James Gardiner


James Gardiner conducting the Franklin High School Jazz Band in Brussels. Photo by Raymond Clement


Earshot Jazz is proud to share brief excerpts from the forthcoming book, After Jackson Street: Seattle Jazz in the Modern Era (History Press of Charleston, S.C.), by Seattle’s preeminent jazz writer, Paul de Barros. Picking up where Jackson Street After Hours (Sasquatch Books, 1993) left off, the new book will feature fascinating interviews with the familiar artists and under-sung heroes who shape this vibrant jazz scene.

I recently learned of a remarkable trombonist and composer named James Gardiner, a child prodigy who started writing arrangements for jazz band while still a student at Washington Middle School. Gardiner also served as composer-in-residence at Franklin High School, where he wrote festival-topping charts for the legendary band that featured, among other future successful musicians, Kenny G. Gardiner left Seattle for the San Francisco Bay Area in 1976, where he has forged a successful career as a studio engineer, producer and educator, working with the likes of Beyoncé, Tupac Shakur and Ray Charles. In July, I caught up with Gardiner by phone. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

I was born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1948. My father was in the Army, so he moved us around a lot. In Seattle, we lived in a housing project called Holly Park, then on 28th and Dearborn, off Jackson Street. At Washington Middle School, the music teacher, John Bowron, kind of took me under his wing. I would show up in the band room at six in the morning and help him set the band up, then I would practice and talk to him. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought, “Wait a minute, let me write out my own exercises.” So, I got a pencil and some manuscript (paper) and I asked my teacher, “How can I get a clarinet player to play what I’ve just written in bass clef?” So, he taught me transcription. I was very competitive. I challenged (future Hammond B3 ace) James Holden and became the lead trombone player in the jazz ensemble. 

When Seattle newspaper editor, philanthropist, and Alaskaphile Lulu Fairbanks came looking for a young musician to sponsor, Bowron recommended Gardiner, which led to coursework at Cornish College, Olympic College (in Bremerton), and Shoreline College, as well as private lessons with the great composer of Jewish liturgical music, Bonia Shur, then composer-in-residence at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Gardiner also joined the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra.

I started going to Cornish in ninth grade. That’s when all those great teachers were there—Jerome Gray, Stanley Keen, Floyd Standifer, and (classical composer) Lockrem Johnson. I started learning composition and jazz, and improvisation, and took piano lessons. That’s also when I made the Garfield High School big band, under Waldo King. So I was doing nothing but music, riding the #10 Mount Baker bus, down to Third Avenue, and then all the way up to Cornish, and to Youth Symphony, neighborhoods that I didn’t even know about. I also played in the Jimmy Hanna Blues Band. Jay Thomas, who was with me at Cornish, also played in that band. We were playing some funky music. We ended up backing up all of the Motown acts that came through the Paramount Northwest, like The Temptations and the Four Tops. 

In 1966, Gardiner graduated from Garfield and ferried over to Bremerton, for college.

Olympic College had all the best players from all over the state—(bassist) Rufus Reid was there—who were there to study with Ralph Mutchler. Quincy Jones was a judge at the festival one year. I asked him about coming to LA. He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “You don’t want to go to LA. I live in a glass house. I can’t do what you do. You can write anything you want to, as a composer, and that’s what you want to be, like Duke Ellington.” So that’s one of the reasons I never went to Hollywood, I didn’t want to become a ghost writer. 

After a year-and-a-half at Olympic, Gardiner returned to Cornish, recording a big band composition in 1969 that won him a DownBeat Hall of Fame scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Gardiner, however, elected to stay in town and study with Shur, instead. It was a timely decision. In October 1970, Herbie Hancock came to town with his new sextet, Mwandishi (featuring future Seattleite Julian Priester), part of a massive jazz festival presented by the Seattle Jazz Society. 

I found out where Herbie was staying and I called Herbie up and I said, “You know, I’m a big fan of yours. I wrote a chart for your group. It’s called ‘My Friend.’ I was wondering if I could give it to you.” He said, “What are you doing right now?” (This was like a Sunday morning.) “Come on down to my room.” So, I went downtown, and who answered the door but Herbie Hancock, my idol. All these other people were in there in suits and ties, and it turns out they’d been talking to Herbie about having a composer-in-residence for the Seattle School District. So Herbie says, “Here’s the person you want for composer-in-residence. He lives here, and he’s a brilliant composer.”

I started as a “teacher’s aide” at Meany Junior High School, but Chuck Chinn, at Franklin High School, really took a liking to my charts. Kenny G was in the Franklin band. And Robert Damper, the keyboard player. Philip Woo, keyboard. Oh, my, Danny Benson the bass player. And James Rasmussen, trumpet. So, I sent him some arrangements. One day, the Seattle Symphony called Bonia and asked if he had time to do a commissioned work. He said, “No, but I have a student that would be perfect.” So, in 1973 I got my first commissioned work, “Theme For Mr. Soul,” for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Franklin High School African drum ensemble. If I had gone to Berklee, there’s no way that a young, Black student would have gotten a commissioned work to do for a full symphony.

Thanks in part to Gardiner’s dynamic (and difficult) arrangements, the Franklin High School Jazz Lab Band won first prize at the Reno Jazz Festival three years running, from 1974–76. In a recent documentary, Listening to Kenny G,” the famous saxophonist thanks Gardiner not only for his charts but for giving him the LP that inspired him—Grover Washington’s Inner City Blues.

You know, when I was in high school, junior year, Look magazine did a story called something like “Twenty Kids Most Likely to Change the Twenty-First Century in America.” They sent reporters out to Seattle, who came to my classes, and to the Youth Symphony, and my home. So, I guess I did fulfill part of that prediction by helping Kenny G. But I’m still not done yet!



Posted on

December 29, 2023