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Wycliffe Gordon: The Beautiful Soul of…

Wycliffe Gordon
Wycliffe Gordon recording with Clark Terry

In an art form too often rife with factionalism and stylistic myopia, Wycliffe Gordon is a breath of fresh air. He’ll play with anybody, bringing his commanding technique, sense of history and sheer exuberance to any musical setting. He is equally at home on the stage at Lincoln Center, on the “jazz party” circuit, in repertory bands, touring with the venerable Statesmen of Jazz and even on the fringes of the avant-garde.

Born in Waynesboro, Ga., in 1967, Gordon seems to be of an earlier musical generation in terms of background and outlook: “I grew up in the church, and that experience is just a natural part of my being. My father was a classical musician, but he was also a church pianist and organist, so the singing, the preaching-that’s all a part of how I express myself and how I interpret music.”

A deeply spiritual man, Gordon has grappled with the sacred/secular musical dichotomy. “My family was always supportive of my musical activities, but I did run into some conflict with the old-school way of thought in terms of the church-folk,” he recalls.

“If you weren’t playing church music you were playing ‘devil’s music,’ so it presented a challenge for me because I’d grown up in the church and I didn’t want to go against what I’d been taught. It’s all music and it’s all from the same source.”

“If you weren’t playing church music you were playing ‘devil’s music,’ so it presented a challenge for me because I’d grown up in the church and I didn’t want to go against what I’d been taught. It’s all music and it’s all from the same source.”

While gospel music is a leitmotif that runs through all of the trombonist’s recordings, two Criss Cross albums, The Gospel Truth and In the Cross, most clearly demonstrate the trombonist’s ability to bridge what he considers the artificial boundary between the sacred and the secular.

Gordon was introduced to jazz at age 13 through a recording collection bequeathed to the family by a great aunt: “What moved me the most was the New Orleans music, particularly that of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and specifically a piece called the ‘Keyhole Blues.'”

He had been playing trombone for a year, spurred on by an older brother who played the instrument. “During that time, electronic instruments began to take over the scene,” he says, “but when I was practicing in my garage, I was listening to this acoustic music and something just stuck with me.”

Gordon went on to study at Florida A&M, where he was a music education major and played in every type of ensemble on campus, including the marching band. In February 1987, during Gordon’s sophomore year, an encounter with Wynton Marsalis changed his life: “Wynton came to give a lecture and attended our jazz-band rehearsal. A lot of the guys were excited. I’d heard of him, and felt he was a great musician, but I was checking out Louis Armstrong! We got a chance to play for him and solo if we wanted. He asked us to play the blues and told each section in the band to come up with a riff. This was relatively easy for me, since I was listening to all that New Orleans music and was accustomed to hearing the call and response in the church. So the trombone section got our riff together really quick and harmonized it. Wynton cut the band off and he looked at me and said, ‘I want to talk to you afterward.'”

Marsalis kept in contact with his young discovery and put him in touch with pianist Marcus Roberts, who also guided him. The next year, Marsalis invited Gordon to go to Texas to play with his group. “I wasn’t really prepared when he called,” says Gordon. “At that time I was playing the bass guitar. There was a popular song and dance called ‘Da’ Butt,’ and I was playing the electric bass and doing ‘Da’ Butt’ and not really ‘sheddin’. When I heard Wynton’s group play, it was the first time I’d heard jazz played at that level. I got sent home with lots of information and a new attitude. It was like a rebirth!”

When Marsalis next called him-to play on his Crescent City Christmas Card album-the trombonist was ready. “Wynton then asked me if I wanted to stay out on the road,” he recalls. “I thought about it for all of 10 seconds. That was what I dreamed of doing.”

Gordon joined the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) in 1989 and eventually moved to New York. Joining Marsalis right out of college, Gordon managed to avoid the usual New York musician’s struggle. He had paid some dues of his own, however, including working in a Pizza Hut (“It had its benefits-I was never hungry!”) and doing construction in the summers.

Nicknamed “Pine Cone” because of his Georgia-woods upbringing, Gordon had already experienced his initial culture shock when he visited the Big Apple as part of the McDonald’s High School All-American Band. “When I first arrived in New York, I came to realize that people don’t speak to you. They’re nice people, but coming from down South, you’re used to saying hello to everyone you see,” he says. “And on the subway, people were singing, dancing, preaching. One day in Times Square I wondered what would happen if I just jumped up and down and spun around in circles, yelling. People kept walking like I didn’t exist!”

He may have been ignored in Times Square, but at Lincoln Center Gordon was turning the heads of jazz fans and critics. From his early days with the LCJO, it was clear that Gordon was one of those rare performers who instantly connect with an audience. In only a few bars, the trombonist could rise from the section to deliver a statement that was as emotionally appealing as it was musically cogent, no matter what the historical context.

In the incubator of the LCJO, Gordon grew not only as an instrumentalist but as a composer. The Orchestra commissioned a wide variety of works by the trombonist, including his critically acclaimed score to Oscar Micheaux’s silent-film classic, Body and Soul, which he plans to put out on DVD.

Sadly, Gordon is of the last generation to have had the benefit of sustained interaction with some of jazz’s swing veterans, an experience that had an immeasurable impact on his development as both an artist and a person. The trombonist’s face brightens just thinking about some of the older players he has known: “I got the chance to meet Britt Woodman, Buster Cooper, who’s still alive, and Al Grey. They were great musicians but it was also the manner in which they carried themselves. They were always encouraging to the younger cats, wanting us to grow, to do great things,” he says. “Al was particularly adamant about making sure that we get what we deserve. ‘Make them call your name,’ he would always say. ‘If your name isn’t on the marquee, let people know who you are!’ But above all it was his spirit. Even if you couldn’t hear music, you would enjoy watching Al perform. I got to play with him near the end. He was under doctor’s orders to be at home with his foot propped up above his heart. Well, he had his foot propped up, but it was on the stage at Sweet Basil!” Gordon’s “I Remember Al” on What You Dealin’ With (Criss Cross) is a moving tribute to the late trombonist.

“I learned so much sitting next to Britt Woodman in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I could read the dots on the page, but by hearing how he would lead the section, I realized, ‘This is how they make that sound!’ He had this wealth of information to offer but he would never say, ‘You need to do this.’ What I love about Buster Cooper is that after five minutes with him you just feel better. Clark Terry is another one like that. Just the way he says your name makes you feel good!”

Gordon is doing his part to pass on what he has learned from these mentors. A Juilliard faculty member since 2001, he has evolved his own approach to music education. Singing plays an important role in Gordon’s pedagogy, as it has in that of other noted teachers like Lennie Tristano and Ran Blake: “I always encourage students to sing. If you go to the piano and play A flat, if it’s in tune, A flat’s going to come out. Same thing on other instruments. If you’re in the right position or playing the right fingering and your embouchure is set in the right mode of resonance, you have the muscle memory to make it happen. But when you sing, you have to rely totally on your ears. If you can sing it, you can play it, because you’ve internalized the music itself.”

Victor Goines, director of jazz studies at Juilliard, says of Gordon the teacher: “Wycliffe can take the student in whatever direction he or she needs. His own extraordinary performance skills, the historical perspective he brings to his students and the fact that he interacted with so many of the veteran musicians are a rare combination. As a person, he is very open-minded, has a tremendous work ethic and the ability to convey his message.”

Vocalist Jennifer Jade Ledesna, who recently began studying with the trombonist, says, “I liked the vocal quality and sense of humanity in his music. As a singer, I wanted to emulate what he does through the horn. He stresses the harmonic underpinning, using space and developing thematic ideas. As a teacher, he creates a gentle and encouraging environment. He pushes me, but not through intimidation. I respect him so much that I don’t want to go to him unprepared and let both of us down.”

Gordon believes that students should become familiar with the full range of the music’s rich history, and that this knowledge will benefit them no matter what style they choose to play. He brings this same approach to his own performances. “I’ll play ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing,’ I’ll sing ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street,’ then I’ll play ‘Impressions.’ Within the first three or four numbers, I try to play music from every period.”

When playing older styles, many younger musicians, while well intentioned, seem to skim the surface of the music, replicating the trappings without penetrating the core. Gordon, however, is able to capture the true essence of a musical era. For example, when listening to “New Awlins” from Slidin’ Home (Nagel-Heyer), Gordon’s paean to Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, one might well believe that its composer was born in 1907 instead of 1967. The trombonist likes to “pay stylistic homage” without re-creating pieces note for note, sometimes pushing the boundaries of a particular genre: “I love being able to go into a traditional situation and get a little edgy by playing something on the fringe of bebop.”

Stylistic authenticity requires extensive listening, and Gordon has a deep knowledge of the work of his fellow trombonists of all eras, citing among others Jack Teagarden (“A great lyricist”); the Ellington trombonists Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown and Tricky Sam Nanton (“All great voices”); Vic Dickenson and Dicky Wells (“Both had such vocal qualities-they were humorous and humanist”) and J.J. Johnson (“The first trombonist I introduce my students to, particularly his solo on ‘Laura'”).

But for Gordon, it always comes back to Louis Armstrong: “He’s influenced all musicians. The voice that he spoke with is the same voice that he sang with and the same voice that he played with. No matter where he went he made people feel good. I looked at a picture of him today and I just started smiling.”

Gordon combines his varied stylistic influences with a prodigious technique. One gets the feeling that there is nothing he can’t do on the instrument-from blazingly fast, meticulously articulated bebop lines to sweet-toned ballads, gospel shouts to evocative plunger and multiphonic statements that run the gamut of human expression. The trombonist has a somewhat unorthodox approach to practicing, noting, “Ninety percent of the time I’m breathing something musical is happening. I may be working on a tonguing technique or singing something, so by the time I take my horn out of the case half the work has been done.”

Gordon is adept at several other instruments, particularly the tuba, which he has used to good effect on several of his recordings. “I first started playing tuba in eighth grade as an elective,” he recalls. “The fun thing about playing tuba is that it’s at the root of the harmony so it’s part of the foundation that gives the harmony a center.” For a good example of Gordon’s multi-instrumental talents, listen to “Just Going On” from The Joyride (Nagel-Heyer), on which he plays trombone, tuba and trumpet as well as scats. His highly appealing vocal style was again influenced by Armstrong with more than a hint of Fats Waller. “On one gig, Wynton asked if anyone wanted to sing this one piece,” he says. “No one else in the band wanted to, so I volunteered. I love to sing, mostly scat. I wish I had a crooner’s voice!”

Gordon’s recordings as a leader are a model of consistency and inspiration. They also demonstrate that not only can he play in all styles, he can also write in them too. His impressive body of compositions includes catchy blues and bebop pieces, jump tunes, gospel adaptations, calypsos and lullabies, all distinguished by carefully crafted arrangements that transcend mere frameworks for blowing. But perhaps most revealing are the ballads, which show a rare gift for melody. A case in point is the haunting “Beautiful Souls” on Dig This!! (Criss Cross), another piece inspired by a now departed jazz elder, bassist Arvell Shaw. “We were out on the deck of a cruise ship and he was talking about his times playing with Louis Armstrong,” Gordon says. “I got such a good feeling from him. Every so often you run into someone [who] has the true beauty of life in him.”

The trombonist feels that the major labels could do much more for jazz. “It’s even rough for someone like Wynton, who has the name and popularity,” he says. “I had a producer tell me that trombone doesn’t sell. I said, ‘If you promote, it will sell. I remember when people were buying pet rocks and you mean to say you can’t sell a trombone record?'”

Gordon’s latest CD for Criss Cross, Cone’s Coup, explores the many facets of the blues and features the up-and-coming tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard, pianist Johnny O’Neal and frequent colleagues Reginald Veal on bass and Herlin Riley on drums. Gordon’s future recording plans include music he has written for a concert choir and a May tribute to Mahalia Jackson at Lincoln Center, for which he is musical director.

With his demanding teaching and performance schedule, as well as commissions, clinics and recording dates, Gordon may have supplanted James Brown as “the hardest-working man in show business.” He relishes the challenge of moving among so many different musical settings and genres on a daily basis: “It keeps me on my toes and open. It’s like the wind in the country. When it blows, you never know what direction it will come from, but it’s always welcome.”


Wycliffe Gordon plays an Edwards T302 trombone. It has a 9192CF bell, yellow tuning slide, .508 nickel slide and T1 brass leadpipe. He uses a custom-made mouthpiece by Dave Monette. Originally Published