Passing Jazz Forward

by Andrew Elias

WYCLIFFE GORDON IS ONE OF the most exciting young trombonists on the jazz scene. A former member of Wynton Marsalis’ Septet and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he has released more than 20 CDs as a leader or co-leader, and has been commissioned to compose and arrange a variety of works from scoring classic silent films and a tribute to Muhammad Ali to extended pieces for the city of Columbus’ bicentennial and the Savannah Music Festival. Gordon is not only acclaimed for his recordings and live performances, but is also on the faculty of the Jazz Arts program at the Manhattan School of Music.

Gordon’s newest release is an homage to Louis Armstrong that showcases his trombone, trumpet and sousaphone playing, as well as his Satchmo-style singing. I asked him a few questions about his new CD, his commissions, connections between being a musician and a teacher, and his advice to young musicians.

Your new CD, ‘Hello Pops!’, is a tribute to Louis Armstrong. What has Satchmo — the music, the singer and the man — meant to you?

Louis Armstrong and his music is what brought me to jazz at an early age, so naturally I gravitate towards his music. Initially I just loved the music. The more I came to learn and know about Satchmo, the more I remained in awe of his presence and importance to the world at large. Musically, Pops is the perfect musician. One voice and one sound, totally connected and in touch with his creativity. As a man, he clearly showed the world that we are all the same and the strength and development of our humanity lies in that simple truth.

You have recorded many standards and also compose yourself. How do you choose the standards you want to revisit?

I like standards that tell particular stories and mark special times in the life of jazz music or a particular composer. If a show has a specific theme, I’ll choose popular songs mixed in with those that may be less popular, but have a great story that everyone can connect and relate to.

How do you approach creating the compositions you’ve been commissioned to write such as your new score for the silent film, ‘Body and Soul’; ‘I Saw the Light’, a tribute to Muhammad Ali; or ‘Beyond the Blackberry Patch’ for the Columbus bicentennial celebration?

My approach to creating music for commissions comes relatively easy, as I tend to take on subject matter that I have great interest in. Each commission that I have done to date has content about people that I love (Muhammad Ali) or topics that are close to my being and upbringing (‘Body and Soul’ and ‘Beyond the Blackberry Patch’).

Ali was a hero of mine as a kid, but became even more of a hero with the stance he took later in life. “I Saw the Light” tells that story of his position as a young man and his religious beliefs and how it changed as he matured further into his manhood to understand that we are all the same and should not be separated or segregated by laws or beliefs created from “man made” sources.

“Body and Soul” and “Beyond the Blackberry Patch” tell “neighborhood” stories with subject matter that I relate to from my upbringing down south. The separation and segregation in communities that eventually reveal that the only thing that separates us is “us.” Both dealing with the sacred versus the secular, a universal “battle” within our communities at large, these commissions presented an opportunity for me to express my musical take on those issues, as I would often be in the middle of that “dilemma.”

You have been called a master of the plunger mute. What about that unique sound do you like so much?

Being considered a master of the plunger mute is flattering, but I consider myself a student still. The plunger, when used properly, functions like the lower jaw, therefore being able to simulate speaking sounds. The greatest and most personable sound is that of the human voice and the plunger is the greatest tool to learn to emulate that sound. I’ve spent many years working on it and I love doing it! I feel that anytime you’re doing something that you love you tend to produce great results.

You’re a musician and a teacher. Do you see a connection?

Many have stated, “Those who can play, play. Those who can’t, teach.” I think that is baloney, and not even good baloney at that. I love playing and teaching. There is a definite connection there. How else could one learn to play? You’re taught to play (even if you’re teaching yourself). Perhaps not in a formal classroom setting, but you’re still taught. When Sonny Rollins was listening to John Coltrane play at the Village Vanguard, it wasn’t a formal lesson, but he learned something, and he went home and practiced. So, yes, there is a definite connection between musician and teacher. You can’t have one without the other. I love playing and I love teaching. Teaching allows you to learn what you don’t know.

What advice do you give young musicians about mastering their craft?

“Practice, practice, practice, and practice some more” is the advice I’d give to a young person about mastering their craft. Study with someone that is considered a master at what you’re interested in doing. Music, physics, engineering, basketball, basket weaving, etc.— If you wish to grow in any field, expose yourself to the best in that field, also understanding that your greatest “push” will oftentimes come from your colleagues. •

Wycliffe Gordon will be performing with his quartet at the
Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center’s ‘An Evening at the Kentucky Derby’ on May 5.

May-June 2012

"The more I came to learn
and know about Satchmo,
the more I remained
in awe of his presence
and importance to
the world at large."
"I like standards that tell
particular stories and
mark special times in
the life of jazz music or
a particular composer."