Big Swing Band Leader
George Gee is a Chinese-American jazz big band leader. While attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh he got the chance to interview Count Basie and from that point on he has concentrated on jazz. Although George is an accomplished Double Bass player, he prioritizes his efforts on conducting a big jazz band. The George Gee Orchestra is one of the top lindy hop bands in the world.
G.G - George Gee Music
R.V.B. - Hi George - it's Rob calling
G.G. - Rob, thanks for calling me back.
R.V.B. - No problem, it's a pleasure to speak with you. So whereabouts in New York are you from?
G.G. - I'm a native New Yorker, but I'm based out of Astoria Queens right now. I've been out in Queens pretty much for a while.
R.V.B. - That's where the Steinway factory is right?
G.G. - Oh yea - I'm somewhat close to that. I'm like a mile and a half away from that - yes.
R.V.B. - Do you own a Steinway?
G.G. - (hahaha) No (hahaha) I'm sorry I don't mean to laugh. Not only do I not play the piano but I have no room for a piano.
R.V.B. - Oh I see (hahaha). So when you were growing up - what kind of music did you like?
G.G. - I mean, I've always liked swinging big band music since I was growing up. As a teenager in New York City in the 70's, I played bass and learned in the public school system. I got my first taste of big band jazz I guess in High School in the mid 70's.
R.V.B. - Uh - ha. Then you went to Pittsburgh right?
G.G. - Yes, I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy that experience?
G.G. - Well I love Pittsburgh. Believe it or not, it's a great jazz town. A great jazz and blues town, deep rooted in music heritage but being a native New Yorker, you know New York was always calling me to come back. It gave me a great chance to hone my craft, start my first band, play some gigs - but I always realized that the next step was to come back home to New York City.
R.V.B. - How did you find the people for your band? Where they students also or were they just in the music community in Pittsburgh?
G.G - Well, I mean the first George Gee Big Band started at Carnegie Mellon Campus and was staffed by collegiate musicians that eventually bloomed into more of a professional group. It kinda was a natural evolution to go off campus. I was in Pittsburgh for ten years, believe it or not. I did the whole circuit of private events, jazz festivals and even the very beginning germination of swing dance events - like Lindy hop and swing dancing was sort of having it's beginnings back in the mid or early 80's. That was kind of a stepping stone for me to come back and do gigs in New York City. Some of my first gigs back in New York City were swing and big band dance events.
R.V.B. - Now were you the manager? Did you go out and get all these gigs?
G.G. - I still do.
R.V.B. - How do you sell such a big band?
G.G. - By being good, entertaining, and understanding that jazz and blues is show business - giving the people what they want. Giving them a beat that they can snap their fingers and tap their toes to and being personable. You know - not taking this stuff too seriously.
R.V.B. - Right, so did you bring a lot of the guys from Pittsburgh back with you to New York?
G.G. - Ah no. None of them came back with me to New York. They were all based in Pittsburgh. I developed some pretty good ties with the Lionel Hampton band in the beginning years. Actually my first New York band was three quarters of the Lionel Hampton band. Musicians that I developed a relationship with. So when I came back to New York, I was fortunate enough to have that tie with a pretty echelon of big band musicians in New York City.
R.V.B. - Did you ever meet any of the great masters?
G.G. - Oh of course. Benny Goodman- I was very dear friends with - Count Basie, Milt Hinton, B.B. King, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Maxine Sullivan, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'day. You know I've met Lionel Hampton, Hank Jones. I'm good friends with Timmy Heath, Dizzy Gillespie...
R.V.B. - That's an impressive list.
G.G. - Yeah, I've been very fortunate. I can't regret any of the connections or the bonds I've made through the music. I'm fortunate. I'll never forget fortune Rob, my good fortune you know what I mean.
R.V.B. - Well, the music community, I'm sure you're proud of yourself. The music community is proud of what you accomplished.
G.G - Oh Thank you , well you know it's not my place to be proud of myself because I'm just flattered by the attention that we get. I'm always striving to do bigger and better things.
R.V.B. - So where has your travels taken you? Is there any particular places that stand out of gigs that you played?
G.G. - Um… New York City is my favorite home town I mean obviously -but we've been all around the world. I met my wife when I was touring in Japan back in 2000. So that always has a big part of my personal history. I developed a relation with Quincy Jones when I played in Amman, Jordan for the Prince of Jordan. He actually recommended us for a gig in the Middle East. Quincy Jones was a connection that I made through Frank Foster, who I did an album with ten years ago. I was always fortunate to have Frank Foster in our corner. I've been to Switzerland and parts of Europe and I've been all across the United States. The West Coast is one of my favorite places to play in the continental United States. I love southern California, Los Angeles. I have a fantastic fan base out in Los Angeles, California. Um… and I guess I've been to Canada. We were in Brazil two years ago for a big jazz festival. That was really amazing. Brazil has a lot of lovers of American big band jazz and blues.
R.V.B. - Was there a big crowd?
G.G. - Oh the biggest audience we had was fifteen thousand. In Belo Horizonte we played in front of an outdoor jazz festival for fifteen thousand people. That was really electrifying. So um, my dream actually is to play in China. Believe it or not, being of Chinese American heritage, I've never had the good fortune to go to Shanghai. That's been on my plate for a while, to try to get the band into Shanghai. I have a new CD that's coming out next month, that's a little bit more... It has a lot of original big band jazz and blues on it. So I'm hoping that will be kind of a stepping stone for me to reach out to some of these other territories that we haven't been able to reach out to yet.
R.V.B. - That's awesome. Now I'm sure you play in a lot of theaters and hotels. Do a lot of people dance to your band?
G.G. - We have the reputation to be... I don't want to sound to pretentious or self-indulgent, but we are in the swing - lindy hop - big band dance community around the world. We are recognized as one of the top bands in that style for dancing. Next month, Memorial Day weekend, there's gonna be like three to four thousand Lindy Hoppers from around the world congregating in New York City for the celebration of the centennial of Frankie Manning. Frankie Manning was one of the original Savoy Ballroom dancers and he's quite revered among the swing dance community and we are the featured band for multiple events in New York City. That's why I'm trying to rush out my CD in anticipation of that centennial celebration on Memorial day weekend.
R.V.B. - Where is that happening?
G.G. - There's one event going on May 23rd at the Edison Ballroom in Time Square, which is a big 1930's ballroom. Then on Saturday May 24th there's an event happening at Terminal 5, which is a big venue at 12th avenue and 55th street in Manhattan. So what I can do Rob is after this conversation I can send you a bunch of links so you can check it out.
R.V.B. - Awesome, now you set up residency in one place in New York right? You play at a supper club?
G.G. - Yeah, in Times Square at Swing 46 Jazz and Supper club. It's on restaurant row on 46th street between 8th and 9th avenues. We've been there every Tuesday night since 1997. We were there the first week it opened in May of 1997. We play there every Tuesday night to a nice crowd of tourists, music lovers, dancers and every other Friday night we are there also but Tuesday night is our steady residency there. It's always great Rob, to have a home base especially in the middle of the city. It's great for the band and the brand and everything.
R.V.B. - I'm so happy for you. One more thing I wanted to ask you is, how was it playing for Ozzy's birthday party? (haha)
G.G. (hahahaha) Pretty tame. It was one of the most tamest parties I've ever played in my life. You can quote me on that.
R.V.B. - Everybody was well behaved?
G.G. - A harmonized behavior, that it was such a high security well orchestrated production. To tell you the truth, I can't remember if there was booze there. I think Ozzy was in rehab or...
R.V.B. - Yeah, I think he was on the wagon for a while.
G.G. - Yeah, this was back in ‘99 I think? It was in the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills California. Mind you, it was a nice party, but I guess there was just so much that we were imagining that it would be but it was really pale to what we imagined. It must have been we had a wild imagination before we went into the event.
R.V.B. - Well George, I'm gonna try to make it down there one of those Tuesday nights to try to introduce myself.
G.G. - Yes, please
R.V.B. - I'm looking forward to hearing your band and I appreciate jazz also. I'm a vinyl collector - you know - I'm partial to Glenn Miller. He had a nice dance band and came from humble beginnings and went out a hero. You know, I like the Tommy Dorsey stuff also and Jimmy Dorsey's Latin stuff. So I'm looking forward to hearing you guys.
G.G. - Yes, yes- you know I never shy away from the commercial big bands of the era because they were successfully commercial for a reason. They were able to reach to the general public and give them what they want. Mind you, there were so many great big bands of that era and I know it was pretty segregated in that time between the black bands and the white bands. I really think that some of the bands that crossed over racially like Benny Goodman and...
R.V.B. - Well he was one of the first, right?
G.G. - Yes, Benny Goodman... Charlie Christian was one of the guys he used in the very beginning, and Lionel Hampton. He was really one of the first. He didn't see color as much as the ability to swing and I think it was sort of a stepping stone to civil rights, decades before it became a mass movement.
R.V.B. - That's a good point. Thanks for sharing this time with me George.
G.G - No problem. If there's any contests that people need swinging big band music - because we're anywhere from a ten piece band to a seventeen piece band. If you know of any concert series or events that are looking for something like that, you know, throw our hat in the ring out there.
R.V.B. - Yeah. I network myself around the town and I'll see what I can do.
G.G. - Please do. Rob, thank you for calling and if you have any questions give me a yell.
R.V.B. - Alright George, It's a pleasure to meet you and I'll talk to you soon - bye.
For more information visit George Gee's website at http://www.georgegee.com/
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Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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