Gordon Hanks didn’t grow up in a musical family. Raised by a single mother and grandmother, there wasn’t enough money for Hanks to purchase an instrument or take private lessons, and he doesn’t recall listening to music much as a child. Decades later, though, Hanks is undoubtedly an influential figure in the Utah music community—despite the fact that he still hasn’t picked up an instrument. As the co-founder and producer of JazzSLC, he has spent more than 27 years as a passionate evangelist and leader for jazz music in Utah. “Jazz is America’s music,” he says. “Our only true art form is jazz.” Hanks has spread his love for America’s music and welcomed dozens of world-class musicians to perform in Utah.
Hanks’ love for jazz started in public school, of all places. When a music appreciation teacher at the now-closed Granite High School in South Salt Lake introduced his class to the genre, Hanks was immediately captivated. He still remembers the album that hooked him—Ahmad Jamal’s At the Pershing: But Not for Me. “That single recording changed my life,” he says.
Throughout college and his career as the owner of Holladay Pharmacy, Hanks remained a dedicated fan of jazz music—he sold CDs at the pharmacy and was a regular listener of Wes Bowen’s nightly KUER show All That Jazz. While there were some venues for live jazz music in Utah, by the 1990s Hanks noticed that performances were dwindling. With his friend and fellow jazz lover Michael MacKay, he founded JazzSLC with the mission of bringing the world’s best jazz musicians to the Beehive State. Neither had any experience in concert production, but through a combination of passion and naïveté, they forged ahead anyway. “We were both so damn dumb, we didn’t know that we couldn’t do it,” Hanks laughs.
Hanks and McKay sought advice from Lynn Skinner, who ran the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, and they contributed their own money to launch the concerts. They started small, with about 200 people at the inaugural performance. In an unusual move, the series’ very first performer, Gene Harris, helped contact and book other musicians. “Harris was the one who made the phone calls for me and said, ‘These idiots in Salt Lake City don’t know anything about producing jazz concerts, but trust me, they will pay you,’” Hanks says. He recalls, with some embarrassment, that they invited some of the biggest names in jazz to perform in an unassuming hotel ballroom. (The concert series moved to its current home at the Capitol Theatre in 2009.) Still, JazzSLC built a loyal following, and the caliber of musicians was no joke—the 1997-98 series, JazzSLC’s third season, included legends like Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Diana Krall and Herbie Hancock.
JazzSLC, now closing its 26th season, remains an essential home for jazz fans (no, not those Jazz fans) in Utah. Though the concerts have grown significantly since 1995, to stay afloat, the nonprofit still relies on extra donations from season ticket holders, funds from the ZAP Program and large yearly gifts from an anonymous “jazz angel” who supports the series. Hanks is happy to stay behind-the-scenes and out of the spotlight, and while it may seem counterintuitive, he believes this is a key part of building a relationship with both audiences and performers. “It’s about the art form and the artists,” he says.
Hanks proudly labels his music taste as “mainstream”—JazzSLC favors a straightforward style, eschewing funk, fusion or avant-garde jazz. He aims to invite artists who please both longtime fans and win over new converts. “The jazz we present is not the esoteric, strange stuff that sometimes people think jazz is,” he says. “They actually play music that you recognize.”
Hanks says to keep the medium alive, it’s essential to connect younger audiences with jazz. “Listening to music on the radio or a CD or Spotify, that’s okay, but a live performance is where you really understand what the art form’s about,” he says. Hanks and his wife Connie have started a scholarship fund through their nonprofit the GAM Foundation. For more than two decades, Gordon and Connie have supported Jazz Studies students at the University of Utah’s School of Music. (They still see many of the recipients at JazzSLC concerts.) The Hanks also reach out to middle school, high school and college teachers and band directors, offering discounted tickets for music students.
What does the future look like for JazzSLC? “I don’t really have a great answer for that,” Hanks admits. At 78, the remarkably energetic Hanks still runs JazzSLC with his daughter Amanda Lufkin, who serves as Executive Director. He hopes to find someone that will continue the legacy of JazzSLC, but any possible successor needs some very specific qualifications. “Number one, they’ve got to do a lot of work for no pay,” Hanks says. “Number two, they’ve got to be willing to put money in to keep a series alive. Number three, they have to have a passion and love for the art form and do it just for that.” No pressure right? “If I could find that person I would hug and kiss them, but I haven’t found that person yet.”
JazzSLC’s long-term prospects may still be in question, but for now Hanks is just happy to be back listening to his favorite music live and in person. While it’s no secret that jazz is no longer at the center of pop music, Hanks has built a community of fans who care about the art form and welcomed students who may be, like he was, secret jazz fanatics just waiting for that first spark.
He’s also established relationships with his favorite artists, many of whom regularly return to perform in SLC. In a full circle moment, Hanks now considers Jamal, the man who first inspired his deep love of jazz, a close friend. “I think the artists completely understand that it’s not just another gig,” he says. “It’s something a little special. And I think we get great performances because they love being here.”
On May 27, Pedrito Martinez will be the final performer of JazzSLC’s 2021-22 season. Martinez, a percussionist, has won acclaim for his lively, joyful style of Afro-Cuban jazz. Hanks asked Martinez to return after a memorable 2019 JazzSLC performance—in a first for the series, audience members joined the band onstage to dance. “It is one of the most high-energy, fun shows that I’ve ever presented,” Hanks says. For ticket information, visit JazzSLC’s website.