Head of the Class
Wycliffe Gordon might not be considered a household name, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most prolific and acclaimed jazz performers around today. A native of Waynesboro, Georgia, Gordon first caught the eye of jazz legend Wynton Marsalis during his sophomore year in college, and went on to perform with both the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. In addition to the rigorous schedule of performing and recording with Marsalis, Gordon has released nine solo albums and three co-leader albums to great critical acclaim, and received the Jazz Journalists Association’s “Trombonist of the Year” award in 2001 and 2002.
Not content to simply be a great performer, Gordon dedicates a large portion of his time to educating young people about music, helping to pass on the traditions of jazz to the next generation. As well as being one of the original faculty of the prestigious Julliard School’s Jazz Studies program, he teaches at the University of North Carolina and conducts numerous clinics, workshops and classes for students from elementary school up through college.
Local music lovers have been fortunate that Gordon has also become a staple at the Savannah Music Festival, regularly blowing the roof off of venues for the past five years. He is returning this year to premiere an original composition commissioned by the SMF exploring his musical influences, particularly gospel, classical and bebop. In addition to per- forming, Gordon will also be assisting with the high school jazz bands’ workshop and competition. Gordon recently took time out to talk with The South over the phone from North Carolina, where he’d just finished giving a lesson.
The South magazine: How long have you been coming down to the Savannah Music Festival?
Wycliffe Gordon: Since Rob Gibson has been the artistic director, I’m not sure if that’s 5 or 6 years, but I’ve been coming down every year since he’s been there.
TSM: Do you still spend a lot of time in Georgia, or is it sort of an annual trip home for you?
WG: I don’t spend a lot of time in Georgia, but it is an opportunity to get there. It’s not just Savannah, I’m from the Augusta area and my mother is still there, so whenever the holidays come around I always go home. Coming to Savannah is close to home… it’s almost like being home.
TSM: Is the atmosphere at the Savannah Music Festival different from some of the other festivals you’ve played, or are they are pretty similar in their scope?
WG: It has its similarities, but I think Savannah’s is going to become one of the greatest festivals because of the work ethic of the artistic and executive director Rob Gibson. It will become 0one of the better festivals around because of his approach to taking care of business.
TSM: This year you’re coming down with a commissioned piece about your musical influences. Has it been nerve wracking presenting something that is so personal?
WG: Not at all. TSM: Are you excited to debut it?
WG: Yes, it’s not written yet, but it will be.
TSM: Does your approach to composing change when you’re doing a com- missioned piece rather than something for yourself or a band?
WG: It’s all the same to me. The approach doesn’t change. It depends on the situation surrounding the commission. This piece, I’m able to write what it is that I want to write. I’m free to express myself and I have the great joy of knowing that I have musicians who can play
my music well.
TSM: Is it easier or harder having guidelines of an era or a style when you’re working on a commissioned piece?
WG: I don’t have any guidelines. I have the freedom to write what I want to. There are no guidelines to follow, just a deadline. I’m commissioned to write what I want to write and that’s a great thing.
TSM: What styles of music affected you most profoundly when you were growing up?
WG: Gospel and classical.
TSM: You’re father was a classical pianist. Was he the one that pushed you toward music?
WG: I was first exposed to music because of his relationship to it. He played classical music in the house. I listened to classical music recorded that he would play, but most of his work was done in church, so we went to church all the time, and I was heavily influenced by gospel music of that time.
TSM: Was he open to jazz as well, or was that something you pursued on your own?
WG: That was something I pursued on my own, listening to recordings and spending time interacting in grade school with the band program. My father came to like jazz music later in life, when he could turn on the radio and hear his son playing on National Public Radio, the music I was performing with Wynton Marsalis at the time.
TSM: How did you first hook up with Wynton?
WG: We met while I was attending college, February of 1987, my sophomore year. I met him and about a year later he gave me a call and wanted me to try out to be in his band. The first time I got sent back home, and the next time I met him I was a little better prepared to play.
TSM: Is that how you decided to go up to New York?
WG: I didn’t move to New York right away. I played in his band, and whenever we would rehearse he would fly me up. I basically moved to New York because I thought it was a great place to be while playing music. I thought it was a good place to be to get on the music scene. I was playing with Wynton so I started out at the top of the game, you know, the world’s greatest jazz band with an artist that was very well known.
TSM: Because you started out with Wynton, did you end up avoiding a lot of difficulties? Have you had to go back and pay some dues after leaving his band or has it been smooth sailing, at least relative to other jazz musicians who go to New York?
WG: For the most part it was pretty smooth sailing. I hear the stories, I don’t know what musicians are going through nowadays. When I left the septet, it disbanded in 1995, I played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra until 2000, and when I left it was a little bit of a struggle. I had a job, I was teaching at Michigan State University, but whenever I tried to get work for myself, people thought I was still with Wynton Marsalis or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. It took people a couple of years to realize I was a free agent.
TSM: Did you go to education because it was a steady gig besides performing?
WG: I’ve always loved teaching so I always wanted to do education. It was also an opportunity for me to solidify the things that I wanted to do as a musician. It wasn’t just because it was a steady job. I always look forward to going to work.
TSM: Do you travel a lot to give lessons?
WG: I do. I teach at Julliard and at the University of North Carolina. I travel a lot less than I used to, but it’s more than the average person travels. It’s pretty extensive.
TSM: You’ll be doing some of the high school music education programs at the festival this year?
TSM: Do you think that music education and jazz education particularly is in a good place right now? You hear people talking about how jazz music needs to be canonized and the teaching of it needs to be focused. Do you agree with that, or do think it’s going pretty strong?
WG: I think it’s going pretty strong, but strong relative to what? I think it’s going pretty strong compared to when I was in college. The things that we have available to teach with nowadays, I didn’t have access to that when I was in college. We still have a ways to go with it, but things are a lot better than they were.
TSM: Do you think that jazz will ever make it back into the main- stream of music? Is it secure in it’s place?
WG: I can’t speak about what jazz will do. So long as there are people that are listening, that will always be important…but whether it will be as popular as Beyonce and Jay-Z and whatever kids are listening to these days, jazz had that popularity in its heyday. Whether or not it will come back to that, I don’t know. I don’t see it happening soon, if it does. But the one thing that is good to see is that we’re getting a lot of the colleges and universities implementing jazz based programs, and that says a lot in terms of education. If we’re implementing programs in different educational institutions, then we have a much better chance of a broader scope of Americans realizing the importance of jazz and its place in the community and society.