Gordon Goodwin is one of the leading minds in music today. He continues to pioneer a new era of big band music with his Big Phat Band, he composes for film and TV at Warner Bros and elsewhere, and he continues to educate the next generation of musicians around the world. Goodwin’s versatility is unmatched and his mastery of dynamics unparalleled. One listen of any of his work will get you hooked. Read on below for Part 1 of our interview with Gordon Goodwin, the musician and composer, and look out for Part 2 soon!
I want to give readers a sense of how you developed into the musician and composer you are today.
Looking back at it now, it all comes down to everything in its own time. I’ve got three kids myself and my youngest is a sophomore in high school, so I kind of look at them go through what I remember going through and trying to get them to not make the same mistakes I did. My mistakes I think were mostly mistakes of fear. I didn’t have the balls to claim who I was.
It’s interesting though; you do it when you’re ready to do it I guess. Part of the problem was that I had a lot of things that I could do. I played the piano, I could play the saxophone, and I could compose — not only jazz, but also classical music — and I could conduct. I got interested in a lot of different kinds of music. Then I started doing films too. And then after I got done with school, all of a sudden there’s this thing called a personal computer and all of the software and samples. So you really just start to look at the demands on your time.
In a way it’s kind of been good because all of that stuff influenced who I am as an artist. I’m sitting here in my studio and I’m surrounded by computers. I have six computers here. It used to be a pencil, a piece of paper, and a piano. I think you have to embrace the times you live in though. I’d say that I try to keep one foot in the new school and one foot in the old school not only in terms of how I write and perform my music, but also what it sounds like.
With the Big Phat Band, we try to be as contemporary and as culturally relevant as we can. We still don’t forget that we came out of Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton and Woody Herman and all those bands. We don’t forget how this genre came about. And yet, we’re not like Count Basie’s band who only played swing music. We play swing music, but we also play funk music and we play Latin music, we play film music or concert music. As a result, some people don’t dig it. Some people, especially in the jazz world, have very compartmentalized tastes. They think that jazz should be within these boundaries. We’ve kind of run up against that. It works both ways though. We have fans that like our contemporary stuff and just kind of endure the traditional stuff. We have other fans who like the traditional stuff and then we play a rock & roll tune and they’re like, “Well this sucks.” All I can say is that or me, I like all of that. We have a song we do called the “Jazz Police” and it’s kind of a head-banger tune. It’s not high art, no way. Yet, it’s fun. It’s got a vibe and it caught fire with some of our fans. We don’t do a gig without playing it because it’s one of our hits. I’d put quotes around the word hit though because it’s not like The Beatles or anything [laughs]. Maybe if we do that tune though, those people will listen to something we do that has a little more content to it. If they listen to our version of “On Green Dolphin Street,” maybe they’ll go back and actually buy an Oscar Peterson record and discover what that guy was about.
That was a very long-winded answer that went off-topic a lot [laughs].
It may be off-topic, but it was still very interesting! I want to go back and see if you remember the point at which you really found your space and knew what you wanted to pursue.
That was pretty early for me; it was in seventh-grade. My band director played me a Count Basie record and I heard an arrangement by a guy named Sammy Nestico who is a pretty legendary composer and arranger. I heard it and it changed my life. Right then I knew, “That’s what I want to do. I want to try and write music like that.” I had no idea if I could and I had no idea how I would go about it, but in seventh-grade I knew that was home for me.
You said that you didn’t have the “balls” to go through with it. Was that before or after this point?
After I got out of college I started to do what a lot of my friends did which was to get gigs playing. So I got a gig at Disneyland, which was a great gig, playing in the jazz bands or Latin band or marching band. I got a lot of different opportunities. Then I was doing lots of gigs at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and things like that. I made pretty good money, but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me writing my own music, leading a band, trying to get the music out there. I had no idea how to do that.
I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t even know if I could get the musicians to come play it. I didn’t know if the audience would like it. I didn’t know any of that. So I got distracted by just making a living and hanging out. I shied away from the leadership positions for probably ten years. Finally in my thirties I started to get commissions. At Disneyland they asked if I would write a show for them and it was a Mouseketeer show. They had like Cubby and Tommy and Sharon, a lot of the original Mouseketeers and combined them with the new Mouseketeers like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. So I wrote that show and that was a springboard for me doing commercial writing. So I got into doing television writing and later on films and animation as well. In the ‘90s I was working at Warner Bros. scoring Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs and stuff like that. It was awesome! We had a full orchestra for every episode, I won three Emmy Awards, and yet it wasn’t me. It was great, but it still wasn’t me. It was me doing Carl Stalling, the famous composer who did all of the Bugs Bunny cartoons. He kind of defined the style for what animation composing is. So it was me doing that, and I was good enough and versatile enough that I could do it. It wasn’t Gordon Goodwin though.
It’s really weird. You’ll be going on with your life and one day you look and you say, “You know, there might be more road behind me than ahead of me.” You’ll go, “Wow, what happened?” It’s amazing how quick it seems. You start to be more judicious with your time and how you spend your time. It’s helped me a lot with how I play actually. If I’m playing my saxophone, I’ll think to myself, “If this is the last solo I ever play — if I get hit by a meteor after this gig —what would I play like?” Not to be fatalistic about it, but to realize that playing music is a gift. It’s really an incredible privilege to do it. Some musicians have that spark and are just on fire all the time and every time. I never quite had that. I sometimes had it and sometimes didn’t. But since I changed my point of view about that, it’s almost like a muscle memory thing. Practice putting yourself in that state the minute you hit the bandstand and leave everything else behind. In my case I had to not think about the fact that say I had a recording session the next day and if I was ready for it or not. Forget all of that and stay in the moment when you’re on the bandstand. That point of view has helped me to become a better musician. Music is precious and life is precious. Getting a chance to play with really great musicians like I have the privilege of doing is also kind of a rare thing. Appreciate it when you have it.
You are an incredibly unique composer. How did you develop your compositional abilities?
Well it wasn’t natural for me. It was forced on me actually. When I was in high school I was a jazz snob and I loved it. I loved jazz and I hated everything else. I hated pop music and I hated classical music. I got into college at Cal State University Nothridge and at the time they didn’t have a jazz major. It was a good thing they didn’t too, because for me they said, “Okay, here’s what you have to do. You have to study music history and you have to study orchestration and counterpoint. You have to study conducting.” I would have never picked any of these disciplines. I would have studied improvisation and how to be a jazz player. That would’ve been my life. It might have been a rewarding life, but I definitely wouldn’t be scoring films if I didn’t learn how to orchestrate and conduct an orchestra.
The film scoring part of my life is actually what finances the Big Phat Band though. These records don’t make themselves; somebody has to pay for them. The record labels aren’t going to do it. So if you look at a guy standing in front of any band, big bands in particular, you’re probably looking at a guy who wrote a check.
So you self-finance the Big Phat Band?
Yeah pretty much. I was so lucky because I was working in the film business getting paid pretty good money and I was able to funnel that into the Phat Band. It became a balance in my life. Working in commercial music, it’s not about what you think sounds good; it’s about what they want and what they think sounds good. So sometimes you’re asked to do some really stupid things. You sort of hold your nose and write what they want. It isn’t always like that though. Sometime you get a project like The Incredibles, which I worked on, and my aesthetic was exactly in line with what they wanted. But the good part is that I can take that money and funnel it into an environment where nobody tells me what to do. No one tells me how to write it, how to record it, or how to perform it.
It’s enabled me to go into the film world and not worry when they tell me to write stupid stuff because I know I’ve got this oasis over there with the Big Phat Band.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)