World class jazz and blues trombonist Wycliffe Gordon doesn’t plan on talking much at his concert on Saturday, February 28, at Princeton Regional School’s Performing Arts center. He predicts he will be talked out by then, after three days as artist-in-residence in the Princeton Regional Schools system.
Gordon, best known as part of the Wynton Marsalis Septet and Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, has forged a name for himself in the last eight years, since leaving the LCJO in 2000. His recent albums, all of which drew high praise from critics of traditional jazz, include “You and I,” “Boss Bones,” and “BloozBluzeBlues.”
“I haven’t been with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on tour since September, 2000,” Gordon in a phone interview from a tour stop with his quartet in California, “these days, I play one or two concerts a year with them.”
Gordon began playing trombone as a 12-year-old in his native Augusta, GA. In a 2000 interview for U.S. 1, he told this writer his earliest awareness of jazz and blues came through a record collection he received from an aunt. “When she died, 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 had an enormous impact on the impressionable young Gordon, as well as on his father, a classically trained piano player who died in 1998. Gordon acknowledges his father didn’t get all that interested in jazz “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 mother, a retired RN, still lives in the Augusta area.
Gordon played all the valve instruments in high school and then attended Florida A&M University, admitting, “I majored in music on paper, but I really majored in partying.”
Gordon’s first big break was being hand-picked by Marsalis to join his septet in 1989. “I met Wynton when I was in college and then I got a call from him a year later. I was completely unprepared for my first audition, but shortly after that I joined his band and that’s when my career as a professional jazz trombonist really began. That was June 6, 1989.”
He recalls of his early days with Marsalis’ septet, “Wynton was flying me around and I was going to transfer schools anyway. He always encouraged us to finish school, and finally I realized that school is not going to go anywhere, but I may never get this opportunity to play with Wynton again.” Gordon remained a key player in Marsalis’ septet until December, 1994, when things began to get busier for Marsalis with his added responsibilities as an artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Raised as he was playing trombone in the church, Gordon’s playing is steeped in the blues, as blues and gospel are branches of the same musical tree. Gordon has recorded two gospel albums, “The Gospel Truth,” with East Orange blues vocalist Carrie Smith, for the Criss Cross label, and “In the Cross,” which includes contributions from the Garden City Gospel Choir, a choir of singers he hand-picked for the album, all of them based in Augusta, GA.
The February 28 program is a benefit for Carver High School in the 9th Ward in New Orleans, still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and Gordon says he’s always happy to play for a good cause. “I don’t really have a good impression about what has been done down there so far, because those who haven’t been able to afford to rebuild their homes haven’t been able to.”
He says he went to visit one of his wife’s friends in New Orleans, “and right across the street was a pile of a house that hadn’t been cleaned up. My wife and her family are from just outside New Orleans, but I’ve been there enough to hear the horror stories from the insurance companies, and whether they technically had flood damage or wind damage. If a family had one but not both, they sometimes didn’t qualify for funds to rebuild. I don’t really have a good feeling about how those people had to weather that storm and dealing with the insurance companies and the government. If you didn’t have someone representing you, it was really difficult. I’ve been part of all kinds of benefits for New Orleans and part of programs to send musical instruments down there as well.
“I’m not from New Orleans, but my wife has friends who live there in the 9th Ward, and I feel like I’ve suffered right along with them,” he says.
The Princeton concert was organized by jazz enthusiast and educator Lew Goldstein, an assistant superintendent in Princeton Regional Schools, who made the connection with Carver High School in New Orleans last year. He presented them with a check from a benefit concert held last year featuring zydeco musician and southwest Louisiana native Terrance Simien. Goldstein has visited New Orleans’ 9th Ward several times since then to work with Habitat for Humanity.
These days, Gordon bases himself, when he’s not out touring with his quartet, in homes in Harlem and teaching at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. He also sees students privately at his apartment in Harlem. “I stay pretty busy between working at the university, teaching students privately, and gigs here and there with small groups,” he says.
During his artist-in-residency program this week in Princeton Regional Schools, Gordon will no doubt be asked countless times for advice for budding musicians, including those who play in the excellent Princeton High School jazz bands. Asked what advice he got over his years of playing trombone, and about the realities of making it in the jazz business, Gordon says advice was more forthcoming from the elder statesmen, some of whom have since passed on, then it was from his younger contemporaries.
“Most of my really good advice would come from older guys like Al Grey and Clark Terry. Most profoundly, Al Grey always said: ‘Make sure that they know your name.’ He was always encouraging to younger musicians. He pointed out, ‘You don’t want to be known only as one of the musicians who plays with Wynton Marsalis,’ you also want to develop your own career.’
‘At the time he was telling me all this I didn’t think it was all that important, but one way of making a name for myself was by leaving the band,” he says. “I didn’t really start to get recognition until after I left the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. It seems I was always encouraged by the older musicians; the younger musicians sometimes felt challenged by me, perhaps. But with the older cats, they didn’t care, they knew they could play and had already established themselves as musicians.”
Gordon says his concert won’t be punctuated by too much learned commentary — he knows the history behind many obscure blues and gospel tunes and knows so much about the history of jazz — because by that point, he’ll just want to perform with his quartet.
“As I understand it, I’m doing workshops all that week and I have a master class earlier that day. So at my concert, I’m not going to be doing all that much talking. It’ll be a performance.”
Benefit Concert, Princeton High School, 151 Moore Street. Saturday, February 28, 2 p.m. Benefit for Wycliffe Gordon Katrina Relief for Carver High School in New Orleans. Princeton High School Studio Band opens. $20. 609-806-4300 or www.prspac.org.