Caz Gardiner’s father often commandeered the living room when she was young, gathering with friends around the record player to discuss the minutiae of their favorite jazz albums.
“They seemed so proud of this knowledge,” Gardiner says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is really important to these men.’”
That same reverence and respect for music informs Gardiner’s work today. A self-described “soulful rock and reggae” artist originally from Oxon Hill, Maryland, Gardiner has enjoyed a long and winding musical journey involving purple hair, combat boots and a series of bands. On June 16, Gardiner will play the 23rd annual Columbia Pike Blues Festival.
Though the Alexandria-based artist’s current sound—heard on her most recent singles “Stop” and “Everybody”—is influenced by blues and rock, she spent the first decade of her career in the D.C. ska scene, a place where she felt at home.
“The message was racial unity,” Gardiner says. “And it wasn’t like peace and love; it was about bringing these things to the front and just being with your friends and not having any issues with each other.”
After dancing on stages at D.C. nightclubs with her punk-loving friend and fronting the 90s ska band The Checkered Cabs, Gardiner moved through a handful of other groups and projects, including the Motown-infused Ambitions and reggae-heavy Caz Gardiner and the Day Laborers. Though the genres she embraced weren’t in the Top 40, Gardiner says she sees that as a sort-of virtue, a chance to explore music that’s perhaps less predictable and more layered than standard radio fare.
“Some people are uncomfortable when they hear music that they never heard before. I’ve witnessed a complete look of like they just ate a weird, funky cheese,” Gardiner says, scrunching up her face.
The artist’s given name is Gina, which she continues to use in the professional world and with her family. But on stage and with friends, she is “Caz,” a nickname she adopted during her teen years that’s also helped with her stage persona.
Early in Gardiner’s career, her mother offered advice that she still follows: “Once you cross the line, you need to sparkle.” That she does, breaking into dance mid-song, whether with James Brown footwork or the salsa steps her father taught her, moves she calls her “secret weapon.”
Yet sitting across from the humble and gracious accounting assistant, who on the day of our meeting is wearing a smart cardigan over a simple tangerine blouse and lipstick to match, you might not know she has been tearing up local stages for nearly 30 years. But maybe that’s just part of her charm.
“I just go into another place,” Gardiner says. “It’s almost like a religious experience.”