Wycliffe Gordon: No Shortcuts in This Music

A conversation with the trombonist about doing the gospel show for the jazz cruises and about his life as a player, composer, arranger and educator

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Wycliffe Gordon

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Trombonist, composer and occasional vocalist Wycliffe Gordon rose to prominence in the ’90s as a member of Wynton Marsalis’ Septet, alongside Todd Williams, Wess Anderson, Marcus Roberts, Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley. Since then, he’s become one of the foremost players on his instrument and a successful bandleader, and recently he’s been performing with saxophonist David Sanborn. His latest album is I Give You Love and features his group the International All Stars. He’s also an experienced educator, both through his regular clinics and workshops and through his teaching at Augusta University, for whom he recently gave a commencement address. A Yamaha artist, Gordon has been working on developing his own model of a soprano trombone or slide trumpet. He’s a regular on the Jazz Cruise presented by Entertainment Cruise Productions, for whom he has organized a gospel show for many years. He is one of the few musicians, along with Marcus Miller and Kirk Whalum, who performs on the Jazz Cruise as well as the Smooth Jazz Cruise and the recently developed Blue Note at Sea cruise. Gordon spoke with JT’s publisher Lee Mergner about his development as a musician, as well as about his approach to teaching and his involvement with the various jazz cruises.

Gordon will be appearing on the Blue Note at Sea Cruise in January 2018. Learn more here.

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You grew up in Augusta, Georgia. How were you introduced to jazz?

It was through recordings. I had a Great Aunt who had passed and among the items bequeathed to our family was a five-record set called Jazz. It had everything on it, from early styles like ragtime to big band to even Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two.” All those sides. I gravitated to the New Orleans music because I was playing trombone and I was also playing tuba at that time. Even though we as teenagers were listening to a lot of pop music that had electronic instruments, what I had was that five-record collection. I loved that jazz. My friends used to say, “We all love jazz, but Wycliffe, he loves that deep jazz.” When we were teenagers we would listen to “Feels So Good” [sings a few bars].  And, yeah man, that’s jazz, but then I would go in my garage and listen to Sonny Rollins, James P. Johnson and a whole lot of Louis Armstrong.

You were an old soul at a young age. Who were some of your important teachers and mentors?

First of all, there were my parents. My dad introduced us to music. He played classical piano and he played in the church. My high school band director, Mr. Butler, who was always supportive of me, and of any other student for that matter, when it came to trying out for the all-county band or the all-state band or the McDonald’s All American high school band, Mr. Butler would always show me things and say, “You can do it. Cliff.” That was something that allowed me to try new things and not be afraid. Then of course there’s Wynton [Marsalis]. You get to play with the best. Being with him I met a lot of musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Playing with Wynton and those guys in the Wynton Marsalis Septet, we kind of grew up on the road together. They were really phenomenal in terms of playing music and traveling together; they were always about the music. After the gigs, we talked about what we played. It was so informative to play with Herlin Riley, Reginald Veal, Marcus Roberts and later Eric Reed, and Todd Williams and Wess Anderson. It was a bunch of guys under the leadership of Wynton [who gave us] the opportunity to go out and learn this music and develop.  So in terms of colleagues, I’d have to say Wynton and the members of the group.

It’s amazing how Wynton has mentored several generations of jazz musicians. And he’s still doing it.  It’s an incredible legacy.

And some do different things. I know that the guys in the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra love many different types of things. And they write different types of things.

One thing you did recently which sounds so daunting to me is that you gave a commencement speech for Augusta University. How did you handle that?

Giving the address wasn’t that hard because I knew what I wanted to say. I’ve been doing workshops and master classes all the time. The most difficult thing was trying to edit it down to saying everything and making it effective and doing that within a 10-minute time period. Also, doing a master class I get a chance to control the flow, but they said, “We want 10 minutes and we want it to be a speech.” Well, here we go. I thought about what I wanted to say and the point I wanted to get across and I thought it would be good to share some experiences that I had. I had written my speech and then I went to this thing called “Cancer Blows” for a friend of mine who plays with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma about four and a half years ago. He was at first given six months to live and was told he’d never play again, but lo and behold he’s now doing his second fundraiser, which has brought a lot of light and attention to it. It made me think of myself and my own situation. I wound up changing my speech a little, and even though I didn’t want to be too personal in what I wanted to share, I didn’t want it to be a clichéd gesture.  I didn’t want it to be thought of as an attempt to bring attention to myself. I asked a few very close friends who I shared it with, “What do you think about this?” It was difficult for me to talk about. The basic points were that you practice and practice and practice makes perfect. You want to never say, “I can’t.” Take the word “can’t” out of your vocabulary. Or phrases that start with “I can’t.”

And the next thing was to take a Muhammad Ali mantra of “I am the greatest.” He said that and he became that.  I talked about the instance of when I went to Germany with Wynton Marsalis and the wall that separated East and West Berlin. And how when people looked at us, if looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here today. Years later, when I was teaching in Valdosta, Georgia, and one student asked during the Q&A, “Are you one of the best musicians in the world?” How do you answer that question without seeming … you know? I said, “To be honest, when you’re doing your best, then that’s the best you can do, so that means you are the best.” Even though we may have criteria for contests and competitions, if you are doing your best, then you are the best.

The last thing I talked about was the most difficult to talk about because I had to talk about something that I had to overcome two years ago when I had a hemorrhagic stroke. I put it out there. A lot of musicians sometimes deal with illnesses but don’t like to talk about it because the first thing is that it’s going to interfere with work. If you get sick you can’t play. People are not going to hire you. I was kind of ashamed and a little embarrassed. I was caught off guard. But it was a serious wake-up call for me to remove stressful things from my life. Because it was all caused by stress. I was teaching, I was playing, I was performing, I was traveling. I was eating late, sleeping three or four hours a night. Stuff I did in my 20s, but I’m a little older now. You can’t do that.

I practiced that speech to get it to 10 minutes but it was always 11:15 or 11:30, because the hardest words for me to say were about that time when I couldn’t play music. Having a stroke [was a] surprise, but I’m here. But not being able to play, that was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life. Coming back from that on the road to recovery with occupational speech and physical therapy. While I talked about it, I paused a little, but I stayed within 10 minutes. Well, 10 minutes and 20 seconds, maybe.

You recently composed a piece for orchestra. Had you done that before?

I mostly did arrangements of my own compositions for the re-opening of Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City.  It’s not something I do all the time, but I always wanted to utilize a choir, an orchestra and a jazz band. I did a 10 to 12 minute piece with my take on what happened to Hancher with the effects of the storm [in 2008] and then the recovery period.   The name of the piece was “Hancher Shall Forever Be” because even though they lost the old building and they raised money for a new building, it’s still Hancher.

Mixing jazz and classical doesn’t always work. How did you bridge those two worlds?

My piece was pretty much classical in nature. I played solo in the beginning, but there was no real jazz. I think of a performance we did in the late ’90s with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic playing Grieg. The orchestra played the original Grieg and we did Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s version. I thought it was a great opportunity. There’s that clash that no one talks about between classical and jazz musicians or between legit musicians, as they say, and as Clark Terry once said, “Well, I guess we’re the illegitimate musicians then.”  To see it happen everywhere we went. It started with the New York Philharmonic but then we did a tour all over appearing with different orchestras. It was an eye-opening thing for us, but especially for the classical musicians because they got to hear a rendition of Grieg’s music played in the style of American jazz and played very well. They got it. I don’t think that it happens all the time, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do – to bridge that gap. My father played classical music. We listened to classical music growing up. My dad didn’t listen to jazz until maybe the end of his life when he would turn on the radio and hear me on a program with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra or Wynton’s septet. I think he had an appreciation for it, but he just loved classical music.

For that assignment, I didn’t do gospel, I didn’t try to write a jazz tune. I did use some interesting voices and harmonic  progressions, but it was all classical in nature. I had a 150-piece choir. I didn’t try to get them to sing jazz and I didn’t try to get the orchestra to swing. On another piece we had a jazz rhythm section and the orchestra was playing with us, but it was arranged by Jeff Tyzik, and if you have writers, composers or arrangers who know how to write for an orchestra, like not by writing it with 16th notes, but for those who are strictly classical, it’s better to write in 12/8, so that they can get as close as they can to a swing feel. And, a few orchestras, believe it or not, they’re hip and they try. It’s not like the Count Basie Orchestra but in terms of playing with a swing feel, they kind of get it.

How has your writing developed over the years?

I think it grows with me as I grow as a musician. I’m able to write what I’m hearing. How to use an orchestra, how to use a jazz band, how to use a choir. Duke Ellington wrote the way he did because he knew how to utilize the sounds and strengths of the musicians in his band. I might get an assignment to write an arrangement for a big band, grade three, and it comes with all these parameters: No more than two flats, no more than one sharp, no high notes for the trumpet, no doubling on the woodwinds. So with those parameters you’re going to write a basic chart and that will be something that you can write for any high school grade three or four level band to play. If I’m writing for the Lincoln Center Orchestra, having worked with those guys, I know what their strengths are and I can write just about anything because they’ll play it. My writing has gotten better but it depends on who I’m writing for. If I had my druthers, and I could put my dream band together… Otherwise you’re going to write something that’s probably not going to sound good. I forget who said this, but there is not really bad music, there’s bad musicians or bad musicianship.

Right now I’m writing something for a middle school band. How do you write something for a middle school band that will still be fun and challenging but not too much? I did one piece a couple of years ago and a guy gave it to a middle school and I would have never done that, but they happened to be the best students. But the next piece, I said I’ll stay a little more in the lane and still challenge them, but I won’t go that far.

You’ve been very involved in jazz education over the years. You’re very active at Augusta University teaching jazz there.

I’m an artist-in-residence there. We’re trying to start a jazz studies program there. What we have now is the equivalent of a certificate, where you graduate and you get a degree with an emphasis on jazz studies. We don’t have a full jazz studies program. I know what my strengths are, and being an administrator is not one of them. That’s not what I want to do. I don’t mind heading things that I’m comfortable doing. I don’t want to be in an administrative role.

What would you tell them to do as far as building an excellent jazz studies program? 

First of all, understanding that everything is going to cost money. We need to get proper funding. It’s like a business. We’d need to hire enough faculty to cover the basic instrumentation. I think with the model of a big band, with brass, woodwinds, piano, bass and drums, we need to hire the right instructors. We also need to put something in place to bring attention to the program we’re starting. In the dream situation, you hire the best educators who also bring something to the table as far as their performance, with professional credentials.

That’s a more recent trend of practitioners having a more active role in jazz education, like Bobby Watson, Peter Erskine and Javon Jackson.

I think it’s great when you can combine the two. Those guys aren’t just great players, they’re great educators too. And they love education.  They have a pedagogical approach to what they’re going to teach, whether it’s brass, saxophone or drums. You have to have both. Or if you have both, then you have a better chance to reach more potential musicians and students and giving them a good experience. It’s going to be difficult to play Monk or Jelly Roll Morton if you don’t have that technical skill on the piano through pedagogical studies.  That’s true of every instrument.

Are jazz students different now from before? Certainly they have access to so much more information with the Internet and technology. You had to dig to find out about the music.

I think the technology is a positive. It depends on how you use it. The pros are that the information is easy to access. The cons? It makes a lot of people lazy. They tend to think that because they can get information just like that, sometimes they think that transfers to being able to develop their ability to play and to internalize that information. I had a student ask me one time, “This is good that we’re going to study melodious etudes and we’re going to start transcribing these solos, but what’s the shortcut?” I said, “Shortcut? The shortcut is the straightest line between where you’re standing and the practice room. There’s no app for your ability. You have to actually do that work. You can’t Google that. You have to practice.” The pros are obvious. They’re not going to record stores or libraries. They have access to that information 24 hours a day, immediately. I think that’s great, but I’m glad that I grew up with having to go to the library to check out a book to do a report. I understand that for the younger generation they think it’s always been this way and anything they want should come immediately, because the information comes immediately, but I tell them that there’s something called a process. It’s great that you can access information, but the opportunity to actually learn something, you have to go through that learning process. I’m fortunate that I grew up in a time when the TV actually would sign off at 11 or whatever.

When you think about making music now, kids don’t make music the same way, they don’t buy the same way. I still love LPs and CDs. I love liner notes. As a musician to remain relevant, I do make my CDs available to download, because I don’t want anyone to not have the opportunity to hear my music. I’m a part of it too. But I also have every CD and album I ever bought.  I still have books. I still have those things. I like what’s tangible and what I can touch. I don’t have anything against the modern world, but I’m glad that I had a chance to see where it’s come from and where it’s come to.

You’ve got your own soprano trombone or slide trumpet. What’s the difference between those?

What makes it different is the bore size. The instruments pretty much sound the same, inasmuch as a cornet and a trumpet sound the same. There are subtle differences, and unless you’re a trained musician or an audio engineer, you’re probably not going to hear it. A cornet sounds like a trumpet with the exact same pitch, but a cornet has a conical bore and a trumpet has a cylindrical bore, so there are sound differences. The soprano trombone is like a slide trumpet, but it’s almost like the difference between a flugelhorn and a trombone. A flugelhorn is going to sound like a trumpet, but it has that bigger bell, so it’s a much warmer sound.

I decided to play all the trombones and I found the soprano trombone. They were used a couple of hundred years ago in classical operas and were played by trumpet players. They were slide trumpets. I know Steve Bernstein is playing it, but I never really see anyone playing it. So I thought, “I’ll play this too. Why not?” We’re developing a Wycliffe Gordon model, because there are a couple of companies that make them but I’m a Yamaha artist. We’ve approached them about making one, but I’m thinking it’s because the demand may not be there. But when I play it, there are quite a few kids and adults who ask about the instrument and want to get it, just for fun. Why not have my own line of mouthpieces? Why not have my own line of those instruments I’m playing?

We’d have a pro model like what I play and there will be a lot of craftsmanship with those. You don’t want to get a Stradivarius model for someone who is just starting to play an instrument, but if they really are taking to it, then they can upgrade. It’s like buying a kid a Porsche as their first car. Some people do that, but I wouldn’t.  They’re already going to be kids.

We’re not sure what’s going to happen with Yamaha. We’re working on at least making a signature model with a company called B.A.C., run by Mike Corrigan. If Yamaha does come out with a model, then we’ll be ready. He’s going to make a special horn for me either way.

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You sailed with the Blue Note at Sea Cruise earlier this year. What were your impressions of the experience?

It was nice. I enjoyed it. We had fun. It seemed like it was a cross between the Jazz Cruise and the Smooth Jazz Cruise. There was straight-ahead jazz and we also had bands like Take 6, David Sanborn and Marcus Miller, who is on all the cruises. I felt like it was a great mixture.

One of the most popular events on all the cruises is your gospel show. How has that developed over the years?

When I first did the Jazz Cruise many years ago, I think it was about 10 or 12 years ago, they had a gospel component, and I was just one of the All Stars. The second year I did it, they had Marlena Shaw and she did the gospel show. And I went to it. I grew up in the church. And I mentioned to someone that I would love to play on the show. I think I did that the next year. And then after that they said, “How would you like to host the show?” I said yes, of course, and said that it would be much easier if I had my band because I would be prepared with the musical presentation so early in the week. I didn’t always have a band, but I started out having my quintet, and before you know it, I was hosting every year, whether I had a band or not. I have a close kinship to gospel music, so the ties with that music and jazz and how the New Orleans musicians would play hymns as part of their expression of jazz. I just always had a deep love for that music. When I did the Smooth Jazz Cruise the first time, I think Jonathan Butler had hosted before, but he wasn’t on the cruise that year, so Michael [Lazaroff] asked me if I would mind hosting [the gospel show] that year. And of course I said sure. I love it.

You’ve been playing with David Sanborn a lot recently. How did that come about?

It started a few years ago. He called me and said, “I’d like to work with you sometime.” And I said that’s a no-brainer. I’ve always admired his music. I went to his house. It was coming up to the Smooth Jazz Cruise a few years ago and he wanted to get a show together. So we rehearsed and we played the Smooth Jazz Cruise together. After that he wanted to go into the two-horn format, and most saxophonists want that to be trumpet, but for whatever reason he wanted it to be the trombone. I love straight-ahead and bebop, but it’s not the only thing I listen to and it’s not the only thing I play. So to get an opportunity to play with David Sanborn has been great. He loves music and he loves people. He’s such a cool dude. The vibes are great. We played the Blue Note this past December.  And we’ve talked about recording and all I can say is, count me in.

He has such an iconic sound. For a long time, he was one of the most imitated saxophonists in music. He’s very distinctive.

He sure is. He plays and there’s no mistaking that sound. It’s what it is and what it always has been.

Are there any artists on the Blue Note at Sea cruise that you enjoyed seeing and hearing?

I always loved Take 6. I was busy with David Sanborn. I love Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway. I was already familiar with so many of the artists and their work. When I was on the Smooth Jazz Cruise, I knew who the musicians were, but most of them had heard of me but didn’t really know me because that was a whole other world. The Blue Note Cruise was kind of like a tie-in between straight-ahead and smooth. I know most of those players. Terence Blanchard I’ve known for many years. It was my first time working with Lalah Hathaway. I got a chance to meet some of the younger musicians as well.

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Gordon will be appearing on the Blue Note at Sea Cruise in January 2018. Learn more here.