The ranks of the Elders are thinning: Bobby Gordon has left us. He died peacefully last night (December 31, 2013).
If you saw the outside only, Bobby was a frail-looking clarinetist and occasional vocalist. Hearing his playing, you might have thought, “lyric poet,” with unpredictable measures of tenderness, swing, and surprise.
But Bobby’s music was a matter of constantly shifting shadings — words would have been too coarse for him — so I think of him as a great painter, offering us in one chorus the quiet tints of a Turner watercolor, then shifting to the spiky abstractions of a Kandinsky.
Two choruses by Bobby could be a whole world of sound, echoing his mentors Joe Marsala and Pee Wee Russell, but with his own distinctive enthusiasms and investigations.
I had heard Bobby on record and private tapes from the early Seventies on, but had the good fortune to hear (and video-record) him in person at what was then Jazz at Chautauqua. We only had one conversation (instigated by him in an empty hotel lobby at 2 AM because he had noticed that I was living one suburban town away from his birthplace) but he sang his melodies with sweet intensity, the intensity of a man who knew full well that every note counts.
I wrote a brief biography for Bobby’s Chautauqua appearances:
I first heard Bobby Gordon play in the early 1970s – not in person, but on a tape which included his friend, the great New York drummer Mike Burgevin, where Bobby was teamed with that dynamo, Kenny Davern, in a two-horn quartet. Playing sweetly, quietly, and soulfully, Mr. Gordon cut the extrovert Mr. Davern decisively without having to exert himself. His art is a subtle one – but attentive listeners know just how hard it is to play melodies so simply, with such feeling, so many subtleties of tone and shading. Even when Bobby appears to be hewing closely to the notes we know, he is creating an impressionistic masterpiece. Happily, his quiet brilliance is no longer a secret, nor has it been for some time. Since he moved to San Diego in 1979, where he met his English-born wife, Sue – the reason Bobby often calls the tune “Sweet Sue” — and he began to record prolifically with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Hal Smith, and Rebecca Kilgore among others, listeners have gotten tangible, permanent evidence of his warm musical individuality. We can’t have too many CDs that feature Bobby, but his performances make a reassuring section on anyone’s alphabetically-organized CD shelves. And the good news is that he continues to record regularly, still making San Diego his home base, although fans in England, Japan, and Scotland have showed their enthusiasm for his work as well. Arbors Records has recognized Bobby as a treasure, and his sessions have teamed him with everyone from Joe Marsala’s widow, the harpist Adele Girard Marsala, to Marty Grosz, Dave McKenna, and Bob Wilber: Don’t Let It End (1992), Pee Wee’s Song (1993), Bobby Gordon Plays Bing (996), Clarinet Blue (1999), and Yearnings (2003). But my favorite Gordon CD, I confess, is his JUMP trio with Keith Ingham and Hal Smith – such a popular issue that it is now only available on cassette. Bobby was born in Manhasset, New York, in 1941. Happily for him, his father worked for RCA and sold Tommy Dorsey records for them. Through these connections, young Bobby met the uniquely soulful clarinettist Joe Marsala, becoming what Marsala called his “most gifted student and protégé.” In 1957, Bobby won a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, and continued his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He’s been lucky to work with many of the original masters: Muggsy Spanier, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy McPartland, Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell. For a time, he was the house clarinetist at the last Eddie Condon’s on 54th Street in Manhattan, as well as working with Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band, The World’s Greatest Jazz Band, and varying Marty Grosz units, all with original names. One opportunity that didn’t materialize was his replacing Buster Bailey in the Louis Armstrong All Stars in 1968. Bobby remembers being measured for the band uniform and learning the repertoire. But Louis suffered a heart attack, “and I never got to play with him.” Bobby has ambitions to be a better songwriter and “to really let my influences come out more…to play like Hackett and Louis and Pee Wee and Marsala and Condon; and I’d like to be able to sing like Red McKenzie.” Audiences at Chautauqua have shown their approval of Bobby’s mastery in set after set.
Bobby’s music — the song not ended — is so much more affecting than my words:
MY MELANCHOLY BABY:
PEE WEE’S BLUES:
His melodies linger on, and Bobby Gordon taught us so much about the courage it takes to create beauty every time he played or sang. We thank him. We miss him.
May your happiness increase!