Saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan, a native of Crowley, Louisiana, is the recipient of OffBeat’s first Lifetime Achievement Award for Music Education. Jordan is the Associate Professor of Music at Southern University in New Orleans, as well as the Director of SUNO’s Bands and Jazz Studies, the Director of the Heritage Foundation School of Music and the Director of the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp.
Jordan’s many honors include knighthood, bestowed upon him by the republic of France, where he bears the title Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. As a musician, Jordan has played with artists ranging from Ray Charles and Professor Longhair to Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Adderley, Sun Ra and the World Saxophone Quartet, an ensemble which first performed together at one of his SUNO workshops. Since 1974, Jordan, along with drummer Alvin Fielder, has led the Improvisational Arts Ensemble. Jordan’s saxophone has been heard at every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since 1975. Asked for a definition of his work, Jordan calls it “creative improvisational music.”
Arriving at SUNO for this interview, we discovered the campus all but deserted for the Christmas break. Striding through the empty hallways, we heard a saxophone and followed our ears to “Kidd,” who was trying to break in a new reed. After a brief discussion of bamboo versus synthetic reeds, he pointed out the array of clips and chains that connected his Selmer Mark VI saxophone to his neck. Everything, he told us–even these clips and chains, was a matter of improvisation.
I’ve always wanted to know where the “Kidd” part of your name came from.
When I went to college, I was always the youngest one. When I went to college, I was about 15-years-old and all the other dudes were older. And they started calling me “Kid.” And by me playing music, they put it together with Kid Ory and all the other Kid’s they had. But I said, I’m not a “kid”–that’s a goat. So I’ve got the two d’s on my name to distinguish me from a goat.
Why is education important to musicians?
A lot of musicians are musically illiterate–that’s the first thing. There’s a lot of people playing music–all through the ages and especially with jazz–and they could be musically illiterate as far as sheet music and theory and all that, which is good in a way and bad in a way. If we’re talking about in the 20th-century, with all the literacy we’ve got, there is a need for people to really understand how to play music correctly.
It’s unfortunate that three-fourths of the jazz musicians–I ain’t talking about local, I’m talking about big time musicians–as far as instrumentalists, based upon the way the instrument is supposed to be played, a lot of them are really deficient. I’m not just talking about New Orleans, I’m talking about nation-wide. They’ve got people teaching jazz that would be in a remedial class on the instrument if they were in a conservatory.
If musicians get by without an education and they play gigs and sell records, why does the lack of education matter?
When you talk about bringing music to another level–this is the point that’s missing, everything else has been brought to a level dealing with education. This is why it’s so dangerous because with illiteracy, you can only do some things. But you’ve got to be literate in order to bring things to the next level. Some of the things that people have invented, some of things that other people take credit for, people may not have had enough literacy in order to do it. But they didn’t get credit for it. They may have stumbled into it. The people, in the final analysis, who got credit for it were literate. If you’re talking about bringing something to another level, illiteracy’s not going to do that.
There’s folk things people can do and the music always comes from the folks. You’ve got to have both of them working hand-in-hand. If you get it all, conservatory-wise, then you’re not going to have the other part. If you’ve got that part and don’t have all the feeling and all the things from the street, then you’re still lacking. This is the way styles are born.
Styles are born out of people’s technique. When people have enough technique, then they can do some things. People ask me why I play so bizarre–I can jump five octaves on a dime without even thinking about it because I’ve got enough technique to do that. But if you don’t have enough technique to do it then you can’t do it.
Like on a tenor saxophone, a lot of people can’t play the low register. I can play the low register and the top register. Some people concentrate on one end of the horn and not on the other. This is where technique comes in at. And this is why some of the things that Coltrane did, they’re going to have to deal with in probably 2050. So I understand that some of the things that I’m doing, they’re going to have to deal with it later. Whether somebody likes it or not, I could care less whether somebody likes it.
When you talk about something that has to develop, that doesn’t depend on somebody selling records. When this music was invented, it wasn’t invented on somebody making money out of selling records. All of that is by-product. This is one of the reasons why we’re having so much trouble because people make money and money guarantees you financial success but it doesn’t say that the music will continue to develop. You need educators in order to do that.
I’m one of them that tries to do things as correctly as I can, based upon the way it’s supposed to be. Whether somebody’s making money on it, whether somebody likes it, that’s immaterial.
What’s the importance of practicing?
In order to get your craft down where you can do it like it’s supposed to be done, you have to practice. A whole lot of people, concerning jazz, practice on songs and tunes, make them sound good. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the way things are supposed to be done. This is why some people fall into those traps because people pat them on the back and say, “You play this song good,” but that doesn’t have anything to do with developing the music or developing the instrumentalist. I’ll give you an example: there isn’t anybody who could play a saxophone as well as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, instrumental-wise. And both of them were playing some music that people said, “Man, what is this?!” People are still turning their noses up at them but they could both out-play everybody on their particular instruments. And they could play a saxophone as well as Heifetz could play a violin.
Do you think being from New Orleans had an effect upon your music?
When you say “being from New Orleans,” I was a man when I got here. I heard music in the country, I heard all kinds of different music. When you say “New Orleans music,” that’s another myth. I don’t know what “New Orleans music” is. Anybody who makes music from New Orleans is New Orleans music.
This is one of the reasons why I have such a problem with people who put me in the avant-garde category. I call it “crazy music.” I can’t deal with it when somebody says, “Well, that’s not New Orleans music.” I played with the Hawkettes, pre-Neville Brothers, pre-all of this. I played with Professor Longhair, all the rest of them blues singers. So I know how all that goes.
I was in Boston last week and they were playing the Meters. I said, “I remember when the Meters–especially Zigaboo–were little kids, sitting on the porch, listening to me practice with Idris Muhammad who was Leo Morris then.” The Meters played some good music but I was dealing with that music before it came out. I was enthused about it but I’ve been hearing that for years. What I’m trying to say is that the music’s got to develop.
Being down here in New Orleans is one of the things that stifled my career. Like a lot of fellows left and went up and I was on the edge of it. I played with people like Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman but I stayed here. And I stayed here teaching school.
I’ve taught a lot of kids but now, I’ve got second thoughts. Maybe, I’m thinking, I should’ve left. When I see what I’ve done and what I’ve tried to do and the results–the way it’s going…I’ve got some of my students that are trying to extend the music but the majority of people are just playing. Maybe I’m a little bit too farsighted–I’m one of them that wants to keep something going.
I deal with racehorses. It’s just like inbreeding, the music that we keep dealing with. That’s why them bulldogs are so terrible, because of inbreeding. If you get horses inbred, you got some problems. And the music in New Orleans is not getting enough from other places. People are making money on it and they’re teaching it in a certain way and they’re just keeping the status quo.
Now music don’t have anything to do with what we like or dislike. It’s just like kids. You’ve got kids–when they were little, you enjoyed them. They were cute. But after a while, they were men and nothing you can do about that. So we’ve come from the music of Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman to fusion and the music’s got to keep growing. And the next generation’s going to deal with it.
I was so glad when I first heard hip-hop music, when they were scratching the records and they were beating on their mouths and all that. I said, “Wow!” Miles Davis heard that, too, ’cause Miles started dealing with it.
Rhythms is the first thing that changes in jazz. And when they did all that scratching and rhythms–they’ve got some 20th-century composers trying to do what the hip-hoppers are doing with that scratching. And I knew those people didn’t hear that in no conservatory. They heard it on the street. I said, “Well, the music done turned now.”
Folk music is very important. You’ve got to have that folk element plus you’ve got to have that education thing, too. You put them together and that’s how the music develops. One by itself ain’t gonna make it. If that was the case, the people studying symphonic music would develop it. If that was the case, the people on the streets would develop it. But you’ve got to have a mesh between the two and you’ve got to have somebody with some vision as to how they’re going to deal with this. See what I’m saying?
Quiet as it’s kept, I’m working on sounds now to deal with that kind of stuff. You’ve got to hear it first. Another thing about jazz now, the majority of the people that’s playing, they’re not improvising. What they’re doing is playing from memory. Like I could take this sheet of music and play a solo. Take this sheet away, you memorize it, you practice it enough and go on and play. But literacy plays another part. If you read the definition of “improvisation,” it means you’re supposed to come off the top of your head.
I was in Finland about three weeks ago and we we went on the stand with nothing in mind–don’t talk about no songs, no tunes or nothing: just get out and start playing. Play off of what we hear. People say, “How long it took y’all to get this together?” We played off of one another and ain’t no just at random stuff. He’s listening at what I’m doing, I’m listening at him and we’re listening close enough like it’s almost telepathy. We can just come off of one another. This is what I’m talking about: they’re not training people how to use their ears.
Them old jazz men, when you go back to them, that’s what they had: they developed their ears. They didn’t sit up with no records and learn somebody’s solo or write somebody’s solo out and then go learn it and play it in a class as an exercise. This is what they’re doing now. It’s like they can make me an artist if they give me some numbers and dots and tell me to connect them. I’d say, “Man, I ain’t no artist–I connected the dots.”
How do you develop a musician’s ears?
Man, that’s a hell of a process. You’ve got to start that with little kids. About 30 years ago, Ornette Coleman straightened me out on that. He said, “Look, somebody who listens at a record and plays what he hears on a record, that ain’t nothing but a duplicator.” When you learn how to improvise, you give a musician two or three notes and say, “All right–start playing off of that–make some sense off of that.” You may not be able to play what Charlie Parker played but start improvising, coming from within, putting some rhythm, putting some structure to it. A lot of people don’t know the difference between improvising and duplicating.
I know people with perfect pitch who can hear a dog bark and tell you what it is but they can’t improvise. When I was coming up, I knew three people that had perfect pitch and they couldn’t play nothing. I said, “God, I’m sure glad you didn’t give me perfect pitch.”
And there’s something about timbre. Sometimes when I’m playing, I’ve got to manufacture some fingerings and some notes because I hear the sounds they’re doing and I’ve got to duplicate it because I’m playing on it–you’ve got to hear it. That’s where practice comes in at–that you’re going to come up with something from some kind of false, fake thing and you come up with the sound ’cause you’re hearing what you’re trying to get. That’s from hearing the timbre of the sound. That’s the kind of ear that people have to have.
Sometimes, when people get a duplicator’s ear, like when my kids were small, they’d be practicing with a record and I’d walk through the house from one room to another and play the lick. They’d say, “Daddy, you know that?” I’d say, “No, I don’t know it.” Marlon would say, “Write the solo out for me, Daddy.” I’d say, “No, you deal with that.”
Like right now, I don’t listen to too many people play. In fact, I don’t listen to too many records. I don’t want to listen to myself. ’Cause social listening–some of that stuff will creep in. Not that it’s not no good but I want to do what I want to do. I’ve got too much old baggage on me. Some things I do now that I don’t want to do is because I’m so old. If I was younger, there would be some things I could just play because I hear how to play it and it would be completely free like what I want to do and it would still be in relationship to what it is.
I feel the same way about my art–I try to avoid looking at other artists, which is impossible.
I play in Germany with the top three German artists: A.R. Penck, Marcus Lüpertz and Jörg Immendorf. Penck plays drums and piano, Lüpertz plays piano–we go on tours over there. I’ve seen Penck and them sell paintings for a million German marks. All three of them–we be together all the time. Immendorf is not a musician, he had a music club. We go and play those big museums and they sell their art. When I go over there with them, we be like national figures, like Clinton and them. The national television be following us around, we’re in Rolls-Royces and all that. I know what big-time art is all about and the music that they play is related.
Do you feel that the idea of New Orleans having a music industry is something of a fantasy?
Jazz never was a part of the music industry. Really, jazz is a write-off because companies have them big rock people and the people may as well face that. The rock ‘n’ rollers are the ones selling popular music. Jazz had its heyday in the ’20s. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins–those people not selling no records. When you’re talking about jazz, as far as I’m concerned, the jazz business is in New York. If a jazz musician sells 20,000 records, they should give him a Grammy and a gold record and everything.
What do you tell a kid from New Orleans who wants to be a professional musician?
Tell him that’s the kiss of death. I really wouldn’t tell nobody to be a musician. I don’t tell nobody to study jazz. Listen at me carefully: all these schools where people are studying jazz, I don’t know nobody that’s got a band that says I’m going to hire somebody to play in my band based upon the degree that you got —face that. When a kid’s good, studying jazz, going to get a degree–after a while, he’s going to fall in love and get married and have some children. Let’s say in New Orleans–the only person I know now who’s making the kind of living I would want to make, playing jazz, is Pete Fountain. Everybody else I know plays jazz and teaches school, doing this, doing that.
They don’t have the clubs now. At one time, you could go and play in New York for a week, you could go to Chicago for a week, you could go out to California and play for a week. I don’t know too many clubs–even in New York–where somebody could play jazz seven days a week. They used to have jazz clubs all over the country–all of that’s gone. Now the majority of jazz players, the only thing they can look forward to is Europe. I can go over there and play because my stuff is similar to what the Europeans are doing and they understand that I’ve still got some American element to it and I’m still swinging where their music sounds like classical music. I’ve got two kids that can really play jazz–Marlon and Kent can play–and they’re having problems making a living.
We were in Germany, close to Liszt’s house and this little girl–a music student–told me, “You’re a virtuoso on the saxophone and Liszt was a virtuoso on the piano.” I said, “Well, I’m not in the same class as Liszt.” She said, “The difference is that he was playing the music that was written but I was listening at you last night playing music off the top of your head. There’s no way in the world Liszt could’ve done that.” She had to be a hip musical student to come up with that kind of thing.
Do children from New Orleans have any cultural advantages over other children, as pertains to music?
Sometimes being from New Orleans is good and sometimes it’s a curse. You know why it’s a curse? ’Cause when they get down in the French Quarters, they learn how to play by going over and over and over. I can teach some monkeys how to play music if you do it over and over. The thing that New Orleans may have is rhythm. Anytime somebody’s got some rhythm, you can bring that somewhere ’cause rhythm is very important in this music. New Orleans is a town where we can just beat on cans and get somebody to start reacting to it. You can’t argue with these kids ’cause people are throwing money at them. In New Orleans, you hear a lot of music but you’ve got to put some study and some time into it.
A lot of great artists didn’t sell nothing. I teach school for a living. If I stop doing this, I’ll raise horses. I never played music for a living and I chose that. When I do my thing, I ain’t gonna prostitute my music.