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

Alan Bryson By

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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.

AAJ: Didn't you get Roy Ayers in to record with you on "Brighter Day"?

RJ: Yes, we're good friends, and he's another musical influence. He may not play guitar, but he's a musical influence—I listened to a lot of his records growing up.

But in any case, it was important to keep that youth element.

AAJ: I think Wes Montgomery tried that and got a lot of grief from jazz purists about that. But he said something like, "Look, I'm playing popular music with a jazz foundation, so get over it!"

RJ: There's nothing wrong with that. There's an old saying in the South, if you ain't paying me, I'm not listening. I don't mind constructive criticism, it's healthy, but when people just criticize for the sake of criticizing, that's messed up. I don't like it. I think a lot of critics are failed musicians who never got past first base, and they are jealous of the success. They would have preferred that Wes was broke and struggling. For them, that's the beauty of jazz, when you broke and struggling, and you're trying to make ends meet. When you're successful and having hit records, that goes against the grain the the fact is, Wes crossed over, like I crossed over.

The critics seem to have a problem with it, but my thing is, they're not paying me, so I'm not listening to them. They don't have any bearing or relevance on what I do.

AAJ: You know Ronny my thing is, I talk to people whose music touches me, and that means I can be positive, enthusiastic, and honest. But if I were just churning it out and talking to people whose music I don't get or don't like, that's not a healthy combination. I think if an artist is out there giving it everything he's got, if I don't happen to like it, I'm just one person, and lots of other people may like it—so just leave it alone.

RJ: That's it, just leave it alone. I never like to criticize because you know, I don't take my opinion seriously. Everyone has an opinion, and you're totally right and I agree with you. Just because someone doesn't like something doesn't mean that it isn't good. To each his own. What I don't like, someone else will like, and as far as I'm concerned, that's legit. You know it's personal taste, and everyone has their own personal taste.

AAJ: I noticed on your last album notes you listed some of your influences, but I didn't see Charlie Christian, I wonder to you have any thought about him?

RJ: Charlie Christian was a major influence, if his name wasn't there, then that was a mistake because when you think about jazz guitar, it really started with Charlie Christian. Without him there would have been no Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, George Benson, Kenny Burrell, no Ronny Jordan, no Russell Malone. You know, Charlie Christian was "it." Sam Cooke's guitarist once described Charlie Christian as from God Almighty. When he appeared on the scene, he freaked everybody out.

AAJ: Up to that time guitar had just been part of the rhythm section and kind of in the background right?

RJ: Exactly, absolutely. There was a guy named Eddie Durham who was sort of a blues jazz guitarist. But he didn't have the chops like Charlie Christian had. He was credited as having started the electric guitar. Eddie Durham knew Charlie Christian, so once Charlie Christian got hold of it, he was the first prominent jazz guitar soloist. It was through Charlie that people got to hear jazz guitar as it is today, and he had the chops to justify that. And all of the sudden he was right up there with the horn, because prior to his ascension the horn was taking all the glory. But when he came along, he was right up there with the horn, you could hear Charlie, and his chops were out of this world. So Charlie Christian was and still is a major influence, so that was a mistake, because Charlie Christian is a major influence. It's a guitar lineage—in term of jazz guitar you have BC before-Charlie Christican and AC after-Charlie Christian.

Once the electric guitar was in his hands, people started to notice the jazz guitar, and Wes came and kind of took it to another level. But make no mistake, it started with Charlie Christian. Wes and Grant Green studied Charlie Christian and they took it to another level.

And of course George Benson came along and he went even further. My thing when coming onto the scene was not to repeat what those guys did, but to keep that spirit and use the modern vein with hip hop to bring jazz back to the street. You know, make it fun again.

AAJ: Ronny, just how popular were to albums like the The Antidote and Quiet Revolution?

RJ: Huge, just huge.

AAJ: They were like in pop territory right?

RJ: Yes, they crossed over. I didn't go overboard with the improvisation, I didn't want to alienate the listeners. Basically I wanted to spoon feed them, because a lot of them were young people. And those young people who were buying The Antidote and Quiet Revolution, it was their first introduction to jazz. Then they started getting into Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, so yes those albums were very popular, they got into the charts.

AAJ: If someone asked me my favorite Ronny Jordan track I would have a tough time answering. Do you have a favorite?

RJ: My favorite would have to be "After Hours," and I'll tell you why. It wasn't supposed to make the album. I had the final list, and one day we were at a session and the melody was in my head and it had to come out. I had to lay it down. So said, let's just lay it down for the hell of it, and let the chips fall where they may. So we laid the beats, we laid the chords and I laid the melody. And we were looking at each other, and we were both like—wow!

So the record company guy came by, and he heard it and he was floored. We all agreed that it had to be on the album. So they asked me what the title was, and I said "After Hours" because one night I was going home and I just couldn't get it out of my head. It was late, the early morning hours, I love night time because that's when my creative juices get going.

"After Hours" broke here in America, the album The Antidote was highly influential on the Acid Jazz front, and the track "After Hours" was influential in smooth jazz, so that album did things all at one time. I was surprised, because I thought "So What" was going to be the track that would launch me in the US, but it wasn't, it was "After Hours." At that time on smooth jazz radio all you were hearing was saxophone, Kenny G, Grover Washington Jr., Gerald Albright and guys like that, and if you were hearing any guitar it was George Benson's "Breezin," or some Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, you might even hear Wes Montgomergy's "Bumpin' on Sunset." You had much more sax records than guitars, but I'll tell you, once "After Hours" came out it revolutionized radio. It put the guitar right back on top.

Then you started to hear a lot of guitarists trying to sound like me. It's funny because my style is influenced by Wes Montgomery, no question, and I'm not calling any names, but you'd hear some rock guitarists who were putting their distortion pedals down, buying a Gibson L-5 and trying to sound like Wes Montgomery. (Cracking up) It was funny.

George Benson is like an uncle to me, a big brother uncle. We would go out for drinks, or go out to dinner, or hang out at the house. Once we were driving and we were listening to the radio and (laughing) George laughed and said, "Check it out, this guy is tryin' to sound like Ronny Jordan!"
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