Don GardnerDon Gardner:
Full Interview

Recorded 3/05. Please be patient as media loads.

TaNeeka: So could you just tell us first, I guess, a little about your position here at the Clef Club, what you do basically?

Don Gardner: Well, I used to be the President, but now I’m facility manager. I oversee everything that goes on here. You know, from checking the bathrooms is clean, make sure they clean, to making sure the contracts are signed when people rent the place and then make sure the place is up and running...So I do a little bit of everything...when I’m here.

TaNeeka: Play a little music yourself too or no?

Don Gardner: No, no, I had completely retired until nineteen..., till two thousand one. And they called me in from Europe and I went over there, so now I’m back, back doing it, but I hadn’t done it in about forty years I guess.

TaNeeka: What do you play?

Don Gardner: Drums and sing, but all I do now is sing. I don’t play no drums. [Group laughs]

TaNeeka: No drums anymore?

Don Gardner: Drums are out. I stopped because it too much to carry around. I’m too old for that...But as far as that, that’s about it.

George: Do you guys [referring to the group of students] want to have him like give a little bit..., like I found a bunch of different groups and stuff that you’ve been in, do you mind giving us just a...

Don Gardner: I had been in?

George: Uh...what? [Group laughs] I don’t know! I found a Don Gardner.

Don Gardner: Yeah.

George: Is that not you?

Don Gardner: Yeah.

George: That is you!

Don Gardner: Yeah.

George: Okay!

Don Gardner: Oh, you went online?

George: I went online. [Group laughs] I saw Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford. Okay, I also saw the Sonotones.

Don Gardner: Yeah.

George: And that you worked with Jimmy Smith, and I just wanted you to possibly give us just like a breakdown of when your music career started, how you began and...

Don Gardner: Well, I started when I was seventeen.

George: Okay.

Don Gardner: I ain’t going to say how far back that was, but it was back before any of you were thought of.

George: I could probably figure it out. [Group laughs]

Dottie Smith (l) with Don Gardner (r)
Don Gardner: And Dottie Smith taught me how to play cocktail drum, which is the drum I’m playing on here [passes around pamphlet]. Now that’s from back in nineteen forty something, I think. [Nineteen] forty-whatever. [Group laughs] And then I started the group called the Three Bachelors. But in the meantime, I was singing with the Jimmy Shorter’s Band. And I was singing with a group called Boddie Blue Flames. Singing all over the place, just having a ball. When I first started though, I used to sneak into clubs to sing; I was only sixteen. I used to sneak into clubs, sing and go back out. I couldn’t stay in them ’cause I was too young. And, uh, I just kept at it. And then I started my own group about [nineteen] forty-nine, which was Three Bachelors; I had Jimmy Smith on piano and a fella named Outcast on the saxophone. And at that time we sang harmony and played the instruments, but I was playing the cocktail drums.

George: What year was that?

Don Gardner: [Nineteen] forty-nine, going into [nineteen] fifty.

George: I see. This was all in Philadelphia?

Don Gardner: Yeah, this was all in Philly! And uhh, then we went from the piano to the organ, and then I added Darnell Schwartz. That’s when I changed the name to The Sonotones. And we traveled all over the place...Excuse me [interview paused while Don Gardner answers a cell phone call]

Don Gardner: So I started The Sonotones and we begin to travel up and down the east coast. We played in all the, what I’d call, the ‘Chitlin’ Circuits,’ which was all black clubs. Then...[interview paused while Don Gardner answers another cell phone call] But I was making records starting in [nineteen] forty-nine. My first record was made with Gotham Records. And Doc Bagby, which was a local organ player, he was producing at the time. Umm, and I been making records up until maybe five years ago. You know, I wasn’t doing it, not to do records to be doing something, but ahh I’ve had some records that did very well for me. I went to Europe, went to South America, umm...went all over the country and traveled with the Rock n’ Roll shows or the Rhythm & Blues shows; Sam Cooke and the Drifters, and umm the Shirelle’s, all the Motown acts. And we did that, we did that uhh until I decided to stop really. And that was nineteen seventy. But I still kept recoding. That’s why there is so many records out there, some of them I don’t even remember.

George: Yeah, some of the bigger ones I of your biggest ones is “Need Your Lovin’”

Don Gardner: Yeah, that was [nineteen] sixty-two.

George: And then there’s Don and Dee Dee from Sweden?

Don Gardner: Yeah, that was [nineteen] sixty-five. And then we did, me and Baby Washington, did an album. That was in, I guess [nineteen] sixty-nine. Then I did some stuff in Chicago; for a friend of mine, when it came out, I didn’t even know it was out.

“Need Your Lovin’” original album cover.
That’s how I ended up in Europe...I had a hit record and I didn’t even know about it, so I had to go see it. [Group laughs]

Jennifer: What was the difference between the Philly jazz scene, versus said you traveled up and down the east coast? Was it like a difference in the atmosphere or the people or...?

Don Gardner: No, because we all had organ groups. Doc Bagby, Shirley Scott, Hershey [inaudible], Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, and when Lockjaw left you had Stanley Turntine. So it was...we would just follow each group. Each group would almost run into each other, going from Pittsburgh to Buffalo to Syracuse, New York to Newark to Philly to Baltimore to Washington. It was just a circuit. And you could work all year in these circuits. And all these organ groups just followed. And it was just about the same thing everywhere you went ’cause people were into organ groups at the time, you know. And ahh, some of them played jazz, some of them played what you would call rhythm and blues, and some of them just played, you know, everything. But that was the time when music was music and songs were songs. Today it’s a whole different thing.

Jennifer: In the jazz scene or just music in general?

Don Gardner: Music in general.

Jennifer: Oh.

Don Gardner: You know, jazz had a thing were nobody knew what they were doing because they were changing it. That’s when Dizzy Gillespie and all them started playing. And that changed the sound of jazz. You know, and jazz has changed to another level now. But that smooth jazz...I’m not talking about that ’cause that’s not jazz.

Jennifer: So what do you..what like...yeah, I’ve heard that from a few people. Like what do you consider authentic jazz? Like what is it about it that makes it so real?

Don Gardner: Well, number one, Anita Baker is not a jazz singer. Uhh, and a bunch of other singers you hear on smooth jazz, they’re not jazz singers. They’re basically song stylists because when you here them, you know who they are. The rap groups, half the time you hear them, you don’t know who’s who because they all sound alike! The beat is the same, they sound the same. When I came up and you heard a Dinah Washington record, you didn’t have to guess who that was. You knew that was Dinah Washington. When you heard Sarah Vaughn, you didn’t have to guess who that was. You knew it was Sarah Vaughn. Today, you don’t know who’s doing what. I’ll put it this way...I don’t know! You know, when I listen to the radio, if somebody said that was...I wouldn’t know because I don’t listen to it. When I do listen to it, it sounds like the same thing over and over and over. But the media and the people that own the stations just feed it to them. And...I could make you a hit if I had the radio stations to keep playing it. And it could be junk. If I play it long enough, people will buy it. That’s how fickle people are.

George: I have a question actually, ’cause when I looked you up, I usually like, when I try to find out different things about music, I go to a certain site; it’s called It’s pretty like accredited music site run by like BMJ [inaudible] MGM label, and it had you listed as like Don Gardner, loosely associated with Dee Dee Gardner, under R&B?

Don Gardner: Dee Dee Ford?

George: Yeah, Dee Dee Ford [chuckles]. It had you listed as an R&B, umm, like type blues singer, and I was interested because I guess Mother Dot gave us to you as like another jazz musician and I know I’d also found out other things where you had been jazz. And I wanted to know where you made the transition from doing something that was more jazz-oriented to something that was more rhythm and blues, and how you see rhythm and you saw that like change over, I guess, like the early [nineteen] sixties, late [nineteen] fifties and how it changed since then?

Don Gardner: Well, number one, I started off singing gospel. Then, when I decided to go into the music thing, it was jazz...the same jazz. [inaudible] Dizz and all of them, they were doing what was supposed to be done, so that’s where I went. But when I found out I wasn’t that good doing it...I mean, we played it and it was good, but we didn’t have that niche that made us outstanding where people wanted to buy it. So I found out singing in the rhythm and blues field, I could make money. It was all about making money. At least for me! [Group laughs] When you get a family and start having kids, you got to make money. So jazz, I might have starved to death, but with rhythm and blues, I made a beautiful living. And that’s what it’s about. Jazz changed mainly when people started going to clubs and listening to records.

George: So you are saying that people didn’t really listen to as many jazz records...?

Don Gardner: Hey, once they started going to and paying five dollars to come in the club and listen to the same records they had at home, I never could understand that, but that’s what they did. All of a sudden in the [nineteen] seventies, people were running to the clubs and paying to dance to the stuff that’s in the jukeboxes. And that’s how they started having DJs in the clubs. So what it boils down to is if you are a club owner and you can pack your joint at five dollars a head and don’t have to pay nobody...just have someone play records, you’re going to hire a band? No. It’s economics. And well, he would know about that [points to Karon who has a finance concentration]. It’s economics. It’s a matter of survival. You got to pay bills and all that kind of stuff. And that hurt live music.

George: It’s mostly jazz?

Don Gardner: Yeah. And the other thing is, blacks has never supported their own music...whitey does. If it wasn’t for whitey, jazz wouldn’t even been going on today. Ahh, blues wouldn’t be going on today. You know, every club you go in, if it’s a blues act there, you’re going to find 90 % white.

George: That’s true.

Don Gardner: And you say why? I haven’t the slightest idea because it’s your music. And none of us go to see it. You know, it’s sickening to me, but that’s the way it is. And that’s why a lot of acts go to Europe, because they can make a living. You can’t make a living here unless you have a big record and you’re big, you know. But for the average cat that wants to make a living at it, this ain’t it. It’s sad, but that’s the way it goes...and it’s all about the bottom line. I hate to put it that way, but that’s the way it is. And I didn’t make it that way, but that’s the way it is.

TaNeeka: When you talk about blacks not attending these blues concerts, are you talking about in the past or are you talking about the present, today?

Don Gardner: Even today, sweetheart, even today. If you put BB King, who is supposed to be the biggest black Blues singer in the world, and Bobby Blanton, and a few other ones together, and put them down at the Wachovia, you stand there and watch who comes to see them. You would see thousands of whiteys and a speck of blacks. [Group laughs] It sounds frightening, but it’s the truth. And guess what? They will sing what they hear because they know it. They will sing the roles...and act like they’re black, just carrying on. And the black people looking at them saying, ‘What’s wrong with them?’ It’s sad, but that’s what it is. And you know...I have no answer for it. But I have seen that in
...the young cats are really getting into jazz and they’re playing. And I don’t think jazz will ever die because young people [are] still experimenting and looking and trying to find new ways to do things.
the past I’d say twenty years I’ve been on the road. I’ve gone like to New Orleans to go to clubs...whitey. Blacks up there playing and white people go to concerts...same thing. You go meet George Benson and go to his concert, eighty percent white. What can I tell you? Now, y’all young, maybe y’all can change it. But I can’t. I’m too old for it now...but it’s sad that we don’t know about our own people’s music. Now, I have one good thing that I see here that the young cats are really getting into jazz and they’re playing. And I don’t think jazz will ever die because young people still experimenting and looking and trying to find new ways to do things. And they getting away from the electronic everything. They are going back...they want to hear the bass player and they want to hear the drums. They want to hear the trumpet, and all that electronic stuff they are getting away from slowly, but surely. But nowadays, you can make a record at home in your basement just pushing buttons.

George: What type of musician would you consider yourself?

Don Gardner: Me?

George: Yeah. Like if you were asked, what do you say? Like I’m a jazz musician or I’m an R&B singer? When did you like most enjoy your career?

Don Gardner: When I was making good money and that was in R&B. [Group laughs] I’m serious though.

George: So you consider yourself an R&B singer?

Don Gardner: Yeah...more so than jazz. I’m known most for rhythm and blues, and most of my friends in the business are rhythm and blues. Most of the jazz friends I had have died. You know, Jimmy Smith and Lockjaw and all them I used to travel with on the road, most of them are dead. But I still have a pretty nice number of rhythm and blues artists that I still keep in touch with. But that was the time when I made good money, so I would have to go along with that. I was never really known as a fantastic jazz artist. I was known as rhythm and blues artist or just a song stylist or something like that.

George: What is a song stylist?

Don Gardner: A song stylist is a person that interprets the music, and every time you hear them you know its them because you know how they interpret something. Frank Sinatra was a song stylist.

George: I see. It’s like taking standards and making it your own?

Don Gardner: Yeah. You can take anything, but when you hear it, and they do it, you know it’s them. ’cause you know what their phrasing is and what their whatever...You got to know it when you hear it. And that is what you call a song stylist. At least, that’s what I call a song stylist and most people do. But when you hear a singer, a singer is a person that can sing anything and don’t necessarily sound like themselves doing it. You know, like Aretha singing opera. But one thing about Aretha, you know that’s Aretha singing opera from the way she does it. But there are some singers that can sing anything; they’re just singers. What you give to them, they’ll sing it. They will sing it their way, but they don’t deviate from the melodies and stuff. They try to stay right where the person that wrote it did it. A song stylist will take it and read it and then try to interpret it and try to figure out what the fellow was saying or woman was saying when she wrote it and what she was trying to convey. And then try to express that. That’s the difference between the two. I mean, that’s my opinion, I might be wrong. But you can tell...when a person sings a song and it moves you, then you know that that person has thought about it, either lived part of it, or got something from it.

TaNeeka: So what kind of criteria are you using to distinguish between a jazz artist and an R&B artist? Is it simply the sound or is it like the originality?

Don Gardner: No, it’s what they do. Like a jazz artist, you’ll know it’s a jazz artist by the way they improvise and what they do with the melody and what they do off the melody. You know...rhythm and blues people, they have a set thing the way they do it, and that’s it. But a jazz artist will take a rhythm and blues tune and you’ll hear the first part but after that, he gone about his business with it. And you know it’s the tune, but the way he is playing it doesn’t sound like the tune. Because he improvised and he creates while he is playing. You can tell that most jazz artist when they get on stage, most of them don’t know what they’re going to play. You go see a jazz artist tonight and he will play the same song tonight and play it a set later or two sets later and it doesn’t sound like the same song. I mean the rhythm of getting into it does, but after that it’s a whole different ball game because he is constantly looking for something. You know, most musicians like that, they looking for something and only they know what they are looking for. You have no way of knowing it, but they know what they are looking for, but they never find it.
Most jazz artists are never satisfied. You find a jazz artist say he satisfied, something’s wrong because most jazz artists are always looking, always searching for something because they’re never satisfied.
Most jazz artists are never satisfied. You find a jazz artist say he satisfied, something’s wrong because most jazz artists are always looking, always searching for something because they’re never satisfied.

Georgette: I actually have a quick question. Umm, I looked online, umm, a little bit of the history about the Clef Club. And I noticed that you have a lot of different classes that you offer to the general public. And one of them is the Theory in Syncopation class. I was wondering could you tell us a little bit about if I were to actually attend that class, what are some of the things I would learn and what exactly Syncopation is?

Don Gardner: Syncopation is...the class, I don’t teach the class. Leon does it. He is head of the Nascent of Jazz Orchestra. We found that kids were having trouble reading music and knowing how to sway from one tempo to another and the syncopation between the two, not getting it together where it flows. And that’s what he teaches them. He teaches how...if you hear a tune on the radio sometimes, they from one thing, then they go to a waltz, and they go to a tango then they’s all the matter of getting that syncopation together to switch and its segway from one to the other. And that’s what it’s about, basically.

Georgette: And how does that incorporate into jazz? Is that with improvisation?

Don Gardner: It incorporates into jazz ’cause jazz players do that. You know, they just seem to do it automatically. They just seem to...They playing atnd the drummer decides he wants to go somewhere and he go there, and everybody follows him. You know, but when it’s written, you can look at the paper and see its written, but then how do you interpret what you see, And that means you got to really think about it and keep playing it and trying until you finally feel it flows. And you get the syncopation together. It’s a matter of the beat and the structure of the beats.

George: I have another question actually. Who do you consider to be like a promising R&B artist today and what do you think of the state of R&B today?

Don Gardner: R&B... now I have to tell you, I don’t listen to the radio. So if there are new artists out there, I wouldn’t know who it is. I’ve heard some artists I like and don’t even know their names, I just like what they were doing. But the state of R&B is in a flux because the powers that be don’t play it. There’s a lot of good artists out there, that would maybe become very big if they could get their music played. A lot of artists now got their own record companies, which is beautiful. So they’re controlling everything, which is good. But they can’t get the records played ’cause they don’t control any radio stations. We don’t own any radio stations that we control, not to the extent that we listen to them. Most of our stations are talk stations that blacks own, its not playing music. And I could understand it because there is a whole lot of stuff to talk about. You know, just to try and get us to get our heads together. Years ago, I used to do record promotion for Curtis Mayfield, and I would just go in the station with Curtis’s record, give it to somebody and it was on the air before I even got out the door. You can’t do that today because somebody in California programs thirty stations. That’s why they all sound the same.

Georgette: This is an aside, ’cause I am actually, um, a big fan of Curtis Mayfield. Ah, did you work with him when he was doing the Superfly soundtrack?

Don Gardner: Yes, I was with him when he made it. I stopped playing music to move to Atlanta to help him remodel his house, and I was with him for about five years. When he did Superfly and when he did Claudine and everything. We didn’t think it was going to be that big, but it really did it. That’s odd to hear a young person say they’re a Superf---, a Curtis Mayfield fan.

Georgette: I mean, I grew up on that stuff. I mean, I’m a little, I mean, I’m young but I grew up on that stuff.

Don Gardner: Yeah, I know what you mean. You heard it in the house so...

Georgette: Yeah, and I’ve also seen it when I was little. I’ve seen Superfly...

Don Gardner: Oh okay. Yep.

George: So I guess I’m kind of interested in, because I do a lot of like recording. So I’m interested in how like sound recording, you know like going into the studio and putting down a record, like, how it changed, because it seemed like you said you put out a lot of records that I may not have seen. How did you become a producer, I assume, or did you start off as a tech?

Donald: I just produced stuff we did, I didn’t become like a hit producer for other people, but I had big conversations with people, ’cause when I started in the record business, we made our record on a wire, one little thin wire, you know, back in the, back in the [nineteen] forties and you made your records and everybody got in the room and everyone sat down and the cat in the other room said “ok, let’s go”, and you just played, and then he did whatever he did and then he played it back from the one wire. Nowadays, they got thirty-six tracks, bonus tracks, and they put all this stuff down, but when it comes out on the CD, on the record, it’s only going to be two tracks. What happens to all that other stuff they did? You know what I’m saying? I used to ask Curtis, he had thirty people, strings and oboes, like, what happened to that? He said you feel it, it’s in there, but I don’t hear it, [but he said] you can feel it. To me that’s just a waste of money, to me. You know, but they do it, and peoples out there take a year to record an album, that’s ridiculous. [Group laughs]

George: How long do you think it should take?

Donald: Don’t you think it’s ridiculous to cut an album in a year? I mean they spend hours, days and nights. I mean come on. We used to cut an album in two days, tops. [Group laughs]

George: Did you do everything once though with no takes? Like you did one take of that?

Donald: I was normally done in two takes.

George: You’re done in two takes, and that’s it? That’s ridiculous!

Donald: Yeah, it don’t take that long.

George: That’s out of control, to be done in only two takes.

Donald: I know people who used to take, to go inside and sing the song once and walk out. [Group laughs] If you know what you’re doing, you go do it.

George: I guess people are too perfection-oriented these days.

Donald: Hey, he sold thousands of records and people still love his music, because he knew what he was doing and he knew how to sing it. The arrangements was there, and the people to play, and they got good musicians to play it. You know, one or two takes, that was it, if he did that! You weren’t going to take twenty or thirty takes, back and forth.

George: I feel like it’s more the producer’s fault. I would say, as an artist I would never want to be in the studio taking more than four to five takes.

Donald: It’s all about money, they just waste money. Anytime it takes someone $100,000 to cut a CD that’s ridiculous. But money doesn’t mean anything today. You know, they spend it like it ain’t nothing. I wish they would give me a couple $100,000, I’d take most of it home and still got the record.

Georgette: Do you find it...I know that you have a couple of classes, umm, either for senior citizens or you have senior citizens that actually teach some of the classes to some of the young adults. Do you find it difficult, I mean as far as the young adults being responsive to them?

Donald: No, what we have is, uhh, mentors like. If there’s a saxophone player, he’ll have a senior or an older work with him and play together, and we find that if they listen, they can learn something. The only reason why we do good in the music thing is because we have kids coming from the colleges come here. And the main reason is we have musicians that have worked as a musician. See in colleges and things, they have teachers who went to college and learned by the book, but they haven’t really went out and played. They haven’t been up and down the road starving and all that kind of stuff, you know? They’ve had it good, so they go out and try to teach, but a cat that has been out there, and been going through the mud and all that kind of stuff, when he teaches, he teaches what he knows and he learned it from experience from living it. And when you live something, you teach it with more enthusiasm then somebody that went to school and learned it. It’s a big difference. So we have that more here than in most places in town. And it’s the same thing I learned, because the first time I went to Jazz Educators Convention, it’s been about eight years now, and when I got there all I saw was white faces, and I was thoroughly upset. Thoroughly upset. I mean, I could not understand this. There’s probably like ten thousand people and maybe six hundred blacks. I mean, they came from around the world. But, they had black stars like Clark Terry, and the piano player Billy Taylor and all of them [musicians] that the whiteys know upfront. I jumped all over them niggas. [Group laughs] They was through with me. I’m serious, you know, they’re teachers, but come on. Now they are trying to change, the history of jazz. And if you look out, ten years from now, you won’t hear a black name that started jazz. Watch what I tell you! Put it down, because if you watch, you’ll see the change. Even Downbeat is talked about, and Downbeat made money off blacks ever since there’s been a Downbeat. That’s all they wrote about, was black artists. I can’t think of the white cat’s name from back in the day, he had a band, and somebody said they were playing jazz, and now all of a sudden they are trying to change it and say that he started jazz. So, you can forget get about Hammy and everybody else. Give them time.

George: What did you think of Ken Burn’s series on jazz?

Don Gardner: I thought it was good, but not complete. He missed a lot of people, but at least he tried to tell the story. I think that the story should be told by a black that’s kept up with it and knows about it. But I give him credit ’cause he did tell the story. At least some of it got out.

George: What parts would he have missed?

Don Gardner: It’s just different artists that I know that he had missed. I can’t think of them right now, but when I saw and I looked at it to my time, and he hit on the same people that everybody knows. But there’s some people that are back there that had a lot to do with it. They didn’t become as big as Satchmo [Louis Armstrong] and the different ones, you know, ’cause Satchmo had somebody that he dug when you start going back. But, [Burn’s] couldn’t cover it all, but I’m just happy that at least somebody put something out. So now you can say “Well, here’s part of it” He had us in there so. If somebody really starts looking into the real history and goes back to New Orleans to the archives down there and check all those names, you’d see names you’ve never heard of and that he didn’t have in there, but their influence on jazz was pretty well. But that would take a lot of searching and looking but it’s out there somewhere, you’d just have to find it. But I think that what he did was good. I mean, he did it well, but I just felt that he missed some people. Somebody else’s supposed to be doing another one now and adding more people to it. I heard that he was supposed to go back in and revise parts. I think he’s going to add some people or whatever. I just heard that but I don’t know if it’s true or not. But I enjoyed it. It brought a lot of memories back really, of some people that I knew personally. But, ahh, it was good. Anything is good if you tell a story, I ain’t going to say even if it ain’t right, but at least you tell something. Because before people saw that, they didn’t know nothing. But I tell you this, if you go overseas, they got more stuff than that, and they can really show you some stuff. They keep...listen, I went over there and they were telling me what kind of draws I had on. That’s how much they knew about me that I didn’t know. [Group laughs] They been keeping things through the years. Everything they see written, they pull it out of the papers. And all the papers from over here, they get them and they read on everything. And the people that keep records of stuff, they got it and they can tell you about everything. They know who you played with, “Who was on the session?” I don’t know who was on the session...they were just musicians. I went to the studio, did it, got my money, and went about my business. I don’t remember who was in the session. “Well, who was on bass?” I don’t know. Frankly, I’m ashamed that I didn’t keep up more with the things I did and kept things. I mean, when you’re doing it, you don’t keep up. Between your friends taking it and your family giving it away, you don’t think about it.

Jennifer: When you were talking about the white people kind of taking over, Mother Dot was talking about the same sort of thing with the union or whatever, and how the Philly scene was like predominantly black at first, but then like a lot of white people came and took it over...could you just like talk about that a little?

Don Gardner: Back in the [nineteen] thirties the union was segregated. They only had a white union and the black couldn’t get in. And the people that started our local, they kept on insisting and insisting until they finally said “Okay, let’s give these black folks a charter.” So they gave us a charter and uhh, the men that started the union started with like some twenty-five cats and they ended up with something like fifteen hundred. And a lot whites joined our local, but we couldn’t join their local. And then when they decided to desegregated, instead of them making the whites come to us, they made us go to the whites. But we had a building, we had a bar and all that kind of stuff. The whites had a room. And they thought they was going to get the bar and the building when they merged, but we got rid of [the bar and the building] two years before they merged ’cause we started the Clef Club as a social arm. So we turned everything to the social arm for a dollar. Our building, our license, everything. All they got was members, and half the members didn’t go there. They went to New York, Jersey, Delaware. [Nineteen] sixty-seven is when they took out charter. From nineteen thirty-three to sixty-seven. Our union was swelling. Everybody who came to town came down to jam and carry on. Right down the street on Broad Street, two blocks down between Christian and Catherine. You know where the McDonald’s is...that lot right next to that. That’s where the union was.

George: I’m not really sure how unions when you guys were getting gigs, did you use them to get certain amenities?

Don Gardner: The union people would come on the job, you had to pay your dues. And they come and you had to give them a percentage. When people come through town, they would have to pay to play here. And that was every town in the country. The only thing the union does now is when you play in the theatres or if you go to the Kimmel Center and people come in, then they would have to have their union cards and all that junk. But years ago, if you played a club or anywhere in town they came. The black union took care of all the black clubs in town, and some of the whites, where blacks played. But the white union was mainly for the symphonic orchestra and anytime someone comes to the Earl Theatre, used to be downtown, or anyplace that a lot of people come then that’s where they would be. But it is not as strong as it used to be. They used to close the club down if you didn’t pay. They would have your gas cut off, electric cut off everything. The union was something else back in the day. When the unions merged it hurt a lot of things. Frankly, desegregation hurt a lot of blacks, whether they want to admit it or not. A lot of businesses had went under once they desegregated. Cause then blacks could go to other places to buy stuff. Before you had to go to your own to buy stuff. Now you could go anywhere so that hurt in that respect. But that’s life.

TaNeeka: Clef Club emerged as a place for blacks to have their own building dedicated to jazz because you’re used to seeing jazz being played in like bars.

Don Gardner: Well the clef club started off as a social arm for the union. In other words, we had like, to get the license, well we had the license but then they were giving us trouble so we started the social arm, and there was gentleman smart enough to figure that sooner or later they might have to give up their charter, ya know, so they put everybody that was in the union in the clef club, all the union members became owners of the clef club. So when they merged the owners just moved their stuff and went about their business. We sold the building and everything, they ain’t get nothing. But, uh, what happened, we had jazz singers every weekend in the union building, and it was nothing to see Duke Ellington sitting up there playing the piano or Count Basie or anybody—if they were in town, like if they were at Earl Theater, when they got off they came down there. Cause we had some chicks in their cooking chicken and chitterlings, and getting down, potato salad and stuff. And that’s where they would be, all them new musicians from out of town, that’s where they hung out, so the whites would come too and that was thing, cause you could play all night, you know, you could play all night cause it was a private room, that’s what it was. That went on for years.

George: What years were those?

Don Gardner: We started the Clef Club in, well the Union had its name and we were doing it in the Union Hall, started and we got our license in 38, that’s the first time we had the license, and we still got those licenses, all we did was change the license from “The Musicians Union” to “The Clef Club.” So we had license since 1937 and we still have that same license. It’s beautiful. But this building this was a grant, some body grant and built this building for us. And they built it to how we want it basically. We thought we’d have more room but we ended up with less room. But when somebody’s giving you something you can’t holler. So that’s the story about the building. The William Penn Foundation built it for us.

Karon: Was there anybody like, when you were younger that influenced you or that you looked up to?

Don Gardner: Oh lord yes, Billy Epstein was one of my closest, Dark Bagby and Bill Darget was two others. And that’s just because they, years ago, ya know if they saw you trying they’d help if they could. They’d sit down and rehearse with you or if you’re doing something Billy joe Jones. I taught myself to play the drums, so I wasn’t even taught ya know. And he came in there one night, and I didn’t have a sock cymbal I never played so I never bought one. So he brought it in and said I’ll be back tomorrow to get sock cymbal and when he took the sock cymbal I almost couldn’t play it. Just that one night playing that sock cymbal once he showed me how to do it made a complete difference in the sound and the feel so I had to go buy me a sock cymbal so I credit him with that. I didn’t have no sock cymbal I started off standing up playing the drums. So people like that. Like Louis Garland he used to rehearse with me bout twice a week. He was a jazz pianist; he played with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and all them. But he lived right around the corner, I’d go in their and be in their hours. Just going thru the flipbook and all the songs ya know because it helped him and it helped me. It helped me get the tune together and it helped him playing the tune, so it was like helping each other. But it was ______ which was good.

Georgette: I have a question. I was just wondering, I know that you were saying smooth jazz isn’t exactly authentic jazz. Do you have the same opinion about Latin jazz and groups and people like Tito Puente?

Don Gardner: No. No. They’re expressing their form of jazz. And frankly Dizzy Gillespie started it, putting the Latin beat in the jazz. It’s jazz because even today they’re improvising and trying new things. But when I say smooth jazz, smooth jazz, when I listen to smooth jazz, I hear all kinds of singers that you know are not jazz singers, and they’ll tell you they’re not jazz singers. Why am I calling it smooth jazz and they’re not jazz singers.

Georgette: So you would say Latin jazz is more authentic versus smooth jazz... to begin with?

You don’t where [the musicians are] going, and what they gonna do, and you can tell that they’re having fun, because jazz is fun, and that’s what made jazz so good, cause people couldn’t sit still with jazz.
Don Gardner: Yeah, I would, definitely. Because they’re playing and you tell when they’re playing and you tell when they’re playing they improvise and if you go to hear them, when they get past the intro to the song, you don’t where they’re going. You don’t where they’re going, and what they gonna do, and you can tell that they’re having fun, because jazz is fun, and that’s what made jazz so good, cause people couldn’t sit still with jazz. They had to move their feet or something because cats of the bandstand look like they having fun with all the racket you had fun, so it was a happy thing, an exciting thing. Some people you go and that’s why when they bring good people, you get that feeling and it’s close. Another thing about jazz. Jazz was always good in tight places. Tight places where you couldn’t get by and you had to go like this to get by, and the smoke and all that made jazz, the smaller the better. You ain’t got no questions?

Marcel: Yes...

Don Gardner: Come on wit it.

Marcel: What was your favorite or like the best record that you made?

Don Gardner: My best record. A record called “son my son”. Son my son. I love ballads. But I never had a hit, I had a nice ballad but I never had a hit ballad like “I need you love,” and I though that was they worse record I had in my life.

George: You can still buy it online, I was looking at it.

Don Gardner: I know, listen somebody paid somebody paid 7,000 dollars, no 13,000 dollars for one of my records. And I didn’t make a penny.

TaNeeka: What! How’s that possible? How?

Don Gardner: Number one, I never knew the record was out. That’s to start off with. He’s a record collector, and that’s an original. I never even seen the label. He paid 13,000 dollars for it. When I was in Europe, this last month, he asked me to sign. So I said well if I sign, that means that you could sell it for 20,000 dollars right. He said yeah, so I don’t know if I should sign it or not, I ain’t made a penny yet. I signed it, you know. But you can’t say nothing, somebody wanted from somewhere. And that’s what made me go Europe because somebody else paid 7,000 dollars another record of mine. And I wanted to go find out what is this all about. And I don’t have one of em and that the one he got I never seen. He showed it to me but I never seen it. I heard about it once I was in Europe but I never heard about it. I had to learn the song cause I had never sang it, I only recorded it. I recorded it for a friend of mine and the years he’s been talking bout he had to do this to it but I forgot about it. But he’s dead. He died ten years ago, so he never knew how big the record got. That’s the way the business goes, and you can’t cry over it, what’s done is done.

TaNeeka: You can sue.

Don Gardner: Sue who? He’s dead. And he wrote the song, so it’s his song.

TaNeeka: [I know that the mission of the Clef Club is to further the level art] and the culture within the community, and besides the classes that you offer, how are you guys doing that and how effective do you think you’ve been?

Don Gardner: Well, lately we haven’t been doing too much, but we getting ready to get back to it. We go out to the nursing- senior citizens and play, we’re planning a series of preservation, a jazz series, we plan on doing it in the parks all over the city. And go to Camden and Delaware really, uh, and that’s the way you have to do it, you have to just make yourself available when people need something and go do it. And we send musicians out to play at schools, and do seminars at schools, and all that kind of stuff. Trying to tell children the history of the music, uh, and uh, Mr. Hines, who is our educational director, when he takes people out, he makes sure that they understand who they talking about, and he asks questions about them to see who they might know play jazz. And it’s surprising, some of the kids do know. They heard about Duke Ellington, they heard about Kyle Basey, so somebody’s telling somebody something, which is good. All we trying to do is keep that thing going anyway we can, it’s not easy, but that’s what we trying to do. And trying to teach these kids- you know- it got to a point that musicians were just playing and didn’t know what they were playing, and didn’t know their horns ’cause they didn’t take time. And we are trying to show these kids that you got to learn your instruments, you got to know your instruments, you got to...and make it a part of you. You get your instruments and make it a part of you, and that’s when you can do it. Don’t let your instrument just be an instrument, make it a part of you. To some of them, it’s getting to them, and if that keeps going, then they’ll pass it on. That’s the only way you can do it.

TaNeeka: [To Stefan] You got a question?

Stefan: The only question I was going to ask, or probably ask, was what are some of the biggest names that have actually played at the Clef Club itself?

Don Gardner: Jimmy Smith, Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, Al Grey, Bill Darget, uh, Gloria Lynn, uh...what’s the boy, that New York cat?...not Renton Marcellus, the other one...Bradford Marcellus, he’s been here. Coltrane’s son, he’s been here, uh, who else? There’s been some others, Jimmy Heath and the Heath brothers have been here, uh, and the [inaudible] That’s all I can think of right now. Oh...Donald Bird, Donald’s been here, Shirley Scott’s been here, Stanley Turntine’s been here, uh, the bass player, Clark, something Clark. I can’t think of his first name but the last name is Clark, played bass, he’s been here...

Georgette: Stanley Clark, Stanley Clark maybe?

Don Gardner: Yeah, that’s who he is. And um the Sunrye Band has been here, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble has been here, McCoy Tyner’s been here, George Benson has been here. That’s all I can think of right now.

Georgette: But George Benson...I mean they play a lot of his songs on smooth jazz...

Don Gardner: I know...still ain’t jazz, except the instrumentals, they’re jazz.

Georgette: Okay.

Don Gardner: But the vocals are not jazz.

Georgette: Okay.

Don Gardner: Oh yeah, Jack McDuff has been here...Jack, Joey DiFrancesco. Mostly organ players have been here. And we had the organ jammin’ like that through the years,

Georgette: But what does um—sorry to interrupt—what does Donald Bird play?

Don Gardner: Trumpet.

Georgette: Okay.

Don Gardner: He had the Black Birds, I think they were called or something like that.

Georgette: Yeah, and I also think he collaborated with Guru from GangStarr from Jazzmatazz...I don’t know if you know them.

Don Gardner: He might have. He’s always doing something with young people so. And he’s a professor. I think he’s down in Delaware.

Georgette: Oh, okay.

Don Gardner: Okay.

Everyone: Thank you!