Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Knoxville-based jazz saxophonist Gregory Tardy about how his travels have impacted his music, his love of Rush and how his music is informed by his faith.
CP: You started playing saxophone in Milwaukee. You were born in New Orleans. Where did you grow up?
GT: I kind of flipped around a lot of different places. I was born in New Orleans, and then my dad's job moved us around to different cities. We ended up in Milwaukee for a good 12 years. That's where I went to middle school and high school and where I did the bulk of my college. I was there for a long time. It's a complicated story.
CP: What did your father do?
GT: He worked for the American Can company.
CP: You've also lived in New York, St. Louis and now Knoxville. Have all those places left their mark on your music?
GT: Most definitely. When I lived in Milwaukee, the scene there was more of a bebop scene at the time. I don't know what it is now because I haven't been back in a while, but it was definitely bebop then. When I was in St. Louis and I played on that scene for a while, it was more blues, so I learned a lot of blues down there.
When I moved back to New Orleans as an adult, I played on the street a lot with the brass bands and in a lot of traditional groups. I did some work with The Neville Brothers and the true New Orleans funky type groups.
I feel that they've all influenced me, to a large degree. If there's any roundness to my playing, that's where it comes from. It's also given me different perspectives, different approaches, having played with different rhythm sections.
CP: Did that make it easy for you to insert yourself into different musical situations with other players?
GT: Yeah. I feel that it made it pretty easy.
CP: You started off on clarinet. How old were you?
GT: I started playing clarinet when I was about 9 years old.
CP: What drew you to it?
GT: (Laughs.) My brother and sisters were in their bands, and back then, I used to think about different friends they had. I just wanted to be around certain friends, so the clarinet seemed like a good instrument.
There was nothing majorly drawing me to that instrument. I liked the saxophone, too - it was shiny. (Laughs.)
CP: At what point did you start liking the clarinet on your own terms rather than because someone else played it?
GT: During my early years in high school when I started playing solo competitions, I started listening to recordings of the pieces I was playing to try to get more of an understanding, stylistically, of what I was supposed to do. I thought some of the music was beautiful, especially the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and listening to players like Jack Brymer.
I just thought it was really, really beautiful, so I got a lot more serious about being a good clarinetist. My parents were both opera singers before that, so I'd always liked classical music. The later on I got in high school, the more serious I got about it, until by the time I finished, I was very determined to be a classical clarinetist.
CP: It's funny how those plans can change.
GT: Yeah, because the thing was, I wasn't planning on being a jazz saxophonist. I didn't' even really like jazz. My mom was into jazz. Even though she started off as an opera singer, she eventually switched to jazz.
She had musicians at the house from time to time, but at the time, outside of my classical listening, I was into stuff my friends were into. Believe it or not, I listened to a lot of heavy metal and punk. I was a Rush fanatic, and I liked things like Parliament. That was more where my head was. I was listening to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and “2112.” (Laughs.)
CP: Of all the rock bands out there, Rush certainly has enough musical complexity to warrant comparison to jazz.
GT: Yeah. I still like a lot of that stuff. Me and Neil Peart have some philosophical differences, but outside of that, I still think it's some great rock music, either way. (Laughs.)
CP: How easy was the transition to saxophone from clarinet, and what did you think of the instrument when you first picked it up?
GT: My best friend at the time was a saxophonist, and when he went off to college, he let me use his saxophone because I used to get drafted from time to time in high school to play extra parts in the stage band.
I used to think it was fun. I thought it was easy. I looked at it as taking a fun break between my clarinet practice to goof around on the saxophone. After I felt like I had enough fun, I got back to bashing it out on the clarinet. I never really looked at switching over completely, though; it was something I did for fun.
When I got to college, I joined the jazz band there, and much to my surprise, I had people start calling me for gigs. My first gig was a polka band, and then I was called to play in a funk/fusion band. I did that for several years.
The way I looked at it was, “I'm not even good at this thing, and people are calling me to play gigs, and I'm making a little bit of money. If I got really good at this thing, maybe I could make more money and use it to finish college.” I still wasn't that serious, but what changed that was that my brother was studying jazz, and he told me I really needed to check it out. He turned me onto Johnny Coltrane and Sunny Stitt, and that was pretty much it. He ruined my classical career. (Laughs.)
CP: You mention the John Coltrane influence in your bio. What album or song was it, and do you remember your emotional reaction to the piece, when you heard it?
GT: [The album] was “Monk/Trane,” and it was “Monk's Moods” that got me. I thought it was gorgeous. Here's the thing, he was doing a lot of things that, in the classical sense, were considered unmusical, but it was still beautiful. I couldn't understand that. I was caught in that classical mentality, and I was trying to understand it.
The stuff Monk was doing I thought was really earthy and pretty, but it was a completely different world. I didn't understand it, but I knew that whatever it was, I wanted to learn it, wanted to do it.
I was a pseudo-classical fusion/funk player, and I was sitting in with the jazz players trying to figure out what they were doing. They hated me. (Laughs.) But over time, I studied with [pianist] David Hazletine for a minute, who was living in Milwaukee at the time. He showed me jazz harmony. That pretty much gave me all I really needed at the time.
When I went to New Orleans, I studied a little with Ellis Marsalis and Victor Goines and then hung out with a lot of musicians on the scene there and practiced like crazy. That's how I got my stuff together. I did a lot of listening and got my conception together because my conception was all messed up at the time.
CP: You've spent most of your life molding these different influences into your own sound. Is that process still continuing or have you reached a point where it feels like you're pretty solid?
GT: I've never felt completely like, “Now, I'm there,” but I would say that when I started playing with a lot of big groups - Elvin Jones and all those people - I learned a lot just from playing with them and just from experience.
I would say that I feel like I know what I'm doing, of course, but at the same time, even I still feel like even now, in my mid-40s, I still get introduced to new things that make me want to lock myself away to study and practice nonstop until I work things out. I'm still growing and still learning.
CP: Do you still play classical music or has it been shifted completely to the back burner?
GT: I've gone through spurts. There was a 10-year period when I didn't play clarinet at all, and in the late '90s, I started playing it sporadically again. It's been one of those things where I'll wind up playing it intensely for a while and start getting calls for things on the clarinet - Andrew Hill and Dave Douglas and Stephan Harris and other people. Regina Carter and Chris Potter had me on things where I was specifically playing clarinet.
That was good, but then I went on hiatus for a couple of years to focus on music ministry and a lot of church music. During that period, I didn't play clarinet at all. When I came out of that, I started focusing on bringing the clarinet back again. It's been an on-and-off thing.
CP: I understand you're in a period of trying to bring it back.
GT: Yeah, I am now. I'm trying to resurrect it. I just did this thing at Carnegie Hall about two months with Brad Mehldau, and he had me playing bass clarinet during most of it. I also played some clarinet on my latest CD that's coming out in September. I've been trying to practice it more with the hope that it will play a larger role on a CD I'm hoping to record soon.
CP: Do you have any plans for what you'll play, instrument wise, in Chattanooga?
GT: As of now, I don't know. I have a feeling I'll focus more on the tenor. As anyone who has followed my music knows, a lot of the stuff can be pretty complicated. I think we'll try to keep it simpler and try to just have fun and play and not get caught up in too dense of compositions and spend a lot more time just playing, which is fun.
Sometimes, a really complicated composition can get lost in the competition. Sometimes, it feels good to just stretch out and have some fun.
CP: When you're composing, what tends to inspire you?
GT: It really varies. Sometimes, I'll have a couple of chord changes I find interesting, and I'll keep trying to improvise on them until have something that's more or less a hook and work around that. Sometimes, I'll start with a bass line and try to write a counterpoint melody line to that and work it that way.
It's really easy for me to come up with simple, what I would call somewhat “corny” compositions. I could write 10 of those a day, if I wanted to. From that point, I'll take those compositions and try to make something more hip from them, something that's a little bit more interesting. I'll take them and re-harmonize them or syncopate the rhythm or change the melody up. Sometimes, I get a little carried away, but once you get started, it's hard to stop.
I would say that, over the last 10 years, more and more of my music has been built off of biblical themes. That definitely serves as an inspiration, spiritually, for where I want to go with my music.
CP: That's interesting. I've never heard of biblical inspiration for non-Christian instrumental music. How does that work for you? Do particular lines of scripture inspire you?
GT: Definitely. I consider myself to be a serious Christian, and since that's such a large part of my life, it definitely comes out in my music and where I want to go with the music. It takes form that way.
It comes out in a lot of different ways, but the hard part is that since it's instrumental music and I'm not the greatest singer in the world - you definitely don't want me to sing on these records - conveying emotions and spirit and trying to create a picture through the music is a real challenge for me.
At some point, god willing if I live long enough, I'd like to incorporate some lyrics and hire a competent vocalist to sing them, but I haven't gotten to that point yet.
CP: The opening line of your bio says that “Music is an expression of the soul and I always try to speak through my horn.” What are you trying to say, musically?
GT: Different things. Hopefully, it's, “God is great.” (Laughs.) But I'm in the moment. When I used to play in blues bands when I lived in St. Louis, the older musicians always tell us to tell a story, so a lot of time, it's trying to think about what I'm feeling inside at a particular moment and make the listener feel what I'm feeling. I don't know how to explain how to do it; it's just something that happens.
CP: You'll be playing with jazz guitarist Mark Boling and his trio. How did you two meet?
GT: I met him as we were trying to negotiate out me coming to Knoxville. The process actually started back in 2004, and then, we lost communication for several years. Then, it all came together last year. That's where that association started. Me and Mark are very good friends, ad I feel like he's a fabulous musician. All the guys in the band are top-notch, great musicians.
CP: What will the ratio be in the set of your music to his music to standards?
GT: I think we'll be splitting it up. We'll be doing a lot of my music, and the music of a couple of my colleagues from New York, and we'll do some of the music of the folks from the trio.
CP: You moved to Knoxville from where? New York?
GT: Yeah, from New York. I just moved down last July.
CP: Did you experience any culture shock? Given your nomadic experience, you seem well equipped to deal with it.
GT: That's the thing. I've been traveling my whole life. I won't say it wasn't a culture shock, but I can adjust fairly quickly because of the way I came up. Knoxville is a nice city. It's very laid back. It's a pretty conservative, clean city, and we love it. My family loves it.
CP: Coming from a place like New York, how would you characterize the jazz scene in Knoxville?
GT: I'll say this, there are some really, really great players - some really strong players. There's the faculty at the school and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. There are some local players who are really, really strong.
Just like a lot of places in the country, there are a limited amount of places to play. New York probably has the most places to play around the country, but when you get outside New York, most cities are struggling with the same thing, a limited amount of places to play. All the great players are having trouble getting heard. That's why it's great that places like Barking Legs are trying to be a great venue for listening to jazz. We need it. (Laughs.)
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise?
GT: I can you a clearer answer a month from now. Now that school is over, I'm buckling down to write some music. I've had a lot of people ask me to do a standards CD, and if I do that, it will be arranged. We won't just be playing songs. I'll see if I get inspired to do anything this month.
Who the lineup will be on that, I don't know yet. I've been really focused on my work at the school this last semester. It was a very busy semester. Now that that's over, I can focus on my music a little bit.
Even though this last CD was supposed to be a standards CD, I ended up writing some originals and wound up recording that instead. Sometimes, that happens.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...