Sandy Jordan is a graphic artist, a member of the Recording Academy (formerly the National Academy of Recording Arts and Scientists – NARAS) and on the Honorary Founders Board of the Jazz Foundation of America. She is also the widow of saxophonist Clifford Jordan (September 2, 1931-March 27, 1993) and in 2013, spent two months in Chicago researching Clifford and his family on a fellowship provided by the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. The consortium is comprised of several Chicago educational institutions including the University of Chicago, Columbia College, the University of Illinois, the DuSable Museum, the Woodson Library and the Harold Washington Library. I am honored that Sandy has allowed me to publish her research results here.
Clifford Jordan’s grandparents came to Chicago with the first wave of migration from the south. These were generally the more skilled and educated blacks. His maternal grandparents (Euzella Wilborn Smith and Golden William Smith) came from Mississippi by way of Memphis with the first wave. She was a piano teacher and a hairdresser. Her husband was a trolley driver in Memphis and his wife persuaded him to go to Chicago because opportunities were better. He became involved with A. Phillip Randolph, and became a pullman porter. They had 3 boys and 1 girl (Clifford’s mom). One son, Henry, became a tap dancer. An older aunt came to Chicago at the same time. She was a midwife.
His paternal grandfather Robert Brutus Jordan came from Alabama. At a family reunion in 1991, Clifford met many relatives for the first time from his paternal grandmother and discovered that there were some musicians and several music teachers in each generation.
Clifford came from a solidly middle class background. An only child, his mother was a school teacher and a musician, his father worked for the post office and owned a radio and refrigeration repair shop. They were a part of Chicago’s black social scene and spent their summers at Lake Idlewild, Michigan, a black resort in those years. The family had a cottage there and Clifford often talked about listening to all the major entertainers and big bands playing at the Idlewild clubhouse which was directly across the lake from his cottage. While all the parents were at the clubhouse partying, he and the other kids had to content themselves with listening to the music from afar until they were old enough to go the the clubhouse themselves.
His grandparents lived at 608 E. 51 Street. Clifford and his parents lived around the corner at 5049 St. Lawrence.
His mother started him on the piano when he was 5. She didn’t want her mother to teach him because she wanted him to learn classical piano. Clifford liked playing with his grandmother because she taught him the old spirituals and songs. He would actually sneak out of his backdoor, run down the stairs, across the alley and up the stairs to his grandmother’s back door so they could play together. When he got older and started listening to records he decided he wanted to play a horn.
Clifford was raised Christian Scientist attending the church on 44th and Michigan. His grandmother was a practitioner and was a major influence on him. She instilled in him a firm belief in mind power which was later reinforced by Capt. Walter Dyett at DuSable High School.
Apparently his parents were a part of the black social scene in Chicago in the thirties because I discovered several “social page” newspaper articles involving them. Here is one:
Clifford went to Willard Elementary School where his mother taught. As a youngster and teenager, he did have private lessons, but he preferred his grandmother’s lessons and listening and learning on his own.
He went to DuSable High School, where he met Captain Walter Dyett who was a major influence on him. Dyett started at DuSable in 1935. The man’s ability to play virtually any instrument he touched and his ability to strike fear and awe in his students’ hearts made him perhaps the most effective music teacher in jazz from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Jazz bassist Richard Davis said: “Maybe you weren’t afraid of the cops, but you were afraid of Capt. Dyett.”
Having received a bachelor of music degree from VanderCook College of Music in 1938 and a master of music degree from Chicago Musical College in 1942, Dyett was triply blessed with a virtuoso’s ear, advanced musical training and the organizational ability to turn generations of poor kids into moneymaking entertainers.
When Dyett realized, for instance, that the Chicago Board of Education wasn’t going to provide the musical instruments his band required, he created the “Hi-Jinks” show, a musical revue staged by students that drew audiences from across the city and generated enough cash to buy all the instruments he needed.
Regardless of how talented his music students might have been, Dyett insisted that each take private lessons. For those who couldn’t afford it, Dyett leaned on musician friends to teach the kids for pennies. The private lessons, however, were easy compared to Dyett’s classes, putting the players through section rehearsals, improvising sessions, sight-reading drills, ear-training exercises and every other musical hurdle he could think of.
Show up late to either rehearsal or performance, and your fate was practically sealed. Fred Hopkins (bassist) once said that he was late for rehearsal and was not allowed into the rehearsal room, but was required to sit outside the room and listen for weeks.
Wilbur Campbell, drummer, said in an interview: “Capt. Dyett ascribed to the theory that you had to know how to play at least a few of the instruments in a particular family. If you played a reed instrument, you started on clarinet, then oboe, as well as saxophone. I played marimbas, bells, tympani, bass and snare drum, as well as traps, as did all the other drummers in my class, some of whom turned out very noteworthy musicians. I have quite a bit to be thankful for in the instruction I received. For example, Capt. Dyett would take the cymbals away and tell you to swing the band–14 pieces–with just the snare and the bass drum. Then one day he’d take the bass drum away and make you swing with the just cymbals, snare and tom-tom.”
Jimmy Ellis, leading Chicago saxophonist said: “Capt. Dyett made you believe you could do anything!”
A whole generation of musicians were taught and influenced by Capt. Dyett. The list is so extensive that the world of jazz could hardly be imagined without them:
Gene Ammons, Mwata Bowden, Ronnie Boykins, Wilbur Campbell, Nate King Cole, Freddie Cole, Sonny Cohn, Jerome Cooper, Dorothy Donegan, Bo Diddley, Betty DuPree, Charles Davis, Richard Davis, Jimmy Ellis, Morris Ellis, Von Freeman, George Freeman, Redd Foxx, Bennie Green, Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore, Andrew Hill, Johnny Hartman, Lurlean Hunter, Fred Hopkins, Eddie Harris, Milt Hinton, Clifford Jordan, John Jenkins, Leroy Jenkins, Joseph Jarman, Junior Mance, Jesse Muller, Ernie McCarty, Claude McLin, Ray Nance, John Neely, Julian Priester, Harry Porterfield, Walter Perkins, Pat Patrick, Boots Robinson, Paul Serrano, Phil Thomas, Earma Thompson, Wilbur Ware, Rail Wilson, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, John Young – This is a partial list.
Early Career in Chicago
Clifford started working around town when he was 15-16 years old. He played for parties and neighborhood dances. Legendary pianist Norman Simmons told me that Clifford gave him his first gig at one of those dances:
“Clifford gave me my very first gig. We were just teenagers at the time. I was at a dance and Clifford and his combo came to play for the dance. He didn’t have a piano player so some of my friends told him, ‘Norman Simmons can play the piano.’ He invited me up to sit in and I played that night. The gig payed six dollars. Then he gave me a little chord book and told me to go home and learn it and come back next week because he had the gig for a few weeks in a row. I played the whole gig with him.
Years later we had a gig together in NYC and I called his attention to the fact that it had been 20 years or more since we played that first gig together. Clifford replied, ‘Yeah, and it’s the same money!’”
This is a photo from the old Cotton Club in Chicago. Clifford worked here often with Charles Davis, John Gilmore, Wilbur Campbell et. al.
Charles Davis is a walking encyclopedia of Chicago jazz and a great storyteller. I showed him this scrapbook photo and he rattled off every name. He told me a story that once Dexter Gordon was headlining at the Cotton Club and for some reason he couldn’t finish out the week. The owner hired Clifford Jordan to replace him and billed him as “CLIFFORD GORDON.”
Several older musicians at the Hyde Park Jazz Society told me that Clifford used to work with organist Earma Thompson who was very popular during those years. I discovered an interview with her in the Vivian Harsh Collection where she talked about when she worked at the Cotton Club. It was like going to school because musicians like John Gilmore, Richard Abrams, Clifford Jordan and E. Parker McDougal would wait for her and her husband Marshall to arrive every night and they would all exchange ideas, discuss and learn tunes, different chords etc. She said it was really a workshop and they didn’t realize it at the time. However, in that interview she never actually mentioned that Clifford had worked for her.
Later at University of Chicago Special Collections I ran across a handwritten note by the late music historian John Steiner, documenting that the Earma Thompson Trio with Clifford Jordan and Charles Walton was appearing at Budland, another of the old Chicago clubs.
Charles Davis told me that Clifford worked with drummer Jump Jackson’s band and gained a lot of experience there. Jump was a board member of the Black musicians union Local 208. He also operated a hot dog stand at the union hall so he got lots of gigs thrown his way. They worked all the time. Occasionally he would get more gigs than he could handle for one night—so the story goes—he would send out members of his band to each lead a band in his name and he would come around at the end of the night to collect the leaders fee.
This photo was in Clifford’s old scrapbook and I had no idea who the band leader was until I found photos of Jump Jackson’s band and of him at a board meeting of Local 208 at The Harold Washington Library:
I also found there records of Clifford’s membership in Local 208. He remained a member in good standing until he left Chicago.
I found these ads at the Columbia College Center for Black Music Research. The “Off The Record” ad lists Clifford Jordan appearing at the Green Door in Chicago. It appeared in the Chicago Defender in 1957. It also mentions the soon-to-be-released LP Blowing in from Chicago by Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore. The ad for the “J. J. Johnson All-Stars Minus One” lists Clifford, Cedar Walton, Arthur Harper and Tootie Heath. [“Minus one” is probably trumpeter Freddie Hubbard who was with J.J. Johnson’s Sextet in 1960 – NC]
By the late 50s Clifford was collaborating with several of the most prominent names in jazz. This photo was from Joe Segal’s column, when Clifford first joined Max Roach in 1957. I found the article at The University of Chicago Special Collections. The Sutherland Hotel ad was found at The Harold Washington Library.
Another photo of Clifford with Max and Kenny Dorham:
In the Vivian Harsh Collection I found a conversation with late musicians, drummer Charles Walton and pianist Jodie Christian. They discussed Cadillac Bob, the owner of the club downstairs at the Pershing Hotel at 64th and Cottage Grove. They couldn’t figure out why he was called Cadillac Bob because he came into town from Detroit driving a Chevy. Anyway, Bob hired Charles Walton to bring a trio into the club Fridays – Sundays 10 PM-4 AM. They had a ball for 2 weeks. The third week Clifford left to go to NYC to record an album with John Gilmore and Horace Silver. The album was called Blowing In From Chicago. It was lead by Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore and is now considered a hard-bop classic.
Sources and Acknowledgements:
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: SPECIAL COLLECTIONS – I found archives of hundreds of musicians of the era with posters, articles, personal items, etc. covering the clubs and what musicians and Clifford’s colleagues of the era were doing.
COLUMBIA COLLEGE OF CHICAGO: BLACK MUSIC DEPARTMENT – access to the archives of musicians as well as to the archives of the Chicago Defender newspaper for the years 1930–1960. With the help of Laurie Moses and Janet Harper I discovered the rich social life enjoyed by Clifford’s parents and old ads for Clifford’s club dates.
WOODSON PUBLIC LIBRARY: VIVIAN HARSH COLLECTION – inexhaustible collection of interviews, photographs, music and all other aspects of Black culture in Chicago from the 1930s until the present. With the help of Beverly Cook I found informative interviews of musicians of the era and I found Capt. Walter Dyett’s papers and photographs, including a photo of Clifford in the school band at age 14.
THE HAROLD WASHINGTON PUBLIC LIBRARY – books, magazines and catalogs of ephemera of the era. I founds ads and articles on the older R & B and blues bands that hired Clifford.
I enjoyed THE DUSABLE MUSEUM but the archival dept. I needed was closed for renovation. However, they gave outdoor concerts and there I met musicians who had more information like Ari Brown and Mwata Bowden.
I went to numerous jazz events with Chicago musicians, young and old, who either remembered Clifford personally or admired him greatly. People gave me so much information–Judith Stein introduced me to the HYDE PARK JAZZ SOCIETY weekly concerts, where bits of information almost floated in the air like: “sure I remember Clifford…he was always around the Cotton Club.” or “Yeah, wait–he used to work for Earma Thompson! or ” …wasn’t he in Jump’s band for a while?“ This is how I picked up all the clues on how to go about looking for the information I needed.
Rob Crocker (DJ at WBGO 88.3FM) interviewed the following musicians who knew Clifford during that period:
Norman Simmons – pianist, Clifford gave Norman his first gig as a teenager.
Jimmy Ellis – saxophonist, grew up with Clifford and they played together.
Richard Davis – bassist, grew up with Clifford and was taught by Clifford’s mother in grade school.
Charles Davis – saxophonist, met Clifford as a teenager and they worked together constantly
Julian Priester – trombonist, met Clifford as a teenager and they played for many years
Art Hoyle – trumpeter, met Clifford as a very young man and remained friends for years
I interviewed Timuel Black – the 91 year old Chicago historian and author told me of the climate of the era and how Clifford and the musicians had such a wealth of venues –– if you were good, you worked all the time. The money as usual was low, but the learning experience, artistic level, and excitement was incredible and not likely to ever happen again on that scale. There were clubs on every corner. Everyone worked, learned, and loved it.
There were wonderful family stories from Clifford’s cousins Dolores Elliot, Kenneth Carr, and Bob Smith.
I got invaluable help and support from Cheryl Boone, Arlivia Womble, Adrienne Harrison, Zawadi McCauley, Claudia Jacques, Richard Courage, Tamar Dougherty, Joe Segal, Donald Meade, Jordan Carr, and Leroy Kennedy. Folks, if I left anyone out please let me know.
I have to mention the Sunday Brunches. Every Sunday, after an inspiring service at the Metropolitan Community Church, cousin Dolores, Loretta Moppins, and I, with a bunch of ladies from church, would go out for a “round-table” brunch that lasted for hours. Great food, conversation, and comaraderie. I just felt good being in Chicago. Clifford is so well thought of that people almost lined up to help me. I definitely did not do this alone.
My New York support system: Rob Crocker, Chelsea Harris, Charles Davis, Ann Ruckert, Debra Kinzler, Jimmy Owens, Gloria Ware, Frank Ruegger, Bill Lutz, Karen Bennett, the Ertheins (for my Venice frame-of-mind), and Jennifer.