World-famous jazz trombonist and educator Wycliffe Gordon will be in town this weekend for two free-of-charge Piccolo Spoleto performances at the U.S. Custom House (200 East Bay St.) — a collaboration between his quartet and members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra called Sunset Serenade at the Custom House on Fri. May 22 at 8 p.m., and an event called All That Jazz: A Battle of the Best High School Jazz Bands in the Lowcountry at the Custom House on Sat. May 23 from 7-10 p.m.
For these concerts, his quartet features Ehud Asherie on piano, on Herman Burney on bass, and Charleston’s own Quentin Baxter on drums. Check out the Buzzometer and features in this week’s Spoleto coverage online and in print.
As a performer, educator, conductor, composer, arranger, Gordon has developed an impressive musical career, regularly touring the world, performing a variety of jazz and blues styles for audiences ranging from heads of state to elementary school kids. He was a veteran member of the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the renowned New York big band collective the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — a versatile ensemble comprised of skillful and expressive jazz soloists and ensemble players. He was also a featured guest artist on Billy Taylor’s “Jazz at the Kennedy Center” series. Gordon has been especially active this year as a professional musician — gigging between playing concerts across the globe, conducting clinics, and collaborating with other composers and musicians.
City Paper caught up with Gordon over the phone last week, just as the horn master was finishing a brief tour if Israel. Here are the highlights of the interview:
City Paper: Drummer Quentin Baxter will be pretty busy this week, preparing for a concert at the Gaillard Auditorium with vocalist René Marie’s combo. How did he come to be a part of your quartet for the weekend?
Wycliffe Gordon: I thought it was important to have Quentin on board. I could have brought the drummer down from New York, but we’re right there with one of the great, masterful drummers and skilled educators in the town. Thought it’d be a shame to invite him out to just watch the group, so I invited him play with us instead.
City Paper: Tell us a bit about what’s in store for the collaboration with the high school musicians on Saturday.
Wycliffe Gordon: It’s not a competition; it’s more of showcase of some of the high school students who will be presenting some of their music. I plan to rehearse with them earlier in the week.
City Paper: Is doing events with young musicians and students as much a part of your career as regular concerts these days?
Wycliffe Gordon: I play and perform all over, but a lot of what I do is in education. I’ve been commissioned to write works for concert bands and jazz groups. Between performing and conducting master classes and workshops, this is the busiest I’ve been in quite some time. Last month, I was home for only four days. It’s not rough, but the days and nights are very full. I’m looking forward to a little time off later this summer.
City Paper: Was there a particular band director or mentor who inspired or encouraged you as a young musician?
Wycliffe Gordon: I don’t think I was inspired as a young player by any one player, but my high school band director and my mother were both very supportive, and that had the biggest effect on me. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. They made sure I was available to try out for all-county band, all-state band, the McDonald’s All-American High School Band … they were always there to support me, and always told me I could do it, rather than what I couldn’t do.
City Paper: Would you agree that it sometime takes years of work and experience before a young musician demonstrates genuine musical maturity?
Wycliffe Gordon: Sometimes, the young kids get it and sometimes they don’t. Eventually, most of them do. I’ve been fortunate. When I was young, I wanted to play fast, loud, and high … I wanted to learn to do all those things. And I did and I still can. But I have leaned the importance of being able to tell a story, and a lot of that came from talking with and playing with the old cats — the guys who are still living, and the guys who left an indelible impression. I try to pass that on to the students as information they can take or leave. Whether they use it or not is their choice. It’s just like I told a student today, the only thing that’s stopping you from developing is you. Until you do the work nothing’s gonna happen. Just do it, and the proof will be in the playing.
City Paper: You regularly refer to your experience with in the Wynton Marsalis’ septet in the 1990s as a pivotal point in your career. Looking back, what effected you the most during that gig?
Wycliffe Gordon: I heard the band before I joined, the level of musicality was pretty stupefying. The guys in the band were improvisors and masters of their instruments. When I left college from Florida A&M and started playing with Wynton, the first year and a half in the band, I had to get my playing together. Wynton and the guys motivated me to get to higher levels. Wynton exemplified greatness. When you’re on stage and you hear someone like that, you have to decide if you want to do that yourself, or if you want to simply witness someone doing that. I wanted to do it, so I became like a sponge, and strived to play at the level. I always tell students I encounter, “Stay around people who play better than you — that’s how you get better.” You either take it seriously and remain where are you get to work and make it happen. To be around cats playing at the level made me want to achieve that.