June 25, 2024


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Clifford Jordan epitomized the Chicago tenor sound: Videos, Photos

Ironically, his rare ability to fit in playing either bluesy hard bop or exploratory avant-garde jazz might’ve been why he doesn’t stand out more among the giants of his era. When tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan died in 1993, he hadn’t lived in Chicago for nearly 40 years, but he was still beloved here. “Clifford’s personality was warm and sincere, just like his tone on the saxophone,” Chicago tenor titan Von Freeman told Howard Reich at the Tribune. “He was a beautiful person—he helped me and a lot of other people get some recordings and gigs in New York.” 

In the same obituary, Chicago drummer Wilbur Campbell called Jordan’s approach to music “incredibly serious and strong-willed.” One of Jordan’s longtime collaborators, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Art Farmer, reflected on their bond: “I think Clifford and I got on so well because we both liked to make [musical] statements, as opposed to playing bunches of notes,” he explained to the Trib. “Clifford developed an individual voice. He was one of the genuine jazz players. He had extremely sensitive ears—he could match his sound to whatever ensemble he was playing with.”

Reader critic Peter Margasak reviewed a Jordan box set in 2013, calling him “one of the most versatile representatives of the Chicago tenor sound that emerged from DuSable High School under the leadership of Captain Walter Dyett—other exponents included Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, Johnny Griffin, and John Gilmore.”

Jordan was celebrated during his life, and many of his albums remain highly regarded—in terms of recordings, he was one of the most prolific jazz artists of his era. But I don’t think he gets the shine he should, and Margasak agrees: “He doesn’t seem as revered as his cohorts these days,” he wrote. “I think part of the reason for that is that Jordan was a curious and elegant musician who tried on many hats during his career.”

Jordan would follow the drivers to their stables. “The black intelligentsia—doctors and lawyers who were sportsmen as well—frequented the stables,” he told Concord, “and that’s where you heard all the good music on the jukebox.” At age 13, Jordan took up the saxophone, and by 16, inspired by his hero Charlie Parker, he’d decided it was his life’s calling.

Jordan was lucky to study with the hard-as-nails Dyett at Bronzeville’s DuSable High, where the music program produced a steady stream of future legends. “A lot of people wanted to be in the band but the instructor wouldn’t let any bad apples in there,” he recalled. “Once he detected you couldn’t play he’d kick you out of the band room. He didn’t stand for any foolishness.”

Jordan’s first gig was at a dance where he led a band for five dollars per musician. Soon he was playing gritty R&B with the likes of bassist-songwriter Willie Dixon, jump-blues journeyman Joseph “Cool Breeze” Bell, and drummer-bandleaders Jack “Cowboy” Cooley (who’d played with Albert Ammons & His Rhythm Kings) and Armand “Jump” Jackson.

Saxophonists Johnny Griffin and John Gilmore, both classmates of Jordan’s at DuSable, hit the circuit with him. “We would play at the old Cotton Club, at 62nd and Cottage Grove,” Wilbur Campbell told the Trib. “We’d jam to all hours of the night, Clifford, Gilmore, Griffin and me.” Gilmore, a longtime Sun Ra sideman, would be crucial to Jordan’s next career phase in New York.

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A full-album stream of Clifford Jordan’s first recording, Blowing in From Chicago

After Jordan moved to the Big Apple in 1956, he made his first recording with Gilmore: the 1957 Blue Note album Blowing in From Chicago, with liner notes by Jazz Showcase owner Joe Segal. For this fiery postbop date, the two saxophonists hooked up with a New York rhythm section that included pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey. (First pressings of the LP now command thousands of dollars, but luckily it’s been reissued.)

Jordan found he had to change gears after his relocation. “In New York I never could get the rock and roll gigs or commercial gigs I used to get in Chicago,” he told Concord, “so I was a little disappointed. They made me a specialist—a jazz saxophone player.”

Cliff Craft - Cliff Jordan
The title track from one of Jordan’s other Blue Note releases as a bandleader

“I didn’t try to follow anybody’s pattern,” he told Concord. “I just wrote what I felt. Some people could write to make it sound like Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, or Glenn Miller, but I always thought it was just better to write original music . . . I’m not one who just paints on music paper. I leave a lot of leeway for performing—if I were to tell players exactly what to do I’d hate the music.”

In 1960 Jordan formed a quartet with pianist Cedar Walton, who’d become a longtime collaborator. That band recorded the excellent LP Spellbound for Riverside, then jumped labels to Jazzland for 1962’s Bearcat.

Beginning in the early 60s, Jordan worked for several years with drummer Max Roach. He played in big bands with Lloyd Price (one of his few R&B gigs during this period) and Clark Terry. In 1963 he recorded with Eric Dolphy, and the following year they both joined the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop sextet, which toured Europe. Jordan released These Are My Roots: Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly for Atlantic in 1965 and concurrently continued his busy sideman schedule, recording with the likes of Charles McPherson and Joe Zawinul.

Jordan had always enjoyed playing in Europe, and he moved to Belgium in 1969. America drew him back the following year, though. After Jordan made a failed attempt to start his own imprint, called Frontier, he struck a deal with Strata-East Records, owned by pianist Stanley Cowell and trumpeter Charles Tolliver. Margasak called it “one of the most prolific and highest quality artist-run labels in jazz history.”

Jordan debuted for Strata-East in 1972 with the 1969 recording Clifford Jordan in the World, using two different bands—their lineups included trumpeter Don Cherry, trombonist Julian Priester, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and drummer Roy Haynes. In 1974 Strata-East released his revered modal-jazz LP Glass Bead Games.

Glass Bead Games
The title track of Glass Bead Games, one of Clifford Jordan’s best-remembered albums

In the 60s, Jordan found an outlet for his strong interest in public service by devoting himself to music education. Over the years, his activities in that sphere included presenting concerts and lectures in New York public schools, serving as a music consultant for Bed-Stuy Youth in Action, giving flute and saxophone lessons for nonprofit arts organization Jazzmobile, teaching for the Henry Street Settlement (another nonprofit that offers social services and health care as well as arts programs), and working as the first musical director at Dancemobile.

Jordan’s discography alone could take up another entire Secret History column—he appeared on more than 100 recordings in his lifetime. I haven’t touched on most of his collaborators—Philly Joe Jones, Carol Sloane, John Hicks, Richard Davis, David “Fathead” Newman—but I have to mention two of the excellent albums he made for Chicago label Bee Hive, started in 1977 by Jim and Susan Neumann and named for a local club. In 1981 and 1984, respectively, Jordan recorded Hyde Park After Dark with Von Freeman and Cy Touff and Dr. Chicago with trumpeter Red Rodney.

Clifford Jordan - Dr  Chicago
In the 80s, Jordan started playing regularly with Art Farmer, renewing an acquaintance they’d begun during the saxophonist’s first years in New York. Their collaboration included several album releases, and it continued till the end of Jordan’s days. Jordan loved to play in large ensembles too—he’d been playing in radio orchestras in Europe for decades when he launched his own big band in New York in the 1990s. “Hopefully the big band will come back, because there are too many musicians out here for everybody to have little quartets and quintets,” he told Concord. “My band is three quintets, that’s the way I look at it.”

Clifford Jordan died of lung cancer on March 27, 1993, and he’s still being honored publicly. This past September 11, producer Arnie Perez and his company VTY Jazz Arts presented a quintet tribute to Jordan at the Cutting Room in New York City. Perhaps soon his name will begin appearing where it belongs—right alongside those of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker.

An illustration of jazz saxophonist Clifford Jordan embedded in the title card for the Secret History of Chicago Music

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