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Wycliffe Gordon: What This is All About


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Versatility is an important part of a well-developed artistic soul. The arts provide a wide range of outlets of expression that can be nurtured and grown into their finest results. Music could very well be a reason to believe in the extraordinary, and jazz musicians are no exception; they might even be a norm. It is the dream of every artist to create freely, as improvised notes are gathered in an instrument and then exposed to the world at a moment's notice. And here comes jazz: wide open doors, windows letting all that sunshine in, and the ability to take a deep breath right before the soul allows the magic to materialize in the form of music.

Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon knows what versatility is all about, although his humbleness won't allow for cocky behavior. One of the best trombonist of his generation, and one of the finest in jazz history, this composer/musician/teacher carries a heavy torch with the steadiness of an old soul and the conviction of a man who knows what matters most: the music and all that jazz.

Former member of the Julliard faculty, the Wynton Marsalis Septet and Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a participant in the recent production of the recovered old film Body and Soul, are just a few key words easily associated with his talent. The release of Cone and T-Staff (Criss Cross, 2010)—with trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington - Vocals—is the continuation of a non-stop successful career and an open invitation to enjoy some extremely well-played jazz. This is an album of solid solos, and elaborate, straight-ahead tunes by Duke Ellington, Illinois Jacquet and Wes Montgomery, among others (including one by Gordon himself), and a perfect flow of creativity that keeps the feet tapping and the soul yearning.

All About Jazz: How many hats do you wear these days?

Wycliffe Gordon:: Well, I'm performing, I'm an educator still doing clinics and master classes and workshops, arranging and composing, conducting...three or four hats, I guess [laughs].

AAJ: That sounds like three or four thousand to me. Which one defines you the best?

WG: Either one would define me best, because all of them are components of what make the whole. I like to play, but what am I playing? I love to teach. I am teaching methods that I developed playing and the playing is a combination of the things that I teach about and that I practice. So it is all interconnected. So I don't even separate them. The education is just as important a part of me as writing and composing music and playing and performing the music.

AAJ: What's your take on music education?

WG: I think in order to perpetuate anything you have to educate people about it. It's important for educational institutions to provide a good foundation for our young people to learn about the music we are playing, so that it will continue happening in the future. Jazz is art. So just like you would study Picasso or anything else, you study jazz.

AAJ: Can you picture yourself without music?

WG: I don't think so. No. That would be a very short answer. Music is a part of my existence. Actually breathing, moving and actively living. No, I can't picture myself without music.

AAJ: Your interest in the trombone started at a very young age.

WG: I wanted to play drums but my mom said that she didn't want any drums in the house. Kids make too much noise as it is. So when my older brother brought the trombone home I wanted to play it too because it was something new, it was nice, it was shiny. [Laughs]

AAJ: And you didn't think it was complicated?

WG: Yes, very, very difficult. But I wanted to play it. Since my mom wouldn't let me play drums, I said "You know what, I want to play trombone, I'll play that!." And she got me one.

AAJ: Are you a competitive person?

WG: No, I'm very competitive with myself, not necessarily with others. I challenge myself to try to get better than I was last week. So I am competitive that way, but I am not in competition with anyone else.

AAJ: Please talk about your father and his influence in you as a musician.

WG: He passed in 1997. He was my introduction to music. He studied piano, but he studied classical music. We had classical music in the home growing up, but he would play in church in Georgia, gospel music. He didn't particularly care for jazz. He would turn the radio on, public radio broadcasts, and country music would be playing. So he didn't develop an interest in jazz until later on in life. But classical, like Chopin, was his first choice.

AAJ: So with that kind of classical music influence in your home, how come you ended up playing jazz?

WG: Classical music at home, gospel music at church and country music on the radio. When I was twelve, my great aunt had passed and everything was given to the family; she had a record collection of jazz music. I used to go out to the garage and listen to the old records; Count Basie and a lot of New Orleans music; that was my introduction to jazz, that's how I got into it.

AAJ: And when did you start playing other instruments, besides the trombone?

WG: Well, my first instrument was piano, actually. I learned it before the trombone because my father taught me at age five or six. But I wasn't interested and he didn't force me. So I learned to play the trombone, and then I learned to play the tuba.

AAJ: So how did you decide to make the trombone the first choice?

WG: I think the trombone kind of chose me, even though I followed my brother. I started taking piano lessons, but I stopped once I got in the band because it was much more fun to play the trombone. I was 13. You know, you can participate with a room full of people, instead of being lonely, taking a piano lesson. The only other time you would be with other people would be at a recital.

AAJ: When did you start composing music?

WG: Sometime in the beginning, when I was learning how to play the piano. I was copying other people's songs on the piano, and then I started writing songs on my own, particularly jazz. I started composing more so by the time I left college in 1999.

AAJ: And what has been the biggest adventure so far, as far as composing goes?

WG: Well, I love composing. All of my CDs have at least one original composition. But I did this movie, Body and Soul, and that was 86 minutes of original music that I wrote for the jazz band. So, that would probably be the one.

AAJ: So how does it feel like as a composer, as an artist, to be chosen to write the music for something like Body and Soul?

WG: It was an honor to me, but I was more concerned about getting it done than about having been chosen to do it. When they were looking for someone to give this commission to, they thought of me, and I watched the content of the film and I said "I'd love to do it." So it wasn't just an honor to be chosen; I'd like to think that often things happen the way they're supposed to happen. I like to think that the project kind of chose me.

AAJ: What about I Saw the Light, the Muhammad Ali tribute?

WG: Well, the people from Battle Creek wanted to honor a sports figure from Michigan, and even though Ali wasn't born in Michigan, he lived there. They met me when I first started teaching at Michigan State University. I did Body and Soul live at the University, and they came up with the idea that they wanted me to do some work to celebrate the life of Muhammad Ali, and without hesitation I said yes. So that was more of a situation where I was chosen, and I feel honored because they chose me after hearing another work I had done. I feel good about it. There are technical issues that make it difficult to do that kind of things, but if you like the subject matter, you can get past that and move on with the project.

AAJ: How does composing happen for you?

WG: Well, there's no one formula for it. If I hear something I'll write it down, meaning that if there is something that I hear musically, I will write it down and then go back to it later and work on it, arrange it and things like that. There is no just one way that happens. Sometimes music will come to you, other times I just have an idea. I put down that idea and I'll come back to it days later or maybe even years later. So it's different, depending on how I am writing or what I am writing. It will also be different if I am writing it for like a quartet or a big band, where the melody and chord changes will be different. It could be a lot of work, but it is a good thing.

AAJ: What do you enjoy doing the most: playing or composing?

WG: [Laughs] Well, I don't like to choose one or the other, because they both play a role in who I am, and how I am feeling at the moment, or about my personality or about one side of my personality. Composing is the same thing: I am taking who I am and putting it on paper, like an artist does.

AAJ: Please discuss the Jazz Arts program and Manhattan School of Music.

WG: It is a very comprehensive program. It seems to be pretty open, with jazz and classical interactions. The school seems to nurture what the music is truly about, bringing cultures together.

AAJ: What does being an educator mean to you?

WG: It means that you are responsible for carrying the flame and passing on the information, regardless of what level, and I love educating because I learned so much myself. I was a good student.

AAJ: The New York Philharmonic, Julliard and the master class ,"Two Sides of the Slide," for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

WG: Well, that's a pretty tight title we came up with, "Two Sides of the Slide," the classical side and the jazz side. The principal of the New York Philharmonic and I decided to put together a master class where jazz students and classical students would learn something different. I taught classical students, and he taught jazz students. He demonstrated something, and I demonstrated something. We talked about several ideas. We played first, and then we talked about it. The students learned together about something related to the kind of music they didn't know anything about. It was a fun project. It was an opportunity to show people that the trombone is an instrument that can be used both in classical and in jazz, and we showed the obvious differences, but there are common aspects about both of those styles: you have to practice; you have to learn the music. They are different languages, but they are both equally important. We were not trying to blend both styles, but in the end I did take a classical piece and jazzed it up.

AAJ: Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Wynton Marsalis Septet.

WG: I started working with Wynton in 1989. I was part of the Wynton Marsalis Septet, and I did some concerts with JALC when they were called "Classic Jazz." In 1995, I became a part of JALC, which I played with until 2000. One just kind of blended into the other. The Septet was my first jazz gig, and it was a fun one. I learned a lot, we traveled a lot, we made some great music, and we still get together every now and then. I play specific shows with JALC, but I don't play with the big band anymore.

AAJ: What do you enjoy the most: a big band, or a quartet?

WG: That depends on how the music is played. If the music is being played well I will enjoy either one of them, equally. That also depends on who's in the band, who's playing.

AAJ: Teaching at Julliard.

WG: It was a fun program. When I started out I had a few bumps on the road. It was a new program, so it takes time to adjust. I was one of the first ones to teach there when the jazz program started.

AAJ: Cone and T-Staff.

WG: It's an album I have made with Terell Stafford, Mike LeDonne, David Wong, and Kenny Washington. I've known Terell for a long time, and I have worked with him before in several situations, and we finally got the opportunity to do this album together. We brought some tunes that he wanted to play, and so did I. We put it all together, and recorded it. We got these guys to play with us because they are great and they happened to be available. I enjoyed making the CD, but by the time the CD came out I'm already trying to play so much better. It's a constant evolution. I do hope people enjoy it, but I know I am always in motion. The music is nice, the musicians played very well. I am evolving all the time, [and] that never stops until you die, and maybe not even then.

AAJ: BluesBack Records.

WG: BluesBack Records is a record company I started to release my own original material. Before that I didn't have an avenue to record the music without fighting, so that was the mission I had when I started it. Afterwards I've had friends who have recorded music, and I have released their work through my record label. But it was mainly designed to do original music, not standards, although we have CDs that do have some standards.

AAJ: What are you the proudest of in your career so far?

WG: Everything.

AAJ: Everything?

WG: Yeah. I don't have one thing I would be prouder of. My career is who I am. So the fact that I got where I am tells me that I need to be proud of everything I have done so far. Even if I don't play well one night, that is also part of who I am too. You can't appreciate the good days without the bad ones, so I'm proud of everything.

AAJ: So you do have days when you say "I didn't play well"?

WG: It happens.

AAJ: And what are you the proudest of in your personal life?

WG: I am proud of who I am, who I'm becoming. I've been married three times, so I haven't been really successful at holding marriages together. I don't know if that speaks about me as a man, or what it says about me and relationships, but I am proud of my children. I have five of them, and I am proud of them.

AAJ: Do you ever wish you would have done something differently in your career or life?

WG: The older I get, the more I realize that things happened and happen the way they do for a reason, so the answer would be no. I'm trying to spend more time with my younger kids, which I didn't do with my older kids, being on the road so much. I used to think about that kind of stuff. But I am happy with the way my life is now. It's wonderful, and even though it's not always how I wanted it or how I thought it should be, it's perfect like it is. I do wish I knew twenty years ago what I know now, but then I would be a different person, maybe better.

AAJ: Your best moment on stage?

WG: Whenever you feel like your feet are not touching the ground and your spirit is so high that it doesn't feel like you are on the Earth anymore. It's beyond anything physical.

AAJ: Something you would change about jazz today.

WG: Nothing. Everything is the way that it is supposed to be. If I could change anything then the world wouldn't be the wonderful place that it is. I wouldn't want to do that.

AAJ: Something about you.

WG: I'm just me. I try to be a nice person; I try to be nice to everybody. What people say about me, their perception of me, is another story, and it could be right or wrong, but I'm just me. I treat people the way I want to be treated. I work. I don't expect anybody to give me anything. Simple: I'm good.

AAJ: What brings you happiness?

WG: Air, the fact that I can breathe. Being alive.

AAJ: What's next?

WG: To record another CD. To continue to write music. To continue to teach.

Selected Discography

Wycliffe Gordon, Cone and T-Staff (Criss Cross, 2010)

Wycliffe Gordon, Boss Bones (Criss Cross, 2008)

Wycliffe Gordon / Jay Leonhart, The Rhythm on My Mind (Bluesback, 2007)

Wycliffe Gordon / Eric Reed, We (WG3, 2007)

Wycliffe Gordon, Cone's Coup (Criss Cross, 2006)

Wycliffe Gordon, Standards Only (Nagel Hayer, 2006)

Wycliffe Gordon, In the Cross (Criss Cross, 2004)

Wycliffe Gordon, The Joyride (Nagel Hayer, 2003)

Wycliffe Gordon, Dig This! (Criss Cross, 2003)

Wycliffe Gordon, United Soul Experience (Criss Cross, 2002)

Wycliffe Gordon, What You Dealin' With (Criss Cross, 2001)

Wycliffe Gordon, The Search (Nagel Hayer, 2000)

Wycliffe Gordon, The Gospel Truth (Criss Cross, 2000)

Wycliffe Gordon, Slidin' Home (Nagel Hayer, 1999)

Photo Credits

Page 1: C. Andrew Hovan

Page 2: Jose Horna

Page 3: Ingrid Hertfelder

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