An Interview With Jazz Musician and BIG PHAT BAND Conductor, GORDON GOODWIN!
Posted On 04 Aug 2015
Tag: All Access, All Access Music Group, Animaniacs, Armageddon, Artist Interview, Arturo Sandoval, Batman, Best Large Jazz Ensemble, Big Phat Band, Brian McKnight, Chick Corea, Chuck Berghofer, Concord Music Group, Count Basie, Dave Grusin, Discovery Arts, Disney, Disney Hall, Disneyland, Downtown LA, Eddie Daniels, Gordon Goodwin, Grammy, Hollywood, Janet Hodges, KJAZZ, Life In the Bubble, Mickey Mouse Club, Mozart, Nancy Sinatra, National Treasure, Pantages, Pinky And The Brain, Royce Hall, Soundcloud, Stephen Speilberg, Sylvester, Take 6, Telarc, The Jungle Book, These Boots Were Made For Walking, Tweety, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Warner Brothers, Wicked
Four-time GRAMMY Award winning pianist, saxophonist, bandleader, composer and arranger, GORDON GOODWIN, who with his BIG PHAT BAND, just won his latest GRAMMY® Award for BEST LARGE JAZZ ENSEMBLE for Life in the Bubble at the 57th Annual GRAMMY® Awards in February.
Aside from the wins, Goodwin and his group have had an astonishing career with 20 nominations GRAMMY® . This year alone, Goodwin was up for four nominations both individually as an arranger and composer, and with GORDON GOODWIN’S BIG PHAT BAND (he was the only jazz artist with four nominations this year). Life in the Bubble is released on Telarc, a division of Concord Music Group.
GORDON GOODWIN’S BIG PHAT BAND initially emerged in the late 1990’s, enduring since that period with a consistent and loyal following, despite the ever-changing whims of musical fashion. Over time, Gordon and his crew has released seven studio albums that merge traditional big band sounds of the 1930’s and ‘40s, with a contemporary vibe. The group’s recordings have featured high-profile guest artists including Arturo Sandoval, Brian McKnight, Eddie Daniels, Chick Corea and Dave Grusin, to name a few.
For more information on GORDON GOODWIN’S BIG PHAT BAND, please visit: http://www.bigphatband.com/.
Gordon recently took some time to chat with All Access about the band, how he first got start conducting and much more! Enjoy!
First of all, congrats on a fantastic show at the Disney Hall a couple weekends ago! I was blown away! What did you think of the show?
Well, you know what I said at the end of the night, there are gigs and there are nights like that night where you can feel the energy of the band and the energy of the audience and it’s all in accordance. Especially in that venue, I think the Disney Hall is so great because from the stage you can really feel and kind of see everybody. The sight lines are really good and it’s a really motivating thing for the guys to play in that kind of environment because they can really hear each other play and see the audience. It really doesn’t get much better.
So yeah, I think everyone was at the top of their game. I was proud of the guys because sometimes when you play an important venue like that, there is a tendency to tighten up a little bit and we didn’t do that. They were able to have that same sort of relaxed and fun presentation that we usually do. It was really thrilling for us to play there.
Nevermind the fact that the night was about KJAZZ. I had it on all day as a kid. It was never off. We’d be having dinner and the station was playing. It was blasting all through dinner. So it meant a lot to me to be a part of that.
I have read that you have always wanted to be a big band leader. Is that true?
Well, I didn’t always really want to. In fact for many years, I had doubts that I could. I thought that my music was going to work but I didn’t know about my leadership ability and my marketing ability. I mean, how do you get gigs, how do you get an agent, how do you get 18 strong willed musicians to play your music the way you want to hear it. It’s still one of the bigger challenges frankly because a lot of these guys in my band have their own groups and are used to calling the shots, and when you are in an ensemble like that, you can’t always do what you think is right, you have to follow the will of the group and so it can be a delicate dance. So for a lot of years, I was well into my career as a writer here in Hollywood, when I thought if I don’t do this now, when I am going to do it? I was working with Warner Brothers writing for animated cartoon and it was really great work but I had a bit of an epiphany. This was maybe 1997 or 1998 and I thought if this is going to be my legacy writing music for other people, having directors and producers telling me what the music should be as opposed to my instincts and my own heart telling me what the music should be. Which is fine, it’s a great way to make a living without a doubt but I thought maybe I should plant my flag. So in 1999, I put some money aside and went into the studio and recorded our first track and then we had to figure out now how do we get a record deal because I didn’t know. Especially for that kind of music, where people weren’t even taking our phone calls, even jazz people! They would just say, well it’s too expensive and they wanted smaller groups, not our 18-piece band. That remains our challenge today – how do you put that many guys on an airplane or in a hotel room. I can’t ask those guys to double up on rooms, they aren’t college kids that would maybe be open to that. (Laughter) I mean, a lot of them are used to flying business class when we go overseas and we can’t always afford that so if I rely on their good intentions and they also always see the value in playing this music so they understand and will fly coach over to Japan because it’s worth it to go play this music. Which is a great compliment for the organization to have guys that are willing to do that.
Looking back, why did jazz first call to you?
It’s interesting because when I first heard that Count Basie song I mentioned at the concert, it was immediate. It clicked in somehow to me as a 7th grade kid. Wow, this is it! I’ve been looking for this! If I look back at the earliest musical experience, maybe the first thing I heard that made me aware of it was the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. Then after that, a lot of the Disney movies like The Jungle Book had some jazz in it. I remember responding to that but it was hard to know whether I was responding to the music or the animation and the bright colors. And then I heard Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Were Made For Walking” and it had a walking bass line played by a friend of mine, Chuck Berghofer and I remember sitting on the bus in elementary school and hearing that and thinking, that’s a cool thing!
So, little bits and pieces filling in in my early ears and then by the time I heard Count Basie, it all really clicked. It felt like a path life thing for me in a way because it was all so familiar to me. Like I was home. That’s it. That’s me. Jazz has always been a home base for me.
How did you get started playing both the piano and saxophone? Could you not pick one?
My parents forced me to take piano lessons in Kindergarten. I really didn’t want to do it but I was the kind of kid that said yes to mom and dad. So I tolerated the lessons for probably four years but until I realized that maybe it was something that I could do that maybe not everyone else could. The other thing that happened in those early days was my piano teacher saw somehow that I maybe might have some interest in creating my own music so she kind of out of the blue one day said to me, next week, you fill in the right hand of this song and I had no idea how to do it but I just took a shot at something. Then the next week, she said, you do both hands and write a march, and I said ok. She explained it all to me. Then the next week, she asked me to write a polka so every week, she would give me a different style and I was in friggin’ first grade! Now these are terrible, they weren’t any good, I wasn’t Mozart at this age but it planted early on in my that maybe I could create my own music so her name was Janet Hodges and I owe her a debt of gratitude since she nudged me down the road of composition. I tolerated that till about 4th grade when I learned how to play the Batman theme song on the piano and all the other kids thought that was really cool. I though maybe this was my thing because I was a dorky un-coordinated kid and I couldn’t play dodge ball very well. But I could play Batman on the piano! Then the year after that, I was in the band and got into playing the clarinet and saxophone in 7th grade. Its kind of a complicated to be a multi-instrumentalist.
For me now, it’s more of a mental adjustment then a physical one. A lot of times with Big Phat, I’ll have one saxophone solo every night because we just have so many great players and I want them to play. So I’m sitting there and my saxophone is sitting on the stand and its getting all cold and the reed is getting dry and I just have to not bring that with me because the audience doesn’t care, they don’t want to hear my anxiety that maybe I haven’t practiced the saxophone in two weeks because I haven’t had time because I’m writing music or whatever else I’m doing. It’s not their problem so I’ve learned over the years to let go of that and trust on my ability.
You mentioned that you’ve written for Warner Brothers and Disney. Anything our readers would recognize?
With Warner Brothers, I worked on a lot of stuff that was produced by Stephen Speilberg including Pinky And The Brain, Animaniacs and Sylvester and Tweety. It was a real golden era back then with full orchestras. There were no synthesizers anywhere and it was great. Just amazing.
As far as Disney goes, I worked on a lot of their films as an orchestrator and conductor- the National Treasure movies, Armageddon and a lot of the Jerry Bruckheimer movies. I worked on The Incredibles. I got my first Grammy award for work on The Incredibles in fact. And I’ve done a lot of work too for the theme park division. I’ve worked on music for pretty every one of their theme parks across the world. You know, the parade, the firework shows or rides. I’m doing one right now actually. It’s such a huge endeavor. The Walt Disney company is everywhere. I really feel fortunate to play a part in that organization. I just wrote some new music for a new band at Disneyland, a new version of the Disneyland Band. This band will engage the audience a bit more. I heard them the other day down there rehearsing and they are really fantastic. I got my start at Disney. My first significant gig out of college was working at Disneyland and my first commercial writing gig was for them. I met my wife there! We met in the employee cafeteria! So the place has a lot of meaning for us.
Back to the Big Phat Band, how do you think the group has grown and changed over the years? How is your latest album “Life In The Bubble” different then anything else you’ve released?
That’s a really good question. I think what has happened now is that the personnel has evolved which is necessary and natural. There are a handful of people that have been there since the beginning and I’ve learned to embrace chance. It always is good what that happens and I think when we started off, all my friends and more studio-based musicians were doing it for fun but they have a different focus, they are focused on playing for films and TV and maybe they play at Pantages here in LA for Wicked or other stuff like that, they are freelance musicians so they aren’t able to commit to doing a tour where we are gone for 2 weeks so I had to start weeding out the guys that couldn’t make that kind of commitment. And I don’t blame them for not making that commitment but it takes a certain mentality that recognizes it’s not just about the amount of money I make, sometimes it’s more. How are we reaching other people.
One of the most meaningful things that’s ever happened to us was there was this high school kid up in Oakland. His mom wrote me an email right after he passed away. He had had cancer since he was 5 years old. He would fight it and beat it but it would keeping come back but when he about 13, he discovered the Big Phat Band and became a huge fan of ours. His mom said that he would have to go get chemotherapy and it would be imminently harder for him every time so he would take his headphones and listen to the Big Phat Band to prepare himself. Then he would be ready for the chemo. So his mom said that he wanted us to know what our music meant to him and his battle. I was so stunned by this letter and I sent it to everyone in the band. I said, just so you have an idea of what we are doing. Sometimes, it’s not just for fun, sometimes it’s for something really meaningful. So we went up to his school in Oakland to play a benefit concert. The guys donated their time and we set up a scholarship in his name.
Now, in this day, you tend to look and monetize everything. But I mean, what’s better then that really? So yeah, we are starting to accumulate stories like that and so I don’t know if there is anything that we could be doing better then to influence somebody in that matter. We’ve come to together as a group of musicians that have an understanding of that and our sound is reflective of that. It’s not just 18 studio quality musicians playing the music perfectly, we’ve grown into a nuanced family. Like any family, we have our squabbles some days but then we still love each other and we still have the same ideals. So I can hear that as we play now. That’s probably the main way we have changed over the years.
“Life In The Bubble” is our comment on a cultural phenomenon where we can fine-tune our choices in a real narrow way. So if you buy a record on Amazon, it will say if you liked that record, you will also like this and this. So we can customize what we eat and what we listen to so we just interact with people that agree with us. So its kind of like we are going around in our little bubbles. I think that over the years, jazz has been that way. There have been critics that dismiss us when we play a rock and roll song and anything that’s just not straight-ahead jazz. “Life In The Bubble” is a comment on that. Musically, we are trying break down musical barriers. It’s also different then our other records that were more just a collection of really cool music whereas this one as more of a unifying message.
You have such an accomplished resume. Can you pick a favorite experience or memory so far?
I always have a hard time doing that because I never felt like I had a big break. I feel like it’s been a slow gradual incline for me career-wise. Like I said, I don’t know how I compare what we did at that show at the Disney Hall to the thrill we had playing for Jesse’s high school or standing up there last February and accept the Grammy for “Life In The Bubble” which meant so much because it was something that we built from the ground up. OR was it that first phone call we got that from a record a company that wanted to release our stuff. OR when someone like Quincy Jones comes up to me and congratulates me and who is somebody who may be one of my biggest role models for what that kind of musical philosophy is. I have to say, that’s the key to life-Find out who you are and do that.
What’s next for you and The Big Phat Band?
Well, we have a Christmas record that we are finishing up and that’s going to come out this year in the fall. I’ve wanted to do one for a long time and we finally have all the material and got it together. We are doing a concert with Take 6 in August. They are one of my favorite vocal groups and someone who we’ve worked with on a number of tracks of several records. We are doing a benefit concert with them in August in Royce Hall for a charity called Discovery Arts which helps bring art activities to kids with cancer in their hospital rooms. Things to lift their spirits. Then I have a piece for the Cape Cod Symphony that is being premiered in September. That’s going to be exciting. There is a lot more touring this year. Last year, we went to Japan twice, Australia. It’s seems like it’s easier to book us outside the US then it is here. I think it’s regrettable but I think it’s reptty thrilling to go to a high school in Melbourne, Australia and see these kids that know who we are and are fans of our music. That’s pretty remarkable. I never would have dreamed for something like that to happen. The world is getting smaller so it’s pretty great that we can post stuff on YouTube and kids all over the world can learn about it and we can interact with them. It’s pretty amazing.
Listen to the full interview here on Soundcloud: