May 27, 2024

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Interview with Gregory Tardy: … it is better to be felt than heard: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Gregory Tardy. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Gregory Tardy: – I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The youngest of three children.  My early years were spent in New Orleans, Louisiana.  My parents were both music majors in college and performed with the New Orleans Opera Company. Both my siblings played musical instruments, so that was one of the ways we played together; playing music together, both serious pieces and television theme songs or commercials.   I was also surrounded by jazz, rhythm & blues, pop, and funk music during this time.  We moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin during my teenage years.  There I grew as a clarinetist in the school band and youth honors symphony.  I began my college career in the Milwaukee area studying classical clarinet performance.  In my early 20s I was introduced to jazz by my brother and I decided to pursue that full time.  From there I moved to St. Louis and learned a lot on the local blues scene.  Eventually I went back to New Orleans to try and get into the University of New Orleans and study jazz.  I only had enough money for one semester, so I had to pursue the rest of my jazz education on the street and with local musicians in the music scene.  I transcribed a lot of the masters to take in as much of the language as I could.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

GT: – I believe sound is very important to musical expression.  It can stay with the audience more than the specific notes that you play.  So, sound development is of utmost importance to me.  It’s like your speaking voice, but you can actually do something about how it sounds with the equipment you buy and the practice you put in.  To develop my sound I checked out many of the masters; predominantly old school players such as Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins, but also players coming from all different directions; from M base cats, to Texas tenor style players.  Very early on (while in Milwaukee) I started off as kind of a fusion/smooth jazz player, (inspired mostly by cats who are/were also good jazz players; such as Grover Washington Jr., Kirk Whalum, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Ernie Watts, etc.), eventually getting into more straight ahead jazz, diving deep into John Coltrane and Stanley Turrentine.   On the clarinet, my sound was developed during my years as a classical clarinetist, so I prefer a much woodier sound.  As I branched out into jazz I was initially influenced by Eddie Daniels and Pete Fountain. Eventually, I started to check out Alvin Battiste, Don Byron, and older school players such as Jimmy Hamilton.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

GT: – A lot of players really overlook the aspect of groove. Unless we are talking about free jazz, groove is central; and I try to really find out how to make each kind of style groove the hardest. I am a student of groove and constantly seeking to improve. Ultimately groove is supposed to make people want to move; whether it is swing, salsa, funk, etc. The trick is to listen to the drums and to consider yourself another percussion instrument; thinking of their entire group as being a drum percussion section. That is my concept.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

GT: – While I want all of my music at this point in my career to be a part of the tree of what has been considered Jazz since the beginning of the 20th century, I draw from everything I hear and try to find ways to make it strengthen my musical statement, be it improvisational or compositional. I have studied things like Burundi drum rhythms, and I used the influence to help me write “A Great Cloud of Witnesses”, a song on my latest CD.  I have also studied Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story musical score to glean ideas or Christian rap/hip hop for rhythmic grooves. In the end though, I want my music to be considered what people know currently as Jazz.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

GT: – I believe in the power of prayer and I believe in the power of hard work. I pray very hard about what I want the outcome of each project to be; which ultimately is that I want God to be glorified in my music. I used to practice 8 – 10 hours a day on my instruments, plus listening and studying.  Currently wiith all of my life responsibilities, I can’t always practice as much as I would like, but I do try to be consistent and do it every day for as long as I can.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

GT: – My sound and philosophy has definitely changed and has been affected by the musicians that I have known and played with over the years. Back in the young lion days (early 1990s), I was very influenced by Wynton Marsalis and tried very specifically to come out of the traditional roots of jazz. When I was with Elvin Jones this made my playing much more assertive. My time playing with Andrew Hill and Dave Douglas helped develop my free side. Playing with musicians like Israeli bassist Omer Avital helped me to get more Middle Eastern influences into my playing.  Playing with Brian Lynch and Eddie Palmieri and Elio Villafranca got me thinking more about Latin music. Those are just some of the influences over my career.   And now I have been delving back into the tradition; while trying to include all of the influences I have had over the years. As far as the musicians on this project go, I always try to find people who have a strong connection to the tradition, but who are also able to think outside of the box and try new things. That is how I have picked the musicians for this project and actually on all of my projects.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

GT: – To play this music a musician has to be very well studied; especially to master all the elements of improvisation. I once had an older musician tell me it is better to be felt than heard.  I believe that is the difference between playing with intellect and playing with soul.  Of course, the more we intellectually understand the music, the easier it should be for us to express what is in our heart.  Ideally I strive to do both when I play, but if I have to choose one I will always try to have my playing be felt by the audience.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

GT: – I believe it is possible to play for an audience without selling your musical soul. In fact, I feel it is the artist’s responsibility to create music that is accessible to the serious students of music and the listener that has no musical knowledge at all. All of my favorite musicians play this way. I really try to play with a focus on communicating with the audience, that doesn’t mean I make my music simple, but I am trying to communicate.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

GT: – I have a lot of memories attached to Andrew Hill. Andrew had a very witty sense of humor, and he used to love to pull tricks to encourage players to come out of their comfort zones and reach for new stuff.  I remember the very first rehearsal I had with him. I had spent many hours preparing his music and I really wanted to make a good first impression. As I was soloing on the first song, I thought I got lost in the changes and stopped the band asking if we could start over. When we played it again, I noticed that Andrew was playing a different set of changes than what I had on my chart. So, I stopped the band again and asked Andrew if he could write down the changes that he was playing. Andrew agreed and wrote down in my chart some new changes. As we proceeded to play again, I noticed that Andrew started playing some completely different changes again!  I laughed to myself and thought, “Okay, I know what he’s doing!”. He was trying to pull me out of my box. I felt that we really hooked up after that, and we had a great musical relationship for almost 8 years. From time to time he would pull other tricks on me – he even hid my music on me once before a gig. I thought I had forgotten my music and I was panicking. I wound up doing the whole set by memory.  I loved him and learned a lot from him about music and life.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

GT: – I feel this requires many different people.  As musicians we should strive to not just play for our musical peers. I think we should avoid making our performances into doctoral dissertations, for only the elite; but rather be able to express heavy subjects in such a way that anyone can understand. That does not mean that I will always avoid complexity. but I believe even when playing or composing something complex, if it speaks of the human spirit in some kind of way people will connect with it. I also think radio stations and DJs along with the people who book the jazz festivals or clubs play an important role in this.  Sometimes it will seem like the same few people are getting the majority of the radio spins, jazz articles or performance opportunities.  Also, sometimes the DJs will only play standards from 50 years ago.  It’s important that they take a risk and try playing someone new or an original composition from this new artist to create new “standards”.  On my CDs people will sometimes only check out the standard that I have covered and it is my hope that if they start there, they will eventually try the other original songs and like them.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

GT: – I find some of my greatest enjoyment in life when I am composing/practicing/performing/teaching. Music is something I feel I have been called to do. It would be a stretch to say that music IS my spirit; because God could take that away from me one day.  I have had a couple of short periods in the last 20 years where I had to take a break from playing for various personal reasons. It was during these seasons that God made it clear to me that although music is a very important component of my life, it is not my life. (But it is one of the most important components of my life; along with the pursuit of God and enjoying my family). I have a deep respect for all people who are sincerely pursuing God. With that being said, I am unapologetically a follower of Yeshua/Jesus. I believe that wisdom is found in the word of God (Bible), and the more that we study the word, the more that we know the heart of God. But the meaning of life is two fold; to love God with all of our heart, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And whatever we do in life we should do it for the glory of God.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

GT: – I wish that there were more funding opportunities for musicians to create their music and support their careers.  It would be amazing if there was a better way to get the money to record music and then to support a band to perform that music all over the world.   With artists (of any genre), I think it is ideal to not have to think about the financial bottom line when creating a work.  This is one area that I have been weak in, I create music because I love music… not because it is my business.  I realize the industry has changed so much over the years and now an artist has to be not only an artist, but also a businessman.  I often wonder what type of paintings would Van Gogh have created if making money was his only driving concern? The way things are currently set up in the music industry definitely gives people with stronger financial backing an advantage.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

GT: – I listen to my peers, but I find I often return to the older masters such as Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, etc.  SInce I also teach jazz saxophone at a university I am trying to strengthen their understanding of the roots of the music before they branch off into different areas of the music. I have also returned to studying a lot of classical clarinet music lately. I really dig Anthony McGill’s playing, and he inspires me to be a better clarinetist. I also have a thing for gospel hip-hop, so I have been checking out Phanatik, The Ambassador, and others.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

GT: – Through my music I hope people understand that God is real and God is love. He has given each of us an opportunity to be creative and he loves for us to use the gifts he has given us to bless others.  Those gifts may be as simple as a nice smile or it may be a musical gift.  Either way we need to share it with others to the best of our ability.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

GT: – Spiritually, I would love to go either to the first century in Jerusalem to witness the events around the resurrection of Jesus, or back to ancient Egypt/Sinai desert to witness the events surrounding the Jewish exodus. Musically, I would love to go to New York City in the late 1940s at the height of the bebop era; when so many of the masters of the swing era and early tradition were still around. It would be amazing to go from club to club seeing them perform live.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

GT: – If I were to ask myself a question, it would be – artistically and careerwise, when am I going to be satisfied? My answer to myself is I should just be content in the present and enjoy the process of learning. Let God figure out the rest.

JBN: – My question don’t about to you, and to me 🙂

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

GT: – I have to keep reminding myself of my answer to question 17. I am very thankful I have not had a boring life so far, and I look forward to many more years of working towards my musical and personal goals.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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