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

Alan Bryson By

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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?

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.
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