Trombonist Melissa Gardiner has performed with several legendary musicians including Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Geri Allen, Wycliffe Gordon, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Dave Matthews Band, and Vulfpeck. As a bandleader, she has released three albums, Transitions (2011), Second Line Syracuse (2016), and Empowered (2019), which features prominent jazz women Tia Fuller (Beyonce) and Ingrid Jensen.
Gardiner has won several awards as a bandleader including first place at the International Jazz Competition in Bucharest, Romania, and two Syracuse Area Music Awards (SAMMYS) for Best Jazz Album. In addition to an active performance career, Gardiner has teaching credentials at Syracuse University, Le Moyne College, and Cornell University. In the past two years, she was inducted into the Liverpool High School Fine Arts Hall of Fame and into the SAMMY Hall of Fame as Educator of the Year. Gardiner received her BFA from The University of Michigan and MM from The Juilliard School. www.melissamaymusic.com
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Interview with Melissa Gardiner
Chuck Schiele: You’re an accomplished trombone player comfortable in the various traditions of playing your instrument. Please tell us about your approach.
Melissa Gardiner: Thank you! I have been playing trombone since I was 9 years old, and was lucky to have some amazing teachers throughout the years, which helped me establish a strong foundation and then branch out from there. At Liverpool High School, I was a full-on band nerd, and I played in concert band, orchestra, pit orchestra, marching band, jazz band, and even a jazz combo, so I had a really great educational experience that set me up for success.
In undergrad at The University of Michigan, I actually initially went to study classical trombone because I didn’t think I was good enough at jazz to pursue it professionally. Luckily, I had a great support system there and was encouraged to switch to jazz as my major. I started to branch out to other styles, including hip hop, salsa music, and funk while jamming out with the guys who you now know as Vulfpeck, (we played a sold out show at Madison Square Garden last year).
After Michigan, I went to Juilliard to get my masters degree in jazz studies. In NYC, I was pretty hardcore about jazz because I felt that just as classical trombone was a foundation for my trombone technique and helped me succeed in jazz, jazz would be a foundation for all other genres of music. In the past 10 years, I have been playing all styles of music, and feel I have been given the tools to participate in any genre, which can be really rewarding. I also believe being versatile and well rounded is an extremely important key to making music your career.
Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?
Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist or project?
Melissa Gardiner: Music alone can inspire and completely change my mood, so if listening to an artist or project motivates me, I am already convinced. I also look to see if they are on the same page as me in terms of passion, drive, and success. In a business sense, I want to know that it is a professional environment and we are all working towards a concrete idea or result. I don’t have time to aimlessly rehearse or jam out anymore — I have a lot on my plate and I am also balancing family time, so I have to make sure it is an opportunity in every sense of the word.
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your instruments, and the gear associated with them.
Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?
Melissa Gardiner: Absolutely! As soon as I became a mom, everything changed. First of all, it raised the bar significantly in terms of the opportunities I was able to take, and so I had to learn to say no to some things if I didn’t have the time or money to pay a babysitter, etc. What surprised me about this was that it actually created space and opened the door for even bigger things. Also, when I improvise and compose, every song has a story to tell, and that directly comes from life experience.
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you take the stage?
Melissa Gardiner: Ideally, nothing! But of course it depends on the day and the situation. Sometimes I come into a gig with stress or concern about details like the timing of everything, the sound system, the audience turnout, etc. In a perfect world, once the music starts, all that washes away.
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you practice?
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the trombone and music in general?
Melissa Gardiner: First of all, congratulations on picking the best instrument ever! When you are first learning a new instrument, be patient and trust the process. Take it one step at a time and don’t try to get it all at once. Just set one or two goals for the day and then allow yourself to be proud of what you accomplished that day. If you stay consistent, you will make tons of progress in no time!