On Sept. 10, Baton Rouge lost perhaps its most impassioned and galvanizing champion of culture and arts education when Derek Gordon, CEO of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, died at the age of 57.
The Baton Rouge native was a lifelong jazz musician and a tireless advocate for the arts. Before returning home to help launch a variety of programs, events and initiatives, he spent more than a decade at the epicenter of the art world as senior vice president for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and CEO of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Turn the page to read tributes from a few confidants and collaborators who shared with 225 their recollections of an inspirational friend.
“It was love at first sight when I met him. It was in our blood to do what we do, and we had an amazing relationship that was a friendship and family and creativity for so many years and so many concerts. We would follow Derek [to perform] anywhere. Wherever he went. He’ll always be remembered as a champion of arts education for young people. And he was a tremendous people person, always able to get others to join the crusade. It’s an incredible loss, but he’s left a pattern of movement and programs and ideas that will last for generations.”
—DEBBIE ALLEN, actor, choreographer and dancer
“I can still hear his voice over the phone or in person saying, ‘Mr. Gray, how are you, sir?’ and I can see that look on his face with that cool smile and his glasses hanging low. I’m still laughing at some of our conversations and how funny he could be. He was truly a gentleman I looked up to. He helped me and others get to the next level in our personal, professional and spiritual lives without asking or expecting anything in return.”
—JOHN GRAY, musician
“Derek was strategically placed by God to ensure that musicians—the creators—and music lovers of all genres had and have many opportunities to come together on one accord in the celebration and appreciation of the arts.”
—HARRY ANDERSON, director, Alvin Batiste Jazz Institute
“I will miss Derek personally, as we were musical collaborators at St. Joseph Cathedral for the Sunday noon mass. Derek truly loved this music, and his love for it was contagious. Many times, I saw the faces of parishioners who were moved, sometimes to tears, because of his singing. What a gift! Derek Gordon will have a successor, but never a replacement. I miss him already.”
—WILLIAM GRIMES, professor of jazz, LSU
“Baton Rouge has been blessed and culturally enriched by Derek Gordon. A man who could have taken a job anywhere in the world chose Baton Rouge. A giant of his stature can never be replaced. We salute him, and this community is better because of him. He will be missed.”
—KIP HOLDEN, mayor-president
“Derek inspired me to get off the fence and move forward with establishing my CTK Foundation. He spent his life advocating for and supporting the arts nationally and here in Louisiana. His life enriched all of ours. Derek’s passing is a great loss to us all.”
—CHRIS THOMAS KING, musician and actor
“I have had the absolute privilege to work alongside Derek, my friend and mentor, the past six years. Derek always had the ability to rise above obstacles in order to create opportunities that expand access to the arts throughout our community. Derek’s reach is far and wide, and those of us who have been inspired by him will continue to honor what he has built by working together to ensure that these opportunities flourish and grow.
Back in the summer of 2006, I’d heard a lot about Derek Gordon before his arrival in Baton Rouge to take the helm of the Arts Council.
With so much anticipation of this ‘force of nature’ that was Derek, it was a great relief that when he walked through the door, he greeted me with a big smile and a warmth and generosity of spirit that I will never forget.
I hold many memories dear from the past six years and choosing a favorite is impossible, but to be serenaded by Derek on my birthday with Elvis songs was pretty wonderful.”
—KATHERINE SCHERER, acting director, Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge
“All of us at Jazz at Lincoln Center are deeply saddened by Derek’s passing. He gave a lot of himself to Jazz at Lincoln Center and for that we are eternally grateful. As a musician, leader, and advocate, he committed his life to the arts.
Derek will be remembered for his love of the music, dedication to the arts community, and his support for arts education. We extend our condolences to Derek’s family and to the board and staff of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge.”
—WYNTON MARSALIS, managing and artistic director, Jazz at Lincoln Center