On this past February’s Jazz Cruise from Celebrity Cruise Lines, Wycliffe Gordon lead a passionate and spirited gospel set that was contagious and outrageous. The trombonist poured his heart and a whole lotta sweat equity into a full-stage ensemble performance. Not an untapped foot or unclapped hand in the audience. So typical of Mr. Gordon’s appearances!
With recordings in the jazz, soul and gospel arenas and even composing for silent films, he works on a dizzying number of projects at once, ever-mindful of producing that full, Herculean tone he is known for.
When did you start playing?
I started piano at age 5 and trombone at age 12 (middle school).
Do you come from a musical family?
I really wanted to play the drums but my mother said “absolutely no drums in this house” (there were several siblings who made “enough noise”). So one day my older brother came home from school with a shiny new trombone because he had joined the band and I knew that I had to have one too! I didn’t really know what it was but I didn’t stop asking until I got one. Growing up with an older brother, I had to have everything he had and in this case it was a trombone!
My father was a pianist and church organist so I grew up with music all around me. I was also bequeathed a record collection from a great aunt and many of the records were jazz albums, the most treasured being the music of Louis Armstrong and his recording of the “Keyhole Blues.” That record and his playing inspired me to play jazz and want to be like him.
Top musical influences on trombone, and in jazz in general?
Louis Armstrong is my number one, but there are so many including JJ Johnson, Trummy Young, Kid Ory, Duke Ellington, Dizzy, Ella, Ray Charles, James Brown, Jack Teagarden, Al Grey, Jackson 5, Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament Funkadelic and Ohio Players, just to name a few.
What are some of the different items you’ve placed inside the bell for effects? The most unusual one?
I use the combination of a pixie mute and a plunger to get my signature sound. Sometimes, though, I will use a towel, cloth or shirt, whatever I have nearby on the stand to cover the bell with.
What is the jazz scene like where you live?
It’s growing! I share my time between Lexington, KY and Augusta, GA. Lexington has a great big band DOJO, which is lead by trumpeter Vince DiMartino and saxophonist Miles Osland. I recorded a big band record with them titled “Somebody New” and the players can play! It’s a small jazz scene in Lexington but this band and its members are always hustling to make things happen. I play with them when I can and it’s always a great show.
In Augusta where I’m Artist-In-Residence at AU, it’s the same thing. There are several people who try and make things happen (my sister Karen) and since I’ve been at the university, I’ve worked to establish a jazz series that brings in the masters of jazz. Last year we brought Jimmy Heath and his band, and I’ve brought my band the International All Stars, and hosted drummer Dion Parson and the 21st Century Band. I also brought jazz vocalist Dee Daniels and I continue to perform with the university jazz band and ensembles when I can. I hope that we can grow the jazz studies program at Augusta University and continue to offer great concerts to the community.
I’m always composing and arranging no matter what. I just finished several commissions—one to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the US-Sri Lanka relationship. My band the All Stars did a US State Dept. tour in February and performed all over Sri Lanka; we even rode on tuk-tuks while performing! We premiered this piece while we were there on tour.
I also completed a commission for the Savannah’s Children’s Choir, which will premiere at the end of April. I do a lot of arranging as well for many artists, which I love to do. I’m in the process of recording a Christmas/Holiday CD for release in the fall, and I’m working on completing an exciting project developing a soprano trombone—stay tuned for the roll-out of my own horn!
For more information, visit www.wycliffegordon.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Wycliffe Gordon.
© Debbie Burke 2018