U of M saxophone instructor launches memoir in Winnipeg

Jon Gordon chronicles gritty upbringing in book

Last Tuesday, University of Manitoba jazz saxophone instructor Jon Gordon celebrated the Winnipeg launch of his new book, For Sue, at McNally Robinson. Gordon was on hand to read excerpts, take questions, sign copies, and play a few tunes.

The book is an autobiographical account of the jazz musician’s life, focusing on the pivotal role played by his mother, Sue Gordon.

The book deals mostly with Gordon’s early life with his mother, and their struggles growing up poor in New York City in the 1970s.

“I started to become aware around the age of seven, that my mother was bright, funny, talented – a woman that lot of people loved, but who was also profoundly ill. [ . . . ] Sue experienced an incredible series of tragedies, losing her first husband in a car accident [ . . . ] losing a child to leukemia, another partner who was shot a bar fight, [ . . . ] dealing with drug and alcohol problems, and poverty.”

Gordon was born into a precarious situation. With his mother in and out of rehab and unable to hold down work, the two relied on family and friends to get by.

“At a very young age, I essentially became my mother’s caretaker. [ . . . ] From the age of seven till 27, I was basically trying to save my mother’s life, trying to get her through detox, grand mal seizures, suicide attempts. But I had a lot of help. [ . . . ] I had friends and teachers along the way who really helped me out.”

A few years ago, Gordon went back to university to finish his undergraduate degree and begin his master’s degree, and wound up taking a memoir-writing course as part of an academic requirement.

“Partway through the course I went on tour to Japan, and I had to complete an assignment for this course, so I wrote a bunch of stories from my past while we were over there. Once I started writing, though, I couldn’t stop. It was very cathartic having this stuff come out.”

Gordon picked up the saxophone at a young age, inspired by the stories his mother told him about her first husband, Bob Gordon, an accomplished jazz saxophone player.

“I started playing sax in the sixth grade. The man who I thought was my father was this great jazz saxophonist, and so of course I wanted to be like him.”

Gordon dedicated himself to his music, and has since become a great jazz saxophonist, cutting his teeth in New York’s jazz clubs in the 1980s and 90s. Gordon was introduced to Steve Kirby during their shared time at the Manhattan School of Music. Kirby is now a fellow faculty member at the U of M.

“Steve and I were at the Manhattan School of Music together in the late 80s, and we became friends there. However, we’d only seen each other two or three times in the intervening 20 years since then. [ . . . ] I don’t know what made him think of me, but he told me about this opening at the U of M and said I should check it out.”

Gordon got the job and moved to Winnipeg in August to take up a teaching position at the U of M. The jazz program at the university now boasts some highly notable faculty, including Quincy Davis, Derrick Gardner, Will Bonness, and Larry Roy.

“I think what’s going on here is pretty special. [ . . . ] [Steve Kirby] has built an incredible program. He started the regular jam sessions and he started dig! Magazine. There is now a legit jazz scene here, which there really wasn’t even 10 years ago. You have some of the best faculty in the world here, and the cost of going here is a small fraction of what the schools in the states charge. It’s a stunning resource, and an incredible thing for Winnipeg to have.”

Over the years Gordon has played with musicians such as Benny Carter, Aretha Franklin, Lionel Hampton, Harry Connick, Jr., Bruce Springsteen, John Scofield, and Phil Woods.

Gordon will be departing for another Japanese tour this week, playing with Ken Peplowski and others over the course of the four-week tour.