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UMKC Jazz Student Comes Back From A Spinal Injury To Win National Competition

Days before the deadline for a clarinet and saxophone competition to win $1,000 and a trip to Paris, GunnarGidner could barely stand. A spinal injury had left him unable to walk, much less practice his tenor saxophone, for two and a half months.

Gidner had recovered enough to return to school at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance in December. His jazz combo was rehearsing on his first day back, and Gidner’s professor, Dan Thomas, heard the recording and thought it was good. Really good.

Thomas told Gidner he should apply to for the Vandoren Emerging Artist competition. Gidner had never even heard of the Vandoren competition, but trusted Thomas’ suggestion. The next day he and three other musicians got to work in the studio laying down tracks.

“To be honest I didn’t have time to prepare for it at all,” Gidner says.

Vandoren is a Parisian company that makes reeds and mouthpieces for saxophones and clarinets. Since 2010, it has held the competition to identify the next generation of exceptional clarinetists and saxophonists.

Musicians who compete choose three songs to submit from a list of jazz standards. They must record a slow-tempo ballad, a medium-tempo song, and fast-paced piece. Gidner, an old soul who likes to play standards from the 1950s, was in luck: He could play the options by heart.

“I knew all of them from listening to other people play them. The ballad I played was ‘A Portrait of Jenny.’ The medium tempo was called ‘I’ll Remember You.’ And then the fast one was one was called ‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,’” he says.

Listen to "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" here: 

The recording session went well. Most tracks only took one attempt, with no audio editing enhancements.

“I recorded with good friends of mine, Joshua Blythe on drums, Alex Vogt on the guitar, and Walter Beeson on the bass,” he says. “Really, we had never played together before, but we just walked in and made music. I think they did a fantastic job.”

On Friday morning, Jan. 16, Gidner was sleeping hard after a ten-hour drive from his Cincinnati home and a jam session that had lasted until the wee hours. He was startled awake by a phone call at 8 a.m.

“I was very confused and then all of a sudden they said, ‘You won the Vandoren competition!’ I couldn’t believe it, really. I woke up and didn’t know what to say at first. I was like, ‘You’re kidding!’ I called my mother and father first thing. I probably woke them up too.”

Gidner won’t claim all of his prizes until this fall. So far, he’s received $1,000 in cash and a pack of Vandoren products. In March, he travels to Indianapolis for the 2015 Chamber Music National Festival. In the fall, he travels to Paris to tour the Vandoren factory and meet Vandoren artists.

Gidner is a sophomore. He says good musicians are easy to find at the Conservatory, which helped with winning the award.

“Everybody can play here. Truly. I want to say that’s unusual. It’s a special place to be. That’s what I like about UMKC: Everybody has their own voice, and I think that is a really beautiful thing.”

Gidner’s first visit to Kansas City was inspired by local alto sax player, Michael Shultz, who he met at a jazz club in Cincinnati. Eventually, Gidner visited Schultz, who introduced him to the music community here. On the drive back to Cincinnati, Gidner said he already felt as if Kansas CIty was his new home.

Gidner plays live at jam sessions on Monday nights at The Blue Room and every Tuesday at The Majestic. He says his favorite places to watch live jazz are Take Five and the Mutual Musicians Foundation jam sessions from 12 to 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Gidner advises future musicians who compete to play something they love and be proud of it. He says he always plays with his heart and thinks others should do the same.

“Be true to yourself and don’t play just to be showy,” he says. “When you play music, it’s for the music. It’s for nothing else. And don’t do it going in thinking, ‘I wanna win.’ Just go in thinking ‘I’m happy I applied.’ Relax, and have fun with your art.”

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