Marshall Gilkes and the Art of Puddle Jumping

The brass faculty member infuses his teaching with his experience as a performer, arranger, and composer.

May 31, 2019

If there’s such a thing as an A-list rock star in the trombone world, Marshall Gilkes is it. An assistant professor in the Brass Department, Gilkes’ résumé includes an impressive list of albums (he's released four), awards (most recently, JazzTimes cited him as the critic’s choice trombonist for 2018), and collaborators (from Maria Schneider’s big band to Latin jazz harpist Edmar Castañeda). He’s even in a trombone supergroup, the Slide Monsters, alongside Eijiro Nakagawa, Joseph Alessi, and Brandt Attema, each member considered among the world’s best trombonists.

And yet, “I still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up,” the accomplished musician, composer, and arranger says.

That sentiment reveals a playful “say yes” attitude that Gilkes has retained throughout his career. A military kid to musician parents (his father was a conductor for the Air Force), he fluctuated between playing classical music and the thrill of freestyle mogul skiing in the Colorado mountains of his childhood. He remembers sitting on a ski lift one day as a teenager, and thinking, “This is getting boring.” So, as nimbly as he’d finesse a ski slope, he applied and was accepted into Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. It began a trend that has continued ever since—commendation on his talent and a willingness to travel wherever the music took him.

Turning a Career into a Concerto

In fact, those ideas are reflected in one of Gilkes' most popular original compositions, “Puddle Jumping,” both in its deft hopping between low and high registers and in the Latin-inflected delivery whose effortlessness almost belies its virtuosic complexity. First appearing on his 2004 album Edenderry, a reworked version appears on his 2018 album, Always Forward. True to the album’s title, the new version, recorded in Germany with the public broadcasting giant WDR’s big band—of which Gilkes was a member from 2010 to 2013—widens the composition into a larger ensemble setting. In revisiting it, Gilkes asked himself, “How can I turn this into a concerto for myself? I wanted to approach it as if I wrote in 2017, as opposed to when I originally wrote it in 2002.”

Take a listen to the original Edenderry version of "Puddle Jumping":

And here's the new Always Forward arrangement:

The Importance of Showing Up

Since Interlochen, the puddles Gilkes has jumped are as varied as his solos. They've included playing on a cruise ship, moving to New York City, waiting tables, attending William Paterson University and Juilliard, and playing Latin and salsa gigs. Those side salsa gigs did more than help pay rent, however, as they paved a way to working with Maria Schneider, someone who he used to listen to as a teenager, but now has recorded and performed with for 12 years. “I can track playing with Maria Schneider back to that first salsa rehearsal,” he says, and it’s a lesson he frequently teaches his students. “I’m always telling the students: just show up to whatever opportunity you get and represent yourself as well as possible. Because you never know.”

In addition to that openness to new experiences, Gilkes stresses the foundational techniques, for his own practice and in his teaching. “Every day, the first thing I try and do is just play a whole note on the trombone. Playing fast is easy. But to play slow and long, that’s a hard thing for me. So, I’m all about just sitting down and working with students on all these fundamentals.”

“I’m always telling the students: just show up to whatever opportunity you get and represent yourself as well as possible. Because you never know.”

—Marshall Gilkes

It’s a lot to learn from someone who still says he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. But then, just as easily as he pivots from moguls to puddles, classical to salsa, he switches from teacher to student. “And sometimes the students come in and they’ll play something, and I’ll go—what is that? Show me that!”