Kidd Jordan: Messin' with the Kidd

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I guess I've always been hard headed, because around New Orleans, people been telling me I'm the last free man for the last twenty years. It's not a popular road.
kidd jordan Like many local legends around the country, Kidd Jordan is an immensely talented musician who resisted the urge to move to New York or LA. Based in Baton Rouge/New Orleans, Jordan became a renowned jazz educator with a long tenure at Southern University. So renowned, that his teaching has been documented by 60 Minutes and acknowledged by the French with Knighthood. His resume name checks an embarrassment of greats including Stevie Wonder, Professor Longhair, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Martha and the Vandellas, Ray Charles, Ed Blackwell, Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderly.

1999's 2 Days in April documented the unbridled intensity of his playing with old friend Fred Anderson, and new friends William Parker and Hamid Drake, possibly obliterating his lingering anonymity in the process. With the breathtaking Palm of Soul, released on the always essential Aum Fidelity label, Jordan journeys with Parker and Drake as an improvisational trio, six hands, three hearts, sculpting/shaping light. In late 2006, Jordan took a break from salvaging his Katrina ravaged home to talk about the new CD and life in the spontaneous lane.

AAJ: How's the reclamation project going?

KJ: I worked all day today and yesterday, too.

AAJ: How hot is it down there?

KJ: It's very hot. I came away like I could wring the water out of my shirt. That's the nature of the beast, so I just have to deal with it.

AAJ: What's left of the house?

KJ: We're getting all the stuff out of it. They're getting ready to gut it out. They had about four or five feet of water. Cut out the portal, rewire it, but I had so much stuff in my house, I'm just in the process of trying to get all the stuff out that was damaged. I was working a lot, teaching, what have you. My wife had some things in there she didn't want nobody to deal with other than the family, at first. So now that she's got her stuff out, we're going to let other people help us out along with it. There's so many different things that may not look valuable to somebody—keepsakes and things. So that's the process.

AAJ: A year later, huh?

KJ: Yeah, and there isn't but two people on my block that's really done stuff. I was really waiting to see two things: the hurricane season, how it was going to be, and to see if the community was coming back. There isn't but two people come back as yet. Hopefully after this hurricane season, some of them will try to come back. We're going to wait and see what happens this year. The levees really aren't what they say they're supposed to be.

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AAJ: Is Southern University up and running again?

KJ: Yeah, they have portable buildings. I worked last semester, but I retired this summer. I gave it up, because we lost the music department, and the only thing I had to do was teach music appreciation. The people who take music appreciation won't even come to those kind of classes. I did it long enough, so I decided to retire.

AAJ: You were born in New Orleans?

KJ: No, I wasn't. I was born in Crowley, Louisiana. That's in Cajun country, southwest Louisiana. At one time it was the rice capital of the world, about two and a half hours from New Orleans. I came up listening to zydeco music—zydeco and blues, when I was a kid.

AAJ: How did you start in music?

KJ: I started in high school. They had a high school band. I started playing saxophone. It got under my skin, so I just kept on dealing with it. I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge. Got my undergraduate degree there.

AAJ: What did you hear at home?

KJ: I used to listen to big band on the radio, and blues people. In high school I heard Charlie Parker, so that was it after I heard him. I guess I was in tenth or eleventh grade when I heard Charlie Parker. And then my brother came home from the war, World War II. He was turned on to some music being in the army, so they were talking about Charlie Parker too. So I finally got to listen a lot to him and Lester Young and some of those people. I really loved their music. They had some terrific blues bands that I would hear. They'd come to your little town, and you could listen to the horn players or whatever. I was just interested in that kind of music.

AAJ: Tell me about college.

KJ: Believe it or not, we were at an all black school, and they didn't want jazz at the school! But we had a swing band, and we would practice on our own. We had charts. We practiced playing some Dizzy Gillespie Big Band things like "Thanks for Coming. A lot of them ooh-bop-shebam things. We'd play for different places, occasionally on the campus. I got tied up with some bands around Baton Rouge. I started making gigs with a dude they called Georgia Williams. His daddy was Clayborn Williams; he had a famous big band at that time. He had a reed section, three or four saxophones, two or three trumpets, trombones. He was one of the better bands around town, and he would use the college students. I got to be a permanent fixture in his band, too. It was a means of me earning some extra money. We had two regular gigs with him—I think a Wednesday and a Saturday night—so there were two sure gigs a week. The rest of them, we could be with other people around town if we wanted to.

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Joel Futterman with Kidd Jordan at Vision XI in New York City, June 2006

AAJ: You made the transition to professional musician very quickly.

KJ: Yeah, I guess you could say that. When I came up as a freshman, I started playing with the fellows. In fact when I came up for orientation, I made a gig with some of the fellows there, because they had some charts and they were looking for somebody, and I could read the music. So they gave me a gig the first week. One of those kinds of things.

AAJ: Your resume lists a lot of interesting people.

KJ: I played a lot of shows. When shows would come to town, they put bands together. I was on contract at one time. I used to play with show bands—play Broadway plays and all that. You get a chance to play with a whole lot of people when they need somebody. A lot of times people would come to New Orleans and make up bands. If they couldn't get someone to leave with them, we could play with them when they were in town. Sometimes they'd go to another town and get someone else, and so on and so on. Just fill the need, you know? I liked playing with all them different kinds of people. It gives you a different outlook on what it is.

I saw early in the game where so many people got tied up dealing with one kind of thing. I know fellows now who were playing like Charlie Parker when I came to college—majority of them not even playing no more. I mean, could play exactly like Charlie Parker. They got fed up with what they were doing. So I'm just trying to deal with all kinds of music. In fact I'm one of them that could just practice scales all day. I don't need to be playing music; all I need to do is be pushing buttons, like people say. I always wanted to be an improviser too. I contend the majority of people don't improvise because they practice the majority of stuff they play. They get it down in order to play it, and I really want to improvise. That's one reason I didn't buy into that whole thing, like cats would be learning all them tunes. I'd just say, "Man, I want to go and play. And then a lot of cats don't want to sound bad, but you got to sound bad if you're going to improvise. You're in some unknown territories, just playing what you hear.

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Like, for instance, I was in Chicago last weekend. Somebody said, "Man, when you were here the other day, I heard you playing this, and I said, "Well, teach it to me. I don't know what I played. He said, "The other night you played it different. I said, "Tonight I've got a different set of circumstances. I'm feeling it a different way. I've got to play what I hear. If I don't hear nothing, I don't hear it.

AAJ: It's like that old story about someone handing Coltrane a transcription of one of his solos and asking him to play it. Of course, he said, "I can't play this.

KJ: That's right. I know I couldn't play my stuff if they transcribed it. When you play this kind of music, maybe you have a good night. It's very seldom I feel like I played anything. Like Palm of Soul, when I left the studio, man, I thought, "Goddam, I'm sorry I took them people's money for this record. I thought it was going to be another kind of thing. I thought it was going to be one of those knock-down-drag-out things. When they pulled out the gongs and the bells and all the whistles and the African things, I said, uh-oh, this is another thing. I suppose I had been ready, but I thought it was going to be one of them kind of sessions.

You just got to play on what you hear. When you improvise, you may sound good today, and you may not sound good in another month. My thing is, if you sound good once, you may in your life sound good again. Improvising is chance music, but who wants to take that chance? Majority of the time I'm trying to practice, I'm trying to find a reed to deal with. Like Palm of Soul, I'd just bought that mouthpiece. I said, "I'm just going to bulldog it through. I'm going to make this reed work. Since then, I've been going through all kinds of reeds, but I'm determined not to give up on this mouthpiece. It sounds good sometimes, sometimes it doesn't. The majority of the time, I make it do what I want it to do. Then I'll come away saying, "Goddam, it didn't sound good tonight.

AAJ: Did you hear Eloping With The Sun?

KJ: I don't listen to too many records. We was in Paris on the same gig, and they had Joe Morris and [William Parker] and Hamid. I saw them do it. But I didn't think this was going to be that kind of thing. Some serious energy. You got to listen when you play with them because there ain't no such thing as keys. One thing I felt good about when I left that session was that I played in key with the gongs. I thought, at least anybody who hears this knows I can hear. A lot of times, cats be playing, especially with this music, and people who can hear sometimes say, "Man, you're playing like you're playing changes. Closer than playing changes, because sometimes cats can play changes and play all around them. They've got a new system the young cats play, where they play the changes, but they don't play the sound of the tune. I knew I was playing within the scope of what was there, but on the spur of the moment.

We played a gig in Brooklyn the night after that, and we really came together too. We stretched it a little more; we were more volatile. I really liked that one, much more at the time than what we did in the studio. But now that I've been listening to this, I've grown accustomed to liking this a little bit more.

AAJ: Tell me about playing with Professor Longhair.

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KJ: I was on a record with Professor Longhair. Alligator Records, we had a big band on there. I used to make some gigs with Fess in the early days. We'd just sit down and listen and play a riff behind him and solo. That's all that was. Fess would set up something and you'd play a riff. When I played with Fess, it wasn't no concerts, it was dancing. Most of the time I was playing with Fess, I wasn't playing tenor, I was playing baritone or maybe alto. Tenor guys got all the solos. Sometimes they'd give us one solo a night on a baritone, and that was it.

They had another dude, Snooks Eaglin. Snooks used to play all kinds of stuff. He played "Malagena on one of those gigs, playing a Spanish thing and all kinds of stuff. He was a very interesting dude to play with. So that meant you had to listen to what he was doing in order to play. I was in a band called the Hawkettes, a pre-thing to the Neville Brothers. The Nevilles were in the Hawkettes band. They had one them little hot bands around New Orleans playing rhythm and blues. They had a hit—I wasn't in the band when they made the hit—called "Mardi Gras Mambo. [Drummer] Idris Muhammad was in the band. Zigaboo [Modeliste, founding member of the Meters] was a little boy sitting on the porch listening to us play, so you know how long ago that's been.

AAJ: You put in some time with Sun Ra?

KJ: I was never on the road with Sunny, but every time I came to New York, or when he came to New Orleans, I played with the band. I never did travel with him because I was always teaching. Whenever they were in close proximity, always had a thing with Sunny, always put an outfit on me and said come on over and play. He did that with a whole lot of people. Some of my students played with Sun Ra. Samaria, the drummer that died, he was one of the last drummers Sunny had. He took three or four of my students in the band with him. It was always fun with Sunny. Sunny would be playing stuff, and I could use my ear. John Gilmore was sitting back there playing all kinds of stuff. It was always fun to play with them, as loose as they were.

AAJ: And you recorded with Marshall Allan.

KJ: Yeah, that's right. Me and Marshall have been tight for a long time. Marshall's a hell of a player, man.

AAJ: You strictly play tenor these days?

KJ: Right. I haven't played alto in a very long time.

AAJ: What narrowed it down to the tenor for you?

KJ: The tenor is harder than alto. The tenor's the hardest instrument there is for me to play. I can play soprano. I played all kinds of concertos on alto through school. In fact, there's a friend of mine who's got a record he's putting out now, where he wrote a concerto for violin, but the violin player didn't play it, so he did it for me and synthesizer orchestra. He synthesized the whole orchestra part and gave me the things for about a week and told me he was coming to bring the tracks so I could get a click track going with it in the studio. He said he didn't want it clean, clean, clean, like a regular concerto. He just put it out a couple of weeks ago. He had two more tracks. I pulled my tenor out and said, "I don't want to listen to them. Get in the studio and run them down. I'll play against them. They came out remarkably well.

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So that's the only thing other than the records I have with my band that I played alto on. But in the early days, I would only play alto. I never did record other than rhythm-and-blues on a baritone. I played baritone with Hamiett Bluiett on different occasions. I may have played baritone with Sun Ra a couple of times. I'd have to think about it. Tenor still gives me a problem. The way the tenor's made, them low notes just not going to happen. You've got to keep fighting and keep on doing it to get the complete range of the horn, say from that low B-flat up to five B-flats above—way up in the altissimo range. That's the challenge. That's why sometimes I don't worry about no jazz, I just worry about making the horn work. If I get to jazz, I just use my ears and make that work for me.

Tenor's a hell of an instrument, the mouthpieces and reeds and all of that. That's another big hassle. That's the thing that keeps me going. If I get over that, maybe I can go to something else. I played soprano and sopranino at some points. That gave me a challenge. I used to practice soprano every day, then I went to sopranino, because I just love saxophones. But tenor is still kicking my butt, so that's why I'm dealing with it.

AAJ: You were responsible for organizing the World Saxophone Quartet in 1976.

KJ: Right. I was in New York that summer playing, hanging out, and I was playing with all them dudes. After I went back to school, I got permission from the school to bring a group in, so I had to name them something. First, it was the New York Saxophone Quartet. Then they found out there was a legitimate saxophone group in New York named the New York Saxophone Quartet, so they had to go to the World Saxophone Quartet. The first gig we had a rhythm section playing with us. I played with them; I was the fifth saxophone. All those dudes, I liked them and we were pretty good friends. Me and Bluiett been tight a long time. Bluiett's such a remarkable baritone player. He plays different form anybody I ever saw playing baritone. But at one time, I considered myself first call on baritone around the shows, because I was playing baritone, bass clarinet, flute, all of them. When you play the shows, you got to double and triple on the instrument, and I always was a pretty good reader till I got old and my eyesight got bad.

A lot of times cats used to tell me, "You should go to California, be in the studios. But I stayed around home and did what I had to do, just teaching school and making shows.

AAJ: You taught music in Africa?

KJ: I went over there one summer. They had some kids around there, and I tried to organize them, get them to play their music like it was jazz. I wrote a tune called "River Nadji. I was over in Mali. I wasn't trying to get them to play jazz, I was trying to get them to play their music where they have a feeling in it. You can play jazz on anything; you can jazz anything up. I play with Louis Moholo. Louis plays drums different from everybody else. I can't tell Louis to swing like Max Roach. He plays the way he plays, which is beautiful. I remember telling some guys from Ethiopia—they all wanted to play jazz, like straight ahead—I told them, "You ought to take what y'all got and do something else, and it come out to be a new kind of jazz.

Nowadays, everybody just wants to play the same stuff that everybody else is playing. Same solos, same licks, and I can see that, because everybody wants to be accepted, but I don't care about that. The minute someone wants to pat me on the back about something is the minute I'm ready to leave. I was halfway to Charlie Parker in high school. By the time I found out what I could do with that, it was time for me to just keep going. Fortunate it was, because I didn't have enough time to spend dealing with them records and learning all that.

I'm one of them that even in playing legitimate music, I'll start playing a classical solo, start at the beginning and put the recapitulation and jumble all of that, because I use my ears sometimes. I always needed a good accomplice, because I'd be anywhere in that thing. I hear a chord and jump from the beginning to the end, and then come back to the middle. You've got to know yourself and what you're capable of doing and how you want to do it. I guess I've always been hardheaded, because around New Orleans people been telling me I'm the last free man for the last twenty years. It's not a popular road. You stand a lot of abuse to play this music. But you got to stick to what you want to do.

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William Parker with Kidd Jordan

AAJ: How did you meet William Parker?

KJ: I had a kid I was teaching, and he used to bring a little paper from New York. What was it, some kind of little underground? I don't know if it was underground or not. [It was] Village Voice, and it would always have William Parker in it. I asked Willie Jenkins, "Man, get me William Parker's number. I called him up. William didn't know who in the hell I was from Adam's cat. He came down, said I got a gig I want you to play with me. I told him I got him out of the Yellow Pages. It worked out good. Sometimes he comes down to play with me. I'd have him and an electric bass too. Two basses and the strings of a piano—just the insides of the piano, not the keyboard. I had a good group with that. One year at the jazz festival, I had [pianist] Joel Futterman, two strings on the piano, William Parker, myself, [trumpeter] Clyde Kerr, and another pianist. Man, we really turned it out that year.

One year they let me have this band: I had [bassist] Malachi Favors, Muhal [Richard Abrams] on piano, George Lewis on trombone, Butch Morris on trumpet, and me and Fred [Anderson] on tenors. That was a killer band. We played before Count Basie and we shut them up. They went from giving me a band like that to no band at all. I guess it's just a change of the times. I've been playing the festival for years and years and years, but this year Katrina came and knocked me off the jazz festival. A double whammy for me. I guess they said, here's a chance to get rid of him, Katrina came. At least we could get a gig once a year in New Orleans, but such are the times.

AAJ: How'd you meet Fred Anderson?

KJ: They had the twentieth anniversary of the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musician], and they invited me up. Me and Fred played together. We hit it right off. I'd been looking for Fred in Chicago, but he was living in Evanston then. Eddie Harris came to New Orleans one time and said, "Kidd, you're playing free. Jack, I know a dude that's been playing free since before WWII. I said, man, I got to find this dude. Kalaparush [Maurice McIntyre, AACM charter member] used to tell me Fred Anderson put the bell of the tenor on the floor and knocked the bolts up off it. I had to find this dude. We got together last weekend in Chicago. He got his new club opened. We opened it last Friday and Saturday night in Chicago. It looks good, too. He's got a beautiful club.

AAJ: What's coming up?

KJ: I hope we can get some gigs off this record with this band. I'd love to see that. Come back and then do a record after we tour. That would really be mean.

Selected Discography

Kali Z. Fasteau, Kidd Jordan, People of the Ninth: New Orleans and the Hurricane 2005 (Flying Note Records, 2006)

Kidd Jordan, Hamid Drake, William Parker, Palm Of Soul (AUM Fidelity Records, 2006)

Kidd Jordan, Joel Futterman, Alvin Fielder, Live at the Tampere Jazz Happening 2000 (Orchard, 2004)

Alan Silva, Kidd Jordan, William Parker, Emancipation Suite #1 (Boxholder Records, 1999)

Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake, Kidd Jordan, and William Parker, 2 Days in April (Eremite Records, 1999)

The Joel Futterman/Kidd Jordan Trio with Alvin Fielder, Southern Extreme (Drimala Records, 1997)

Professor Longhair, Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge (Rhino, 1991)

R.E.M, Out Of Time (Warner Bros., 1991)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: William Brown

Second Photo: John Sharpe

All Others: Frank Rubolino

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