Chicago jazz trumpeter Burgess Gardner, who played with greats, taught music, dead at 85
Jazz was more than an outlet for his artistry and a source of income for him. It was a wellspring of Black pride. He also taught music in Chicago’s public schools.
When his trumpet-playing big brother went off to serve in World War II, 9-year-old Burgess Gardner ran to his closet and pulled out his horn.
He went on to play trumpet for more than seven decades, performing or recording with legends including Count Basie, Etta James, Louie Bellson, Ray Charles, the Dells, Woody Herman, B.B. King, King Kolax, Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis Jr., Koko Taylor and Sarah Vaughan. He also taught music in Chicago’s public schools.
Jazz was more than an outlet for his artistry and a source of income to Mr. Gardner. It was a wellspring of Black pride.
“Jazz was developed by our ancestors, and it is a music that is indigenous to this country,” he told the music students he mentored in his native Greenville, Mississippi, according to a 2002 story in the Biloxi Sun Herald. “People all over the world love jazz.”
His Greenville roots helped Mr. Gardner when he arrived in Chicago in the late 1950s. The city was filled with other Greenville emigres. A number were musicians, and they helped him find some of his first gigs.
“Because of playing with Ray Charles and with Basie, his name spread quite a bit — ‘You go to Chicago, see Burgess Gardner, he’s the cat on trumpet,’ ” said his son Derrick Gardner, a jazz trumpeter who has performed with the Count Basie Orchestra and Harry Connick Jr.
Mr. Gardner, 85, of South Holland, died Nov. 20 in hospice care in Schererville, Indiana. The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his son.
Young Burgess grew up in a home filled with music. His mother Ruth, a teacher, played piano. His father Willie worked at a Greenville lumber company known as the Chicago Mill.
His sound was molded by Clifford Brown, “a jazz trumpeter who was in the transition from bebop to hard bop,” Derrick Gardner said. “He went to downtown Jackson [Mississippi] to the record shop and bought a Clifford Brown record. He said it changed his life,” influencing “his concept of improvisation, his phrasing, his articulation.”
Early on, Mr. Gardner played Mississippi juke joints with blues legends including B.B. King.
“B.B. wanted him to join his band full time,” his son said, “but he chose to go to college instead.”
After getting a music degree from Jackson State University, Mr. Gardner taught music in Greenville and Cleveland, Mississippi.
In 1959, he moved to Chicago. At the old C and C Lounge at 6513 S. Cottage Grove Ave., he met a bartender from Greenville and started connecting with musicians. He played with King Kolax at the Tivoli Theatre at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.
“Basie came in town and had to do a concert,” Derrick Gardner said. “The great Chicago trumpeter Sonny Cohn recommended my dad.”
In 1963, Mr. Gardner got a master’s degree in music from Roosevelt University.
He taught music at Harlan High School, Dunbar Vocational and Kenwood Academy.
He performed with his Soul Crusaders, a house band at the old Regal Theater. One night, they watched a new group enthrall the Regal audience — the Jackson Five.
The Soul Crusaders also were featured on a family record label. Mr. Gardner and his brother Walter — who owned Gardner’s One Stop record shop, 746 E. 75th St. — started three labels: Down to Earth, Lamarr and More Soul.
In 1975, Mr. Gardner enrolled at Michigan State University, his son said, where he got a master’s degree in educational administration and a doctorate in music education.
He landed a teaching job at Norfolk State University in Virginia, Derrick Gardner said, then taught at California State University, Fullerton.
In 1983, he performed in the orchestra at the “Motown 25” special, with an electrifying performance by Michael Jackson.
That year, Mr. Gardner released “Music-Year 2000.”
“It was one of the first smooth jazz records,” his son said.
Returning to Chicago, he taught at Governors State University, where he directed the jazz band. He performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival with his orchestra, Burgess Gardner’s Well-Oiled Jazz Machine.
Mr. Gardner was an immaculate dresser and fine cook. “His apricot pound cake was ridiculous,” Derrick Gardner said.
Mr. Gardner is also survived by his sons Vincent, a trombonist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and Lamarr, daughter Marian, brother Thurman, former wives Effie Gardner and Barbara Gardner and four grandchildren. Services have been held.
He always felt strongly about fair pay for musicians. He’d experienced being underpaid and cheated, so he paid band members on time and in full, Derrick Gardner said.
Mr. Gardner told his students music could mean independence, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald. “I did not have to ask my parents for money because I played this horn,” he said. “If you practice your instrument, it will take care of you.”