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Derrick Gardner: Blowin’ like Gabriel

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Trumpeter Derrick Gardner has an impressive resume. Among his many accomplishments: he’s played with Count Basie, he was a protégé of Frank Foster, he’s toured with Harry Connick Jr, and he’s performed with Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. (You may have heard his acrobatic improvising and incredible trumpet sound when he did a guest spot with that group at the Jazz Festival this year.) He’s played on countless recordings and led several with his own band, The Jazz Prophets.

Derrick blows like Gabriel. He’s got a big, warm, clear bell-like sound, and his improvising is like licks of flame—it’s transparent and delicate, but if you touch it, you’ll burn your fingers! I’ve heard him channel the earliest ancestors of jazz trumpet way back in the mid-1800s, through Louis Armstrong, Dizzy, Miles, and on up to the modern language of today. He’s also a prolific writer and arranger, and a gifted teacher. I don’t know what he can’t do!

Derrick is assuming the new Babs Asper Professorship in Jazz Performance, and he’s the perfect person for that honour. Besides being a brilliant musician and an amazing performer, he’s also a warm, down-to-earth person who is eager to move to this city and get involved with Winnipeg’s musical life. Derrick and I sat down to talk over lunch when he was here during the Jazz Festival.

I know it’s early, but are there some projects you’d like to accomplish when you get here?

Yeah. I’m thinking about a big band recording—even a project that might involve big band with orchestra. I’ve written an arrangement of Coltrane’s “Revolution” for big band and choir. I’ve been wanting to put together a good performance of that.

Big band and choir—that’s something that hasn’t happened here yet. I look forward to seeing it! Is big band your favorite setting for jazz?

It’s my favorite for arranging. For my own personal improv voice, the sextet is my favorite—trumpet, tenor sax, trombone, rhythm section. But you can only do so much as an arranger with that instrumentation. You get full power with big band.

What are some things you’re hoping to bring to Winnipeg?

Definitely my musical presence. I’m excited to have the opportunity to add to the growth of the jazz culture here. Jazz has become an international music, and Winnipeg would be a great headquarters for jazz in Canada.

Yeah—we call ourselves the Jazz Capital of Canada! What do you hope to get from being here?

I’m looking for a different way of life than what I’ve experienced. I’ve traveled all over the world, but only lived in those places for a couple of days at a time. Moving here affords me the opportunity to take in an entire culture that’s outside of the US—that’s very attractive to me.

Why?

Simply because it’s different than the US. I’m looking to enhance myself personally.

Are there things missing in the culture of the US that you’re looking for here?

More of an appreciation for jazz music. Jazz is culturally an African-American art form, but unfortunately what’s happened in the US over the last hundred years is that African-Americans have veered away from the history of their musical culture. The majority don’t know the history of the blues, the history of jazz, or the history of the music of the slavery era such as field hollers and slave songs translated from African tribal music. America is fueled by capitalism, and this has affected the way we look at music. Americans seem to want only the latest thing in popular music, and in doing that they’ve discarded the very music that this current music came from.

In my experience, Canadians greet jazz with open arms. I think it’s because it’s a genre of music that doesn’t come from this culture, so there’s less bias and more curiosity. If the music moves them, they say, Wow, what is that?! They’re open to it. You can see evidence of that with the jazz scenes in larger Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal. Now Winnipeg. To house jazz music speaks volumes.

Are you seeing a connection between society and art, then?

That’s a big one. Well, I think both should have a sense of freedom—neither art nor society should be inhibited. That’s easy to translate as far as art is concerned because you’re expressing yourself, whether in painting or dance or music or whatever. But in terms of society, that would translate as people treating others with respect, regardless of race, religion, sex, creed.

That freedom connects with opinion. For me, there are two types of music—good and bad. If everybody says it’s bad, then it must be bad. But if one person says, Oh, I like it, that person is entitled to that opinion. So judgments are made by the group, but also by the individual. Individuals have to be free to feel what they feel. But an artist that nobody likes doesn’t seem like an artist to me.

When Hendrix played in Harlem in the 1960s for the first time in front of an all-black audience, they booed him so loud that you couldn’t hear anything. Was he not being an artist?

There was somebody in that audience that dug him. Also it has something to do with the artist’s ego. Artists can clearly puff themselves up as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it might be that the people they’re trying to affect don’t like sliced bread! I think that humility plays a part in fueling good art. I’ve observed if the artist is humble to his or her art form, then the art that is expressed should be good art. That’s an experimental answer that is waiting to be proven. But for me, the most humble jazz artists play the most enjoyable solos…

What things do you like to do besides music?

I like fishing—I hear there’s good pickerel up here. When the weather is warm enough, I’ll bring the bike out.

I believe you have to make your own fun. Just like when you’re playing jazz—you have to be able to tell a musical story to your audience, but it has to be fun for you or it won’t be fun for them. So yeah, I’m looking forward to having fun here in Winnipeg.

If you start having fun in Winnipeg, they’re gonna tax you for it! No, I’m just kidding. We’re glad you’re joining us here in the Jazz Capital, and we’re all looking forward to giving you a Winnipeg welcome…


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