“Unlike a lot of my contemporaries who came into jazz through bebop,” Gordon tells me from New York (where he teaches at the Manhattan School of Music), “what brought me to the music was the earlier jazz.” That would mean New Orleans. Gordon recounts that when he was 13 years old, his family inherited belongings from a great aunt, which included a five-LP jazz anthology.
“It included everything from slave chants to modern jazz, which at that point included Sonny Rollins playing ‘Sonnymoon for Two.’” But Gordon kept returning to the side with New Orleans music and especially Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven’s “Keyhole Blues.”
That’s one of 15 tracks from Gordon’s 2011 tribute, Hello Pops. On it, Gordon not only plays his usual trombone and sousaphone, but also plays trumpet and sings. “I’ve always played the trumpet, but never publically, because I’ve always worked with a trumpet player.” Likewise, Gordon had always been the low-brass sideman to others’ Armstrong tributes. But when it came to his own project, it was time to reconsider.
“I thought, well, if I hire a trumpet player, then he or she will be the focus, so I’m going to have fun and I’ll play trumpet.” As for singing: “Back in the ’90s, when I was with Wynton’s septet, he knew I liked to mess around and imitate Pops, so I’d do a song here and there. I know the songs, and I could have made them instrumental, but I love singing. I don’t sing all the time, but when we decided to do this show, I said, ‘I’m going to sing.’”
Listeners will probably have few complaints. Gordon’s grainy, unaffected vocals are a perfect vehicle for the Armstrong spirit. Like Pops himself, it’s not the instrument or the range, but the phrasing and feeling that make the vocals work. His scatting is as precise and swinging as his brass work, and on “If” he proves himself a particularly affecting ballad singer. The song is a simple declaration of romantic devotion, made all the more powerful by the burly Gordon’s understated delivery: “If they made me a king, I’d be but a slave to you….”
“One thing I’ve always shied away from is singing ballads, but it’s such a pretty song,” says Gordon. “I like the words. I always say that if I could do anything differently from the beginning of my interest in music, I would sing.” As for Armstrong’s singing, he points out, “Even a great composer like
Hoagy Carmichael said, ‘I wish I had written it the way Louis Armstrong sings it.’ Pops would take a song like ‘Up a Lazy River’ and put the Louis Armstrong on it.”
Aside from his singing, the album is of course a showcase for Gordon’s brass playing. From his first days with Marsalis’s band, Gordon has always put his astonishing range and technique to honest musical effects. That includes his prodigious use of mutes, multiphonic split tones, growls, slurs, flutters, and an overall vocal treatment of the instrument that goes back at least as far as Duke Ellington trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton. But bebop speed and articulation are also part of his arsenal: Check his breathtaking cadenza on “Basin Street Blues.” And the trumpet playing—full and rounded—here seems an extension of his voice, as in his move from scatting to blowing on “Keyhole Blues.”
For a sample of Gordon the composer/arranger, check “Meatball 1, 2, 3,” in which trumpet, trombone and tuba play delicate, bluesy counterpoint. Who did he enlist for this number? “Wycliffe Gordon, Wycliffe Gordon and Wycliffe Gordon. . . . I wrote out a sketch for myself and had the engineer put on a click track. I put the tuba part on first, then the trumpet and trombone.” The performance is surprisingly organic—fresh and spontaneous.
Gordon came to the trombone as a 12-year-old in Waynesboro, Georgia, when his older brother brought one home from school. “When he opened the case, it was like a new toy. ‘I want one.’” The following year he was playing trombone and tuba in the junior high school band. Up until his encounter with the trombone, he’d been taking piano lessons. “I loved my piano teacher, but it was much more fun to be in a group of kids. There was something about being in a band. It was always exciting.” Trumpet came along in high school, when a group of visiting school friends left their instruments behind—including a trumpet—to play ball. “If you left your instrument at our house, it got played.”
Meanwhile, the kids were listening to what Gordon calls “electronic music”—Kool & the Gang, P-Funk. The high school band skipped over Count Basie charts as too difficult and went for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Still, “I’d always go back to my garage and put on ‘Keyhole Blues,’ ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ There was something about New Orleans music I always took a liking to.”
He began to imitate all the solos of “Keyhole Blues”—trumpet, trombone, tuba, clarinet—on his trombone and also Armstrong’s vocals. “It’s not a fast tune, it’s not terribly difficult. In terms of dealing with it stylistically, it seemed like something that was attainable. And it felt good.”
Gordon says his parents were always supportive of his music, even though his father played classical piano as well as in church. The church itself was another bag. “There was the thought that anything that wasn’t sacred music or gospel music was the music of the Devil. So there was a time when it was difficult because, you know, if jazz is the Devil’s music, then the Devil has some nice music. It was confusing to be—taught that God created everything and then think, ‘Well, if He created everything—or She created everything—then they created jazz, so why is it so bad?
Things have changed. Now we have jazz vespers! And I’m glad that after being a professional musician that I can go back to my church and play and be accepted.”
His father, who died in 1997, “started listening to jazz when he could turn on the radio and hear me playing at Lincoln Center.”
At the Satchmo SummerFest keynote, Gordon plans to talk about Armstrong as musician, man, and humanitarian. Despite the attention of people like Marsalis and Ken Burns, Gordon finds that the image of Armstrong as an Uncle Tom persists. “Even some of my present-day colleagues, they see him in movies, singing ‘Jeepers Creepers,’ always smiling,” says Gordon. “People mistook that smile to mean that he was Uncle Tommin’.” Gordon sees that smile as a triumph over an impoverished childhood and persistent racism. “He grew up poor, he was sent to the New Orleans Colored Waifs home. But he loved everybody in spite of where he’d come from, what he’d gone through. One of my favorite clips is of him singing Fats Waller’s ‘Black and Blue’ in Ghana in 1956. He’s singing this song that expressed racial issues and rough times that we were having in the United States.”
Gordon sees Armstrong’s 1957 statements about school segregation as particularly courageous. At the time, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus had ordered the National Guard to secure Little Rock’s Central High School. Armstrong was quoted by a reporter as describing Faubus as an “uneducated plowboy” (though the reporter later said the original term used by Armstrong was “no-good motherfucker”). He added that President Dwight Eisenhower had “no guts.”
At the time, Armstrong was an unofficial U.S. goodwill ambassador, with international concerts sponsored by the State Department. He took predictable heat for his comments. “He was risking fame and fortune by saying something that was viewed as negative against the president of the United States.”
Incidents like this were an inspiration for Gordon’s original title tune of Hello Pops, with lines like, “You stopped wars with your music,” a direct reference to Armstrong’s performance in Ghana. It’s also an echo of Armstrong’s own inspirational “Hello Brother,” which appears later on the album.
At Satchmo SummerFest, Gordon will most likely appear with a quartet and play a good chunk of Hello Pops and a bit of last year’s Dreams of New Orleans (Chesky), with traditional fare like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Down by the Riverside.” Gordon’s newest record is The Intimate Ellington: Ballads and Blues (Criss Cross Jazz), and though the band might not play anything from that album specifically, you can expect a bit from the Duke/Pops collaborations, like “Black and Tan Fantasy.”
And how about “Meatball 1, 2, 3”? Gordon doesn’t rule it out. “It has been performed live. But not with me playing all three parts. If I could learn how to do that, I could probably make a lot of money.”