We who love jazz will go to great lengths to hear the top talent nationally and internationally. We love to hear someone who has performed with the likes of Buddy Rich, Maria Schneider, Woody Herman, Norman Simmons, Clark Terry. Someone who is invited to play with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra would be well worth the flight to New York City. Well, stay home, people! We have Greg Gisbert right here in Denver. Sure, he still travels with Maria Schneider and is a guest artist with other famous jazz musicians. But he’s here to stay (at least for the most part!)
Let’s take a look at Greg and how he reached these heights. He started playing drums with visions of Buddy Rich in his childhood dreams. At age 10, he picked up the cornet and trumpet and dreamed of playing just like Bobby Shew. At some point, someone told him that Buddy Rich hated to play ballads and would routinely give his trumpet player his brushes and leave the bandstand if a ballad was called for. Now Greg had a new dream: to be a trumpet player and for Buddy Rich to hand him his brushes one day. Hold that thought, reader. This was quite a dream.
Greg worked very hard on the trumpet all through high school and was invited into the All-American High School Jazz Band with whom he toured and recorded. He then went off to the Berklee College of Music to hone his skills. This education was interrupted by an opportunity to play trumpet with none other than his idol, Buddy Rich. He grabbed that chance, and, oh, boy, did he get his skills honed. Buddy is famous for being a tough taskmaster, and he rode nineteen-year-old Greg and regularly humiliated him on the stand for every perceived deficiency. Gisbert suffered mightily but recognized the value inherent in this torture and stuck it out. He acquired a hunger for the perfection required by Rich. One day, he had trumpet magic, and he played one of the tunes perfectly. Buddy Rich got up, gave him a big hug (and another threat)—all in front of the audience. He continued to play with this band. In time, he went on to play with Woody Herman’s band at age 21 and 22, with Gary Burton at age 23, with Toshiko Akiyoshi at age 23, the Jimmy Heath Big Band, Frank Wess Big Band, Dizzy Gillespie All Stars, and too many recognizable names to mention over his over 30-year career. During these years, he studied with others who gave him multiple kinds of lessons. From Bobby Shew, he learned how perfect being a lead trumpet in a big band and how not to get cornered into that role but to expand his improvisational gifts so he can also sit in the jazz chair. Shew encouraged him to listen to many varied players and use that knowledge not to play like them but to take what he’s heard and develop his own individual voice. From Clark Terry, he learned plenty of direct musical knowledge but also the importance of being open to others and to teach. This became a way of life for Gisbert.
He has lived in New York and played on Broadway, with numerous big bands, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. I should add that one day, well into his career, due to unusual circumstances, he was playing trumpet next to Buddy Rich when someone requested a ballad. Buddy handed Greg the brushes, and Greg was awestruck that his youthful dream had actually come true!
Well, here we are in 2020, with this superstar among us.
What is he up to here, now, in Colorado? His aspirations have changed since he has achieved those earlier goals. Greg gets his best satisfaction today in education. He teaches music at The University of Northern Colorado. He works with Paul Romaine and several others in Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts (CCJA), a program that makes great music courses and experiences available at very reasonable prices. Most important, he wants to educate his students to the “other side of music,” which means the importance of inclusiveness, to offer to help other musicians, especially those who’ve achieved less, and to be open to giving these folks opportunities to grow. He copped to a plan to actually lead his own big band one day, one which would be the most diverse in atmosphere and players with a commitment to generational diversity. And, apropos of nothing, he’d like to have and maybe train, a rescue puppy!
To hear Greg, watch for Convergence gigs and know that he frequently plays with Denver’s other top bands.