Derrick Gardner, jazz trumpeter, composer, educator and arranger has shared his love of music since arriving in New York in 1991, where he worked with some of the top musicians of the world. After five years in the Count Basie Orchestra, plus work with Frank Foster’s Loud Minority Band, Harry Connick Jr.’s Big Band, and The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Gardner formed his own sextet, The Jazz Prophets.
Following his highly praised album Slim Goodie, his outstanding A Ride To the Other Side marks his debut on the Owl Studios label. Jazz journalist Ken Frankling states in the liner notes, "Derrick is a Clifford Brown disciple with tinges of Freddy Hubbard and Woody Shaw thrown in for good measure, all in service of a sound and a band that are extending the funky soul-swing evolution."
JazzReview: You are such an accomplished musician and educator. This album has quite a variety of tunes on it.
I understand you are a jazz educator, a trumpeter, an arranger and a composer. You have several years in the music industry. Who is the core of your group, The Jazz Prophets.?
Derrick Gardner: The core group is myself, my younger brother, Vincent Gardner, who plays trombone, Robert Dixon on tenor saxophone, Anthony Wonsey on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums.
JazzReview: You have a few additional people on this CD. Kevin Kaiser is on percussion.
Derrick Gardner: Actually, my bassist was unavailable for the CD so I used Rodney Whitaker.
JazzReview: After all these years, how did you decide to do this CD at this particular time?
Derrick Gardner: I’ve always continued writing music. I had this group of compositions I’d written over the years and have wanted to record them. Since our record label started up in a studio in Indianapolis a couple of years ago, I was assigned to this label and decided to use this opportunity to get these tunes documented.
JazzReview: Who would think Indianapolis? When I think of music, I think of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit
Derrick Gardner: It’s really funny. Indianapolis use to have a thriving jazz scene back in the 50s and 60s, and prior to that as well. I think Capitol Avenue or Indianapolis Avenue-that’s where all the jazz clubs were. Then there’s the jazz musicians who came out of Indy, like JJ Johnson and Freddie Hubbard, James Spaulding and Wes Montgomery .
All these guys used to play down there, but, with development, these places were torn down and replaced with high-rise buildings. Indianapolis now has a pretty happening music scene and enough interested parties to start a record label there.
JazzReview: That’s great.
You open your CD with a horn laden "Funky Straight." It has some funk, yet there’s a feel of the bop era to this tune, also. Each of the artists has a main solo part on this song, setting the tone for the rest of this expansive album.
You come back with the title track, "A Ride To The Other Side." According to the liner notes, your idea for this composition was built around a wide-open, big band, saxophone section voicing shown to you by Frank Foster. Would you tell me about that?
Derrick Gardner: Yeah. Frank was-and is, one of my mentors in compositions and arranging ever since he recruited me into the Count Basie Orchestra back in the early 90s. And, one of his lessons was showing me this ‘voicing’ for the saxophone section in a big band.
A big band has five saxophones. I guess one of the components of the saxophone section is solely-where the saxophone is featured. The voicing for the saxophone solely is- the intervals are very close together. The voicing "Ride to The Other Side" is based on-- the intervals are very wide and far apart from each other. It has such a huge, grandiose sound, that I’ve always been drawn to that section. You start by playing it on the piano.
As I sat at the piano playing that voicing, I began making a few changes to the voicing. I decided I liked that voicing. Then I heard a melody over top the voicing, which is the melody that the horns are playing. That’s the start of the basis of turning the voicing into the chord progressions for the tune. About fifteen or twenty minutes later, I had a whole tune.
JazzReview: That’s exciting. How long did it take you to write this song, or to put this song together when you sat down to do it?
Derrick Gardner: The basic framework for the tune was written in about twenty minutes. Sometimes a composition will just come to you. It’s as if somebody up above says, "I want you to write this tune." Other tunes I write might take a week to a month to put together. This was just one of those tunes that just came to me. The very base of the framework I did in about 20 minutes. Then, the entire arrangement with my group, three horns and the rhythm section, that took a bit longer. That took about two or three days, I guess. That was putting the pencil to the paper part.
JazzReview: Yes. Sometimes that’s the hardest part-simply sitting down and doing it.
"Mac Daddy Grip" was written shortly after you moved to New York in the early 90s. This song has a lot of mystery and a lot of energy, with your drummer using a shuffle for more intensity. This song is a true jazz lover’s groove-a full version with nothing cut. It is reminiscent of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Just how much influence did this group have on you?
Derrick Gardner: A tremendous influence. One of my dreams as an upcoming musician was to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but by the time I got to New York, he had already passed away. So, that’s a dream that never got realized. His sound was always in my head along with the sound of other sextets-like Benny Golson and the group Horace Silver had with the three-horn line. Art Blakey was a little more dominant as far as the sound I was hearing. I was tremendously influenced by the trumpet players in his band, like Lee Morgan, Clifford Hubbard and Freddie Brown. Much of my music was influenced by this group.
JazzReview: The next song "Be One" was written by bassist Bill Lee; a nice, gentle ballad featured as part of the soundtrack in the Spike Lee film, School Daze, back in 1989.
Your horn section does a very sensitive rendition of this song. What brought this song to mind for this album?
Derrick Gardner: A couple of things. The first time I heard this song, I was enthralled by it. It’s a big song from the movie School Daze. I’m a big fan of Spike Lee. Spike has a unique way of using cinematography. And, he was using a lot of jazz being that his father is a great composer and jazz bassist. So I was very attentive to the music he used. The scene (for this song) was a big party. They were playing a lot of popular music of the day. They weren’t playing jazz. Then all of a sudden, in the middle of this party, they bring on a jazz quartet with a singer singing this song. I think Phyllis Hyman was the singer (?) and I thought, "Oh, my goodness. This is beautiful." The more I listened to it, the more I became a fan of that tune.
Then, one day, I was in Brooklyn, where I lived for about 11-years. One place I lived was right around the corner from where Bill Lee lived at the time. Bill would call me over to practice. He had a big band he was rehearsing with at the time so he called me over to play in the big band. I got a chance to play with Bill Lee quite a bit. I became such a huge fan of his composition style. One day I asked him about the song 'Be One.' How did you even come up with that one?" And he said, "Oh yeah, that’s one of our favorite tunes."
So I ended up putting that song on this album, not only because I’m a big fan of Bill Lee, but also because the tune is deserving of...Ken Frankling put it in the liner notes...I feel it is deserving of the new jazz standard status. It certainly is. Other than myself, it has only been recorded by alto-saxophonist Steve Wilson back in the 90s. I decided somebody else needs to record it and I’m going to be the one!
JazzReview: That’s what they call a sleeper?-something that is wonderful, but everyone seems to overlook it. It’s quite an honor to work with Bill Lee, someone who is in the groove and who has been in the industry for so many years.
Your trombonist and brother, Vincent Gardner, wrote the song "Bugabug," which gives a nice strong opening by your drummer, Donald Edwards, before Vincent comes back with a hearty solo spot. Written for Vincent’s daughter, this is a lively, fun song.
Derrick Gardner: Yep, "Bugabug" is a nickname for his daughter. Every time he comes home, she runs up to him. He always says, "What’s up bugabug?" He wrote this tune with her in mind-a five-year old kid just being a kid. He really captured the lively spirit of youth.
One thing I do as an educator while teaching composition is, I teach the concept of symbolism. I play a certain piece of composition for my students to listen to, then ask them, "What does this piece remind you of? Upon first hearing of this piece, what would you say the title of this is?"
Some of the students get it and some of them don’t. Then I tell them, "The title is this . Now, do you think the composer got close to the symbolism represented in the music with regard to the title?" I felt Vincent really captured the title with "Bugabug."
JazzReview: That’s an interesting, interactive way of teaching. I can tell you love what you’re doing.
Derrick Gardner: Oh, I love it.
JazzReview: Then, you present a solemn, thoughtful piece, "God’s Gift," which was written by tenor ace Rob Dixon in honor of his daughter, Sidney. Though solemn, how did you keep this piece from becoming dry?
Derrick Gardner: It’s funny. I have two compositions on that record written for daughters. For Rob Dixon’s daughter, it’s more of a meditative piece. It represents the other side of having a daughter. She is a gift from above. He really captured it, too.
When we were rehearsing that piece, I had a rehearsal strategy for it. We rehearsed on Thursday, then performed in Indy at the Jazz Kitchen on Friday. And on Saturday, we played all the music in front of an audience. Then on Sunday and Monday, we recorded the music.
On the lead sheet, that he (Dixon) handed out to us during rehearsal, on the title part of the sheet, it just had the initials, "GG." When we played it, we were playing the music much too forceful. We gave it too much energy. Once we got into the studio, I asked Rob, "What does 'GG' mean?" He said, "GG means God’s Gift." I thought, ‘Wow!’ I never knew him to be much of a religious person. Then he explained he had written it for his daughter-she is a gift from God. After that, everyone listened to this song; and they got it. When we played it, the first time was in the studio and it was too forceful. We played it again after he told us what he meant and that time it was much more solemn with much more feeling as it was meant to be. It really made us all think-those of us with loved ones. It really put us in a zone. The difference between those two takes is night and day.
JazzReview: They all got it at the same time. Even though it’s thoughtful, it isn’t dry. How did you keep it from becoming dry?
Derrick Gardner: That would have to be through the musical efforts of our rhythm section, by keeping all the supportive elements in the music, constantly moving forward, constantly changing and not letting the energy drop or go into a lull. Actually, the rhythmic feel of the piece kind of boxes you in, but within that, the pianist is able to change the voicing to introduce a new color and that would change the note the bass player uses. That would affect how the drummer hits the cymbal or whether he’s going to hit the tom-tom or the snare, or whatever. They really did a wonderful job.
JazzReview: Yes they did. It doesn’t drag or sag any place. It just fits, but it stays at a certain pace.
Kevin Kaiser performs superbly on congas, keeping "Lazarus" on track throughout the entire song, while being joined by a horn rich ensemble. A hot spot is enjoyed by keyboardist Wonsey before the horns envelope him in a second half of rhythmic winds. You wrote this Afro-Cuban rhythm after being inspired by a friend. Would you care to elaborate?
Derrick Gardner: Lazarus is a wonderful friend of mine from Cuba. I met her in Michigan. She’s very sassy. Like most Cuban women I’ve met, they have an air of sassiness about them. It comes through in everything they do-when they dance, when they talk, when they cook. One morning I woke up and I had this tune in my head. I didn’t hear it as a Latin-Cuban tune at first. The more I kept singing it over and over in my head, it forced me to go to the piano. As I sat at the piano and put some chords to it, I thought, 'this is going to be a blues song.' So, I made it a blues song, but a feeling came to me after I’d played it on the piano. I heard the accompaniment-the accompanying rhythm, it sounded Latin to me. So, I decided to make this a Latin-Cuban tune. Later on that day, Lazarus called me. After the usual wonderful conversation, her sassiness came through with the conversation and I told her, "I’ve got a tune I just wrote for you!"
JazzReview: What timing! That was great. I know she was pleased and surprised.
Derrick Gardner I talked to her the other day. She still can’t believe her name is on a CD. (chuckle)
JazzReview: That is quite an honor. Everyone doesn’t get the privilege of having a song named after them.
Bassist Rodney Whitaker and pianist Anthony Wonsey perform a seductive interplay, dancing gently back and forth across the intersection of sound and heart on "Just a Touch." I understand your aim was to re-introduce this gentle tempo, which somewhat vanished with the big band era’s fade away.
A little about this tempo, please.
Derrick Gardner: Sure. You know, I’m an alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra, which was such a great education for me in musicianship and everything related to music. One of the lessons I learned was tempo. The Basie man was famous for playing these slow tempos and the phrasing that’s laid down by the time field in the rhythm section. All 13 horns playing against that rhythm section were played as one horn as far as how they phrased the melody. I’ll always say till my dieing day, the tune "Little Darlin’" is probably the hardest tune in the Basie book, to play. Until you have played with the band-- a whole slew of gigs, it is difficult to get the phrasing because the phrasing isn’t written down. It’s understood.
During my first gig with the Basie Band , we played "Little Darlin." I said, "Oh, I know "Little Darlin." You know, just the regular ho, ho I knew nothing about the phrasing! We were playing and at one part of the phrasing,--it’s very obvious you should take a breath there; I went ahead and took a breath. But, the band doesn’t breath there. They wait about three beats later and take a breath. So I was the only one who breathed. (chuckle)
JazzReview: That’s too funny.
Derrick Gardner I could see, through peripheral vision, everyone in the band had a focus on me (as I totally interrupted the phrasing). Everybody knew, "This is the new guy, right here!" As if that weren’t bad enough, I wasn’t used to playing those slow tempos. I realized I’ve really got to pace my breathing here. Younger musicians don’t play those tempos because they are very hard to play. So, this is a perfect time for me to introduce these tempos, which are more prevalent in big bands, and apply these tempos to a small group.
That’s what I did with "Just A Touch." I introduced that tempo with a more modern style application with regard to the composition, itself.
JazzReview: It’s interesting you would say that. I worked with a big band down here for a while. The guys had worked together so long, they instinctively knew when one of the band members was about to go off track. You could see them glance towards the errant member and instantly, the others would pick up the slack and cover the missed note. It was as if the entire band had become one body.
Just as the name implies, Rob Dixon’s "Of Infinity" provides an energetic base, taking the listener through assorted chords, moods and instrumental changes, high lighting each artist before ending the CD as it began-full of flavor, fun and fantasy.
Do you have a favorite song on this album-one that spoke to you, or one that just really fills your heart?
Derrick Gardner: I have maybe two or three favorites. Both of Robs’ compositions are at the top of my list. Rob is one of my favorite composers. He has a different and unique style of composing as applies to jazz. That composition, "Infinity," is so...maybe to the left of what is normally done in jazz. It provided the perfect ending statement for the project. One of the reasons I enjoy Rob’s composition and praise it is because "Of Infinity" is actually a blues. The chord progression and chord structure is actually a blues. I didn’t realize it was a blues until after the recording session. It’s usually kind of easy to observe, as with "Lazarus." It’s easy to hear that as a blues. When I was playing through the chord changes, and trying to improvise over them, I was reading every chord change instead of trying to group them into several chord changes at one time, which is what jazz improvisers try to do, but I didn’t hear it as a blues. So I said, "Why am I having so much trouble trying to improvise over this tune?" Then, I finally realized, "Oh man, this is a blues!"
The way Rob composes is very deceptive. The way he puts together his chord progressions and the melody over those chord progressions is very deceptive. You have to go into almost a post-graduate mini-session to figure out where he’s coming from, which really puts you to the test as a musician. That tune (Of Infinity) would definitely have to rank as one of my favorites.
JazzReview: Was one more difficult than the others to play?
Derrick Gardner: Yes, the title track of the disc, because of the way the chord progressions are. That’s the thing about being a composer and a jazz improviser as well, "Watch out for the power of the pen." As a composer, I can write something really slick and challenging, but then, I’m the one who has to solo over it. You think, "Okay, I wrote it so I should have the closest connection to the tune, rather than someone else who didn’t write the tune." That’s not the case at all! Boy, that tune bit me right in the butt!! I was playing over it and thought, "Oh man, what did I write here?"
JazzReview: That s funny.
You have been in the business a long time, playing with world famous musicians, including Count Basie. You were influenced by Art Blakey. You also had some experience with the Smithsonian Jazz Master Works Orchestra, and you also played with Harry Connick, Jr.’s Big Band.
Can you tell me, where did you feel more comfortable? What felt like home to you?
Derrick Gardner: It would probably have to be the Basie band. I was really blessed to have that as my first professional gig, coming out of college. Frank Foster was the leader of the band at that time. What an institution to fall up into! It wasn’t just a big band, it was a family. The members of that band took me under their wing. They took the time to really show me the ropes, and they really loved me as a musician and as a person. I hadn’t felt that kind of, for lack of a better term, ‘child rearing’ from any other ensemble I’d been a part of.
JazzReview: Yes like back in the day. People use to look out for each other. People took the time to mentor.
Derrick Gardner: That’s right.
JazzReview: You went on to become a teacher of music. You currently teach where?
Derrick Gardner: Michigan State University. (Lansing)
JazzReview: They have a wonderful system up there.
Is there anything you would like your fans to know about you-the guy you are?
Derrick Gardner: (on the spot .hmm) Let’s see. I guess they should know I was put on this earth to play music--to play good music. In my view, there are only two types of music: good music and bad music. I represent the good side.
And, I guess, to charge the people to not neglect the music that comes out of America. Some music coming out of America, the original music, which is jazz, was created here. It’s currently at the bottom of the totem pole as far as financially and popularity. It’s a music that’s so rich and creative and such a great addition to the world. The whole world of music should not be in this type of state. So, my charge to everyone is to support real jazz.
JazzReview: What’s next for you? Since you are an educator, you’re pretty much tied geographically to a particular area, but for promotion of your CD, will you be touring? What’s next?
Derrick Gardner: I’m looking to further develop this band and to get into the touring environment with this band. I spent so many years touring with other bands and playing other people’s music. Now I’m looking to replace other’s music with my own element. The other bands taught me greatly, now it’s my turn. I’ll still be overjoyed if someone wants me to tour with their band. But, I’ll definitely be putting more energy toward promoting this band and it’s music, making it a more established contribution in the same manner as Art Blakey or Horace Silver.
JazzReview: Have you played at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge yet? (a famous club in Detroit-the hallmark of music greatness)
Derrick Gardner Well, yes I have.
JazzReview: You are IN!
In this watershed album, Derrick Gardner has integrated all the strengths and creativity from his former mentors, gathered a fresh batch of outstanding musicians, and is now ready to share his amazing talents with the world-on his own terms.
An outstanding educator, Gardner delights the senses with his enthusiasm, creativeness, and finely tuned group. As the picture on his latest CD portrays: Derrick Gardner, slumped in his chair after a long, hard, and very satisfying day at the studio. All his years of craftsmanship are paying off --paving the way for the next generation of artists.