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It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in early September, and the people spread along the rims of the cement walls in Rosslyn’s Gateway Park are reading the newspaper, inhaling chili dogs, and complaining to each other about the heat—all of the things people usually do at small outdoor music festivals. And that includes ignoring the performers on stage.

But by now, Jerry Gordon is accustomed to the kind of crowd that has assembled for the Rosslyn Jazz Festival. “Sometimes they listening, sometimes they ain’t,” he says. As usual, he’s playing as if he’s oblivious to the oblivious audience. On a platform stage under a yellow-and-white-striped festival tent, Gordon is vigorously chopping his thumb across the strings of his hollow-body guitar. His other fingers are splayed against the raised pickguard below the strings; they serve only as a fulcrum for his wild thumb.

Gordon is flanked by two of the area’s most respected jazz guitar players, Rick Whitehead and Paul Wingo, whom he handpicked to join him for this afternoon’s tribute to Charlie Byrd, the renowned D.C. guitarist who died last December. On Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” Whitehead and Wingo both take solos that cut clean away from the song into indulgent noodling. The phrases stumble across the threshold of bearable volume like the planes taking off from National Airport, a few miles down the Potomac.

It’s hard to tell exactly when Gordon begins to solo, because he never stops playing rhythm. He puts more thought into vamping on chords than other players put into their most daring free flights, constantly switching rhythm patterns. The percussive thump of his thumb against the strings, his left hand’s fingering of fat, crunchy chords, and his mastery of octave voicings make Gordon a one-man drum-bass-and-guitar trio. He can play a tune so fully because

he worships the composition—whereas most guitar players worship

their instruments.

“I don’t hardly listen to guitar players or anything that has to do with guitar,” says Gordon after his regular Tuesday-night gig at Columbia Station in Adams Morgan. “I listen to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Brook Benton, the jazz balladeer from the ’50s and ’60s.”

When Gordon talks about the gems of his album collection—3,000 records, all vinyl—the names of guitar players rarely surface. But he’s fascinated with Charlie Parker’s and Paul Desmond’s experimental albums with string sections, semiobscure works significant for their genesis of orchestral jazz sounds that de-emphasize individual players.

“Those albums are so lyrical, and that’s what I try to do myself—replace the vocals with the instrument, tell a story with a solo,” Gordon says. “The songs on those albums are mostly ballads, so it’s not something you could jam out and play fast on. You’re forced to make it sound more logical.”

Gordon’s song fetish is one of two keys to his success as a full-time D.C. jazz musician, a title many local players regard as an oxymoron.

The other is Wes Montgomery, the most innovative jazz guitarist from the ’50s and ’60s and the namesake of Gordon’s Gibson guitar. Unless he’s asked directly about other players, Montgomery is the only guitarist Gordon talks about. To keep the peace with his Indianapolis neighbors, Montgomery abandoned his guitar pick and employed the soft flesh of his thumb to strum melodies simultaneously in parallel octaves—a method that produces a softer but fatter sound than conventional playing. Gordon similarly thumb-strums, using a pick only occasionally. Also like Montgomery, Gordon never learned how to read music.

“Everything that Wes learned was from the street, or what I like to call ‘from the basement,’” Gordon says. “I don’t know hardly any theory. The only thing I’m able to do is play what I hear, and I could hear what he’s doing a lot better than I could hear someone who could read music and is really schooled.”

Gordon’s musical training began in the cellar, too. In the late ’60s, the adolescent Gordon began spinning his father’s prized Count Basie records and craving an instrument. At school, he carried his classmates’ lunches over to their tables for small tips. “I carried lunch trays for the big shots for damn near a year, and it gave me enough money to buy me a guitar,” he says.

After high school, Gordon financed his habit by refurbishing used cars at local dealerships, a day job he kept until 1992. That year, he put together a demo, booked the Jerry Gordon Quintet in clubs, and won $10,000 from a Hennessy-sponsored jazz competition at Georgetown’s Blues Alley. “I was trying to prove the point,” Gordon says, “that a group can work in this city and make a halfway decent living.”

A year later, Gordon expanded the group’s original three-song demo, titled Thumbs Up, into a full-length album released first on cassette and shortly thereafter on CD. Gordon hand-delivered the album to radio stations in D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia. He says the resulting airplay has helped sell 3,000 records at gigs and in stores in all three cities.

In 1994, Gordon recorded Soft and Warm, with roughly the same quintet. The disc sounded less straight-ahead and more contemporary and sold almost as well as the debut album. For 1998’s All for Love, the group reworked R&B tunes into jazz charts. Gordon plans to begin laying down tracks for an album of vintage-style originals soon.

“I don’t want to get into smooth jazz, which is what everybody’s doing now,” Gordon says. “The next album will go back to the Thumbs Up kind of thing, not pure straight-ahead but more acoustic.”

Today, the Jerry Gordon Group—now in its fourth incarnation, with Doctor Diop on electric bass and Rodney Mathis behind the drums—averages five nights a week on the doughnut-sized D.C. jazz circuit. “We’d like to do a little more touring,” Gordon says. “But there’s so much work around here that it wouldn’t be justified to leave.”

The day after the Jerry Gordon Group’s Rosslyn gig, Stanley Turrentine—one of the last surviving tenor saxophone giants—suffered a stroke before a scheduled show at the Blue Note in New York City. (Turrentine died two days later.) With a suddenly cleared calendar, Turrentine’s Columbia, Md.-based drummer, Lenny Robinson, stops in at the Saloun in Georgetown to sit in with Gordon’s group for a 20-minute, jam-laden rendition of Desmond’s “Take Five.”

There’s a wall of backs hugging the entire length of the bar and a half-moon of semiregular Gordon groupies seated around the nook where the band is playing. As Gordon chops off chords like a butcher on speed, heads turn from the bar expecting to see two guitars behind the thick, expertly trimmed cuts of sound. Gordon’s guest drummer, who says he considers drums a lead rather than a rhythm instrument, surrenders the beat to Gordon’s flawless playing as the tune resolves.

Afterward, a sweat-soaked Gordon wanders out to M Street for a cigarette, talking jazz records with Robinson before a final 1 a.m. set at the near-empty Saloun. Gordon throws out a few obscure pieces of music—a reel-to-reel recording of Cannonball Adderly, live Montgomery stuff laid down inside tiny clubs, and, of course, the Desmond project with strings.

Robinson gawks at the Desmond reference. “Ever hear what Miles Davis said about Paul Desmond?” he asks. “He said, ‘He plays all right—for a girl.’”

If Miles’ comment means that Desmond’s playing was so graceful and elegant as to be nearly feminine, then he’s right—Desmond did play like a girl.

And that’s why Gordon loves him. —Dan Gilgoff