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

Alan Bryson By

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AAJ: Yes I remember Grace Jones—she was like 6 feet something and had that squared off haircut.

RJ: She had a big hit record, "Slave to the Rhythm" and he played on that. He was the first serious pro I ever met, his name was JJ Belle. JJ performed for a lot of groups, you've heard his playing because he was everywhere. He inspired me because he told me I'd be a better guitarist if I went full time because I could practice, and I would improve a lot more. I loved that, and besides, I wanted to travel the world. So I went pro, much to the annoyance of my late father. (Laughing)

I mean we always got along really well, I love and respect him, he passed away almost eleven years ago now. That was just the one time we didn't agree. Well anyway, I went pro, and work was slow. But prior to that, going back to 1981, back then I was at a club, I wasn't inside, but outside you could hear the music coming out. So I would talk to the bouncers, but what was amazing to me was when I heard this hip hop beat. This was about 2am or 3am in the morning, so I hear this hip hop beat, and I hear some jazz guitar, but you could tell it wasn't on the same record, it was the DJ. He was spinning both sounds together, and it sounded amazing, just amazing. He made it fit, you know it might have been have been some Kenny Burrell or Grant Green. It wasn't Wes Montgomery and it wasn't George Benson, it was more like Kenny or Grant, and it was really hip. That's when the idea came to me, and I realized this is where I should go (musically.)

So in the early '80s I was in a lot of bands and doing gospel projects, because I was still in the church. But I was in some other bands as well. The whole jazz hip hop thing was a side thing for me back then. So being in all these bands, there was a lot of politics, and you know me, I'm all about the music, I'm not about the politics. So anyway, what happened was right about 1989 or 1990 I left the band thing and started to develop this hip hop jazz thing.

I realized I would need to dumb it down if this was going to make it on the radio—I'd have to lighten it a bit. So that is when *The Antidote was born.

AAJ: How did you get the deal, did you have it worked out in your mind what you needed to do?

RJ: I'd sent demos to all the labels in London and they all turned me down, basically saying what you have here is nice, but there's no market for it. So what happened was, I was doing a gig with a singer, and while I was backstage I was talking to this guy from Island Records and we struck up a very interesting conversation and he never forgot me, and at the time he was working for the studio. So a few years went by, and back then the straight ahead jazz thing had sort of made a comeback, so what I did was to get some friends and we went into the studio to do some straight ahead stuff.

So I sent that to the label. I called them and it was the same guy I'd talked to before, because when I said my name he said, "Hey I know you! We talked backstage." And what happened was that he'd moved over to A&R and I didn't know that. He said what I had sent was nice, but they'd heard it all before, and he asked if I could give them something unique. So I told them, that I had this other project I was working on and you might want to hear it. He said, "Well send it." So I sent him an instrumental version of "Get to Grips." He loved it, he said, "This is what I'm talkin' about!" So give me a few more like that and we can do a deal.

I had this idea for "So What" and I did it at a friend's house, and I sent it to the guy, and when he heard it, he called me right away, and he told me: "Can you get here today!" So I got on the bus and I went there, and he told me, look, "I want to sign you." And before I knew it, the legal attorney for the label was in the room, and they took my details down and it just went from there. This was early 1991, and I signed the deal in July of 1991, so it took like six months. So in August I recorded The Antidote and in November it was finished. They loved "So What" so much they said, "Look, this is going to be the single. That's the hottest thing we've heard in a long time."

What's ironic, I don't know if you've heard this, but we were think of getting Miles Davis to do the video. But we were told he wasn't feeling well.

AAJ: Didn't he die around that time?

RJ: He died the night I finished it! Do you remember the band from the 60s The Kinks?

AAJ: Oh sure.

RJ: They had a recording studio, I found it on Facebook, it's closed.

AAJ: Funny coincidence, I think Derek Trucks bought the board and some stuff from that studio.

RJ: Yeah! Well that's where we finished "So What" and Ray Davies he popped his head in the studio and said it's going to be a hit. So I met Ray, and I grew up listening to the guy, and suddenly Ray Davies is before me, and he was really commending the track. He said, "Oh I love this, it's really funky."

So anyway, I went home, I was living with my ex girlfriend. It was really late, and I put my headphones on and I played "So What" through my system and it sounded great. And just after I played it, I switched on the TV and this was 1991 and they were talking about the first Gulf War and there was a picture of Saddam Hussein and suddenly it changed to Miles Davis. And I thought, oh my God, and I knew right away what it was going to be because you don't see Miles on the news. And the newscaster announced Miles had passed away, and I was startled. So out of respect I didn't want them to release the record. And the label was like, "Are you kidding? We're going to release it!" And back then they had DAT tape, and one of the A&R guys went to a club and just played the DAT tape, and the place when crazy. This was in London, and they were like, "Who is that!"

RJ: The very first gig I did as Ronny Jordan was in December of 1991 and this was in Brixton at the Fridge, and they wouldn't let me through the door. I told them I was Ronny Jordan and they said, "Ronny Jordan is American." And I'm like, "I'm Ronny Jordan!" And then another guy came and, "It's him, it's him." So they let me in, and it was sold out, and it was an amazing show. They were freakin' out, and they started playing "So What" around the clubs. Everyone was just goin' crazy. It was the first single release on Island Records in January of 1992 and it went into the charts.

I was at Ronnie Scott's club that Sunday—Roy Ayers, the vibes player, was doing two weeks at Ronnie Scott's, and the week would run from Monday to Saturday. So Sunday was his day off, and he'd be back on Monday. So another artist will come in and perform that day, and I was there and doing the sound check. And every Sunday the new charts come out for the week, and I'd forgotten about it. So after sound check I was standing outside of Ronnie Scott's and this girl comes down the street screaming, "Twenty-nine, twenty-nine!" So they're going crazy and I'm lookin' around and asking, "What's wrong?" And they said, ""So What" just went into the charts at twenty-nine!" I was mobbed, so we did the gig that night, and the champagne was flowing and I got to meet Ronnie Scott that night. It was an amazing surreal experience and I think it was the first jazz record in the charts for 30 years—I think it was "Take Five" that was in the charts in 1962, and that was the year I was born. So now we're in 1992, and now "So What" is in the charts.

AAJ: Miles Davis must have been smiling down on that, what a great thing, it's a perfect story.

RJ: It was amazing. I was doing an interview and was asked if I'd ever heard Miles' last studio album, and I say no I hadn't heard it. And they played "The Doo Bop Song" and I almost fell of my chair, because Miles and I were in the same direction, because Miles was doing hip hop jazz too. Doo Bop was released right after The Antidote and he produced it with a New York producer named Easy Mo Bee. I never met Easy Mo Bee, but we talked on the phone and there was a possibility of him producing my second album but it didn't materialize. I wish I could have worked with him because we could have done amazing things together—but we'll never know now. But he produced Miles' Doo Bop album and it was amazing when people started comparing it to The Antidote, and people were saying if he had lived he would have approved.

People would ask me if Miles would have approved of me doing his "So What" and I said, "I think he would, because Miles was always for changing." So when Doo Bop came out in the summer of 1992, then people knew I was right, and most agreed that Miles would have approved of my doing "So What."

AAJ: Ronny I'm not a jazz historian, but when you think back, in the '20s, '30s, and '40s jazz was dance music. Are you maybe the first guy since then who brought jazz back into clubs to dance to?

RJ: It was deliberate, because I studies my history, and in order to jazz to be relevant and survive, you have to have young people involved, and you have to use modern elements. So, my thing was, if I use hip hop elements, that would attract young people. The elders, they like the beats, but they're more there for the chops. I've always described my music and music for the head and the feet.

AAJ: And I would put the heart in there too.

RJ: Absolutely, that too. I keep telling people, jazz was the pop music of its day. You had a good time. In the '60s jazz got a little cool, and then you had this free jazz movement from the late '50s, '60s, '70s and that's all well and good, but because of rock & roll and soul young people moved away from jazz. Then in the '70s it sort of came back, you had funk like Roy Ayers and George Benson.

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