Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration
Google “Vincent Gardner Bethel High School.” You’ll be directed to the Daily Press website and an article from May 1991, about the District VIII Jazz Festival. There you’ll learn that Vincent Gardner “was named top soloist of the day for the best improvised solo.”
“I don’t remember that at all!” he laughed when I called him over Labor Day weekend. “I was fortunate to come along when I did and have some good people that taught me.”
Since that time, Vincent Gardner has made a name for himself as one of the top trombonists in jazz. He’ll get a chance to visit his hometown when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra comes to Chrysler Hall on Saturday, October 5, to perform director Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration. It’s the headline event of a three-day “Gospel and Jazz Celebration Weekend” presented by the Virginia Arts Festival.
“I moved to Virginia when I was five,” he said. “We moved down there because my mother got a job at Hampton and my father got a job at Norfolk State. My mother ended up staying at Hampton for over thirty years.”
In fact, his mother, Dr. Effie Gardner, retired as Chair of the Department of Music at Hampton University. His father, Dr. Burgess Gardner, was Director of Jazz Studies at NSU. His older brother Derrick is a highly regarded trumpeter and professor of jazz performance at the University of Manitoba.
“My father and brother both played trumpet,” he said, “and I didn’t want to play trumpet too. When I had to pick an instrument in middle school, I just checked the next one down from trumpet and it was trombone.
“I love the trombone. It’s a vocal instrument; it sounds like a person’s voice and it’s in the range of the male voice. The natural glissandos and slides that it does are just like people talk or sing. And that’s the way I try to play it, as vocal as possible.”
Like many a young man, sports competed with music for his attentions.
“I played football and ran track for Bayside High School while we were living in Virginia Beach, then I ran track for Bethel in my junior year. But then I got serious about music.
“If we hadn’t moved to Hampton, I don’t know if I’d be playing jazz. I was in the Hampton All-City Jazz Band. The director was Al Morris. He was the one who really got me started playing jazz. Even though I was from a musical family, I wasn’t playing jazz; I was just in marching band and concert band. I didn’t really take music seriously before that. It was always a part of me but I wasn’t serious about it. Al Morris was the catalyst. He gave me my first J. J. Johnson record. And that’s what really lit the fire.”
He planned to follow his brother to Hampton University, but another opportunity came his way that was hard to pass up:
“I was in the McDonald’s All-American Band in my senior year in high school. That was the first time I was in a band full of musicians of that caliber. They picked the two top musicians from each state and everybody could play. I’d never been around that many people my age who were playing better than I was and had been serious about music for much longer than me. It was inspirational. The seriousness of that environment helped to push me along.
“The directors of the McDonald’s band were the band staff at Florida A&M. That’s how I met them. Before that, I was going to Hampton. It was set in stone. The McDonald’s band was around May of 1991, and by June I had made my mind up that I was going to Florida A&M. By July I was there for the pre-marching band.”
He spent three years with that famed college band, but felt he was not getting the jazz education he sought:
“A&M is a marching band school, so musically it wasn’t giving me what I needed. Socially I was having a great time! But musically I wasn’t getting as far as I wanted to go. It just so happened that two hours down the road in Jacksonville there was a guy named Bunky Green at the University of North Florida. He’s an alto player who was a friend of my father’s from Chicago. He was chair of jazz studies at UNF and he said, ‘send him over here and we’ll take care of him.’ I learned so much from him. He would just gesture me into his office and start playing. There was no talking. I would start playing and there was such a lesson playing with him and listening to him. It was more than anything you could have put into a curriculum anywhere.”
He met Wynton Marsalis while in college and kept in touch until he moved to New York, where Derrick was playing with the Count Basie Orchestra.
“Occasionally I would sub in the [Jazz at Lincoln Center] band,” he said, “or when they needed an extra trombone they would call me. I wasn’t in the band, but I was a member of the family. When Wyclef Gordon left the band in 2000, Wynton called and asked me to take his place. There’s no way I could’ve known it would progress like that but it worked out perfectly.
“There’s never been a group in history like this band where every single person is a master musician, every single person is a great teacher, every single person is a leader of their own band. But everybody decided to put their collective energy into this and create music together. I feel privileged to be a part of it. I enjoy every second.”
Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
with Wynton Marsalis and Chorale Le Chateau