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Karen Gordon

Augusta’s First Lady of Jazz: Karen Gordon

You have a talented brother – Wycliffe – overall, did you enjoy a musical upbringing?

My childhood was filled with music from as early as I can remember. Our earliest musical memories are of our dad playing classical piano in the house. When our parents divorced, the music was silenced for a while, but our mother ensured that Wycliffe and I took piano lessons and our siblings participated in band in school. Wycliffe would practice incessantly, and when he and our brother, Lucius Jr didn’t have their friends over working on marching band material, Wycliffe and I would play and sing duets of pop and gospel music.

Do you play any instruments; do you sing? Or both?

I play piano/keyboard and sing. I’ve been singing for about 12 years, but I really struggled with it until about three or four years ago.

Music can do many things, but most of all, I believe it makes you feel vital. How does it affect you?

Music is so much a part of my existence – it either enhances the way I already feel or changes it. The way in which music touches people at their very core and ushers them to another time and place is amazing. As a performer, I’ve begun to watch audience reaction to my song choice and delivery.

Talk about your influences, whose music do you love? Are there multiple musicians who inspire you?

I love jazz and gospel. If I had to choose only three, I’d pick pianist Ahmad Jamal, the late pianist/vocalist Shirley Horn, and Wycliffe Gordon, of course. I’ve been listening to a few younger musicians and vocalists these days. I really enjoy Gretchen Parlato and Lizz Wright. I’m inspired by musicians who serve, whether by teaching young people in summer camps, giving scholarships to music students, by making time to visit the schools to talk to band classes. And to those musicians who serve in the Armed Forces.

Jazz is a wide-open genre; how can someone who has never before encountered jazz make sense of all it offers?

You have to approach jazz just like you would eat an elephant: one bite at a time. But seriously, when I meet people, I ask them what kind of music they already like, and if they’re interested in live music. From there, I try to lead them to a jazz artist with a similar sound. If they’re into gospel, then I suggest Kirk Whalum, if R&B, then I go with Boney James. Folk/Acoustic? Lizz Wright. Funk/Hip-Hop: Trombone Shorty or The Roots. Now these names are far from the classics. But I like to recommend artists who are alive and touring. This way, there’s a chance that they’ll get to see the artist perform. If I don’t have the time to get that deep into conversation, I suggest Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”. If they’re receptive to going out to see a band, I’ll recommend a local group.

What has been your most memorable musical experience?

My most memorable musical experience is Wycliffe’s Christmas in the Garden City (2004). He formed a big band with many current members of the Count Basie Orchestra and performed Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite.” It was an amazing variety show – including gospel, classical, choral music, and dance. I played keyboard for the gospel section. This was the first time I’d shared the stage with so many talented musicians.

What is Garden City Jazz and where can people find it?

Garden City Jazz is my business, my passion. It’s a boutique firm that specializes in jazz promotion and event production. You can find it on the web at gardencityjazz.com and on most of the social networks. On the website, you can also find a calendar of live jazz in Aiken, Columbia, and Richmond counties. GardenCityJazz (the band) performs sporadically throughout the year, but can be heard in some form every Saturday at the Augusta Market at Riverwalk & Eighth Street. We also host the Candlelight Jazz Concert Series every Sunday night at Riverwalk Augusta.

You have a lot of upcoming events and camps, and you’ve been getting busier through the summer – what is the biggest event you have planned for this year?

I’m presenting a Westobou Festival event: Lizz Wright at the Imperial Theatre on October 8. I’m very excited about this concert as I’ve wanted to bring Lizz to Augusta since she recorded her first album in 2002. I’ve heard that she’s a reluctant performer – a little on the shy side, and I can relate to that. She’s from a small town in Georgia, and her roots are in the Pentecostal church, but her voice is so unique. Captivating, even.

And last, do you have a message for our service members?

Yes. Many thanks to the men and women who make it possible for us to pursue our passions and dreams without fear. Thanks for keeping us safe, here and beyond. Thanks for fighting for the freedom and liberties that we often take for granted. And special thanks to the military band members who willingly exchange their instruments for rifles when called upon.

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