'It's our classical music' 

Frank Gordon has lived in Savannah for the past 5 years, and since relocating to this area, he’s performed all manner of jazz and R & B in a number of situations.

Whether acting as an integral part of the full horn section which complements the celebrated dance band The Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love, or at any number of regularly scheduled recitals at Armstrong Atlantic State University, this longtime horn player has established himself as a formidable talent in a town known for harboring serious jazz musicians.

However, this Thursday night finds him breaking new ground in his adopted hometown. For the first time locally, he’ll be acting as the leader of his own quintet.

And what a quintet he has assembled.

His stellar backing group includes many names which should be instantly recognizable to local music enthusiasts. With a lineup that includes pianist Chris Chandler, bassist Peter Berquist, tenor saxophonist Larry Golden, and drummer Billy Hoffman, this seems on paper to have as much potential for artistic success as any similar aggregation in recent memory.

Gordon says that while he’s played with each of the bandmembers at various points since moving to Savannah, they have never performed together in a situation of this sort, and he is both excited, and a bit anxious about the role he is playing as bandleader.

“I was approached to lead the band because of the notion that I had a little greater name recognition,” explains the trumpeter in a calm and sonorous tone. “Some folks felt we might draw a bigger crowd if I were to ‘lead the band,’ but we’ll just have to see whether that works or not! (laughs)”

Gordon says there is another, more pragmatic reason that it made sense for him to assume the duties of leader.

“I usually give a recital once a semester at Armstrong and I’m in the habit of preparing for that... getting the guys together to play and working up the program, so it was relatively easy for me to put this together.”

This seasoned veteran of numerous live shows and recording sessions accepted a teaching position at Armstrong Atlantic State University after he and his wife decided to move to Savannah after years of living in the jazz mecca of New York City (and later the suburbs of New Jersey).

“We decided to get out of that area. It was a little too congested for us,” he offers. “It was fun when I was younger, but you know, after a while you get kind of burned out from all that.”

His wife, who is a working artist, discovered the town while attending a weeklong summer program at SCAD, and after Gordon got a look at the city, it was only a matter of months before they had sold their house and headed South.

During his time up North, Gordon gigged, studied and cut records with the likes of Max Roach, Art Blakey, The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band and The Duke Ellington Band.

He also appeared in the celebrated film Cotton Club, and accompanied the great Lena Horne on Broadway.

He is quick to point out that he has gleaned some sort of insight from every jazz musician he’s ever collaborated with, but when pressed to name the one who had the greatest impact on his own style and approach, Gordon relents.

“Well, I’ve learned from all of them, but one of my real mentors, who spent a lot of time with me was the saxophonist and composer Eddie Harris. When I went to college in Chicago, I met him and we just clicked. He was much older and much more advanced as a musician, but he took me under his wing.”

Gordon says that such situations are quite commonplace in the jazz world.

“What makes seasoned or older players want to do that, is when they find younger musicians who are very enthusiastic and also show some real talent,” he explains. However, he has noticed a waning in the degree of enthusiasm that today’s young players seem to have for the genre.

“We were very much into the music,” he reminisces, “and we were so eager to learn about it. Today, I don’t always see that same eagerness in the students, but I’m not so sure that it’s their own fault. This is a different time now, and for one thing, jazz is not the most popular music. Not like hip-hop. The media today has really mastered the art of selling music. So, most young people don’t get the same exposure to jazz that I did. It was simply much more popular in that era.”

He does note that one of his students, Manny Hagman, seems extremely devoted to the music. And – interestingly enough – that young bassist is part of a new trio that will serve as the warm-up act for Thursday’s concert.

“Manny is in my Jazz Combo class,” says Gordon. “He really loves music and you can tell it when he plays. You can sense it just from his body movement.”

Gordon, who taught at a number of schools – including Rutgers – before coming to Georgia, is pleased with the progress he’s seen since he first joined the faculty at AASU.

“The bands at Armstrong keep getting better all the time, and I, too, am getting better as a teacher.

“Many of the students are very interested in the music but they just haven’t had that much exposure to it. So, I have to spend a great deal of time just making sure they’re aware of the history of jazz. I can call on my own personal experiences – which is very important to do when teaching – and I think I have been an inspiration to my classes, which is the biggest reward of all.”

Gordon notes that while jazz is the only truly American art form, for decades now it has gained wider recognition and acceptance outside of the United States – specifically in Europe and in Asia.

He also feels strongly that it is of the utmost importance for our society as a whole to view jazz as much more than a simple category of music to be enjoyed for its melodious tones. To him, jazz is exemplifies the aspirations the USA has always shown to the rest of the world.

“In fact,” he says, “it embodies the democratic ideals of America. It is an art form wherein people who don’t even know each other can come together, and if they’re good musicians, they can sound like they’ve been playing together forever.”

“The point is that everyone – in most cases – gets the opportunity to speak their musical piece the way they see fit. The group begins together and plays the head (or melody) of the tune and then each person gets a chance to improvise on that tune. That’s where they’re expected to express themselves.

“Jazz requires the player to be as individual and as creative as possible. That’s America! The freedom, the democracy, the adventurous, pioneering spirit... the willingness to take chances. But it’s also a team effort. And those are America’s ideals that have been admired by the world all along. Those are the things that we as a nation should be treasuring.”

He realizes that jazz music is not for everyone, but stands resolute in the idea that the importance of this musical form should be taught as widely as possible.

“People don’t have to like it,” Gordon chuckles, “but it’s our own classical music, and as a country, we need to know a lot more about it.”


8 pm, Thursday, June 24th at the Starland Center for Contemporary Art (2428 Bull St.). Tickets sold at the door: $8 for adults and $6 for students. 16 and younger get in free. For more info, call 447-0011.

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Jim Reed

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