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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the November 15, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Slidin’ Home with the Blues
Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s recent album, "Slidin’
Home," may be the most significant jazz album released last year.
He delves into blues, gospel, Dixieland and other musical forms that
were part of the development of jazz. He tackles the standards, like
Ellington’s "Mood Indigo," and "It Don’t Mean A Thing,"
and W.C. Handy’s "St. Louis Blues," and even does his own
take on the traditional "Hallelujah Shout." But what makes
Gordon’s album so compelling is that he adds his own originals to
the standards. These include "New Awlins," which sounds as
if it were recorded in the 1920s, or "Blooz, First Thang ‘Dis
Moanin’," a blues of sorts reminiscent of 1950s bebop. But there’s
also a cameo by former Ellington band vocalist Milt Grayson, now 70-something,
who sounds in fine form on Gordon’s take of "Do Nothin’ ‘Til You
Hear From Me."
Best known by jazz fans as the trombonist with the Lincoln Center
Jazz Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis’ fabulous band, Gordon is actually
a multi-instrumentalist who plays not just trombone, but also tuba,
piano, drums, and clarinet.
"For `Slidin’ Home,’ I decided the format was to be standards
from different periods in jazz," Gordon explains from a tour stop
in Chicago. This fall Gordon left the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
for a while to pursue his own musical career as a bandleader. "I
did a spiritual tune, I did a New Orleans-style tune, I did a blues,
a ballad, a bebop tune, and for each of those styles, I did an original
composition that I thought might have been written at that time and
would be considered a standard."
The 33-year-old multi-instrumentalist and composer was born in the
small country town of Waynesboro, Georgia, but raised in nearby Augusta.
He began playing trombone at age 12.
"My first awareness of blues and jazz was through a record collection
that I had received from a great aunt, when she passed, she gave her
record collection to my family," Gordon says, "and among the
things in there was a five-record set, `The History of Jazz,’ which
covered everything from the early slave chants to what was considered
modern jazz at that time, which was Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band."
That collection, as well as the recordings of trumpeter Louis Armstrong,
had a tremendous impact on the young Gordon. As did his father, who
died in 1998.
"My father was a classically trained piano player," he says,
"and his interest in jazz didn’t really come about until I started
having some accomplishments of my own in the jazz world. He mostly
played in the church, but he was a very good sight reader." Gordon’s
mom, a nurse, still practices in his native Augusta.
Gordon played all the valve instruments through high school, and then
attended Florida A&M University.
"I majored in music on paper, but I really majored in partyin’,"
he says, laughing. His first big break was being hand-picked by trumpeter
Marsalis to join his septet in 1989. "I was the seventh member
to join and that was the greatest thing for me musically at that point
in my life," he recalls.
"In 1988 he flew me out to Texas to play and see what I could
do. Then 10 months later he flew me up to Blues Alley [a jazz nightclub]
in Washington, and then I joined his band," he says. "During
the summer months of 1989, I joined his band and what was a temporary
arrangement became a permanent thing." Although Gordon attended
Florida A&M for four years, he didn’t graduate.
"Wynton Marsalis was flying me around, and I was going to transfer
schools anyway," he recalls. "He always encouraged us to finish
school, and I realized the school is not going to go anywhere, but
I may never get this opportunity to play with Wynton again." Gordon
was a key member of Marsalis’ septet until that group disbanded in
December, 1994, as things began to heat up with Marsalis’ workload
with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Gordon recently had the spotlight cast on his talents as he debuted
his film score for Oscar Micheaux’s silent film, the screen debut
of Paul Robeson, "Body And Soul." On September 24 Lincoln
Center presented Gordon’s score with a special screening of the film.
Gordon says composing the music for the 86-minute film presented unique
"It was my first time doing this, and the plus side of it was
that I had total autonomy to do what I wanted to do, musically. I
didn’t have a musical director telling me what kind of music should
go here or there in the film," he says. "This was a complete
86 minutes of music non-stop. But the arduous part of the project
was dealing with the technical side of it. Once I had to synchronize
it, that’s when things began to get very interesting. I had to rearrange
Asked about his influences, Gordon cites trumpeter and American music
icon Armstrong as a key inspiration, but also mentions trombonists
Jack Teagarden, Al Grey, and Vic Dickinson.
Unlike so many other young upstarts in the jazz world, Gordon is solidly
based in tradition, which means recognizing the role blues and gospel
music had in the evolution of jazz.
"The blues runs through everything I do," he says. Similarly,
trumpeter Marsalis, who wrote the liner notes for "Slidin’ Home,"
has a special understanding and appreciation for blues. Asked what
he makes of the young players coming up who don’t know how to play
the blues, Gordon says the emphasis for these soul-less players should
be more on feeling, and less on technique.
"A lot of times, the younger generation, which would include myself,
we get caught up in figuring out how to play the instrument, get caught
up in exercises and patterns," he says. "But the patterns
in jazz should really be like the alphabet in language. You don’t
really think about it, you use the alphabet to learn how to read and
write, but you don’t think about it while you’re talking. You should
really concentrate your efforts on learning how to sing on the instrument."
"A lot of times, we forget how to play and improvise from a melodic
standpoint, and one way to do that is to learn to improvise from melodies
that are blues-based. Once you’re able to do that, you’re able to
create music that doesn’t sound like it was created by a machine."
Gordon’s first album, "Bone Structure," was
released in 1996 on Atlantic’s very short-lived jazz label, an attempt
by Atlantic CEO Ahmet Ertegun and high ranking executives to get back
into the music they were most passionate about. But the label was
crushed by executives at Time Warner, which owns Atlantic, because
it wasn’t commercially profitable. Gordon has two other releases that
just came out this month, "Gospel Truth" on the Netherlands-based
Criss-Cross label, and "The Search," his second release for
Asked if he finds the audiences better in Europe, he says there seems
to be a bigger appreciation for America’s native classical music,
jazz and blues, in Europe and even in most of the Asian countries.
"But personally, I haven’t had a lot of experience over there,
outside of working with Wynton and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra,"
he adds. In other words, his career under his own name as a bandleader
is just beginning to take off, and since he just took a break from
LCJO this fall, the European shows haven’t been booked yet.
On "Slidin’ Home," Gordon is all over the place with his trombone
solos, but he doesn’t over-solo, and each solo is part of the greater
melody being played. He’s also accompanied by a stellar cast of musicians,
including pianist Eric Reed, drummer Herlin Riley, Victor Goines on
clarinet and tenor sax, Joe Temperley on baritone and soprano saxophones,
and Randy Sandke on trumpet.
Asked who will accompany him at the Peddie School in Hightstown, Gordon
says he isn’t sure yet if he’ll be leading a quartet or quintet. He
does know he’ll have Robert Rucker on drums, and either Eric Lewis
or Eric Reed on piano. But one thing is certain: Gordon will play
"Blues will definitely be a part of it, and gospel may be a part
of it depending on who is in the band," he says, "if we have
Eric Reed on piano, I can get away with playing some spirituals and
"The best live shows are when things are spontaneous," he
continues, "if you plan too much, it becomes like a classical
concert. What we’ll do depends on the musicians I’m playing with,
and their strengths and weaknesses. You just have to try things and
be prepared to deal with what may happen."
— Richard J. Skelly
Theater, South Main Street, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. $15. Friday,
November 17, 8 p.m.
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