Jordan, Ronny 1962–
Ronny Jordan 1962–
Acid jazz guitarist
Down Beat magazine called Ronny Jordan “one of acid jazz’s early instrumental heroes.” Jordan was one of the first guitarists in the early 1990s to fuse open jazz improvisations with funk and hip hop rhythms. The experiment offended jazz purists, but the resulting “acid jazz,” spread quickly from London to New York, San Francisco, and across the United States. Although the record industry was slow to catch on to the movement, and the purists rejected the new formula, Jordan’s 1992 debut album The Antidote, became one of the most popular records to emerge from London’s acid jazz scene. “I’m not a hard-nosed jazz purist,” Jordan told Guitar Player, which may have been the understatement of his career.
Jordan was born in 1962 in London, England. His parents were of Jamaican descent. A self-taught guitarist, Jordan first picked up the instrument at the age of four, and was playing live shows at the age of 15. He was exposed to gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers and Andrae Crouch. Jordan’s first public performances were with gospel acts in and around London. His father, a minister, disapproved of his son leading a musician’s life. To appease him, Jordan went to college and earned a business degree. Before devoting himself to his music full-time, Jordan worked “straight” jobs for many years.
The outbreak of British funk during the 1980s inspired Jordan to start exploring different types of music beyond his gospel roots. At some point, he developed a fascination with jazz. His influences included Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Grant Green. Although Jordan loved jazz, he was also fond of 1970s funk groups like Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Tower of Power. “I was split down the middle,” he told Guitar Player.
Jordan started experimenting after college and combined his two loves, jazz and funk. When hip hop began to take off, he started incorporating that into the mix as well. Jordan’s experiments resulted in the song “After Hours,” on which he played all of the instruments. This single was one of the first recordings of the music genre that would come to be known as “acid jazz.”
The term “acid jazz” applies to a style of music created by disc jockeys in London. The music recreated sounds from the 1970s era, complete with the “wah-wah” guitar and Hammond organ that exemplified the work of artists such as Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd. However, Jordan believes that it is impossible to recapture that old sound. “So rather than calling my music acid jazz,” he told Guitar Player, “I refer to it as ’music for the head and feet.’” Jazz purists hated the new sound. They believed that jazz should not be fused with funk, hip-hop, rap, and R&B. In an interview with Guitar Player, Jordan counted contemporary jazz musician Wynton Marsalis among his critics.
Initially, record companies showed no interest in producing acid jazz recordings. “After Hours” was rejected by several British record companies. After Jordan recorded a compelling reworking of legendary jazz artist Miles Davis’s classic “So What,” the attitudes of record company executives began to change. Jordan
Born November 29, 1962 in London, England.
Career: Guitarist; credited as a pioneer of acid jazz; released the albums: The Quiet Revolution, 1993; Bad Brothers, 1995; Light to Dark, 1996;, A Brighter Day, 1999.
Addresses: Record label —Blue Note Records, 304 Park Ave. South Third Floor, New York, NY, 10010.
took Davis’s cool sense of jazz improvisation and updated it with hip-hop rhythms. His version of “So What” became a hit on London’s underground music scene. Jordan soon landed a record deal with Island Records, and released his debut album, The Antidote, in 1992. The Antidote was influential, and the acid jazz movement began to spread. Jordan also found success when he teamed with hip-hop artist Guru on 1993’s Jazzmatazz, Volume 1. Jordan’s guitar work was featured prominently on the record, and it became a best seller. Jazzmatazz brought acid jazz into the mainstream, and made it a viable genre. In 1995, Jordan appeared on Jazzmatazz, Volume 2.
By the time that Jordan released his follow-up to The Antidote, the popularity of acid jazz was beginning to wane. Down Beat magazine credited his 1994 release, The Quiet Revolution, for it’s guest appearances by hip-hop artists Guru, Dana Bryant, and vocalist Fay Simpson. It also noted that, without the hip-hop rhythms, Jordan’s music “goes limp.” In 1995, Jordan released Bad Brothers, which contained remixes of his earlier work. Although critical response to the album was lukewarm, Jordan continued to perform before enthusiastic crowds throughout North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, and Southeast Asia.
In 1999, Jordan signed a new contract with the legendary jazz label Blue Note. His Blue Note debut, A Brighter Day, was released in March of 2000. The album explores many styles of music, including trip-hop, bossa-nova, and the sounds of Brazil and India, and pays homage to British acid jazz. “I really feel this record is giving me the first opportunity to show all that I can do,” Jordan remarked in his Blue Note biography.
On one track, Jordan teamed with one of his heroes, Roy Ayers, on a new version of Ayers’s classic “Mystic Voyage.” A Brighter Day was recorded in New York City, and featured many local musicians. “This album has a more organic feel to it than anything I’ve done before,” Jordan noted in his Blue Note biography. “The energy of the New York musicians was very conducive to what I wanted to do in taking my music to the next level.” Although Jordan understands the criticism he gets from jazz purists for mixing a new formula, he has a different historical outlook. “Remember, jazz started out as street music,” he told Guitar Player. “Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt were the ’30s equivalent of rave and house. Their urban feel was very close to what hip hop is today. They’re both based in reality.”
The Antidote, Island, 1992.
The Quiet Revolution, 4th & Broadway, 1993.
Bad Brothers, Island, 1995.
Light to Dark, Fourth & Broadway, 1996.
A Brighter Day, Blue Note, 2000.
Guitar Player, February 1994, p.23.
Down Beat, January 1994, p.49; January 1997, p. 58.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the “Ronny Jordan” Homepage, http://www.ronnyjordan.com (May 13, 2000); and the entry on “Ronny Jordan,” from AMG All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 13, 2000).
While many of guitarist Ronny Jordan's influences played straight jazz, he has made his reputation by fusing jazz with other musical genres. "I'm not a hardnosed jazz purist," he told Joe Gore in Guitar Player. His involvement in the British funk scene during the 1980s opened his eyes to the possibility of mixing jazz, rap, and pop in daring ways. While some jazz purists resisted Jordan's progressive thinking, radio audiences embraced early efforts like "After Hours" and a new version of Miles Davis's "So What." Besides fusing different styles of music, he also worked to create music that would appeal to both traditional jazz fans and people who liked to dance. "I like jazz the common man can relate to," Jordan told Fred Shuster in the Los Angeles Daily News. "It has to be music from the heart and soul, of the street. It's time for a new breed."
Jordan was born Ronald Simpson in North England to Jamaican parents in 1962, and would later change his name to Jordan in tribute to basketball player Michael Jordan. He began playing the ukulele at four, performing at his father's Pentecostal Church, and began playing guitar with other musicians at age 15. "What I learned in church was feeling and melody," Jordan told USA Today. "I still try to use my guitar as a voice." He was won over by jazz, however, after hearing the sounds of guitarist Wes Montgomery, and would also discover Grant Green, George Benson, and Kenny Burrell. He told Shuster, "When I first heard Benson's 'Breezin" on the radio, I flipped. It turned me onto radio-friendly jazz." But his father disapproved of a musician's life and encouraged Jordan to earn a business degree in college. Jordan acquiesced, and following college worked a series of "straight jobs" before returning to his first love, jazz guitar.
Jordan's musical journey would take time, though. He loved jazz, but he had also grown up listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire, P-Funk, and Steely Dan. "I loved jazz," he told Gore, "but I also liked funky stuff like Sly and the Family Stone, P-Funk, Tower of Power, Prince. I was split down the middle." In 1980 he listened to his first hip-hop record. By the mid-1980s he had became a professional musician. "Bands like Parliament were coming over [to Britain]," Jordan told Nicky Baxter on the Metro Active website, "and they had a huge influence on musicians. I know I was [influenced]." These musical experiences led him to combine jazz and funk, and for the next ten years he experimented with variations on these styles. He told Baxter, "I've always played what I like, even when I was playing in clubs and no one was really paying attention."
In 1991 Jordan signed with Universal Island. He released his first album, The Antidote, on 4th and Broadway (part of Universal Island) in 1992, and followed with The Quiet Revolution in 1993 and Light to Dark in 1996. Jordan first came to the public's attention with a recording of Miles Davis's "So What," included on The Antidote. Baxter wrote that "the single proved to be a definitive statement in the still-embryonic acid-jazz genre." The instrumental also reached the British top 40, as well as number ten on contemporary jazz charts in the United States. Although each of his first three albums provided Jordan with more exposure, he would require more time to completely integrate his ideas.
The next stage of his career, however, would have to wait. In the mid-1990s, following the release of Light and Dark, Jordan's relationship with Island Records became strained. He disagreed with the label over marketing strategies, and as a result did not release a new record for four years. Even after signing a new contract, he was forced to re-record a number of works in progress because of past contractual agreements.
The wait was more than worth it for Jordan's fans. In 1999 he released his fourth album, A Brighter Day, in which he added a touch of daring to his distinct jazz fusion. "After being recognized by the entire jazzfunk scene as number one," noted the Freestyle website, "the fact that this album is being released on the legendary Blue Note label shows that the entire jazz scene has recognized the man's talent." But recording for jazz's most prestigious label in no way signaled a conservative approach. Instead, Jordan teamed up with hip-hop activist Mos Def, producer DJ Spinna, and singer Jill Jones to create a fresh, innovative sound based in Latin and Indian music and combined with hip-hop. "I like to work with people who you normally wouldn't find working in a [jazz] environment," he told the VH1 website, "because what you find is that you can get surprises." A Brighter Day also received a Grammy nomination.
Jordan followed with Off the Record in 2001, once again blending hip-hop, blues, and soul. "Off the Record is not a smooth jazz album, nor is it a straight ahead album," Jordan told the website Jazz Online. "It's a sugar free, urban sounding record." In 2003 Jordan released At Last on N2K, and he continued to push boundaries. Thom Jurek in All Music Guide noted, "This is easily Jordan's most consistent date as well as his most mature compositionally, musically, and soulfully. At Last is the summer record of 2003."
Jordan's work has been responsible for taking jazz in new directions, and he has also reasserted the guitar's influence in the field of jazz. Jason Ankeny wrote in All Music Guide, "One of the acid jazz movement's most prominent guitarists, Jordan is widely credited with returning the instrument to its rightful place as a major force in modern-day jazz."
Jordan has maintained an active performance schedule, and has toured Africa, Asia, and Austria, along with a steady stream of gigs in the United States. For ten years he has fought an uphill battle against his music being labeled "smooth jazz" and "acid jazz." "I'm a maverick," Jordan told Jim Bessman in Billboard. "There's acid-jazz, straight-ahead acid-jazz, new swing jazz. ... I can name a dozen labels. They're just the latest members of the large family known as jazz, and in five years there will be something else. I look at my music as 'eternal music,' and don't want to be bogged down by labels."
For the Record …
Born Ronald Simpson on November 29, 1962, in London, England.
Signed with Universal Island, 1991; released first album, The Antidote, 1992; charted with "So What," 1992; signed to Blue Note and released A Brighter Day, 1999; released At Last on N2K, 2003.
Awards: Gibson Guitar Award, Best Jazz Guitarist, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Blue Note, 150 Fifth Ave., 6th Fl., New York, NY 10011, website: http://www.bluenote.com/.
The Antidote, 4th and Broadway, 1992.
The Quiet Revolution, 4th and Broadway, 1993.
Light to Dark, 4th and Broadway, 1996.
A Brighter Day, Blue Note, 1999.
Off the Record, Blue Note, 2001.
At Last, N2K, 2003.
Billboard, November 27, 1993, p. 22.
Guitar Player, February 1, 1994, p. 23.
Los Angeles Daily News, February 11, 1994, p. L29.
USA Today, October 22, 1992, p. 5D.
"Jazz in an Acid Bath," Metro Active, http://www.metroactive.com/ (August 16, 2004).
"Jazzman Ronny Jordan Goes for Hip-Hop on Brighter Day," VH1, http://www.VH1.com (August 16, 2004).
"Ronny Jordan," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (August 16, 2004).
"Ronny Jordan," Freestyle, http://www.freestylegrooves.com/ (August 16, 2004).
"Ronny Jordan," Jazz Online, http://www.jazzonline/ (August 16, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.