Obituary: Clifford Jordan

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Clifford Laconia Jackson, tenor saxophonist and bandleader: born Chicago 2 September 1931; died New York City 27 March 1993.

ONE OF the most felicitous jazz traditions to have grown up in New York during the last 20 years is that of the Monday-night band. Clifford Jordan led one of the best of them.

Monday is a poor night for business and most jazz clubs in the city used to stay closed until Tuesday. A lot of jazz musicians work in commercial studios where they don't get a chance to play jazz. To relieve their musical starvation rehearsal bands were formed which played jazz for the pleasure of the participants in the deserted clubs on Monday nights. Since the motive was fun and not commercial success the musicians were able to follow their natural inclinations, and the result was that the Monday-night bands came to play better music than the established jazz orchestras and eventually became established themselves. The clubs then opened their doors to a burgeoning Monday-night audience of enthusiasts and, like Sunday shopping, Monday-night jazz was here to stay. The best examples of Monday-night bands were the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz orchestra and the Gil Evans Orchestra.

Recently Clifford Jordan's band, which played each Monday at Condon's Club, had moved into the forefront of the field. Typically it included 'name' musicians like the trumpeter Dizzy Reece and the pianist Ronnie Mathews as well as musicians on the way up. Jordan had a pool of musicians waiting to join, and there was never any difficulty in finding replacements if one of the regulars was called out of town.

Jordan played the tenor saxophone well, probably drawing most influence from Lester Young and Sonny Rollins. In recent years his playing had found a new inspiration: he must surely soon have been recognised as being of the stature of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson.

It may be that his death will draw new attention to his talents. Although he always played with the best groups - those of Max Roach, Charlie Mingus and Horace Silver among them - he never became a household jazz name by using those groups, as so many other sidemen did, as a launching pad to fame. That is not to say that he wasn't well known internationally, for he travelled more than most, but somehow he never broke into the topmost ranks where he might have belonged.

He came from a noble tradition of hard-toned Chicago tenor players which included Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman and John Gilmore. Jordan Griffin, Gilmore and the renowned bassist Richard Davis were all classmates at Du Sable High School in the city.

Jordan's first jobs were for a mixture of jazz and rhythm and blues bands in the city. He worked locally with groups led by the drummer Max Roach and the saxophonist Sonny Stitt before he left Chicago for New York in 1957. Soon after his arrival he and Gilmore were thought good enough to be given their own record date (the drummer Art Blakey was one of their sidemen) when the two made an album for Blue Note. From then on Jordan was a prolific recorder with further albums for Blue Note and others for Jazzland, Riverside, Atlantic and European labels. Additionally he recorded a considerable volume of albums with leaders to whose bands he didn't belong.

He joined Max Roach again before replacing Hank Mobley in Horace Silver's Quintet for 10 months in 1957, where he partnered the trumpeter Art Farmer in the front line. Leaving Silver, he spent a year freelancing on the West Coast before returning to become a regular member of the trombonist JJ Johnson's group in New York. In 1961 he co-led a quintet with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and spent most of the next year on tour.

Charlie Mingus, embarking on a European tour in 1964, asked Jordan to go with him. The quintet's front line consisted of the radical genius Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone and flute and Jordan on tenor. Not surprisingly surviving recordings show even Jordan's efforts to sound a bit mundane beside Dolphy. The four gave Jordan a taste for Europe, and he returned there for extended periods in the next decade. He also rejoined Roach to tour Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He worked as both a soloist and arranger with European radio bands and continued to tour as a soloist.

In 1972 he played the part of Lester Young, one of his formative influences, in a New York production of Lady Day: a musical tragedy and at this period began a lifelong interest in teaching music by working in the local public schools.

In 1974 Jordan formed a quartet which he called Clifford Jordan and the Magic Triangle. This included the pianist Cedar Walton, the bassist Sam Jones and the drummer Billy Higgins. He brought the group back to Europe for an extended four in 1975 during which it made albums in Paris, Amsterdam and Munich - he kept the band together for some years and they made another album in Copenhagen in 1978. While working with the quartet he also led medium-sized bands with which he also recorded.

Jordan continued to produce albums during the Eighties at a period during which his playing suddenly seemed to become supercharged, and he moved up one or two notches in the ranks of tenor players. He was reunited with Art Farmer, and Jordan's big sound graced most of Farmer's recordings during the decade. He also made a much-acclaimed album with the pianist-composer Andrew Hill in 1986.

It is a tragedy that his death should come just when the album recorded last year by his Monday-night band was getting clamorous international acclaim, for he was poised to begin the most creative phase of his career.

(Photograph omitted)