A conversation with Kent Jordan in New Orleans

One growing sector of the burgeoning jazz education field is the number of jazz camps across the globe. A few weeks back we ran our conversation with Jackie Harris, founder & CEO of the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp. Held every July at Loyola University in New Orleans, you can read more about the camp in JazzTimes magazine’s annual jazz education issue, which was released earlier this month. The experience in New Orleans last summer also afforded several conversations with the stellar musician-educators who comprise the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp faculty. One such musician, and one who always has something enlightening to say, is flutist-educator Kent Jordan.


Describe your musical upbringing.

KJ: My musical upbringing is very interesting. I come from a family of seven siblings and everybody basically plays music, even my mother plays piano. My father Kidd Jordan taught at [Southern University New Orleans] for over 25 years. My musical upbringing was very eclectic; Beethoven, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane walked hand-in-hand in my house – there was no label or no category in terms of what we listened to, as long as it was good music. I was constantly around great musicians, like the late, great Alvin Batiste, people like Ellis Marsalis, my flute teacher Richard Harrison… Music has always been just this thing that was around me.

I actually started playing the flute because all of my cousins play the flute. I started on the alto saxophone first, obviously because my father is a saxophonist and my older brother is a saxophonist. Then I switched to the flute and it just started clicking.

Rachel Jordan plays the violin, my sister Stephanie Jordan actually started singing on my gig in Washington, DC 20 years ago but she’s a singer now, my brother Marlon Jordan plays the trumpet; my brother Paul Jordan is actually an aerospace engineer but he plays the violin, my older brother Edward Jordan Jr. actually played the alto saxophone and guitar, and my sister Christy Jordan plays the flute but she claims she’s not playing because of me!

What are the important musical traditions being fostered here at camp and why is it so imperative that they live on?

KJ: The musical traditions are being fostered obviously through teaching these kids. Any tradition is going to be passed on from one generation to another. The reason why I think its important… you hear teachers or politicians say ‘if you don’t know your history you’re doomed to repeat it…’ There is some truth in there, but there’s some lies in there as well. On one hand history does repeat itself, but the reason why it doesn’t repeat itself is because there are people who are constantly trying to strive to do things a little bit differently and a little bit better. And the beautiful part about jazz history is there’s always been musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Duke Ellington – and even musicians that musicians don’t really identify with that have always tried to bring something new or something different, or something old even, to what’s going on and its just through understanding and self-awareness that a musician can actually be able to make a contribution to what it is that he’s trying to do.

I think that’s one of the beautiful things about New Orleans, that we have all of these families, we have all of these musicians, and everybody is constantly trying to find a way to deal with their musical development. That’s where the fostering or the enabling of the tradition to continue is when you can really teach a kid that this is what’s going on in terms of how you can develop your talent, where you can go to develop your talent, and its basically just an idea.

Here (LAJC) what we try to give kids is the big idea, the big picture of where jazz music has been, where it is, and the sense of where you can take – not necessarily where its going, because nobody really knows that, but where YOU can actually take the music. To me that’s very, very important if you can instill that tradition of understanding of how it has evolved through time.

How long have you been with the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp?

KJ: Since its inception; me, my dad and [the late trumpeter] Clyde Kerr, [bassist] Elton Herron, [drummer] Herman Jackson – we’re sort of like the nuclei of the camp when we first got started.

How have you seen the camp progress?

KJ: Its interesting because our first guest artist was Cecil Taylor, then we had Reggie Workman, Hamiet Bluiett, then people like Clark Terry, Chico Hamilton, Wynton… I see a growth in terms of our fundamental understanding in terms of what works over a 3-week period. Every year we get newbies [new students] and they aren’t prepared for what we want to accomplish. Basically you’re teaching for two weeks then you’re preparing for the concert for the last week. So you sort of know what happens at the end but you may not know what’s happening at the beginning because the level of talent is always different, depending upon how much they know initially coming into this situation and whether they’ve been to previous camps or are coming from a school with a great music program, or a not-so-good music program; so we have all levels of students.

Its always a challenge to try to meet the kids who come here every year, and at the same time the new people – to try to get them acclimated to our style and our method of teaching.

At the end of the camp what do you consider a success?

KJ: Somebody who comes away with some information that he didn’t know previously or some information that we provided in terms of [knowing] that this is a private teacher you can study with, or this is a music that you need to listen to, this is what you need to practice… Success for me is always that you’re allowing people to access information. Everybody is going to react differently to the information; some people can take it and run with it, some people will stick it in their backpack for the next two years and it won’t have any effect on them at all. So I really see our job as providing that information and to try to stimulate at the same time. Its more of an interactive kind of thing where you’re trying to gauge what that person needs at that particular time.

During your school year teaching do you see any of the students here?

KJ: Oh yeah, quite a few of my [Lusher Charter School] students are here because they enjoy the intensity of the situation where its music all day long, versus music for one or two periods. Some of them do have that drive for wanting to be around the music for that amount of time. I can really appreciate that because I know when I was young I wanted to be around musicians constantly, that was all I was thinking about was being around musicians and the music.

Coming from a music family, what would you say to the parents of these kids as far as reinforcing what the students have learned in camp?

KJ: I would say – if you’re not a musical parent, somebody who is not involved with music on a consistent basis – just to really try to see what you can do in terms of supporting your son or daughter in whatever musical endeavor they’re trying to pursue. The most important thing for a parent to do at this level is to make sure their child is studying with a great teacher. There’s no substitute for that, whether you’re studying any music. That’s the most important thing. If a parent can support their child with private lessons, that will be the greatest gift. Parents have to ask their child basic fundamental questions [about what they’re learning].

I try to reinforce the fundamentals in a more expansive way so that when they leave they make that part of their challenge, to learn all their scales or learn their intervals, start listening more, practice more. Here (LAJC) what we try to give kids is the big idea, the big picture of where jazz music has been, where it is, and the sense of where you can take it – not necessarily where its going, because nobody really knows that, but where YOU can actually take the music. To me that’s very, very important if you can instill that tradition of understanding of how it has evolved through time.

Why is New Orleans so significant and why is it so important that these cultural traditions continue to be passed down?

KJ: Well in that sense the reason why they should be passed down is because in a lot of ways New Orleans is the precursor to a lot of things that happened in the United States. A lot of people don’t know that one of the original market exchanges was here in New Orleans, the first American opera was produced right here in New Orleans. Having all of these musicians and music evolve here… so we’ve always been a precursor of things. And having this eclectic mix of all of these different cultures and different heritages is actually the precursor of what the United States is based upon. In terms of this beautiful mosaic, it’s not necessarily a melting pot, not necessarily as though you don’t know who you are – but when you look at it up close and you look at it from afar there’s this beautiful canvas that has been created in terms of all of these different cultures, and music and food…

Another thing that people don’t associate from New Orleans: literature. We have a lot of things going for us that has set us up to be an engine of change and an engine of creativity that if we channel that type of energy into what we’re doing all of the time not only would we have a great city but we would have a fantastic city that could actually be the envy of a lot of cities of the U.S.

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2 Responses to A conversation with Kent Jordan in New Orleans

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