Wycliffe Gordon: Keeping the Spirit and the Letter Alive


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Wycliffe Gordon is one of the busiest jazz trombone players in the business today. He has traveled the world performing with the Wynton Marsalis Septet and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, under his own name and as a duo with Jay Leonhart. As an educator he has performed and taught master classes at various schools.

Wycliffe Gordon

All About Jazz: You started trombone at age 12. Did you study music formally?

Wycliffe Gordon: I started trombone at age 12 but I started piano lessons at age 11. By the time I was 13, I stopped piano because I was going to band full time. So I didn't have any formal trombone lessons until I actually got to college. It was by the time I was 17 or 18 that I had my first formal classes.

AAJ: When did you venture out professionally and how?

WG: The first paying gig was when I was still in high school but it was not a career thing. It was playing the church services. But my first professional gigs pertaining to my career was with the Wynton Marsalis Septet. I met Wynton my sophomore year, February of 1987. I did my first gig with him in like March of 1988, Caravan of Dreams [in Fort Worth, Texas]. He was trying to sign me up for a recording. Of course I was going to college, partying and having a great time. But at the end of that week I went back to school with a new attitude. You know, I started practicing.

Then he called me back about ten months later to do Blues Alley in Washington, DC. And I was taking my playing a little more seriously. He then asked me if I would record another CD because he was writing music, which was the first recording of his that I was on: Crescent City Christmas Card. After I did the recording, I told him during the summer I was going to do construction work. He asked me if I wanted to come and play with the band in the summer. And what started out as a temporary summer job turned into my career.

AAJ: Being from the South [Waynesboro, Georgia], your playing goes back to the roots of jazz.

WG: Actually pretty much the roots came from church. I didn't really get into jazz until—I think I heard my first jazz recording when I was 13. It was an anthology of jazz. I had a great aunt that passed and among her things that were bequeathed to the family was a five-record collected set of jazz from early slave jazz to the modern jazz of that time. You know, Sonny Rollins, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. And of all the sides I listened to—there were ten different sides—I fell in love with New Orleans. Particularly that of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. They played a tune called "The Keyhole Blues," and when I wanted to listen to anything, I'd put that record on in my garage and listen to it over and over and over again.

AAJ: I noticed you were doing the call-and-response thing in the solo you did in your performance. You make sentences with your phrases. Was that something that just evolved?

WG: Eventually it did. When I first started out, like anyone else, I was just trying to learn licks and that kind of thing. But as I began to study, I listened to early jazz before I got into bebop and the modern jazz; that was what I was used to because that had all of the elements—you know, the call and response, the breaks. They played riffs. And even in the big band days, a lot of those things could be written into the arrangements. But when you listen to New Orleans, all of that stuff, some people call it Dixieland or traditional jazz, and from listening to that, you know, there were no long solos. Most of them were short solos. Sometimes they'd only play the breaks. You listen to Louis Armstrong play: "Bay bay bay, do be de, bo bo de, be do" over a two-bar break. So they had to really say something. Unlike when you have 25 choruses. Sometimes it sounds like folks are practicing for an hour.

I don't have anything against it. But one of the great messages for me came from one of the great musicians of the older generation when I was playing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. And I think it was Milt Jackson, that school. And we were playing in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, all the young cats were there and Wynton wanted to open it up for him to play. So we had been practicing, getting all the parts together so we could open up and he could play. So Milt said, "Three choruses, four choruses." Wynton said, "No, I really want you to play." Then Jackson said, "Well, if I'm not saying it in four choruses, then I'm not saying it...."That was one of the things that began to make me hone in on editing solos or making profound statements. And I didn't really think about it consciously but that kind of stuck with me.

Wycliffe Gordon / Eric ReedAAJ: Do you have any upcoming educational projects?

WG: I'm releasing an instructional DVD, not necessarily for general education. It's mainly for music students, particularly for the trombone but I begin to talk about improvisation. I'm in the process of developing a whole lot of educational activities; developing a series of DVDs where I talk about different things, mainly geared towards kids. I'd like to do something on the blues. I've done several—what is swing, what are the blues, specific things. That's one thing that I want to do and it's on my list of projects. One of the things I was part of was a thing called Marsalis on Music. It's a book with a companion CD and then there's the actual audio-visual. Then there was one where they take a traditional John Philip Sousa march and then we play it with the traditional marching band or concert band and then show how it's played in the New Orleans brass band and I did a couple of those arrangements.

So having been a part of all of those types of educational activities, I see how important it is to develop those things just to make them available to the public because it's not just education for the children. I find that children see other children and it tends to make the children want to do what their peers are doing.

Wycliffe GordonAAJ: You've been working on a movie, a documentary with Leslie Hayman.

WG: It's a documentary about my life. And it started last year when we went to France with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, which was the group that I started with in 1989 ... By 1995 our relationship was so strong musically and, even more important even, as a family because we were at the height of our traveling on the road, close to 300 days out of the year. So we celebrated everything from birthdays, our birthdays, kids being born.

Back to Leslie—she wanted to start with that. She also got some footage of my teaching. She wanted to get the educational side, working with kids, so she got that footage at Stanford. Then she flew over to capture our rehearsing in France; from the rehearsal to the stage. And then she was able to capture something I did at a church, that side of me. But also did something with a pop band or a funk R&B band when we did classic stuff by Stevie Wonder or James Brown. So she got that because that was some of the music that was popular when I was growing up.

AAJ: How did your relationship with bassist/vocalist Jay Leonhart come about?

WG: I first saw Jay on a cruise and I was completely enamored by the fact that he was doing a one-man show. And I walked by and thought it must be rough to keep your audience 45 or 50 minutes. And 35, 45 minutes later, everybody was still laughing and cracking up. And I wanted to check him out and see what he was doing. And every now and then we'd play on shows together...and then we'd do a duet together. And it would always go off pretty good. So we started thinking we have to do something one day. We said it for about three years and then we were at Jack Kleinsinger's Highlights in Jazz and the response we got was great.

So we started out with a CD and did everything 50-50. We booked the studio. I went to his house and rehearsed. His wife made sandwiches. We rehearsed a lotta, lotta music. But the recording had the feeling that we wanted to get. You know, just of having fun.

AAJ: You don't often lead groups it seems.

WG: Right. I don't have a regular working band, so every now and then I'll get a show and put together a quartet or like the show I did at Columbia University with a larger group [in February 2008]. I just went to my hometown to do a fundraiser with Jessye Norman for her school in Augusta, Georgia. And it was so good to go and just be a featured artist. It was almost like being a sideman. I just had to show up and play. And most of the time when I go there and this has to be in place and this person has to be here and the hotel. So the bandleader [Dave Frishberg] that did the song "I Just Want To Be A Sideman," it's hilarious.

Selected Discography

Wycliffe Gordon and The SBS All-Star Band, A Tribute to Storyville (Sidney Bechet Society, 2006)

Wycliffe Gordon/Jay Leonhart, This Rhythm on My Mind (Bluesback, 2006)

Wycliffe Gordon, Cone's Coup (Criss Cross Jazz, 2005)

Wycliffe Gordon/Eric Reed, We (Nagel Heyer, 2001)

Wynton Marsalis, Live at the Village Vanguard (Columbia, 1999)

Wycliffe Gordon, Slidin' Home (Nagel Heyer, 1998)

Photo Credits

Page 1, G.F. Aquilino

Page 2, Kris King

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