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Thursday
Jun282012

Jazz music is still an American treasure, though it may be harder to find

Photo by Ayano Hisa

Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon was named  Downbeat's Critics Choice for "Best Trombone" in 2012.

By JEROME BURDI

Wycliffe Gordon has a one track mind. And that’s the way it needs to be for a solid musician.

The award winning trombonist said once he set his mind to music, nothing stood in his way. He dropped out of college to pursue his dream. And it manifested.

"If you say, 'I want to play music but I feel like I should have something to fall back on, then you will fall back on that. If this is something you really want to do, you have to take a chance...The biggest danger a musician can come across is having self doubt."

The Georgia native grew up in the church with his father playing the organ and was influenced at an early age to play music. Once he got hold of his aunt’s music collection, his world opened to jazz. And has only become richer since then.

Gordon, 45, had tough times finding musicians to swing with as he was coming up because jazz isn't as popular as it once was when giants such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk walked the earth.

Gordon was attending Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and was set on getting out of college and finding a job when his opportunity came.

He met jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis when he came to give a lecture during black history month at Gordon’s school. During an impromptu workshop, Marsalis heard Gordon’s chops and it wasn’t long before he invited the hungry young musician on tour.

It was Gordon’s 22nd birthday. More than 20 years later and he's still blowing his horn.

Jazz music is still as beautiful as ever, though it may be harder to find for young eager musicians with a song in their heart.

"[Musicians] are complaining that there’s not enough work," Gordon said. "Jazz is what people make it."

Musicians have to make it happen for themselves, he said. Go to a bar and see if you can start a music night. Make opportunities for yourself to play.

As far as jazz music goes, Gordon says there’s something for everybody.

"Play something to students, just let them hear it...Jazz is an American treasure," Gordon said. But "it seems appreciated everywhere except in the US."

In Ken Burns' film, Jazz, writer Gerald Early said:

"When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: The Constitution, baseball and jazz music."

"They're the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created."

Though you can still walk into jazz clubs in big cities across the nation and swing all night, the once widely popular genre has been overshadowed by another American treasure, hip hop music.

The two genres have met at certain intersections along the musical highway.

Photo by Fran Kaufman, and the Jazz Journalists Association.

Wycliffe Gordon accepting the award for "Trombonist of the Year" at the Jazz Journalists Association dinner on June 20, 2012 with Angelika Beener and Josh Jackson. 

Jazz vocalist Nancy Harms said some of the hip hop/jazz fusion is interesting, though jazz purists won't accept it.

"It's an uphill battle but it’s a worthwhile one," she said. Jazz music is so intertwined with our country."

Harms met Gordon in New York's storied Smalls Jazz Club and said he's a powerhouse of music.

"It was great to see how he handled the audience and the band," she said. "He was a very kind person. He was very professional and respectful...The man is so in love with this music he barely sleeps. He is just is so fueled by this music."

Gordon's great enthusiasm comes despite some of the smaller audiences. Harms said jazz's waning appeal could be attributed to people’s misconceptions about it.

"There's a stigma with the name,” she said. "Maybe they had a bad experience or think of it as something lofty and not down to earth for people to access...[Jazz] has so much to offer in its self expression, how genuine and how human it is."

In the 1990s, artists such as the Diggable Planets and Guru, with his Jazzmatazz albums, put the hip hop/jazz fusion into the spotlight.

But some rap fans turned their backs on that mix. Many hip hop heads like to stick to the gritty synthetic beats to bang their heads to, said MC Nickel Killsmics. But others, such as himself, find a deeper calling.

Nickel plays every Thursday with a 9-piece jazz band at Smoke Jazz club in New York City. He rhymes over the horns, drums and bass. He loves it and the crowd does too.

"People find jazz when they’re ready for it," Nickle said. "There’s a certain intellect that comes with what these guys are doing."

Nickel was concerned at first at how people would view him rapping over jazz rhythms.

"I wondered how they would react to us," he said. "I was surprised at how supportive the jazz world has been to us."

Once someone falls into the jazz world, it’s hard to come out of it. Because no one wants to.

"I think jazz is still the foundation of all types of new music and all brands of new musicality," Nickel said. "It's always going to be there."

Gordon agrees.  

A curious youngster these days may look deeper into hip hop beats, he said, and feel a yearning for the roots of the groove.

"Let them hear where those beats come from," Gordon said. "Then they’ll listen to jazz."

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