A conversation with the trombonist about doing the gospel show for the jazz cruises and about his life as a player, composer, arranger and educator.
Trombonist, composer and occasional vocalist Wycliffe Gordon rose to prominence in the 90’s as a member of Wynton Marsalis’ Septet, alongside Todd Williams, Wess Anderson, Marcus Roberts, Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley. Since then, he’s become one of the foremost players on his instrument and a successful bandleader of his own and recently he’s been performing with saxophonist David Sanborn. His latest album is I Give You Love and features his group the International All Stars. He’s also an experienced educator, both through his regular clinics and workshops and through his teaching at Augusta University, for whom he recently gave a commencement address. A Yamaha artist, Gordon has been working on developing his own model of a soprano trombone or slide trumpet. He’s a regular on the Jazz Cruise presented by Entertainment Cruise Productions, for whom he has been organizing a Gospel show for many years. He is one of the few musicians, along with Marcus Miller and Kirk Whalum, who performs on the Jazz Cruise as well as the Smooth Jazz Cruise and the recent developed Blue Note at Sea cruise. Gordon spoke with JT’s publisher Lee Mergner about his development as a musician, as well as about his approach to teaching, and his involvement with the various jazz cruises.
You grew up in Augusta, Georgia. How were you introduced to jazz?
It was through recordings. I had a Great Aunt who had passed and among the stuff that came to our family was a five-record set called Jazz. It had everything on it from early stuff like ragtime to big band to even Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two.” All those sides. I gravitated to the New Orleans music because I was playing trombone and I was also playing tuba at that time. Even though we as teenagers were listening to a lot of pop music that had electronic instruments, what I had was that five-record collection. I loved that jazz. My friends used to say, “We all love jazz, but Wycliffe, he loves to eat jazz.” When we were teenagers we would listen to “Feels So Good” [sings a few bars]. And, yea man, that’s jazz, but then I would go in my garage and listen to Sonny Rollins, James P. Johnson and a whole lot of Louis Armstrong.
You were an old soul at a young age. Who were some of your important teachers and mentors?
First of all, there were my parents. My Dad introduced us to music. He played classical piano and he played in the church. My high school band director, Mr. Butler, who was always supportive of me, and any other student for that matter, when it came to trying out for the all-county band or the all-state band or the McDonald’s All American high school band. Mr. Butler would always show me things and say, “You can do it. Cliff.” That was something that allowed me to try new things and not be afraid. Then of course there’s Wynton [Marsalis]. You get to play with the best. Being with him I met a lot of musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Playing with Wynton and those guys in the Wynton Marsalis Septet, we kind of grew up on the road together. They were really phenomenal in terms of playing music and travelling together there was always about the music. After the gigs, we talked about what we played. It was so informative to play with Herlin Riley, Reginald Veal, Marcus Roberts, and later Eric Reed, and Todd Williams and Wess Anderson. It was a bunch of guys under the leadership of Wynton [who gave us] the opportunity to go out and learn this music and develop. So in terms of colleagues, I’d have to say Wynton and the members of the group.
You’ve been very involved in jazz education over the years. You’re very active at Augusta University teaching jazz there.
I’m an artist-in-residence there. They’re trying to start a jazz studies program there. What they have now is the equivalent of a certificate, where you graduate and you get a degree with an emphasis on jazz studies. We don’t have a full jazz studies program. I know what my strengths are and being an administrator is not one of them. That’s not what I want to do. I don’t mind heading things that I’m comfortable doing. I don’t want to be in an administrative role.
What would you tell them to do as far as building an excellent jazz studies program?
First of all, understanding that everything is going to cost money. We need to get proper funding. It’s like a business. We’d need to hire enough faculty to cover the basic instrumentation. I think with the model of a big band, with saxophones, brass, woodwinds, piano, bass and drums, we need to hire the right instructors. We also need to put something in place to bring attention to the program we’re starting. In the dream situation, you hire the best educators who also bring something to the table as far as their performance, with professional credentials.
Are jazz students different now from before? Certainly they have access to so much more information with the internet and technology. You had to dig to find out about the music.
I think the technology is a positive. It depends on how you use it. The pros are that the information is easy to access. The cons? It makes a lot of people lazy. They tend to think that because they can get information just like that, sometimes they think that transfers to being able to develop their ability to play and to internalize that information. I had a student ask me one time, “This is good that we’re going to study melodious etudes and we’re going to start transcribing these solos, but what’s the shortcut?” I said, “Shortcut? The shortcut is the straightest line between where you’re standing and the practice room. There’s no app for your ability. You have to actually do that work. You can’t Google that. You have to practice.” The pros are obvious. They’re not going to record stores or libraries. They have access to that information 24 hours a day, immediately. I think that’s great. But I’m glad that I grew up with having to go to the library to check out a book to do a report. I understand that for the younger generation they think it’s always been this way and anything they want should come immediately, because the information comes immediately. But I tell them that there’s something called a process. It’s great that you can access information, but the opportunity to actually learn something, you have to go through that learning process. I’m fortunate that I grew up in a time when the TV actually would sign off at 11 or whatever.
When you think about making music now, kids don’t make music the same way, they don’t buy the same way. I still love LPs and CDs. I love liner notes. As a musician to remain relevant, I do make my CDs available to download, because I don’t want anyone to not have the opportunity to hear my music. I’m a part of it too. But I also have every CD and album I ever bought. I still have books. I still have those things. I like what’s tangible and what I can touch. I don’t have anything against the modern world, but I’m glad that I had a chance to see where it’s come from and where it’s come to.
You sailed with the Blue Note at Sea Cruise earlier this year. What were your impressions of the experience?
It was nice. I enjoyed it. We had fun. It seemed like it was a cross between the Jazz Cruise and the Smooth Jazz Cruise. There was straight-ahead jazz and we also had bands like Take 6, David Sanborn and Marcus Miller, who is on all the cruises. I felt like it was a great mixture.
One of the most popular events on all the cruises is your gospel show. How has that developed over the years?
When I first did the Jazz Cruise many years ago, I think it was about 10 or 12 years ago, they had a gospel component, and I was just one of the All Stars. The second year I did it, they had Marlena Shaw and she did the gospel show. And I went to it. I grew up in the church. And I mentioned to someone that I would love to play on the show. I think I did that the next year. And then after that they said, “How would you like to host the show?” I said yes, of course, and said that it would be much easier if I had my band because I would be prepared with the musical presentation so early in the week. I didn’t always have a band, but I started out having my quintet, and before you know it, I was hosting every year, whether I had a band or not. I have a close kinship to gospel music so the ties with that music and jazz and how the New Orleans musicians would play hymns as part of their expression of jazz. I just always had a deep love for that music. When I did the Smooth Jazz cruise the first time, I think Jonathan Butler had hosted before, but he wasn’t on the cruise that year, so Michael asked me if I would mind hosting [the gospel show] that year. And of course I said, sure. I love it.
You’ve been playing with David Sanborn a lot recently. How did that come about?
It started a few years ago. He called me and said, “I’d like to work with you sometime.” And I said that’s a no-brainer. I’ve always admired his music. I went to his house. It was coming up to the Smooth Jazz cruise a few years ago and he wanted to get a show together. So we rehearsed and we played the Smooth Jazz cruise together. After that he wanted to go into the two-horn format and most saxophonists want that to be trumpet, but for whatever reason, he wanted it to be the trombone. I love straight-ahead and bebop but it’s not the only thing I listen to and it’s not the only thing I play. So to get an opportunity to play with David Sanborn has been great. He loves music and he loves people. He’s such a cool dude. The vibes are great. We played the Blue Note this past December. And we’ve talked about recording and all I can say is, count me in.
He has such an iconic sound. For a long time, he was one of the most imitated saxophonists in music. He’s very distinctive.
He sure is. He plays and there’s no mistaking that sound. It’s what it is and what it always has been.
Are there any artists on the Blue Note at Sea cruise that you enjoyed seeing and hearing?
I always loved Take 6. I was busy with David Sanborn. I love Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway. I was already familiar with so many of the artists and their work. When I was on the Smooth Jazz Cruise, I knew who the musicians were, but most of them had heard of me, but didn’t really know me because that was a whole other world. The Blue Note Cruise was kind of like a tie-in between straight-ahead and smooth. I know most of those players. Terence Blanchard I’ve known for many years. It was my first time working with Lalah Hathaway. I got a chance to meet some of the younger musicians.