Wycliffe Gordon: What This is All About

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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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.
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