OCOEE — With just a few notes from his trombone, Wycliffe Gordon commands attention from his audience. It’s not uncommon for listeners to stare at the stage — dumbfounded by the sound emanating from the bell of the horn. Musicians marvel at Gordon’s power, his unmistakable voice and his ability to conjure sounds that baffle other horn players.
Gordon’s mastery has earned him some of jazz’s most prestigious awards. He was named “Best in Trombone” by the Downbeat Critics Poll in 2012 and 2013, and the Jazz Journalists Association named him “Trombonist of the Year” in eight of the last 14 years.
This weekend, Gordon will be the featured performer at the fifth annual HapCO Sunshine Jazz Festival, which takes place Saturday, Feb. 7, at Ocoee High School. The festival is a fundraiser for the local HapCO Music Foundation, the brainchild of Oakland Town Commissioner Joseph “Patrick” McMullen that seeks to support educational arts programs, particularly in low-income communities.
McMullen and Gordon struck up a friendship after meeting in 1985 as members of the Florida A&M University Marching Band. In past years, Gordon was performing on a cruise ship out of the country when the West Orange festival took place. This year, however, the dates lined up perfectly.
“My father was a musician — a classical pianist and organist at our church,” Gordon says. “So, I grew up listening to spiritual hymns and things like that. Music was a big part of our lives.”
Gordon cut his jazz teeth on some of the genre’s early innovators, including legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s recognizable sound and style caught the young Gordon’s ear and has remained a key influence ever since.
“A lot of young players go to bebop (a style of jazz that became popular in the early- and mid-1940s), but I went back to the beginning,” he says. “Part of what separates them (the early players) was their sound. When Louis Armstrong plays or sings, there is no question that it’s him.”
In 2011, Gordon paid homage to Armstrong with the release of “Hello Pops, A Tribute to Louis Armstrong.” His catalog includes 16 solo CDs and seven co-leader CDs.
Gordon is a former veteran member of the Wynton Marsalis Septet, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and has been a featured guest artist on Billy Taylor’s “Jazz at the Kennedy Center” series. His performance experience includes work with many of the most renowned jazz performers, and his “Jazz a la Carte” show, which debuted at the Apollo Theater, was named one of the “Top Five Best Moments in Jazz” in 2011 by The Wall Street Journal.
He currently serves on the faculty of the Jazz Arts Program at Manhattan School of Music. He has published several books, including “This Rhythm On My Mind” and “Sing It First.”
“Jazz is important for students to know — it’s our (America’s) contribution to the arts,” Gordon says. “It’s an artform people enjoy all over the world. I remember in 1989, and I was at the Berlin Wall. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here now — they did not like me because I was American. But later, when we were playing music, everybody was smiling. Throughout history, music has been a universal language, and it brings folks together.”
Gordon says he is excited to share his craft with the young West Orange students.
“As a professional musician, I never forget those moments when someone took the time to show me something or teach me something,” he says. “I can relate everything I do now back to those moments. So, I appreciate that chance to show music to others, because I know how much that meant to me.”
In addition to Gordon, Miami-based jazz singer LeNard Rutledge, the University of Florida Jazz Band and the Ocoee High School Jazz Band all will perform at this year’s festival.
Rutledge, who met McMullen in 1981 in high school marching band, knows the story behind the name, HapCO.
“In marching band, we gave all the new kids nicknames,” he says, laughing. “His was ‘Happy Head,’ because he had a round head. Then, we called him Haps, so now, you have HapCO.”
Rutledge was a member of the percussion section in high school and later took his musical talents to St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina. But, when he saw that the band’s drummer was a more proficient jazz player, Rutledge asked the director for a chance to sing. His first song: the standard “Teach Me Tonight.”
“I did that one song, and then I got another and then another,” he remembers.
Rutledge soon found himself recording a few jingles for a local radio station. In 1997, he moved back to Miami and served as the featured vocalist for the Melton Mustafa Orchestra until 2003. He has shared the stage with many jazz artists, such as the late George Duke, Kirk Whalum and Nnena Freelon.
Rutledge combines several different styles — including classical, jazz, hymns and funk — to create his unique sound. This weekend, he’ll be performing with the University of Florida Jazz Band, led by UF Jazz Studies Director Scott Wilson.
“We’re going to swing hard, and we’re going to play some modern arrangements as well as some of the classics,” Wilson says of his band’s upcoming performance.
Wilson and UF have been longtime supporters of HapCO and appreciate the opportunity to share their love of jazz.
“Joseph McMullen is one of my heroes,” Scott says. “He’s just a class act.”