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Steve Jordan – Listen to Your Heart and the Groove

By Bryan Reesman

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Steve Jordan with Quincy Jones (JFA Board member) at The Apollo after one of the ‘A Great Night In Harlem’ gala events

Being a great drummer does not have to do with the size of one’s kit but the power of their playing and expansiveness of their knowledge. Drumming luminary Steve Jordan exemplifies this idea. If one examines his various performances from over the years, it quickly becomes apparent that he prefers a stripped-down kit – snare drum, hi-hat, one mounted tom, one floor tom, and a ride cymbal. His signature style is more focused on the kick, the snare, and hi-hat, and he is not big on fills.

This musical philosophy has served Jordan well. Over more than four decades, he has worked with some major bands and artists. He was the first drummer for “Saturday Night Live,” was part of the Most Dangerous Band In The World on Letterman for a few years, and returned later to “SNL.” He has toured and/or recorded with diverse artists such as Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Keith Richards, John Mayer, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and the Blues Brothers, among many, many others. He has become a Grammy Award-winning producer (and racked up three other nominations.) Chuck Berry hand picked him to be the drummer for the concert film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” A list of his accomplishments could easily fill the space of this cover story.

Going over some music with John Scofield

When JAZZed chats with Jordan in person, we are seated in the conference room at the National Dance Institute in Harlem. He is part of the band playing at a performance that night, and during a quick soundcheck he shows off the same attitude behind the kit as one would expect at a major rock show or a gala fundraising concert. Music emanates from every fiber of his being. He also respects the song.

In discussing his approach to playing, Jordan invokes the late Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro. “Jeff never really put a signature lick on there, or some kind of ‘hi mom’ thing,” notes Jordan. “He just played the song. I think Jeff, in a lot of ways, is almost underrated in his virtuosity because his primary goal, like mine, was to play the song first. Let the song dictate what you play. That’s really great. I really cherish the friendship that we had. We didn’t know each other very long, but he gave me the ultimate honor by asking me to play drums on a Toto track. That blew my mind. It was a great afternoon and something I’ll never forget.”

Jordan’s preference for a stripped-down kit developed over time but also hearkens back to some of his favorite players and inspirations who had very simple setups, including Ringo Starr, Tony Williams, and Art Blakey. “In the mid to late ‘70s, when people started adding toms, I was a big Billy Cobham fan,” recalls Jordan. “With Mahavishnu [Orchestra], everybody went a little crazy.”

When Jordan got his first Yamaha endorsement around 1977, they hooked him up with three bass drums, between eight and 10 tom-toms, three snare drums, a plethora of cymbal stands, and two trap cases full of accessories. He was then playing in The 24th Street Band with Hiram Bullock, Will Lee, and Clifford Carter, which later became the World’s Most Dangerous Band on the David Letterman show, but with Paul Shaffer replacing Carter.

Danny Glover and Steve Jordan go through copy on the teleprompter for a JFA event at The Apollo.

Pleased with his percussion bounty, Jordan played practically everything he was given when The 24th Street Band did their first tour of Japan, except he preferred to use one bass drum. That set-up lasted for about a year, then he began to pull things out. “It went to three mounted toms and two floor,” says Jordan. “And then I stripped it down more, and by 1980 I was back to my four-piece kit.”

He stripped down because the music he loved playing did not call for it. Even for the first album he appeared on, a fusion record called Body English by Michal Urbaniak in 1976, he did not play a lot of drums. The first real kit he ever owned was a Rogers Londoner Five kit, “which was two mounted toms and a floor tom,” says Jordan. “But that’s still more than I usually use.”

Let’s rewind to Jordan’s formative years to see how all of this came to be.

The acclaimed drummer came from a family with musical predilections. His father, an engineer turned architect, was not a musician but loved music and was a big jazz buff. His mother sang for a time in her church choir and had an operatic style voice. His sister ended up learning some flute and could sing. There was music playing all the time in his household.

His father had an unusual instinct about music. According to a story he told Jordan, he was overseas in the service when, after having had a couple of drinks, he went onstage in a club and spontaneously played upright bass, shocking his friends who did not know he could play. It turned out that he never had.

“But he had that love for music, and I think if he had wanted to be a musician, he could have easily studied music,” says Jordan. “He was very smart and had a mathematical mind, and he was a very well-read person. And he gave me the best musical advice I ever received. It really set me on the right course. He played me Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers ‘Blues March,’ the great Benny Golson tune. And he said to me, ‘If you learn how to play this song and learn the drum solo, you’ll be able to do stuff.’”

This turned out to be the most astute advice that Jordan has ever received as a musician. “He was right because first of all, the groove of ‘Blues March’ is intense,” states Jordan. “Blakey’s laying it down. Number two, it’s a very melodic type of tune. But it’s a march, so you have to develop your dexterity hand wise, your left and right and rolls. Then the drum solo itself is extremely melodic, rhythmic, and it’s not some kind of show-off thing. It actually makes a lot of musical sense. The composition of the solo, the way Art builds it, is beautiful. I learned that when I was very young, maybe 10 or 11, and it served me well.”

By avidly studying “Blues March,” Jordan developed his musical memory. By scrutinizing the piece from top to bottom, he learned how to memorize long stretches of music, and that helped him when he became a classical musician and played timpani. As he points out, if one is tacit for 900 bars and needs to come in for the 901st bar but miscounts, that can obviously be a big problem.

“It is best for you to learn the music so you don’t have to count,” advises Jordan. “Or at least you know where the music is. I learned how to memorize the long pieces of music, and that was the beginning of that training. I owe a lot to my dad for that.”

The budding musician started playing drums at age 8, and he only remembers his first teacher’s name as Mr. Matt. “He was a big, burly guy, and I never really sat down with a kit with him,” recalls Jordan. “He was the first person to teach me about reading. I played snare drum and I got a ride cymbal. I learned how to play a Twist beat, which was my favorite beat because I loved the Twist. Of course, the Mersey beat is a take on the Twist beat, so that’s all I needed.”

Mr. Matt taught Jordan at a music store in the Bronx that was a Gretsch and Harmony distributor. “The store was full of Gretsch drums and guitars, Harmony guitars, and accordions,” he says. “I used to just stand there and look around and dream about being locked in there after hours. In fact, when I got my very first apartment in Manhattan, it looked like that. I had guitars hanging everywhere and drums everywhere.”

Other notable instructors followed. At age 12, Joey Cal taught him the essentials and worked him towards playing on the cool kit he wanted. In junior high school, Ted Brown was a supportive teacher who also rewarded him with a set of brand-new Zildjian cymbals. When he attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art in New York, there was an after-school program called Jazz Interactions where Jordan met the famed Freddie Waits, who had worked with likes of Ella Fitzgerald, McCoy Tyner, and Max Roach, and who became the young artist’s mentor and prepared him for life as a professional musician. Another notable instructor in Jordan’s life was Justin D’Cocciccio from the Manhattan School Of Music.

Although drums are his main instrument, Jordan expanded his musical scope by learning other ones. He has some six-string skills. He had a guitar when he was really young and realized that he could formulate chords once he learned what the root note of each chord was.

“I had this nylon string guitar that I acquired, and I used to figure out my favorite songs by just figuring out the root note of the chords then trying to configure the fingering,” he explains. “Basically, I started learning barre chords as a kid, just running around, listening to songs. That was the beginning of the guitar stuff. One of my favorite musicians ever was James Jamerson, and I loved the bass. Once I realized that the bass is just four strings as opposed to just six, I started with the bass. I started playing the guitar like it was a bass. They’re related in how I discovered playing both of them. At a very early age, I was surrounded by great players. I was very curious and nobody rained on my parade as far as me wanting to learn about something.”

Jordan also toyed with the trombone as he loved jazz/funk trombonist Fred Wesley. The drummer brought a trombone home from home school and “messed with it for a while,” he says. He did not play in the school orchestra. He considered playing with the trombone to be an “at-home project.”

Although Jordan showed an interest in piano – both his and his aunt’s family had pianos at home and at least one family member in each home was adept on the ivories – he regrettably had a teacher whom he did not like and who dampened his enthusiasm for the instrument. It is not that he thought the teacher was a bad person, but he did like his style of teaching. He points out that his story emphasizes the importance of a great teacher.

“Consequently it shut me down completely,” admits Jordan. “It’s something that I regret to this day because I tinker with the piano and I can do little things, but I would love to be a full bore piano player. But I’m not, even though I’m a percussionist. It’s in the same family obviously. I would love to play Errol Garner or something. Who knows, if I had a different teacher that might have been a different thing.”

The lifelong drummer certainly has found value in learning other instruments and applying that knowledge to his percussive playing, and he feels others should do the same for a number of reasons. He starts off discussing how most drummers practice with a metronome to get their time together and build an internal clock. But he notes that that is just one part of it – getting tempos into your body and psyche and being confident about time.

“A drummer starts a note but never stops it,” says Jordan. “When I played timpani, you start the note and you have to stop the note. You just don’t hit the timpani and let it ring into the next part. That’s another note. You start and stop the note. You have the full note, rhythmic value of the notes that you’re playing. When you play a half note it’s a half note. It’s not a whole note. When you play the bass, you don’t just let the strings ring. You start and stop the note. The more you do that, you learn the truthful value of a quarter note, which is essential in building your knowledge of time and the distance between two quarter notes and the use of space.”

When he started to play the bass, Jordan realized what was important about what he needed to hear in the drums, and that altered how he played them. “Some bass players can adjust to a person’s playing,” he says. “Some players will not adjust at all. That’s why certain rhythm sections don’t work. If a person just plays on the beat all the time and the other person is behind the beat and you hear the discrepancy, there has to be compensation amongst the players. There has to be a conversation. You have to find out where each other lives so you can make a joyous noise. You don’t want to be in conflict with the player. You want to join forces. So if somebody is always ahead of the beat you try to play a little bit behind them to fill out the full value of the quarter note. Or vice versa, if somebody is a little behind you want to be on top of it to round it out and make it work. Some players are very good at compensating for other players. That’s part of what I think is important, being a well-rounded musician, to be able to compensate.”

Jordan has shared his experience and wisdom with younger players through master classes. He often does them when he is on tour around the world, and it is usually in a Q&A format although normally more than just drum-focused. “It’s about music production, songwriting, the full Monty,” he elaborates. “I might have two kits set up so that somebody from the audience can come up and play and demonstrate something that they want to work on. Then I try to give them a little advice.”

He feels that one big mistake that many young drummers make comes on the sound production side. He feels that a lot of people do not actually produce a good sound on their drums.

“They try to play a beat and are so concerned about the beat itself, but they’re not making their drums sound good,” notes Jordan. “So it just sounds awful. It doesn’t matter what they’re playing because they’re not striking the instrument correctly to get a good sound. The key is getting a good sound. There are millions of players out there that don’t have any chops at all, but they have a really good sound. You can have all the chops in the world, but if it sounds terrible then it doesn’t really matter.”

He recalls how growing up, while he liked the playing both of Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich, he preferred listening to Louie Bellson more. “Louie Bellson’s drums always sounded beautiful,” says Jordan. “Whereas Buddy Rich’s drums weren’t my favorite sound.”

Beyond teaching, the veteran drummer is very active in educational initiatives. He has been working with his wife Meegan Voss – with whom he has had a rock band called The Verbs for the last 15 years – as artistic directors of special events for the Jazz Foundation of America for the last four years. While he has been musical director for various bands over the years, where has been focused on the program itself and the music that he has been given, as artistic director they have an overview of the entire event – the full production, “full everything down to who is on the event, how it takes place, the program itself,” he says.

He originally got involved with the Jazz Foundation after it helped the Blues Foundation underwrite a concert in Manhattan celebrating the late Hubert Sumlin at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem with a line-up including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Gary Clark. Jordan had not heard of the Jazz Foundation before, but once he “found out what the Foundation did, how great they were, and the type of work they did, I knew that I could get some people [and] some help that they needed,” recollects Jordan. “I know a large group of people in the musical community that didn’t know about this Foundation. So it was a real godsend, the marriage between the Foundation and Meegan and I. It’s been great.”

The Jazz Foundation holds a few events each year. There is their annual Gala fundraiser at the Apollo Theatre, and prior to that a pre-Gala for the Jazz Foundation’s big donors. In the fall, they hold a loft party, which is “a musical extravaganza [with] at least three or four rooms of music and auction items and all kinds of stuff,” says Jordan. “The last one was amazing.” They also do an annual event at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill jazz club in Beverly Hills. In 2019, they bestowed Wayne Shorter with their Lifetime Achievement Award and Joni Mitchell with the Clark and Gwen Terry Award. “The year before we gave Johnny Mathis the Lifetime Achievement Award. They all come out, and it’s pretty amazing.”

An important program for Jordan under the Jazz Foundation is called Jazz Into Schools which was started back after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. He recalls how all the clubs there had burnt down and all of the musicians had lost their instruments.

“So we got them instruments and created a program in schools called Jazz Into Schools for kids to learn about jazz,” says Jordan. “It created jobs for the players that didn’t have clubs. They went in and played music in the schools. What an explosion and revelation. Kids got to learn about their heritage, about their music that they wouldn’t have known about. The players not only got to turn a new generation onto this music and keep the music alive, but they had jobs. So there’s an incredible marriage there. It’s one of the centerpieces of the Foundation.”

When assessing the state of American music education today, Jordan finds it somewhat ironic that some higher educational programs are bestowing diplomas or degrees “to subjects that a degree won’t really help with, like music production,” he says. “Most of the producers I met when I grew up were making things, inventing things. There was no school for music production. Some producers make a great cup of coffee, some producers are good lawyers, some producers are great arrangers and write everything out for you. And then some producers are great composers, great players, or great engineers. There are more ways to become a good producer than a curriculum. There’s some experimentation and knowledge from other fields that has to take place before you become a producer. So that’s a very slippery slope, but I do like the fact that it’s being acknowledged as something that is worth learning about.”

He mentions how Stevie Wonder was one of the first artists who really started knowing how to produce himself, “and he turned the music world upside down with that, when people really realize what production is and following the music that you hear in your head,” says Jordan. “That string of records that he made [in the ‘70s] really changed music – Music On My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs In The Key Of Life.

The drummer recalls sitting in the studio with Stevie Wonder when he was a teenager. “It changed my life,” declares Jordan. “I actually saw him work and was around for one of those records. It was mind boggling and completely awe-inspiring. I knew what I wanted to do as soon as I saw him, as soon as I witnessed him work.”

To this day, Jordan keeps learning new things. He also has the humility to acknowledge when certain situations will not click. When asked about the hardest gig he ever played, he remarks that it was not a gig. In fact, it was a potential job that ultimately did not pan out. Back in July 1977, Jordan was playing with Herbie Mann at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and it was his first time in Europe. Guitar legend John McLaughlin was playing right before them while in his acoustic phase with the group Shakti.

“At the end of the set on the last night, Herbie gave me drum solo during a 45-minute version of ‘Memphis Underground,’” recalls Jordan. “I don’t remember what I played at all. But John liked it. I gave him my number, and then he went to New York and started playing electric again. He said, ‘I’m going to start a new band. I want you to play.’”

McLaughlin summoned the young Jordan to his loft in Manhattan where he and violinist L. Shankar were jamming. They started playing, and their speed simply astounded the drummer. “It was insane, and I just couldn’t hang with them,” concedes Jordan. “It was funny because I explained to them, ‘This is embarrassing. I mean, I just can’t handle it.’”

The chief culprit here was the fact that Jordan was deep into the part of his career where he was recording for commercials. He did a lot of session work, playing between four and six sessions a day, which meant that he was playing many jingles.

“When you do jingles, they suck the soul out of your playing,” says Jordan. “You’re not supposed to put your personality into your playing. You’re supposed play this thing and then you go to the next job. The more you do it, the more you get called. So the more the soul got sucked out of me, the more work I got. I was doing a lot of work, but I didn’t have any personality and I was trying to rein in my jazz playing.”

Ironically, McLaughlin was asking him to inject his musical personality which was having a bit of an identity crisis. “They’re playing all this amazing stuff, full of personality and chops and everything, and I’ve got none of that,” says Jordan. “I explained it to John, and he completely understood because he went through something like that in England. Before he came to New York to play with Tony Williams, he was very successful doing jingles and arranging stuff. He told me he went through the same thing, and then he left everything behind to come here and play with Tony and then later Miles. He made me feel a lot better. It was very supportive. He was very kind. He let me down easy.”

Jordan has clearly learned to roll with the punches as well as the grooves, and that resilience and adaptation has led to a long and fruitful career that keeps going. In closing, JAZZed asks if there is a major life lesson that he could impart to younger players.

“Follow your heart,” he declares. “Let the song be the heartbeat to be connected to. Go with your feeling. Your feelings are more important than anything when you’re making music. You gotta follow the truth with that. As long as you’re doing that, you’ll be okay. My main advice to young players is work hard to be really good. Don’t work to be famous. If you’re just trying to be famous, that ain’t going to do it. If you want to be really good, then you can have a life in music that will give you longevity because there are too many ups and downs in music as a profession and lifestyle.”

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