A proper and fitting epitaph is something nobody should be without. "I loaned Charlie Parker my saxophone" might be the best one for this musician, born Andrew Gardner and nicknamed "Goon" because...well, maybe because he loaned Charlie Parker his saxophone. After all, anyone who has read a biography of Parker, nicknamed "Bird," will know that it wasn't smart to lend him anything, particularly a saxophone, since chances were good he would pawn the object to get drug money. Gardner was not the guy who loaned Bird a sax back before the latter man really knew how to play and wound up getting a cymbal thrown at his head, a crucial Bird legend. No, the Gardner loan to Bird happened later, during a gig in Chicago. As reported in Richard Simon's biography of Parker, "the shabby teenager (Bird) made his way to the bandstand and asked to play altoist Goon Gardner's horn, reports are that his playing was stunning. He was clothed and fed, even given a clarinet, by Gardner, but before long he'd pawned the horn (having long since pawned his own) and caught a bus for New York." According to trumpeter and bandleader King Kolax, with whom Gardner frequently gigged, Bird also stole Gardner's shoes when he left town. Gone as well was Gardner's rep as the baddest sax player in town, now that Bird had been heard.
Certainly not on the same inspirational level as Bird, although nobody had better comment that "he isn't even good enough to lend his sax to Charlie Parker," Gardner was a respected player on the Chicago scene who worked in a variety of swing and blues bands. He played with the big bands of Earl Hines and Horace Henderson prior to joining the Navy in World War II. In the former outfit, he was surrounded by budding boppers, including both Bird and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The military itself proved to be a hotbed of musical talent and Gardner made contact with many fine players, such as the altoist Gigi Gryce, with whom he shared initials as well as instruments, and the influence of Charlie Parker. In the late '40s, Gardner was part of a house group at the Ritz Cafe backing up the great vocalist Dinah Washington and Baby Lawrence, a fantastic tap dancer. In the early '50s, he played with a similar unit at the Regal Theater, a combo that developed into one of the most important integrated bands in the Windy City. This group included Roy Grant on alto sax, Wesley Landers on drums, the obviously progressive John Avant on trombone, Murray Watson on trumpet, and last but not least, the hard-blowing Gene Ammons on tenor sax. Gardner might not have liked losing his sax to Bird, but he didn't seem to have had any problems dealing with the man's music, as he remained under the spell of Parker's bebop inventions throughout his career. On sessions with blues artists such as T-Bone Walker, Arbee Stidham, or fellow saxophonist Buster Bennett, it is invariably Gardner who is the one pushing at the edges of what might be acceptable for a saxophone player to blow before it doesn't sound like a blues record anymore.