Lest We Forget:

Clifford Jordan (1931-1993)
By Ken Waxman

Two of the milestone discs featuring tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan can serve as a summation of his musical life. The first, Blowing In From Chicago (1957, Blue Note), split with tenor man John Gilmore, played up his home town legacy. The second, These Are My Roots: Clifford Jordan Plays Led Belly (Atlantic 1965), featured Jordan’s highly personal rearrangement of some of the Texas songster’s uncompromising hollers, chain gang laments and folk songs for sextet augmented by a vocalist and a guitarist. Notwithstanding Jordan’s presence in ground-breaking ensembles such as bassist Charles Mingus’ sextet with Eric Dolphy and pianist Jaki Byard plus pianist Randy Weston’s African-oriented band, his talents were most comfortably expressed through the mainstream bop, blues and ballads that characterized his Windy City youth. “Bearcat”, one of his best-known compositions, first recorded in 1961 on the Jazzland album of the same name, could easily have fit in with among the blues-influenced tunes of his post-war Chicago.

A graduate of the legendary music program of the South Side’s DuSable High School, along with other tenor titans like Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin, Jordan established himself in Chicago before moving on to New York, where within a short time he was working in the bands of established combo leaders as drummer Max Roach and trombonist J.J. Johnson. After his experience with Mingus and Weston, Jordan’s activities expanded in New York and aboard. From a base in Belgium, he toured Africa and Europe as a single for a time. In New York, Jordan helped found Frontier records, producing LPs for underappreciated musicians such as drummer Ed Blackwell and bassist Wilbur Ware. A faculty member at Henry Street Settlement House, he became a music consultant for Bed-Sty Youth in Action and the Pratt Institute; taught reed instruments and flute; conducted bands for the Jazzmobile School; and in 1975 participated in public schools lecture-concert series for Jazz Interactions. He even played Lester Young – an early saxophone influence – in Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1972.

In demand as soloist with large ensembles such as Germany’s Hamburg Radio Big Band and the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands, Jordan never stopped recording – he’s featured on more than 100 discs – or combo work until his death from cancer. Among his long-term associations were membership in the Eastern Rebellion quartet, led by pianist Cedar Walton and in groups featuring trumpeters Art Farmer and Dizzy Reese, pianist Barry Harris and bassist Richard Davis.

Insistent that he would helm a big band before he died, Jordan finally attained his dream with a 16-piece, all-star unit whose most representative disc is on Mapleshade. Fittingly the title of that band’s 1990 release reflected Jordan’s long-time musical philosophy: Play What You Feel.

—For New York City Jazz Record May 2011