Greg Tardy playing saxophone

Full Circle

One day last year, Greg Tardy, associate professor of jazz saxophone, was working out at the gym when he received an unexpected call. It was totally out of the blue, but it was a call he had been waiting for his entire adult life–an invitation to join famed jazz musician and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on tour.

The good news didn’t stop there, as he was also able to play and record a duo record with renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell last year.

For Tardy, this was a dream come true.

“I consider it a major milestone. Wynton is one of the greatest living jazz musicians and is definitely the most influential jazz musician of the late 20th century,” said Tardy, who is a highly esteemed jazz musician in his own right.

Tardy began dreaming of playing with Marsalis in the late 1980s after he moved back to his childhood home of New Orleans to study jazz with Marsalis’s father, Ellis. Tardy came from a musical family and studied classical clarinet in college. His brother told him he needed to check out this one particular record. That’s when everything changed for him. “I remember we were sitting in the basement of my home in Milwaukee. My brother put on Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. And I remember thinking, I don’t understand what they are doing but I know that I want to do that. It felt like home.”

Not an Overnight Success

Tardy packed his bags and headed south with a dream in his heart and determination in his head. At the time, the jazz scene in New Orleans was heating up, and Tardy was committed to learning what he could. He’d practice for eight hours at a time in his apartment that had a cot on the floor and newspapers on the windows.

“I had no furniture. I played on the streets for tips so I could eat and pay rent. I struggled for many years with the goal to get really good and move to New York to get my break,” remembered Tardy.

Over time, Tardy met other up-and-coming jazz superstars and began playing gigs with them in clubs. When he finally got the break he was looking for, it came to him in New Orleans, not New York. Tardy was asked to join the esteemed Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, replacing Ravi Coltrane—John Coltrane’s son. Tardy played with the group for more than two years, touring around the world. He earned enough money to make the move to New York, where he played with Wynton a handful of times as a substitute band member.

“I was never asked to join the band full time. He’s had the same guys for a long time. So, even though I’ve known Wynton for a long time, the opportunity never presented itself to join the band,” said Tardy.

Life on Tour

That is until last fall when Tardy joined Marsalis on a national tour and played in venues like the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater in Los Angeles, one of the country’s largest music venues. The shows featured a tribute to Thelonius Monk (ironically) and Duke Ellington and a collaborative piece with modern dancers called Spaces.

“It was intense and inspiring at the same time,” said Tardy, who played soprano sax, tenor sax, soprano clarinet, and bass clarinet on the tour. “Most of our downtime was spent studying music.”

Despite playing with bands around the world, Tardy says he has never played with a band that “swung that hard before,” noting he wouldn’t have been able to play the music without his background in classical clarinet. “The trumpet section has to be the best in jazz. Everyone in the band was world class.”

The final night of the tour was October 13, 2018, Tardy’s daughter’s birthday. Tardy’s wife and kids drove up to Muncie, Indiana, to hear the performance. At the end of the show, Marsalis surprised Tardy and his family by having the band play a New Orleans second-line version of Happy Birthday, featuring a long solo by Tardy.

“My daughter is still talking about it!” said Tardy with a smile.

Recording His Best Record

Prior to the tour, Tardy had just wrapped up recording the saxophone/guitar duo record More Than Enough with renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. The duo had played together years before and were reunited for the Newvelle Records vinyl recording. Tardy believes it’s some of his best work.

The experience was enlightening for Frisell as well.

“It is a joy playing music with Greg Tardy,” said Frisell. “I don’t really like talking about it or trying to figure out what it is about it that’s so great. I don’t want to break the spell. We enter into the music together and there is a wonderful connection. Always.”

Passing on His Lessons

All these experiences that stretch and strengthen Tardy’s musical muscles also make him a better teacher for his students. He’s inspired. He’s invigorated. And, he can teach them what he’s learned so that maybe they can get that dream call.

“It is an extra blessing when I can pass on wisdom that I’ve received from masters such as Wynton and Bill, Elvin Jones, Andrew Hill, Rasheed Ali, and all of the other jazz greats of the past and present that I have worked with.”

“I had to work very hard to get the information that I have, so it is an extra blessing when I can pass on wisdom that I’ve received from masters such as Wynton and Bill, Elvin Jones, Andrew Hill, Rasheed Ali, and all of the other jazz greats of the past and present that I have worked with,” said Tardy.

After each creative experience, Tardy looks forward to sharing what he’s learned and teaching students what they can expect and what to do and not do, so they can learn from his mistakes.

“It informs me musically, and I can prepare them from my own experiences better than a textbook can,” said Tardy. “And also, quite frankly, I get a burst of energy from them. It’s like putting fertilizer on a plant.”

The ability to have this creative freedom is one of the reasons why Tardy loves working at UT. He’s able to have the best of both worlds—working with students hungry for knowledge and collaborating with his fellow jazz faculty and refining his jazz chops with the best in the world.

Tardy is already dreaming of more collaborations with Wynton and other greats, so he can continue to improve on stage and in the classroom.

Article by Whitney Heins