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Kidd Jordan: Honoring a Jazz Patriarch

Avant-garde jazz saxophonist Kidd Jordan has taught some of New Orleans' finest, including the Marsalis brothers and members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR
Avant-garde jazz saxophonist Kidd Jordan has taught some of New Orleans' finest, including the Marsalis brothers and members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

New York City's Vision Festival honors New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan Wednesday night. At 73, Jordan is a legend in avant-garde jazz circles. He's been given France's highest cultural honor: a knighthood of the order of arts and letters.

Yet in spite of these high honors, the saxophonist is still under the radar. Jordan, an avowed contrarian, says he couldn't care less about being popular. He just does what he does, even if that means being part of a tiny club of cranky purists.

"The majority of people need somebody else to say yes to what they're doing," Jordan says. "They need someone to pat them on the back, say, 'Oh man so and so.' But when someone starts patting me on my back, I start moving away. I say, 'No, I'm not supposed to be here.' "


"Because what I'm doing ... How can I say it? If the majority likes it, then I'm supposed to go the other way."

Too 'Outside' for New Orleans

Edward "Kidd" Jordan was born in rice country — Crowley, La. — in 1935. As a kid, he used to listen to the Charlie Parker albums that black GIs brought home after the war. Jordan thought he'd work with horses like his father, but he went to college instead, studied music and wound up playing jazz professionally. His progressive tastes did not sit well with conservative Southern audiences.

"Every now and then, people would tell me, 'Don't go too far out in solos,' " Jordan says. "We used to play for balls here in New Orleans, and they'd say, 'Give him some chicken, put some chicken in his mouth, stop him!' I would be downstairs practicing, and people would say, 'Man, go get him something, stop him from practicing.' And they'd give me one solo a night — that's all I needed."

To support himself, Jordan played in pit bands for shows on tour and backed up musicians such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Jordan never minded playing conventional music, as long as he respected the musician.

"I remember one time, I did a recording with Albert King, and Albert King said, 'Wine and whiskey is all I crave, I want a big-legged woman to carry me to my grave.' When he said that, the horn fell out of my mouth," Jordan says. "The inflection he had on it! And he knew he messed me up that day. Wow! The way he said it! That was really, really the blues."

Rooted in His Family

New Orleans isn't known for its avant-garde jazz scene, so it's hard not to wonder why Jordan didn't move to more supportive communities in Chicago or New York City.

"Well, really, my family's here. My friends are here," Jordan says. "And if you got an idea of what you want to do, I think you can do it in the wilderness. You can do it in Egypt, somewhere in the desert. And make it happen in your kitchen. I used to feel better in my kitchen than in New York City. If you're really playing, it doesn't matter where you're at."

That said, Jordan is the patriarch of a large, deeply rooted New Orleans musical family. His music is different from theirs, but he's recorded with them, trading solos with his son Marlon, an acclaimed jazz trumpeter.

Jordan's family includes hundreds or even thousands of students, including Branford and Wynton Marsalis. He started Southern University's jazz program and taught there for decades. Jordan's good friend, Clyde Kerr, is a jazz trumpeter and fellow educator. He says Jordan's the kind of legend who doesn't get the respect he deserves in his own town.

"Kidd is a New Orleans musician," Kerr says. "He's been here so long, but a lot of people in this town have a certain idea about what is a New Orleans musician or what is New Orleans music. It has to be a certain way."

Still, the local community pays its dues to Jordan. His tune "Kidd Jordan's Second Line" has been recorded by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, whose musicians were local kids he helped mentor.

Surviving Hurricane Katrina

Those kids, like so many others, were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Jordan lost his home in the Upper Ninth Ward. He and his wife evacuated in record time, he says, because he knew all the country back roads from touring them as a musician. But his son Marlon was driven to his roof by the flood for five days. He encountered alligators and dead bodies as helicopters passed by him.

Less than a month later, Jordan went in the studio and recorded a melancholy and angry album called Palm of Soul with percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker.

Jordan now lives in Baton Rouge. He says he'd love to return to New Orleans, but financially it's too hard. Still, he says, he doesn't care where he lives, just as long as he can play.

"And like when I practice, I don't practice songs," Jordan says. "Now around here, they may have some birds in the trees. I may play off of the birds, do things like that ... Imitating and playing off of them. Now, that's some natural music. When I get to the point where the birds are, I will be ready to go. Say, 'Lord, take me. I'm ready.' 'Cause that's some serious music."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.