Gordon Au: Untraditionally Mad About Trad

Nicholas F. Mondello BY

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Gordon Au draws upon a palette ranging from the traditional jazz of Louis Armstrong to the modern jazz of today. In New York, Gordon leads the Grand St. Stompers, a traditional jazz band called "a pillar of New York's hot jazz scene" by The New York Times, and appears with the Grammy-winning Vince Giordano, the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band at Birdland, Dandy Wellington, and others. He is in demand around the country as a soloist (International Trumpet Guild Conference), festival guest artist (Redwood Coast Music Festival, Monterey Jazz Bash By the Bay), swing musician (Lindy Focus, DC Lindy Exchange), arranger (Terence Blanchard, Lizzy and the Triggermen), and clinician and educator (Jazz at Lincoln Center). Gordon is a graduate of the renowned Thelonious Monk Institute and Berklee College of Music.

All About Jazz: Gordon, on behalf of All About Jazz, thanks for taking time to speak with us.

Gordon Au: My pleasure.

AAJ: Your performance at the recent International Trumpet Guild Conference was wonderful—and, the first time I've heard you. Is "Century of Jazz Trumpeting" you cover a multitude of trumpet styles) a regular presentation for you?

GA: Thank you, and no, not yet, at least. But I do enjoy presenting themed sets and shows with educational components. It's one thing to present great music, and sometimes obscure, underappreciated music, to a new audience. But it's another important thing to give context, to talk about where the music comes from, who created it, and why. Case in point: the Au Brothers Jazz Band does a theme set about 'Politically Incorrect Jazz Songs,' in which we discuss songs like "Nagasaki"—which is amusing and zany, certainly, but also racist. It comes from an era when popular culture seemed to simultaneously fear and fetishize the foreign. So as a band led by Asian Americans, how is it OK or not OK for us to perform such a song? Is it OK for non-Asians to perform it? Jazz history is littered with issues like this, and I think it's important, especially today, to talk about and make people aware of them.

AAJ: I know that you are an extremely eclectic player. Stylistically, you can play just about anything from early New Orleans jazz to more Traditional, Swing, Bebop and even freer material. Do you have a preference?

GA: I like each of those sub-genres for different reasons—they each have their charm. If I had to be limited, I'd probably choose to play very old jazz and very new jazz, at the ends of the spectrum.

AAJ: What are the differences from an actual trumpet playing standpoint of all the above styles? Is it articulation, time, feel? What?

GA: That's an enormous topic. Yes, articulation, rhythmic feel, time feel, and also vocabulary, role, interaction, extended technique, etc. Really, the primary way to absorb this is through listening and studying.

AAJ: I know you also teach and do clinics. Can the Trad/Hot Styles be taught. Or, are they more instinctively developed?

GA: Ideally, again, you absorb these things by listening and by doing. But there are certainly details and ways of breaking down things that experienced musicians and teachers can give you. They can also show you where to start—what to listen to and listen for.

AAJ: Please tell me about your time in New Orleans at the Monk Institute and [co-]founding the New Orleans Moonshiners. What was being immersed in the New Orleans Jazz environment like?

GA: I grew up playing traditional jazz, so moving to New Orleans was like coming home, musically speaking. Our time at the Monk Institute was spent studying, practicing, composing, and performing modern jazz, and to meet some of legends of the jazz world was amazing and invaluable. At the same time, I went out as much as time allowed and explored New Orleans music. To listen to, and play and talk with the older generation there, that had actually played with Louis Armstrong and others, was wonderful. Wanting to be part of that scene was what led me to co-form the group the New Orleans Moonshiners, with the great banjo/guitarist Chris Edmunds. I learned so much from that band, from the Institute, from the musicians of New Orleans, and really my whole time there.

AAJ: Berklee. That must also have been a tremendously exciting environment for you.

GA: Yes, Berklee was a great experience for me: I learned plenty and made lifelong connections. I think the key to doing well at Berklee, and probably other similar programs, was to be pro-active, and to really self-direct. Berklee is an enormous collection of resources— among them, a student body of excellent musicians from around the world—but you need the initiative to use them.

AAJ: How robust is the gig scene in New York and elsewhere you play for Traditional Jazz?

GA: In New York, there is a traditional jazz scene that can obviously trace its continuous lineage to some of the earliest roots of the music. I think the fact that the scene survived WWII and the Depression points to a robustness which can survive more recent economic and cultural ups and downs. There is also the symbiosis between trad jazz and swing dance, and the current pop culture interests (though maybe waning) in the Prohibition, and vintage fashion, which I think all make the trad jazz scene more resilient. Part of why I founded my trad jazz band, the Grand St. Stompers, is that the scene here is strong, and it was financially worthwhile.

AAJ: I know that you also are an outstanding Bebop and more Modern Jazz player and have performed with many great players in that genre. How do you turn that different dimension of your trumpeting and your improvisational creativity on?

GA: Though it seems like it would be jarring to switch between early jazz and modern jazz, when you actually have a band around you, all playing a certain style, it should be natural to go there with them. As far as improvisation, I feel like no matter what the style, hopefully you play like yourself—your musical personality comes through, despite adjustments to the details. However, that said: the devil's in the details, isn't he?

AAJ: Vince Giordano and the [Night]hawks—a very well known trad jazz organization and a larger ensemble. Do you enjoy working in that larger big band set-up?

GA: Very much. To play with Vince and his band is great fun, and also a great challenge. You try to play authentically, and historically accurately, while you may be reading a dozen charts in a row from a dozen different bands from the 20s, some of them obscure, and your part may include lines or a transcribed solo from a specific player in those bands, whom you may or may not know...it's a workout. As an arranger myself (I'm currently working on my 4-horn octet book for the Grand St. Stompers), I also appreciate Vince's charts from great arrangers.

AAJ: Writing and Producing. Please tell me about some of your work in those areas. Enjoy composing and arranging? Producing?

GA: I've always enjoyed composing and arranging. I've written three albums by the Grand St. Stompers and two by the Au Brothers Jazz Band, and also written more for other artists recently. Some highlights: writing large ensemble jazz arrangements of both jazz and pop songs for the Hollywood actress/singer Elizabeth Shapiro (aka Lizzy & the Triggermen), and writing a whole album of jazz big band arrangements of Spanish jota songs, composed by folkloric singer Carmen París (the album "Ejazz Con Jota"). For the latter, I not only arranged everything, but also took the role of Music Director, and conducted the band in the studio!

AAJ: Please tell me about your most recent playing and recording activities?

GA: One of my most recent musical projects was with the Grand St. Stompers, and about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and ragtime composer J. Russel Robinson, to commemorate what was the centennial (last year) of the first commercial jazz recording. For that project, I really immersed myself and did a fair amount of research, and wound up with some arrangements I quite like, some for songs which have no surviving recording. In a similar vein, another recent project I was part of was "Syncopated Classic," a grant-funded book and album by Greg Ruby, a great Seattle guitarist, all about the forgotten music of 1920s Seattle jazz composer and music teacher Frank Waldron.

AAJ: The Au Brothers. A family band?

GA: Yes. The band features myself, my younger brothers Brandon on trombone and Justin on trumpet, who are both freelance musicians in CA, in addition to our uncle Howard Miyata, who is a retired band director, on tuba.

AAJ: What's coming up for you in the next few months, Gordon?

GA: I have quite a full slate, including festivals in Georgia, Nashville, Virginia, LA, St. Louis, and a tour of Israel! My tour schedule can be seen at gordonumusic.com.

AAJ: Gordon, thanks for catching up. Best of luck on all your current and future efforts.

GA: Thank you, Nick!

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