Wycliffe Gordon and Jay Leonhart: Humor in Harmony


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At first, über-bassist Jay Leonhart and acclaimed trombonist Wycliffe Gordon seem an unlikely pair. Visually, they look like the Anglo poet and the star linebacker; chronologically, they're at least a generation apart. But they are both immensely talented, and their personal and musical rapport transcends any other differences between them. As relaxed and amiable as the oldest of friends, they trade their superb musicianship as naturally as conversation. They also share a sense of humor that sparkles like dry champagne. Their duo combines instrumentals and vocals, originals and standards, a dash of shtick, a little patter, and some of the most entertaining and endearing scatting since Louis Armstrong. It's all collected on their first CD, This Rhythm On My Mind (Bluesback Records, 2006), where Gordon adds tuba and didgeridoo; it also includes moments of Wayne Escoffery and Harry Allen on tenor, and Jim Saporito on percussion.

AAJ caught up with the pair recently at Gordon's office in a Harlem brownstone, a cozy, comfortable space where CDs, files, Jazz at Lincoln Center posters, memorabilia, instruments, and black-and-white pictures of jazz greats stack all the way up to the antique tinned ceiling.

All About Jazz: Just checking an item on your bio, Jay. You recorded with Ozzy Osbourne?

Jay Leonhart: And the Stray Cats. I've done a lot of goofy things like that. As a studio musician in New York, one will get strange and interesting calls. It's not like I was really in the group.

Jay Leonhart
Jay Leonhart

AAJ: And Queen Latifah?

JL: Yeah, I did her jazz record. It was pretty decent, actually. I recorded with a lot of people—I don't travel with them.

AAJ: They just leave the cash on the dresser afterward?

JL: Yup: it's thanks very much, Mr. Leonhart.

AAJ: Now to this CD of yours, which—let the record show that Wycliffe is holding the CD up to the microphone.

Wycliffe Gordon: [turning it] And there's the back side...

AAJ: I was playing it on the way down in traffic, and just grinned from ear to ear.

JL: Well, we recorded it in traffic.

AAJ: To me it's pretty new, but there's actually a long tradition of music and comedy like Slim and Slam [guitarist Bulee "Slim" Galliard and bassist Slam Stewart], and that old vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean that you mention in your song "Mr. Leonhart Mr. Gordon." So tell me how this whole thing evolved.

JL: We met because we worked a lot with [pianist] Dick Hyman over at the [92nd street] Y. It seemed that every time Dick Hyman would do a concert, Wycliffe and I were both on. So we got to enjoying each other's music, and singing and stuff, and over the years, we've threatened each other with the idea of forming a duo and doing a record together. And we kept talking about it, and finally, we put our money where our mouths were, and we decided to do it. And we had some gigs, made the record, and musically and personally it was a great deal of fun. So now we've got ourselves into it, and we're promoting the record and we're working at it, and with everything else we gotta do, this damn record is hanging over our heads, and we want to make it a success.

WG: I concur.

AAJ: Are you trying to be like Gallagher and Shean, or Slim and Slam?

JL: No. [Turning to Wycliffe] Whaddayou say?

WG: I don't think we're trying to be like them, but we're in the spirit of what they do. I mean it's good, and it's fun, and we both like things that are good and fun.

JL: I was listening a lot to to MacVouty radio [the satellite, all-Slim Galliard station]. Bass and trombone is an unusual duo, but we can pull it off with all the stuff we can do in between, with all the instruments, and messing around, and Wycliffe scat singing. We had a lot of fun filling up the empty spaces, of which there are many.

AAJ: Well, Gallagher and Shean, as far as I know, was also a dancing duo.

WG: We dance on the next CD.

Actually, I love to dance. Maybe that will be the DVD. But back to the CD—it's the communication that takes place, the talking back and forth, kind of like we're in our living room—rather than a Piece of Art, a work on the wall in a museum. It's like when Fats Waller performs: sometimes he's talking to himself; sometimes he's talking to the people. We're in the spirit of those who like to communicate with the audience, to bring the audience into the performance—it's not just music for the sake of the music, it's an event.

AAJ: And it's not the first time you've sung on a CD. On your last one [Cone's Coup (Criss Cross Jazz, 2006)], you start with "Shhhhh! The Band is Trying to Play" and end with "Hush Yo' Mouf!!" telling people to have some respect for the music. How did that come about?

WG: I was playing with a group at Dizzy's [Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center] about a year ago, and the Bill Mays Trio was performing the late set that Saturday night after the performance. Folks were festive, and the room never came down for the trio, and they were playing great music. So Sunday morning I got up, and sat down to the piano. The words were really easy: "Shhhhhh! The band is trying to play!" And I repeat that. And "It's hard to hear over all the walkin' and talkin' and jiggin' and jawkin' and pitterpatter and chitterchatter what the cats are trying to say." One person thought the song would be offensive to folks, but I find the only people who are offended by the song are the offenders themselves.

AAJ: Makes sense.

WG: We never try to offend anyone, but with "Toast My Bread," I'm always wondering whether the double entendre implied in the song is going to upset anyone in the audience. The first time I recorded this was actually in another duo, with Eric Reed [We (Nagel Heyer, 2002)]. We were performing it at a church. On the same CD we had "Precious Lord" and "The Lord's Prayer." The pastor mentioned how great it was that we were singing these kinds of things, and I wondered if he got to track number eight... it's a different version from the one on this CD [holds CD to microphone again].

AAJ: You mean there's a double entendre in "Toast My Bread?" Gee, I thought it was just a bakery item.

JL: And I thought, "Oh, you mean it's about toast too? It's a terrific song. It's a great song.

WG: I have a toaster upstairs. You've seen a toaster, haven't you?

AAJ: Yes, I have some acquaintance with it.

WG: Then you know if it's not wheat bread, it turns toasty roasty golden brown, and then it pops back up.

AAJ: And all you need is that, and you fall in love? You're easy, aren't you?

WG: Yeah, pretty much. You got bread, you got me.

AAJ: Well, moving right along... OK... what label is this on? It's your own, yes?

JL: Bluesback Records. Jay came up with that... I have a song called "I Want My Blues Back," and that's how it became Bluesback Records. We didn't really want to give it to a record company.

AAJ: You wanted complete control over it?

WG: As much control as we could have. I just had some not-so-good experiences with a few record companies, and I figured, we're writing all the material, we're going to do this, we went into the studio to do that, there's a few more steps and a little more money involved, but let's do it. And now we have to get it distributed, and get people to know about it [holds the CD up to the microphone once again].

AAJ: I see that it's shrink-wrapped.

WG: This is open-friendly.

JL: It's one of the world's easiest CDs to open. Some people don't care about the music, they just want to open the CD. Once they see how easy it is, they'll give you fifteen dollars just to open the CD.

AAJ: Well, then you're already ahead of the game.

JL: The fact is it's a good CD.

AAJ: It's a wonderful CD.

JL and WG: [singing] And our voices blend together to perfection...

AAJ: Yeah, but you doubled on that line.

JL: We quintupled.

WG: Jay sang multiple harmonies.

AAJ: You mean he's got that Tibetan monk chordal thing?

Wycliffe Gordon
Wycliffe Gordon

WG: I don't know if he went all the way to Tibet.

JL: Of course we can get the trombone, Wycliffe's voice with the trombone, my bass, and my voice—we can actually do four voices at once if we are so inclined. And we often are.

WG: The song you recently did about going through customs: between the lizards and the everything else, how the hell do you remember all of that stuff?

JL: Have you heard this?

AAJ: Nope, I haven't.

JL: "Here I am in customs/inexplicably detained/I'm getting angry/I may have to be restrained/I read the regulations/what could the problem be/why oh why are you detaining me?/OK perhaps I did pick up a couple things abroad/but this kind of harassment..." it goes on and on. Wycliffe acts like I wrote it, and then remembered it. I worked so hard on this one to remember it.

WG: There's a lot of stuff to remember.

JL: "I've got some alligators from the hot Brazilian swamps/a testy little chimpanzee that/screeches bites and stomps/an otter from the Maldives, a goat from Katmandu/a cockroach from a hut in Timbuktu/a little baby llama from the mountains of Tibet/six or seven ostrich eggs that have not hatched quite yet/mosquitoes from Botswana, a parrot from Peru/and you won't let me through?!"

WG: That's not on the CD, but we do have the first song he wrote, about little Henry.

JL: That's the first real serious song I ever wrote, when I got into songwriting 34 years ago. I was 32 at the time. I'd been writing poetry before that, but never turned one into a song—never memorized one, just wrote it and let it go.

AAJ: So what happened?

JL: I just had children, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that hey, this might be fun. I wrote a song about picking up my weekly ration of gasoline from a big machine during the first gasoline crisis in 1976, and it became a mini-hit on a few minor radio stations around the country, and I thought, this was fun. It was like the first rap. If you listen to my songs, they had so damn many words—they still do, unfortunately—but then George Burns was my favorite singer.

AAJ: I was thinking about something. The humor that is on this CD is not slap-your-knee, it's more sly. It's very sly and delicious. I was wondering whether it had anything to do with being fretless. You're both fretless: you don't fret.

JL: That's right.

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.

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.

AAJ: And you do a lot of tongue-twisters, too.

JL: I really have to physically practice certain things, like, "How the pronunciation went from nuclear to nukular." Nuclear/nukular/nuclear/nukular—you got to work at that.

AAJ: Is the show political? Although Jimmy Carter also pronounced it as "nukular," despite being an engineer.

JL: No, I'm not going to talk about politics. It's too depressing. I'm very unhappy with the current political scene.

Wycliffe Gordon / Jay LeonhartWG: I was just thinking—Jay is a great influence on other players. He sings and plays like two instruments, harmonizing with himself.

AAJ: Yeah, you do those tenths that nobody else seems to be doing.

JL: I've been doing this for thirty years, I have ten records of it out, and it's getting a little bit of acceptance. That's nice.

AAJ: A little footprint in the sand?

JL: Exactly. The fact that Dave Brubeck knew who I was [they happened to meet in the airport on their mutual December 6 birthday], that I didn't have to introduce myself, that makes you feel great. Not to toil in anonymity forever.

AAJ: So: are you guys gonna tour to support this CD?

WG: [holds up CD to microphone one more time]

JL: We are gonna tour when the time is right. Probably starting in the middle of the year. Once the word gets out there.

WG: We have a media person who's going to get this out. I think it's an easy sell, even if we have to do a quartet—get a pianist and drummer. I think a lot of promoters are afraid to do this unless it's part of a larger venue—they're afraid of the Jay and Wycliffe variety show. January 28...

JL: Yes... January 28 at Symphony Space. We're going to do a bunch of songs from the record. Jazz Hits on the Broadway stage. Jay Leonhart and Wycliffe Gordon and friends.

AAJ: You have friends?

WG: I have two.

JL: I have one. That's three altogether.

AAJ: Well, I think we got it. Thanks, guys.

This Rhythm On My Mind is available at cdbaby.com and Jay Leonhart's website. For more information on Wycliffe Gordon visit Gordon's website.

Selected Discography

Wycliffe Gordon/Jay Leonhart, This Rhythm On My Mind (Bluesback Records, 2006)
Wycliffe Gordon, Standards Only (Nagel-Heyer, 2006)
Wycliffe Gordon, Cone's Coup (Criss Cross, 2006)
Wycliffe Gordon, In the Cross (Criss Cross, 2004)
Jay Leonhart, Cool (Sons of Sound, 2004)
Wycliffe Gordon, Dig This!! (Criss Cross, 2003)
Wycliffe Gordon, The Joy Ride (Nagel-Heyer, 2003)
Wycliffe Gordon, United Soul Experience (Criss Cross, 2002)
Wycliffe Gordon, We (Nagel-Heyer, 2002)
Jay Leonhart, Rodgers and Leonhart (Sons of Sound, 2002)
Wycliffe Gordon, What You Dealin' With (Criss Cross, 2001)
Jay Leonhart, Galaxies and Planets (Sons of Sound, 2001)
Wycliffe Gordon, The Search (Nagel-Heyer, 2000)

Photo Credits
Top Two Photos: Dr. Judith Schlesinger
Bottom Two Photos: Courtesy of Jay Leonhart

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