Tuesday, November 23, 2010

RIP: Albert "June" Gardner

Acclaimed drummer Albert 'June' Gardner dies

"I'm the man on the boom boom" was how the always affable drummer June Gardner would introduce himself from a bandstand. Gardner was onboard many a stage jumping directly from high school into a professional music career that spanned some six decades. One of New Orleans most-beloved musicians, Gard­ner, a native of New Orleans, died on Friday, November 19, 2010, at the age of 79.
"He played the whole scope," says fellow drummer Bob French. "Bebop, R&B, traditional jazz. He could play with everyone plus he was one of the nicest human beings. He was always the same person - always jolly."

Like so many of this city's musicians, Gardner studied with the influential Professor Valmont Victor and first hit the road with vocalist Lil Green. When he returned to New Orleans he became a regular at the now-infamous Dew Drop Inn playing with Edgar Blanchard & the Gondoliers with whom he also recorded. In his younger days, Gardner was heavily on the rhythm and blues scene both in the studio and on tour. He played and recorded with the greats including spending nine years with Roy "Good Rockin' Tonight" Brown and hitting the drums behind the legendary Sam Cooke from 1960 until the vocalist's death in 1964. It's Gardner laying down the essential rhythm on Lee Dorsey's smash hit "Working in a Coal Mine" and he also performed regularly with Dave Bartho­lomew's band.

Beyond rhythm and blues, Gardner was most often recognize as a traditional jazz player, leading his own group, June Gardner & the Fellas. For seven years, he and the "Fellas" played a mix bag of material at South Claiborne Avenue's Maison's Las Vegas Strip. After that, Gardner headed to Bourbon Street to perform at the Famous Door, La Strada and the Maison Bourbon plus he joined trumpeter Wallace Davenport at the Paddock. Gardner was also heard on more modern stylings working with artists like saxophonist Alvin "Red" Tyler, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and jazz/soul vocalist Lou Rawls.

A good taste of Gardner's versatility can be heard on his 2000 album 99 Plus One, a disc that resurrects his early recording on the Hot Line label and finds him behind the drums with a big band directed by Wardell Quezergue that was produced for the NOLA label.

This year, June Gardner & the Fellas opened up the Economy Hall Tent at Jazz Fest, an event he's played "since the beginning," with flair.

As usual, Gardner put together an ace band that for listeners meant hearing the real deal history of the music.

"He was right on the ball," says drummer Smokey Johnson, who had been friends with Gardner since he was 17 years old. "If he couldn't do it right, he wouldn't do it at all. He was a special dude and just like his record says, he was 'Gentlemen June Gardner.'"

In many ways June Gardner's approach to his drums matched his personality - straight-up and full of warmth and caring. He made the rhythm and people dance and smile.

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