“My dad was a classically trained pianist who instilled a love of music in all of us,” said Gordon, of herself and her siblings.
Gordon, a jazz pianist and vocalist with Garden City Jazz, organizes the Candlelight Jazz Concert Series at Riverwalk and the Uncommon Jazz festival held annually on Labor Day weekend. She also provides entertainment for the Saturday market downtown and has worked to implement jazz education programs in area libraries and, most recently, in Richmond County schools.
One of the education projects is called Taking Notes: Jazz and the American Story. The project, which is funded by the Richmond County Board of Education, shows high school students the connections between major events in U.S. history and jazz. She and Not Gaddy, a musician and owner of IDRUM2U academy of drumming, work closely on that project.
Gordon also performs with the Augusta Jazz Project’s Intro to Jazz program, which was created by musician Rudy Volkmann for children in grades three through five. It is funded through grants from the Creel Foundation and Queensborough Bank.
“The great thing about this jazz community is that we all play together at some point,” Gordon said.
GORDON HAS two musical brothers, Lucius Gordon Jr. and Wycliffe Gordon, the award-winning jazz trombonist. Music was always the touchstone of their lives.
“Many of the milestones in our lives are associated with music – what was playing when this or that happened,” she said.
In high school, Gordon played piano and tried clarinet. She started off as a music major in college but put that on hold for several years as she began raising a family.
She worked at Gracewood State School and Hospital and then at Medical College of Georgia.
Also during the mid-1990s, her brother, Wycliffe, moved back to the Augusta area for a couple of years. He cut back on his touring schedule and taught classes, and he planted the seed for where Karen is today.
He brought in renowned musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, who collaborated with the Augusta Ballet on The Bitter Sweet Saga of Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie, and he put together a large event called Christmas in the Garden City. Karen helped him in some of the promotion of the events.
In 1997, she took three months of family leave from Medical College of Georgia to care for her ill father.
“After he passed away, I returned to work, and I realized I hated that job,” she said. “I worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., entering lab results. It was an ideal job for students, except that I wasn’t in school.”
She realized her passion was music so she spent several years working as a music minister at Second Baptist Church in Aiken. Six years later, the music ministry door closed and another door opened.
WAYNE HOEY, a saxophonist who led several bands, had started the Riverwalk Candlelight Jazz Concert Series, but he was moving to Colorado. She knew the Riverwalk special events coordinator, who talked to her about helping to organize it in Hoey’s stead.
“In 2003, that was my first year. I was responsible for booking the bands,” she said.
Hoey’s band had played most of the concerts while he was in the area. At the time, Gordon was part of a band called QuietStorm, but she didn’t want hers to be the only band performing.
“I wanted to incorporate many of the local bands,” she said. “I am pleased to be able to include school bands. When I was at Butler High School, we didn’t have many public performance opportunities. It was all pretty much at school.”
She said some people are turned off at the thought of coming out to listen to a jazz concert performed by high school students.
“The people who do come out are like ‘These are great. They are just in high school?’ ” she said.
Over the years, the series has expanded from two months to four.
The candlelight series is held every Sunday from May to August, and this year she’s getting started even earlier with a pre-concert series beginning March 11. Concerts will begin at 7 p.m.
“I added the five dates to get more students involved,” she said. “The regular series starts in May, and the colleges are done. They are in finals.”
The preview series will move straight into the regular series, which opens May 6. The concerts in the regular series begin at 8 p.m.
For more information, visit www.gardencityjazz.com.