would love to get some tours happening. I just gotta make it happen...
GC: Are you going to book the gigs yourself, or get someone to help you? Maybe enlist your wife to help?
GT: [laughs] Actually , she's too busy raising our kids! It looks like it's gonna be on me. I'll have to squeeze it into the cracks in my schedule. But hey, I've done it before, and until somebody else signs up for the job of my booking agent.
GC: Do you have any memories our the tour we did together in 1998 for 6 weeks in Europe? With Sean Conly on bass and Woody Williams (Kinah Boto) on drums?
GT: Sure! We made some great music! I'm glad we got one CD out of it, Abundance on the Palmetto label, but I wish we could have continued on. The tour was the first time we played together, and then the CD, maybe 6 months after the tour, was unfortunately the last time. But it was a phenomenal group; there was a lot of potential there. It would be great to put it together again somehow, God willing. Actually, tonight is the closest we have come to playing together in that context, although tonight we have the great Jameo Brown on drums.
GC: I find Jameo to be quite a different type of player than Woody. Obviously there are similarities. What are some things you like about Jameo's playing?
GT: I like Jameo's flexibility. We did a Steeplechase CD called Steps Of Faith. And on that CD, we did a whole lot of different types of things. We did some free stuff, we did some really pocket groove type stuff, some swing, [and] some really eclectic stuff. Every single song, he was able to really catch the character of what I was looking for, play with integrity, and still sound like [him]. He's a very supportive drummer and I love it. And same with you and Sean, that's what I love about your playing! You guys aren't locked into any one way to play.
I'll put it like this: easily, my favorite tenor saxophonist is Joe Henderson, and you could take him, or even somebody like Branford Marsalis, and put him in any kind of circumstance. Joe Henderson can play on anything. Some wide- open stuff with Alice Coltrane, or "Red Clay" with Freddie Hubbard, his own "Page One," or some pop oriented stuff. But Henderson always sounds like himself, whether it's bebop or free, it always sounds like the idiom, and he always understands his role in the music.
So that's what I look for in musicians to play withpeople that have a strong voice but aren't locked into something. I like people who understand the tradition but aren't so stuck in a traditional style so much that if you threw something funky at them, they would be up on the bandstand fishing, not knowing what to do, etc. I like musicians who have the flexibility to make any musical situation work.
GC: Some people might categorize you as a New Orleans musician, because you are from New Orleans. However, you have played with musicians like Andrew Hill and Dave Douglas for example. Do you find that when playing in different situations, you have to change your musical mindset at all, or a little, or a lot?
GT: I actually try to think about whatever the drummer is doing. The drums can drastically change the character of whatever is happening musically. But in general, I try to adapt to whatever is happening on the bandstand. I try to be intelligent about it. Ff I'm playing with a pianist who doesn't leave a lot of space, then I want to try to fit with that. There is no need for both of us to clutter up the space. I try to figure out "What does this particular music need from me?" And all of that without trying to sound different from what I normally do.
GC: How has having children affected your music?
GT: It has, from a business perspective. I have to think about money a little bit more than I used to. Before, if somebody called me for a gig that paid 15 dollars, I would do it just to play! It used to drive my wife crazy. But when the kids came along, then obviously I couldn't do that, because my kids are depending on me. So I had to be more selective about what gigs I would do.
GC: So you're saying that you children became more of your priority?
GT: Oh, yes! God has entrusted me with these precious souls. It's my job to make them into people that God would be happy with, and to make sure that they are properly cared for. And I think about my father, who sacrificed greatly for me. You know, he was a phenomenal opera singer, who could have had a great career. (Actually I wanted to document his singingI documented my mother on some of my CDsbut I really wanted to document my father. Unfortunately he has emphysema now, so it's harder for him to sing.) But he knew his responsibility in raising me and my brother and my sister. So he worked in the same cab company for most of my adult life. He made it possible for me and my siblings and my mother to have some things that we would not have had otherwise. My father is a huge role model for me, and I don't want to do any less for my kids.
GC: What advice would you give your students to survive in the jazz business?
GT: Be flexible. This isn't 1940! And even back then, musicians had their art music and then they worked in bands to make a living until they were at the point where could totally pursue their art. And I had to do that for years. I worked in funk bands, rock bands, punk rock bands, [and] rap bands. I did a lot of second line stuff in New Orleans... fusion bands.
GC: Do you care if people know that you, a jazz saxophonist, are a RUSH fan?
GT: [laughs] Well... yeah, OK, it's out there now! There was a time when I was a RUSH fanatic. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. I thought it was great on that tour in 1998 when halfway through the tour, we discovered that you, me, Sean, and Woody were all RUSH fans. We were quoting little licks from "Permanent Waves." That was fun.
GC : Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
GT: [laughs] Well, hopefully alive with my back still working! It's all God's will. I mean, wherever he wants me. I never thought I'd be working at a mega-church years ago and never thought I'd be leaving when I did. I hope I'm still alive and playing, and if not... I'll be in the kingdom.
GC: What are your thoughts regarding the election of Barak Obama?
GT: I think it's a real blessing that my parents, who had to drink at separate drinking fountains from white people, who had to sit at the back of the bus, who had to cross the street if a white person was walking down the streetI'm glad that they lived to see that, that they deserved to see that. Also, I'm glad that kids now have a role model in the White House, someone who is not advocating destructive lifestyles, who is a family man, who started in difficult circumstances, worked his way up to become the first African-American President of the United States. That's really phenomenal.