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Remembering Kidd Jordan, a saxophonist, patriarch and mentor who forever pursued the sound

New Orleans saxophonist and educator Kidd Jordan, who died on April 7 at 87.
J.R. Thomason
New Orleans saxophonist and educator Kidd Jordan, who died on April 7 at 87.

No Compromise! — that was the title saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan chose for an album by the Improvisational Arts Quintet, which he formed in 1975. As an educator and a mentor, he instilled the same attitude in countless musicians over the last half-century.

Jordan, who died peacefully at his New Orleans home on Friday, at 87, was a monumental teacher in a city known for music education. In 2006, after 34 years at Southern University at New Orleans, he retired as chairman of the jazz studies program. He was artistic director of the beloved Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp from its inception up through 2019. He played a pivotal role in his hometown’s free afterschool Heritage School of Music, and founded his own Kidd Jordan Institute of Jazz and Modern Music.

“If you want to be a star, that’s one thing,” he once told me. “But if you want to be a musician, you’ve got to be on a specific route and stick with it.”

Many of Jordan’s students did go on to become stars — among them, Jon Batiste, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Jr., and Trombone Shorty. His own expressive route, the one he stuck with, was singular and often blazed by reaching into the altissimo range of his tenor saxophone to produce tones of squealing beauty. His playing was by turns tender and heroic, tuneful yet unbound. No one else sounded even remotely like him.

Kidd Jordan at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2015.
Eric Waters
Kidd Jordan at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2015.

“We’ve got a pretty good crowd,” Jordan once announced from the stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “Let’s see how many of you are left at the end.” He tempered this wit with instruction. “For those of you who aren’t used to this music, I want to tell you: I live by improvisation.”

Though Jordan shaped much of his hometown’s musical culture, his own artistry was often best recognized elsewhere. At the Vision Festival in New York, this country’s premier gathering for avant-garde jazz, Jordan was a conquering hero; he appeared there 20 years straight beginning in 1999. And if those two worlds — New Orleans tradition and free improvisation — coincide less often than they might, Jordan was the most articulate point of connection.

On a Vision Festival panel a decade ago, poet Kalamu ya Salaam asked Jordan: “Why don’t you just play more popular music and make more money?” Jordan had played plenty of commercial music: seminal 1950s R&B, alongside Art and Aaron Neville in the Hawketts; Broadway scores for touring productions; session work and gigs with the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. His baritone saxophone and bass clarinet can be heard on R.E.M.’s 1991 album Out of Time.

But in answering the question, Jordan discussed inspirations and dedication. On hearing Ornette Coleman’s 1958 album Something Else!!!! he “felt something inside,” he said, “and I just had to let it out.” At a John Coltrane gig in the 1960s, it was “as if Coltrane put the Hallelujah on me. I was called.” Jordan drew a distinction between an improvised solo and that of improvisation as credo. Then 77, he noted that he’d practiced five hours that day. He talked about the need for not just proficiency on a given instrument but also for open ears. “This is a listening music,” he said.

Jordan recorded more than 30 albums, forming especially fruitful bonds with drummer Alvin Fielder and, later, pianist Joel Futterman. His 2006 album, Palm of Soul, recorded in New York after he lost his home to the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina, leaned on another elemental connection, with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.

Yet for all his celebrated associations, Jordan’s “chief collaborators,” as he liked to call them, were his wife of 69 years, Edvidge Chatters Jordan, and his seven children: Edward Jr., Kent, Christie, Paul, Stephanie, Rachel and Marlon. Four of them became professional musicians: Kent on flute, Stephanie as a singer, Rachel as a classical violinist and Marlon on trumpet. “Our father was the touchstone for everything life could offer in terms of positive possibilities,” says Kent, in an email. “Music was immensely important to him, but it wasn’t everything. To be honorable to your family, friends and fellow musicians meant you could express yourself without fear or favor.”

Kidd Jordan (seated center) with his children: Rachel Jordan (violin), Stephanie Jordan (microphone), Kent Jordan (flute), and Marlon Jordan (trumpet).
Vincent Sylvain
Kidd Jordan (seated center) with his children: Rachel Jordan (violin), Stephanie Jordan (microphone), Kent Jordan (flute), and Marlon Jordan (trumpet).

A good many New Orleans musicians alive were also, in a sense, raised by Jordan. Since the age of 10,” attests Trombone Shorty, “I’ve been under Kidd’s watch, and that’s made a lot of what I do possible.” Donald Harrison, who studied with Jordan as a teenager and is now himself a revered New Orleans educator, recalled Jordan’s instruction “to always be true to yourself,” and how he “would never give up on any kid, so long as they wanted to play.”

And Jordan knew how to challenge young players. Jackie Harris, executive director of the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Educational Foundation, recalls a camp field trip to perform for the Congressional Black Caucus. “At sound check,” she says, “Jordan wrote a new song on a napkin for his students to play.”

Courtney Bryan, a jazz pianist who also serves as composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia and the Louisiana Philharmonic, has fond childhood memories of Jordan’s JazzFest performances. “I didn’t quite understand what Kidd was doing,” Bryan says, “but I knew that it spoke to me, and that it said something about my home.” Satchmo summer camp, which she attended, “was based on fundamentals of music, and on indigenous traditions,” she adds. “But if you took Kidd’s message to heart it was also an invitation to create your own sound. I realized that there is this long tradition in New Orleans that isn’t talked about so much, of making music that, in its day, sounds experimental.”

Jordan’s influence was far-reaching: In 1985 the French Ministry of Culture anointed him a chevalier, or knight, of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Still, it begins and ends in New Orleans: on Saturday, after he is laid to rest, musicians will lead a procession to City Hall, where last year the city council declared his birthday, May 5, “Kidd Jordan Day.”

In an email, Jon Batiste tried to sum up his hero’s attributes, tossing in an allusion to his hometown’s area code. He called Jordan “a template for what uncompromising artistic mastery and countercultural visionary brilliance looks like harbored in a 504 body.”