Ronny Jordan: A pioneer of Acid Jazz, a Staple of Smooth Jazz

Alan Bryson By

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A fan told me the other day, 'Ronny your music is timeless.' I take great pride in that, and I like to think of my music as timeless.
This month marks guitarist Ronny Jordan's 55th birthday. A trailblazer in acid jazz, his debut album The Antidote foreshadowed Miles Davis' embrace of hip hop with the album Doo-Bop by six months. Moreover, Jordan's track "After Hours" also had a profound impact on smooth jazz as you will read in the following interview. This interview was conducted a year before his unexpected passing in January of 2014 at the age of 51, and was published only in an audio format at the time. To honor his birthday, here is a condensed version of the interview in written form.

Ronny Jordan was a winner of Gibson Guitar's award for Best Jazz Guitarist, he was nominated for a Grammy, and was a jazz artist who has made it to the pop charts. He's known as one of the earliest and most successful jazz artists to draw upon the energy and vitality of hip hop. His music is perhaps best described as Urban Jazz, a blend of jazz, hip hop,smooth jazz and R&B—but certainly not limited to that.

His message is positive and spiritually uplifting, his grooves are addictive, and his playing is ingenious. He was completely self-taught, and in addition to his musicianship, he was an accomplished producer, arranger, and composer. He uses the studio as creatively as possible, and on his last album he introduced his fans to midi guitar—doing string, keyboard, and bass parts on a midi guitar.

Ronny was born and raised in London, the son of a Pentecostal preacher with a very interesting life story which he shared in this interview. This wide-ranging interview took place in late January of 2013, Ronny talks about the awakening of his talent, his early career, his big break with Island Records, and his recordings. Gifted, creative, and humble—he was all-about-the-music.

All About Jazz: I wanted to say thanks for taking time out to talk with us today. I really appreciate it.

Ronny Jordan: Look, I should thank you for considering me with all the many artists who are out there, I appreciate it.

AAJ: Oh no, I wanted to say for myself and on behalf of a lot of fans Ronny, thanks for all the hours and hours of pleasure your music has given us. I really appreciate all the hard work and dedication that went into making that music.

RJ: Well you know, honestly, I don't take credit for that. I give all credit to the Almighty, the Creator, because without Him we're nothing. And so, I can't thank you enough for the appreciation, it's just that I think it behooves every artist to keep his temple pure so that they can continually get inspiration.

Once we start thinking that it's just us—that we came up with all the inspiration and the ideas, that's when it starts getting self indulgent, and you won't be feeling what I'm doing. So I tend to give all praise and credit to the Most High.

AAJ: That's perhaps not a very common thing, but you certainly encounter that with a lot of musicians, going from people like John Coltrane all the way to people like Carlos Santana—they see themselves kind of like a vessel.

RJ: Absolutely, no question about that. You know, I could not have done that all by myself. So this is why it behooves us to keep all the egos out of it. When I think about it, it didn't start with me, it started with the Most High, and He chose me to share this gift with you. And that's just how I always look at it, and how I always will.

AAJ: It pays off to look at it that way, because when you look at it that way, you're all about the music.

RJ: Absolutely, I'm just all about the music, and sharing it. Everywhere I go to perform there is always someone who's touched, and I love that! That what I'm here for. I don't look at it as if it's all for me, no.

AAJ: Let me tell you about the first time I heard you in 1992. I was in Munich walking around the big pedestrian zone and they had this huge record shop, World of Music, with hundreds of headphones hanging around, and each headphone was a different CD—the way it used to be back in the day.

And sure enough I went to the section where they had guitarists like Hiram Bullock and those kind of guys, and I saw your album The Antidote was there. But not just one, there were three copies and people were still standing in line to listen to it.

RJ: Whao

AAJ: So I got in line, and I'll never forget it Ronny, when the music started, the opening bass lines on "Get To Grips" I thought like wow, and then the vibes came in—I was hooked right away.

I don't have all your albums, somehow I managed to miss Off the Record but I do have 8 of your albums, and I've never been disappointed, so I wanted you to know that.

RJ: (Laughing) Oh thank you! You know, Off the Record is a really funky album, it's probably the funkiest album of all my albums. But then again so is my upcoming album Straight Up Street which is kind of like a nod to the past, because it sort of reminds me of an updated answer to The Antidote

AAJ: I thought stylistically your last two albums were kind of intriguing, because one was like tip of the hat to the past and what brought you to where you are, and your latest album is like a trip to the future, it's a side of Ronny Jordan we haven't yet seen. But before we get to those two, which draw things together really well, maybe we can first explore the road that brought you to where you are now.

I've read that your father was a preacher, and your early musical influences were from gospel music.

RJ: From gospel and from my late father, God rest his soul. He owned an acoustic guitar and he only knew three chords. You know he was working too, and he used to come from work tired from 12 hour shifts and what have you, so he would just sit back and strum those three chords. (Laughing) A lot of times he would just fall asleep with the guitar, and I would watch him.

Of course back then the guitar was too big for me—this was back in the mid 60s, I was 3 going on 4, and on my 4th birthday my late father purchased a ukulele, like a small guitar, for me—this would have been November 1966.

AAJ: So a ukulele, that's basically like the bottom four strings of a guitar, is that right?

RJ: Yes, that's right. So essentially that was my first guitar, and my father bought me that in November of 1966 when I was four years old. So I'm self taught. I never went to music school. This is a gift from God. I can't read music—I don't know what half the chords I'm playing are. I mean I know the basic majors, it goes from A, B, C, D, E, F, G—so I know the major and minor chords, but all the other chords, I know a few of them, but I don't really know the names of the chords.

I was going to be sent to music school back in the 70s. The teachers at my school were aware of my talent, but one teacher, he was a Scottish gentleman by the name of Mr. Mackey, he was also a guitarist, he said no, don't send him. They were talking to my parents about this and they also said no, because in the end they all said it would change my style—and even by then my style was already unique. If I went to the school it would take it away, so they decided not to send me away.

AAJ: At what age would you have been when this was going on?

RJ: I was about 8 or 9 because my late mother was still alive, so this would have been the early 70s.

AAJ: So that early they recognized your talent.

RJ: Yes, by then I was already playing in church. I have this unique fingering style, so Mr. Mackey, my school teacher, he recognized this would change my style completely, and I wouldn't be who I am, I wouldn't be the same. So in the end they decided not to send me to music school. And Mr. Mackey wherever he is, God bless him.

AAJ: That was really insightful of him.

RJ: Yeah, because when I started playing his jaw dropped. (Laughing) I was like a celebrity at the school. I was like a pop star, I was mobbed!

AAJ: That kind of innate talent is something that really fascinates me. I read something that an academic wrote, I think it was a professor, and he maintained that great musicians are trained not born. And I've had the good fortune to interview some pretty great musicians and most of them were like you. When the right instrument dropped into their hands they went from zero to 80% really quickly, but it's the last 20%, I guess you could call it cutting and polishing the diamond, that's the hard part.

RJ: That's right, yeah, and part of being a musician is being able to write. Because you can have all the ability, but you've got to be able to write your own music, because then your voice will come through. So fortunately for me, you know, I didn't go to school for that either, I just listened to a lot of music. I discovered jazz at thirteen, but I didn't start playing it until I was 21. So during those eight years I listened to a lot of music, so I learned what to do, and what not to do. So that's really how I came up.

AAJ: Excuse my ignorance on this, but gospel music in America in the black churches is a very distinct form of music. You grew up in the UK, in London, is the gospel church there similar, or where you playing a completely different kind of thing?

RJ: No, it's pretty much the same, Pentecostal, that was our church, so the music was pretty much the same.

AAJ: So they would have been buying records from gospel groups in America and emulating them?

RJ: Yeah that's pretty much the same with jazz musicians in the UK, we would listen to a lot of American, and European jazz musicians, and then sort of form our own thing. Because you can never be the same as the next artist. You start with that artist, and somewhere along the way you develop your own style and find your own voice.

AAJ: You must have been in your late 20s when The Antidote album came out, and it made such a splash. You know Ronny, I used to think of you as an overnight sensation, but that can't be true. (Ronny is laughing) You probably paid some dues, so I was wondering, could you sketch your musical life? Like from your late teens until you landed the record deal with Island Records.

RJ: Absolutely, I'm happy to do that. Okay, I left high school in 1979 and I enrolled in college. My dear late mother had passed away in 1976, and I'm the second oldest child in my family. So in '79 the wounds were still fresh, we were mourning our dear late mother, she was only 40 years old when she passed. There were seven of us, so what happened was, my oldest brother left home, so I was the eldest child at home. So I went college for a year, a business studies course, and I passed. It was a general diploma, and I qualified for a national diploma and that was two years, whereas a general diploma was for one year.

So when I was about to do my national diploma my late father decided that I should work. He was made redundant and the rest of my siblings were all at school. I had to work, I had to get a job, so I did, this was back in 1980. By then I had gone to my first recording session, and I loved it. I started harboring dreams of becoming a full time musician. So from '80 to '85 I was working—my last job was for the police in London. Things started to get crazy, because by now I was starting to do a lot more session work. I was burning the candle at both ends, so I knew that at some point I would have to decide if I was going to do music full time, I knew I couldn't keep going the way I was, because I love music and I wanted to make a career out of it—and hopefully someday sign a deal.

So I had been working for the police from 1982 until 1985, and when I would leave that job, I would go and do recording sessions. Anyway, I had a chance to become a cop, and right down the road was the national training center for cadets, and they were ready to send me there because they needed more ethnic minorities. In my office the cops would come by, and they would stand me up and put their helmets on my head, and their jackets on me, and say, "You look really good in a uniform." And I thought they were joking until one day the chief superintendent, the highest ranking officer in the whole building, he called me in his office and said, "We're serious, we'd like you to be a policeman."

All the other black policemen in the office would speak to me privately and encourage me to join, saying it would be good for me. But I wanted to do music, so I had two choices, and in the end I decided to do music. I left in August of 1985, and the superintendent told me, "Look, if it doesn't work out for you, come back and be a cop." I told him I would. (laughing) This was 28 years ago.

So I went into music full time and became a pro in 1985. What helped me was a session I did with a great guitarist, it's sad because he's no longer with us. Are you familiar with Grace Jones?
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