May 20, 2012 - Charles V. Gardner at The Jazz Depot

First, let’s state the obvious: Charles. V. Gardner is the same person as Chuck Gardner, the consummate jazz pianist whose smooth and sure style has underpinned many a Jazz Depot event.

So why did Chuck Gardner become Charles V. for this show?

“Well, originally, I’d intended for the show to be called `Charles V. Gardner, Grand Piano,’ with Old English lettering and all,” explains Gardner. However, as the show proceeded to fruition, the “Grand Piano” part got dropped out of the advertising material, leaving only the “Charles V. Gardner.”

That seems fine with him, though.

“I rarely get a chance to use my birth-certificate name,” Gardner says. “I was `Charles’ to my mother and father, but then as you grow up you become `Charlie’ or ‘Chuck.’ People are probably going to ask what the “V” stands for. It’s Vaness, the male form of Vanessa. It’s kind of unusual, but it was my grandfather’s first name.”

No matter what you call him, whenever Gardner sits down at the keyboard, he brings with him decades of knowing and playing songs from what is popularly known as the Great American Songbook. He began this immersion in popular music at the age of 14, when he started working with area bands around his home turf.

“There were a lot of local big bands then, and I played with them around Iowa and Nebraska,” he recalls. “They had some really big ballrooms there – I played in Omaha, and I remember playing the Surf Ballroom in Mason City, Iowa, where Buddy Holly had his last concert. Some of the other ballrooms, though, would be ‘way out in the country. We’d drive for miles and miles through all this farming country and finally get to a big barn, right in the middle of nothing. We’d go in and set up, and, sure enough, people would come in from miles around.”

Several years later, Gardner joined the military, where he continued to hone his piano skills. In the early ‘60s he was stationed in Hawaii, playing with the Air Force band.

“That’s when I kind of taught myself arranging – until I had a chance to study with Henry Mancini,” recalls Gardner. “He was in Hawaii to work on a film – I can’t remember whether it was Elvis’s `Blue Hawaii’ or [director John Ford’s] `Donovan’s Reef.’ But he came out to Hickam Air Force Base to visit the band. He’d been in the Army Air Corps for a while during World War II.

“I’d done an arrangement of  ‘Dreamsville,’ which was a Mancini song,” he added. “He told me it was his favorite thing he’d ever done, and he said, `May I look at your score?’ I was reluctant to show it to him, but the guys all said, `Oh, c’m’on,’ so I did.  Of course, I had a lot of dumb things in it – as I say, I was self-taught. He told me how to change them, and that was the first of a lot of things he taught me over the next couple of years. He’d come to Hawaii, on and off, from about ’61 through ’63, and when he’d come in he’d call and say, `Hey, I’m in town. Want to get together?’”

Gardner’s old mentor will be represented in Sunday’s show with a medley of Mancini compositions, including “Dreamsville.” It’ll be one of the songs you don’t often hear from Gardner, who’s so busy accompanying vocalists that he seldom has the spotlight to himself.

“When people see me, I’m usually backing a singer, and what I play is decided for me,” he says. “For this show, I get to choose, so I’m playing things that people have requested and some new things, too.”

Although he doesn’t plan on featuring any singers, he’ll have a guest artist with him who’s known for her vocalizing -- his wife, Sandy Gardner.

“Sandy can play bass,” he notes, “and she’ll be doing some things with me. That’s something people haven’t heard a lot of, just piano and bass, and I think they’ll enjoy it.”

Chuck Gardner is set to begin Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St. Tickets for the show can be purchased at the Depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.  Refreshments will be available for purchase.

The concert is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Spring Concert Series.

The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form. 

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