Trombonist, composer and music educator Vincent Gardner, a 1995 graduate of the UNF Jazz Studies program, is a quiet, humble man who doesn’t like to toot his own horn. But, at just 38, he has had an enviable career touring the world with top musicians, being part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and instructing the next generation of jazz superstars.
From the start of his life, it would seem that Gardner was destined to be a musician. Born in Chicago — one of jazz’s birthplaces — in 1972, he came from a family with deep musical roots. His father, Burgess Gardner, is a trumpeter who has played with Ray Charles, Count Basie and Horace Silver. His mother is a pianist and choir director, and they are both music educators.
The Gardners moved first to East Lansing, Mich., when Vincent was five, so they could complete their doctorates at Michigan State University. A year later, they settled down in Hampton, Va. Young Vincent was at church often for services and choir rehearsals, and began singing in the choir as soon as he was of age, providing him with his earliest musical experiences.
“Music was just always around us,” he said. “We had a closet full of instruments and I went through it and just kept learning to play each one.”
As a beginning musician, Gardner started on the violin, but soon switched to saxophone and French horn. Around age 13, since his father and brother both played trumpet, he decided to play trombone.
“I wanted to play something different and I was really tall for my age,” said Gardner. “My arms were long enough that I could play the trombone and I just fell in love with its sound. It is the instrument that is closest in tone to the human voice.”
He developed an interest in jazz music around the 11th grade after being selected to play in the Hampton All-City Jazz Ensemble and being introduced to jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson by its director.
By the time he graduated from high school, he had made up his mind to pursue a career as a professional musician and attended Florida A&M University, studying classical trombone and Music Education. In 1995, he transferred to UNF because it has a dedicated jazz studies program led by a family friend and his father’s former bandmate, Bunky Green, director of UNF’s Jazz Studies and himself a legendary saxophonist. “Bunky is just one of those guys who doesn’t say much, he just does,” Gardner said. “I just learned so much from watching him play, his style, his technique.”
He credits the Jazz Studies program for its dedication to the craft, the quality of its instruction and the constant encouragement he received to perform whenever and wherever he could. “Vincent is awesome. He was one of the students that you didn’t really teach, you exposed him to concepts and he would show you how it’s done,” said Green. “He’s a natural like his brother and father.”
After graduating in 1996 with an undergraduate degree in Jazz Trombone Performance, he moved to New York to pursue his professional career, subsequently performing with several notable ensembles and musicians, including the Count Basie Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Saturday Night Live Band, Lauryn Hill, Matchbox 20, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster and others.
By 28, he had caught the attention of Wynton Marsalis, renowned trumpeter and artistic director for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, who invited him to join what many jazz enthusiasts hail as the best big band today or the equivalent of a jazz all-star team. He is now in his eleventh year with the orchestra and is its lead trombonist. He regularly composes pieces for Marsalis.
“Vincent is a thoroughly original performer with a highly personalized style, penetrating intelligence, impeccable pedigree of music, fabulous ability to arrange music, joyous humor and a strong belief in scholarship,” said Marsalis. “He is the complete package.”
One of Gardner’s favorite performances was when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, along with fellow UNF alum Marcus Printup, played to a sold-out audience at the UNF Fine Arts Center in January 2009. He also had a chance to do an educational workshop with UNF students.
“It was so fun to play at [the Lazzara Performance Hall],” he said. “We didn’t have that when I attended and it just had phenomenal acoustics and great energy. UNF should be proud of that beautiful space.”
During the 2003-2004 academic year, Gardner became the visiting instructor of Jazz Trombone at Michigan State University. He has continued to be an active educator, having taught at Florida State University and the New School in New York City for one year each. Most recently, Gardner was the Instructor of Jazz Trombone at the Juilliard School for more than two years. He still does one-on-one instruction when he can.
As a bandleader, Gardner has released four albums under the SteepleChase record label. He performs with his own groups frequently and often with his brother, trumpeter Derrick Gardner and his ensemble, the Jazz Prophets. Currently living in New Jersey with his wife, Daphne, and their two children, Laila, 10 and Davin, 3, Gardner is enrolled in a graduate program at Rutgers University studying jazz history and research.
No matter where he goes, Gardner says he bumps into people who know about UNF’s jazz program or studied there. “I swear half the musicians I meet in New York City have their degree from UNF.”