Salutations fiends! I was lucky enough to get to talk to Craig Gildner of the one and only Blue Sky 5. We love him here in Cincinnati and he’s agreed to answer some questions for me. We cover everything from musical inspiration to how he fills his spare time. Believe it or not, he has some non-music-related hobbies. We even talk about how the band got its name (which isn’t as jazzy as you might think).
Who is your biggest musical inspiration?
I have many inﬂuences and inspirations that are at the heart of this music I perform with my band. But ﬁrst and foremost would be Duke Ellington. Several reasons. He led a successful and popular band for nearly ﬁve decades, took a unique approach to playing the piano, and wrote incredible, timeless music, either alone or collaborating with Billy Strayhorn. The best part about all this is that he stayed true to his principles and goals for the band. Tastes came and went, but Duke was still Duke.
What made you want to get into swing and jazz music?
Swing and big band was always in the Gildner house growing up. Dad loved Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. I was given 50 or so 78rpm records when I was three featuring artists like Count Basie, Les Brown, and Harry James. I spent time as a disk jockey in the mid to late 80’s at a public radio station that spun nothing but jazz: big band, bebop, post bop, fusion, bossa nova. So growing up, the music was always around…on recordings and at festivals. But the real turning point came when I had a chance to play with the Tom Cunningham Orchestra as pianist from 1993-94. I discovered that people still dance to this music, for up to three hours sans air conditioning, thank you very much, and have a ball.
What instruments do you play/how long have you played them?
Piano, my ﬁrst love, has been my instrument for 38 years. Guitar for 34. Cornet in earnest for about 7. I’d played in school band, but not anything resembling good…or swing for that matter. I found an unloved Buescher Aristocrat cornet made in my hometown the year I was born for $35 dollars in 2005. I thought, “I’m from the band instrument capital of the world. I should know how to play horn, dammit!”
When did Blue Sky 5 form and how? Have you been involved with any other bands?
Our ﬁrst gig was April Fools Day of 2000, but the groundwork was established in 1999, when my bandmate Tommy Greco and I, after rejoining Tom Cunningham and riding the crest of the DC Swing Dance wave, decided a small group for Lindy Hoppers playing an authentic repertoire would do well in this climate. And we were right! Since then, I’ve had the great fortune and opportunity to meet and play with wonderful musicians in the swing scene: Jonathan Stout, Brooks Tegler, The Midiri Brothers, Bill Elliott, Casey MacGill, Paul Cosentino of the Boilermakers, Doc Scantlin, Linnzi Zaorski and Delta Royale, and Glenn Crytzer.
As of 2013, I lead four other early jazz and swing related groups. The Craig Gildner Big Band, playing great arrangements with an authentic rhythm section, and The Craig Gildner Trio, much in the style of the Goodman trio of the 30’s are the newest organizations. My trouble is, I love all of the styles of jazz created in the ﬁrst half of the 20th century, and I keep running into musicians who love it too! Inevitably, a band happens.
Do you have a favourite city/venue to perform in?
DC, our home base, is always a pleasure. We’ve made good friends with the promoters here. Great places to play, and enthusiastic crowds. Philadelphia was great back in 2003-4. Loved the energy and enthusiasm, plus great vintage shopping the day after. Midsummer Night Swing in NYC was ground breaking! Recently, Ohio is starting to give us some serious love. I took the trio for a weekend road show at the end of June, through Cincinnati and Cleveland. The response was overwhelming! The full band has played for several CincLX events. Always lots of folks out dancing, always an encore at the end of the evening. And, as a fan of Cincinnati style chili, I can’t wait till the next trip when I can stop in a Gold Star or Skyline restaurant and order a plate of four way meat water…chili with beans and cheese over spaghetti. Yowza!
Do you have a pre-performance ritual or habit?
Not really. To be honest, every gig is different. I’m usually preoccupied with the sound system, setting up my instruments, going through a sound check. I may bust into a Fats Waller or similar stride piece to get the hands working, or run through a Charlie Christian riff at that time, but never a set thing. Back in 2002, I used to use a Bach etude on a beat up piece of copy paper that had my hands working independently on the keys. Then I lost it on some gig. The guys in the band were razzing me about it. I guess it was more piano recital material…and though it was a good workout, there’s not much crossover unless we were playing full on bebop with single note runs…which of course is not in our repertoire. The thing I am starting to do on gigs though is consciously reminding myself to relax my hands and arms. Especially in the ﬂag waver tunes like Avalon, with tempos well above 230bpm. There’s a natural tendency to dig in. But at that speed my hands become ﬁxed claws if I don’t remember to relax. It’s much like when my wife and I took a Lindy Hop class for advanced tempos and we learned how to relax before attempting the streamlined moves. If you’re all keyed up about staying in time, then chances are you’ll lose the beat and drag.
What do you do when you’re not playing?
Well, I have a recording studio in Bethesda where I do voice over and post production work. Some of the smaller group’s recordings are made there. Just like not knowing when to say ‘when’ with the bands, I have way too many hobbies. I’m an old car enthusiast/owner, I collect vintage clothing from the 20s-40’s, 78rpm records, radios, phonographs, 16mm, Super 8 and 8mm motion picture ﬁlm and equipment and musical instruments. And once those have completely exhausted me, I usually remember I’m a dad and husband, with the usual and customary duties of dinner procurement, homework assistance, story reading, trash removal and grounds keeping. Ha!
How did you come up with the name Blue Sky 5?
There’s a tendency among fans and friends of the band to believe that it was derived from Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”. And I’d like to believe that. But reality gets in the way of a good story. 13th hour. Late night Baltimore March of 2000. Tom Koerner needs a name for the band to start promoting it at upcoming dances. My initial suggestion, Groove Juice Special, was ﬂagged for its inability to roll of the tongue nicely. Pacing back and forth in the den of my apartment. Nothing’s coming. I glance at my CD rack, and my eyes hone in on the title of an album by an alt rock band from Australia that was big for a ﬂeeting moment in the late 80’s, Midnight Oil-Blue Sky Mining. A HA! And then a number. We have ﬁve in the band. Blue Sky 5. Boom. Done. There’s actually been a slight change lately. It’s now Craig Gildner and The Blue Sky 5. Years of experience have brought about this update. We added a permanent clarinet to the lineup. This eliminates the inevitable remark from the lone wise guy in the audience when the clarinet was an added attraction: “The sign says Blue Sky 5 but there are six of you? Can you count?” (Yuk yuk yuk yuk. Boy that’s funny, are you here all night??) Also, having played various dances and dance events as a guest with other bands, the fans of swing music may know me, but not know that Blue Sky 5 is my band. That link is now crystal clear.
I hope you all enjoyed the Q & A with Craig Gildner. You can check out Blue Sky 5’s albums here. Support a great musician and a wonderful band and help keep all of our lovely swing bands doing what we all love.