This article is copyright 2006 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the International Trombone Association Journal, Vol. 34, No. 3, July 2006. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Wycliffe Gordon: A Voice for the Trombone

by Antonio J. García

Associate Jazz Editor, ITA Journal

 

Though Wycliffe Gordon may be most visible as a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, his accomplishments as a soloist, bandleader, and composer are perhaps even more striking when hearing his solo and co-leader CDs, plus numerous recordings with The Wynton Marsalis Septet. And the 2000-01 LCJO concert season featured premieres of his compositions for a variety of ensembles including jazz bands, symphonic bands, and concert and gospel choirs in Russia and the United States.

Gordon received the Jazz Journalists Association 2001 and 2002 Awards for Trombonist of the Year and its 2000 Critics’ Choice Award for Best Trombone; he was also nominated for the 2003 Jazzpar Award. Currently serving on the faculty of the Jazz Studies Program at The Juilliard School, his work with young musicians and audiences from elementary schools to universities all over the world is extensive.

Wycliffe Gordon was born on May 29, 1967 in Waynesboro, Georgia, where he was first introduced to music by his late father Lucius Gordon, a classical pianist and teacher. His interest in the trombone was sparked at age twelve by his elder brother, who played the instrument in his junior high school band. Gordon’s relentless pleading to his parents led to his first trombone. A year later, an aunt bequeathed Gordon her jazz record collection; and so began his passion for jazz.

 

Mutes & Expression

García: You’re one of the most accomplished users of mutes in jazz trombone today and certainly a player who has brought mutes back into the forefront of expression. But many trombonists are still finding their way with mutes, especially plunger and pixie. How did you first get into those yourself, and what suggestions might you have for players wanting to improve their plunger sound?

Gordon: I first got into plunger-mute playing by listening to a recording of Bubber Miley on Duke Ellington’s BLACK AND TAN FANTASY. I worked and worked at re-creating this sound. I was later turned on to “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Al Grey, Tyree Glenn, and more and then began transcribing those solos as well, developing a vocabulary of various plunger styles and approaches to playing mutes.

A plunger sound has to be developed, just as the open-horn sound does. Often musicians will just pick up their plungers when they see “x” or “o” on the page: this will not help. Development of the sound must be approached like anything else that you’re working on. Practice with the plunger open and closed to get a sense of how the air pressure must change in various registers of the instrument. Practice basics such as scales; and then move onto the transcription of solos by such artists as Tricky Sam, Al Grey, Booty Wood, and Tyree Glenn.

AG: You have a tremendous dynamic range and timbral range on the open horn. How did you develop that? Might you have any suggestions for others working on expanding this?

WG: I rely on my imagination as well as ideas I got from listening to musicians that have come before me, such as Dickie Wells and Vic Dickenson. They utilized the trombone to emulate their personalities and characters. Vocalization was at the core of their approach. When they played, you would hear the sound of people talking, laughing, crying, screaming, as well as many other effects that can only be created with the human voice. I may hear something as simple as the way someone laughs; and if it is distinct, I’ll try to imitate it and make something musical of it.

I practice singing everything that I play and vice-versa. This gives me a connection to music; and the instrument becomes what it is intended for, an extension of my voice. I practice all of the vocal inflections that I may want to emulate when I play—and I do them right away.

AG: Along with the many workshops you’ve presented on the road, you’re on the faculty of the Jazz Studies Program at The Juilliard School; and some of your students have been recognized for their excellence within the various competitions sponsored by the ITA, Down Beat, and others. You’ve talked about approaching the trombone with a strong vocal concept, advocating that students of the instrument develop their ability to sing what they want to play. Can you describe this in more detail?

WG: I feel that any instrument should be a true extension of one’s voice. When you sing, you tend not to think: “A-flat!” Your keys, positions, fingerings, flats, sharps, and more you just sing. This is where you begin to develop your “natural” voice, your way of hearing music. When you sing, you will sing what comes to you naturally; and with a little practice, you’ll become very good at it. Of course, it is a plus to sing accurately and in tune to develop a good sense of placement with your voice as well as your hearing. What better way to “hear” something than to sing the song that naturally comes out of the air?

“If you can sing it, then you can play it” is my philosophy on everything from double-tonguing to doodling to scatting. If you’re having trouble executing something on the trombone, put it down: work on singing it first. Don’t worry about the sound of your voice. If you’re doing this for the first time, it’ll get better with practice and time.

AG: Courtesy of the concerts that the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has shared with some of the great concert orchestras around the world, you’ve had the opportunity to play and form friendships with some of the finest classical trombonists and other brass instrumentalists. Have you and they had opportunities to share viewpoints on brass-playing?

WG: I’ve had the opportunity to meet and hang with trombonists from a few orchestras, but I am most affiliated with Joe Alessi of the New York Philharmonic. We did a master class (“Two Sides of the Slide”) together earlier this year where we dealt with the issues of being a professional musician in these two idioms of classical and jazz. It was a very informative workshop in that we spoke of the differences in approaches to learning a particular style and came to find that there many more similarities than differences. There were demonstrations by his students as well as mine, and we both performed as well. It was great fun; but most importantly, the attendees got three hours of performance, demonstrations, and question-and-answers about approaches to being a professional musician in both classical and jazz, all in the same room at the same time.

 

Origins

AG: Anyone listening to your playing can hear the deep influence of the Southern culture and music in your expression. Having been born and raised there, is that influence something tangible to you?

WG: You are what you are: a product of where you’re from as well as a little of what you’re exposed to. I did grow up down south and spent quite a bit of time in church. This is where everyone would congregate from the community, coming together to offer praises to God; and the music was the truest form in which the expression came through. I was exposed mostly to vocal interpretations of music: choirs and soloists. I come from a family of working people, and they carried their songs in their hearts and minds as they would go through the day. These were very soulful and country people that were in touch with the true soil of the earth.

AG: Something that you, I, and Ray Anderson (among others) share is an appreciation for the tradition of the “trombone shout bands” and the gospel tradition. Is this something you experienced in Georgia, or was it later in your life?

WG: The trombone shout bands generally come out of the tradition started at the “United House of Prayer for All People,” a group of churches that line the eastern seaboard of the United States. I first heard one of the bands when I was in high school playing the trombone in Augusta, Georgia. I badly wanted to walk into the church where they were rehearsing, but a friend told me that I couldn’t just walk in that church. I’m not sure how true that was. But I got the opportunity to hear another band later as a professional musician in New York City, and I ran as fast as I could to get close to that sound.

I would go as far as saying that this is the most powerful sound the trombone makes. In this situation, where the horn speaks so gloriously, who misses the choir? No one. Why? Because the horns sound like voices, so much so that James Weldon Johnson references the trombone in his book, “God’s Trombones,” when he speaks of the voices of the preachers. The trombone: closest to the human voice? So true, indeed!

AG: How did you get started on the trombone, the tuba/sousaphone, and any other instruments?

WG: I started playing trombone because my older brother, Lucius, came home with a shiny horn one day. I told my mom I had to have one: “please, please, please” was my plea for the instrument. After enough nagging, she gave in and got it for me. I fell in love with it shortly thereafter, creating my greatest love relationship to date.

AG: Were their any specific teachers that made a big difference for you musically as you grew up?

WG: Mr. Harkness Butler, my high school band director, was not a trombonist. But he was most supportive and always encouraged me to try out for everything, assuring me that I could do well. My mother, Lena Bell, was also supportive from day one. She has been the greatest “drum major” I could have, always keeping me on the straight and narrow (as much as she could!) My brothers and sisters have always been there to cheer me on as if I were a sports hero. All of this has been helpful in the success of my musical career.

AG: What about informal teachers? Who were the greatest influences on you as a player in your most formative years?

WG: Louis Armstrong was the greatest influence on me. I listened to “Pops” over and over and over again, again and again. I began listening to recordings of his playing when I was around age 13.

AG: Could you list a couple of recordings that you believe everyone should own?

WG: Certainly: DUKE ELLINGTON: THE BLANTON-WEBSTER YEARS and J.J. JOHNSON: THE TROMBONE MASTER.

 

The Future

AG: You’re tremendously active as a resident and touring player, teacher, recording artist, and composer. Have you found a good balance between all these aspects in your life?

WG: It has definitely been beneficial to do all of the above. The balancing act becomes a little challenging from time to time, but we manage as we simply have to. There is a connection in all of those things. Finding the balance becomes easy when one understands how to connect the various functioning roles.

AG: Some people have long predicted “the death of the trombone,” yet everyone reading this Journal seeks otherwise. What do you see ahead for the future of the trombone?

WG: Trombone is an instrument. It won’t die any more than it’ll remain alive. The instrument is given life by its players. It is up to the players to present the axe in its greatest representation of itself, not the saxophone and/or trumpet. Play the trombone. While extremely difficult to master, upon mastery, no instrument can match its capabilities.

I don’t know about the future of the trombone. I do know that it is up to the players to make and surpass the mark that has been established by the great masters of past and present. Based on the players that I’ve met in the past few years, the future looks very bright, as we have some monster bone-players in the cue, waiting to fire on any axe that steps to the plate. Watch out! Keep up the good work!

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Suggested Discography

(Readers can find detailed information on personnel and tracks—plus a full discography—at <www.wycliffegordon.com>.)

AS A LEADER:

IN THE CROSS (Criss Cross), 2004

THE JOYRIDE (Nagel Heyer), 2003

DIG THIS! (Criss Cross), 2002

WHAT YOU DEALIN’ WITH (Criss Cross), 2001

UNITED SOUL EXPERIENCE (Criss Cross), 2001

THE SEARCH (Nagel Hayer), 2000

THE GOSPEL TRUTH (Criss Cross), 2000

SLIDIN’ HOME (Nagel Hayer), 1999

AS A CO-LEADER:

WE (Nagel Heyer), 2002: Wycliffe Gordon/Eric Reed

HEAD TO HEAD (Arbors Records), 2002: Wycliffe Gordon/John Allred

BONE STRUCTURE (Atlantic), 1996: Wycliffe Gordon/Ron Westray

AS A SIDEMAN:

LIVE IN SWING CITY: SWINGIN’ WITH DUKE (Columbia), 1999: Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

JUMP START & JAZZ: TWO BALLETS BY WYNTON MARSALIS (Columbia), 1997: Wynton Marsalis

BLOOD ON THE FIELDS (Columbia), 1997: Wynton Marsalis

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER: THEY CAME TO SWING (Columbia), 1994: Various Artists

PORTRAITS BY ELLINGTON (Columbia), 1992: Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

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EDITOR’S NOTE: For a transcription and discussion of Tyree Glenn’s plunger technique, see “The Plunger Mute and Tyree Glenn” by Pete Anderson, ITAJ Vol. 32, No. 2, April 2004, pp. 26-29.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own garciamusic.com, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/educator...one of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <www.garciamusic.com>.

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