Wycliffe Gordon is a force of nature,” says Ryan McMaken of the Savannah Music Festival. The communications and operations director of the annual event is as effusive about the Waynesboro-born multi-instrumentalist as Gordon is about his love for his craft. “He’s such a big part of everything we stand for here.”
Gordon answers the phone in his New York studio, radiating the cool reserve and measured countenance of a veteran jazz musician. His hearty laugh rattles through the line when he’s reminded of McMaken’s description of his contributions. “Well, I just love what I do so much,” he says. “Some folks don’t look forward to going to their jobs. I look forward to waking up and writing music, teaching, completing a work. When I’m working, it’s kind of like a vacation.”
On a recent morning, the affable Gordon was waiting for a student to arrive for a lesson, planning his set for the upcoming “Hello Pops!” show at the Savannah Music Festival and preparing to fly to Germany later that same day. It’s all in a day’s work, …or “ vacation,” for the busy musician.
“I don’t know what downtime is anymore,” he chuckles. “But you know, I’m getting better. I used to have about 15 projects going at one time; teaching, performing, composing, travel. Now I pick maybe two things to do, then I start on the next ones.”
A valuable inheritance
The year 2011 saw much more than two completed projects from the entertainer. He played the Savannah Music Fest for the ninth year, celebrated the release of Sing It First, a master trombone class in book form, scored the legendary silent film Within Our Gates, completed a myriad of commissions, self-published new works, taught countless lessons and logged thousands of air-miles while touring the US and abroad. He also released Hello Pops!, a joyous tribute disc to one of his main influences and heroes, Louis Armstrong—the legendary musician/singer/actor known affectionately by his fans as “Pops” or “Satchmo.”
Already mapping out the remainder of 2012, his plans include a vinyl version of the Pops! tribute, a big band record and a holiday CD, “I’ve been wanting to do a Christmas album for ten years, but I haven’t had time.” But on this day, the two main things he’s eager to discuss are Louis Armstrong and education—subjects that are equally important for Gordon.
Gordon’s music education began with his family because his dad was an accomplished classical musician. “A lot of the music I heard as a kid,” he explains, “was in church. I didn’t hear jazz at all until I was 12 or 13.” But jazz was about to affect the eager-to-learn Gordon in a big way. When a great aunt passed away, among the many things she passed along to the family was her record collection. “In those records, there was an anthology of jazz on Columbia,” Gordon says, warming to the memory. “It had early slave chants all the way to the modern jazz of the time, which was, like, the Sonny Rollins Quartet and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.”
The budding musician, then a student at George P. Butler Comprehensive High School in Augusta, was fascinated by the tracks. “I listened to the music of the time, too, Everything from Kool And The Gang to Chuck Mangione to KISS, but after everything was said and done, what I would do was practice with that record.”
Although he eventually learned about all aspects of jazz, what really fascinated him most was “the New Orleans stuff,” particularly a recording on the bequeathed collection by Louis Armstrong with the Hot Seven called “Keyhole Blues” He eagerly sought out the rest of Armstrong’s work, while his buddies kidded him about digging “the deep jazz.”
Once a student, now the teacher
Fittingly, the initial song that moved him the most is now the centerpiece of Gordon’s recent CD, a highly personal statement. “I’ve always been a musician that played with others, but Hello Pops! was my chance to do it the way I wanted.” And the musician, who has played with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and a host of other luminaries, fêtes his mentor proudly.
On the album, he plays trumpet, trombone, sousaphone, tuba and sings. The songs all represent pivotal moments from his life. “Those records were handed down to me, and now I’m passing them along to, I hope, a new generation. Pops taught me and now I’m teaching about him; it’s my way of saying thanks and passing it on. He recorded so much music, I could play two shows a night for a week and not repeat anything.”
The festival would be happy to have him play and share music all week, according to Rob Gibson, SMF’s executive and artistic director, a friend since the late ’80s. “Wycliffe loves teaching and passing on the tradition. He’s one of the most original musicians to come out of Georgia in a long time.”
Atlanta-native Gibson happily enlisted Gordon to participate in the Festival’s Swing Central Jazz program, a high-school-centric setting, open to kids from the whole country. “It’s a big investment, and the reason they come down to Savannah is to be able to learn from great musicians like Wycliffe, Jon Faddis and Marcus Roberts,” explained Gibson of the non-profit, interactive festival. “Jazz is an art form that requires real, on-the-bandstand participation. Wycliffe understands that.”
“When a professional jazz musician would take the time to show me how to play,” continues Gordon, “it meant so much. I was so fortunate to work with people that were always encouraging. Like (legendary trombonists) Britt Woodman, Al Grey, and Buster Cooper. Guys that played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie.”
Woodman’s words and actions still resonate. “When I sat next to him in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he didn’t have to say ‘do it like this, do it like that.’ He just played. I watched and listened. I’m excited about passing that on to anyone who wants to play—and anyone who wants to listen.”