The multifaceted Wycliffe Gordon — trombonist, trumpeter, sousaphone player, composer and jazz educator — is delighted to be back at Satchmo Summerfest.
The New York City- and Lexington, Ky.-based Gordon is making his second consecutive visit to the New Orleans music festival named for jazz great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. For decades, Armstrong, a trumpeter, singer and New Orleans native, was America’s beloved, if unofficial, musical ambassador to the world.
Gordon performed at the 2013 Satchmo Summerfest and gave the festival’s keynote address. This year, he’s the Friday headliner at the Cornet Chop Suey Stage. The festival runs Friday through Sunday at the Louisiana State Museum’s Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans.
Prior to Gordon’s Summerfest debut, the festival had for several years asked him to appear at the event. He was always booked that particular weekend.
“So last year, I decided I was going to put the weekend that I knew the festival was happening on hold,” Gordon said last week from the annual Jazz Port Townsend music camp in Washington.
“I love coming to New Orleans,” he added. “As long as the festival is going on and as long as they will have me, I probably will do it.”
Gordon has a significant connection to Armstrong and, by extension, New Orleans. When he was about 13, the Georgia native’s family inherited a record collection from his great-aunt. At the time, he’d been playing trombone for about a year. His great-aunt’s record collection included a five-LP jazz anthology. The collection contained everything from slave chants to the modern jazz of the day, including recordings by Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie.
Nothing in the anthology reached Gordon more than a 1920s recording of “Keyhole Blues” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven. “I probably wore a groove in the record,” he said.
Hooked on Armstrong, Gordon sought more and more of his recordings.
“There was just something about the music that I liked,” he said. “And then, as I began to get older and learn about his life, it became clear to me that the music was a manifestation of who Louis Armstrong was.
“Duke Ellington gave him one of his greatest compliments: Louis Armstrong became rich and famous and an ambassador to the world. But the thing Duke loved about him the most was that he didn’t hurt anybody along the way.”
Gordon released his Armstrong tribute album, “Hello Pops: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong,” in 2011. It includes “Keyhole Blues” and features Gordon’s trumpet-playing.
“I was thinking about hiring a trumpet player to do it, but I said, ‘If I do that, that person is going to be the focus of my record,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘I know most the songs, the solos, the style. I want to play trumpet.’ And it was one of my most fun projects to date. It hit home, because it was the music that brought me into jazz.”
Gordon followed his Armstrong tribute album with 2012’s “Dreams of New Orleans.” The latter album isn’t an explicit tribute to Armstrong, but many of its songs figured into the jazz pioneer’s milieu and repertoire.
After being inspired to play jazz by Armstrong’s recordings, Gordon developed another New Orleans connection through trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis. He performed with the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Marsalis-led Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
“Wynton leads by example,” Gordon said. “He’s never one of the ones who says, ‘You’re not doing this; you’re not doing that.’ Or, ‘Do this; do that.’ He just played. But if I asked him a question, he’d give me an honest assessment.”
Marsalis disbanded his septet in 1995 to concentrate on the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
“It’s a great gig, a steady gig, and I had a great time,” Gordon said of the orchestra. “Being in the band, there would be opportunities to play my music from time to time, but I was always going to be a part of someone else’s artistic vision. Which is not a bad thing. But I had my own vision. I knew I’d be stepping out.”
Gordon left the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 2000. Much acclaim has come his way since his solo flight. The Downbeat magazine critics’ poll named him best trombonist for the past three years. The Jazz Journalists Association named him trombonist of the year eight times.
“I’m happy that the readers and the writers and the folks enjoy the music,” he said. “Awards aren’t the reason I do the music, but I’m always appreciative. I just want to continue to make good music.”