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Homegrown Talent
Xavier Gordon, left, and Jaylen Gilstrap will play for audiences again April 9 at the Rockdale Auditorium. To learn more about Gordon’s project, visit - photo by Michelle Kim

The combined talent of two cousins from Conyers is creating quite a buzz in music circles.

Pianist Xavier Gordon and saxophonist Jaylen Gilstrap are honing their homegrown talent before audiences in Rockdale and throughout metro Atlanta these days – and all before turning 18.

A recent jazz concert at the Rockdale Auditorium featuring the young duo drew several standing ovations. Long-time Conyers resident Stan Williams, who enjoyed the evening with his wife Barbara, had words of high praise for the teen musicians.

“It was a pleasant surprise to see the outstanding mix of youth holding their own alongside the other more mature artists,” Williams said, referring to some of the guest musicians also in concert with the cousins.

Gordon, who graduated from Salem High a few years ago, attends Georgia State University where he’s studying music and soon will travel and perform with the school’s Big Band. Yet, he said returning home to play in January was especially rewarding.

“It was fun,” he said of the evening that also showcased the talents of well-known saxophonists Ron James and Derwin Daniels, as well as Atlanta-area vocalists. “I love it whenever I get to play in Conyers.”

Indeed, it is Gordon’s and Gilstrap’s local roots and genetic ties that continue to nurture their success as musicians.

As it turns out, music is a strong family tradition for them as they share a kinship through their great-grandparents who were siblings.

Gilstrap’s mom notes that both her grandmother and grandfather were musicians, so she’s not at all surprised by her son’s musical pursuits. She does find it satisfying, however, that her child—a Salem High School senior—shares not only his talent, but also  his time with others.

“Jaylen does community service work, too,” his mom said. In fact, Gilstrap spent years as a dedicated Meals on Wheels volunteer and often played music at the Olivia Haydel Senior Center, as well as for residents in the Rockbridge Road near his grandmother’s neighborhood.

“I like bringing joy to people,” said Gilstrap, who also a musician for two local churches. “Music, pretty much, makes everyone feel good.”

The teen’s involvement has earned him a scholarship from the Rockdale Coalition for Children and Families as well as one for band at Alabama A&M University, although he’s not certain he’ll attend there.

Gilstrap’s dad, Lamar, is equally proud of his son’s service to community and musical talent, although he admits earlier on he held out hope that his son would be an athlete like he was in high school.

“After working with him all those years in sports, it kind of hurt for a minute,” the older Gilstrap said. “But I knew his passion was music.”

Even so, Gilstrap did play sports at Salem but maintained a stronger commitment to music.

As for Gordon, his younger brother is the athlete in his family, but his father and mother, Stanley and Theresa, always knew their son Xavier was destined to be a musician.

“When I was a kid I wanted to quit piano lessons at one time…but they made me stay on it, and I’m glad I did,” Gordon said.

The pianist’s dad said his son really became enthusiastic about his craft after receiving encouragement and music pointers from Marcus Printup, the Conyers-bred trumpeter and Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra inductee who plays on world stages alongside artists such as Wynton Marsalis. Printup also influenced Gilstrap to excel musically.

“When he got with Marcus Printup and heard the jazz side of music, that really gave him a feel for what he could do musically,” Stanley Gordon said of his son.

Conyers resident and jazz saxophonist Derwin Daniels, who also travels internationally with the legendary Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players, applauds Gordon and Gilstrap for embracing jazz. He feels the genre doesn’t get the respect it deserves alongside the popularity of pop, hip hop and rap—that’s primarily produced without live instrumentation.

“It was refreshing to see young guys who are pursuing music in that way,” Daniels said of his performance with the emerging artists.

“Instead of just pulling electronic files, they are actually playing instruments with a high level of competency.”

And building upon their skills is something of which they each work, whether they’re performing in various Atlanta-area venues or perfecting their craft off-stage.

Gordon is set to release his third CD, which he describes as “uplifting spiritual music, with solid grooves.”

His godfather and accomplished pianist Earl Fleming is co-producing the jazz project, along with Gordon’s dad. Fleming said music for Gordon has been a life-long journey.

“When he was 11 or 12 months old, he was in the studio in a diaper watching us produce music,” he said with a chuckle.

On Saturday, April 9, Gordon and Gilstrap will team up once again for an encore performance at the Rockdale County Auditorium, 903 Main Street, starting at 7 p.m. The evening is being billed as a scholarship drive for Gilstrap’s college fund. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door or by calling 770-480-1169.

“I love music and I plan on doing it for the rest of my life,” Gilstrap said.