Steve Jordan: One Extraordinary Life

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Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Steve Jordan is one of the most respected and in-demand musicians today. He is revered for his brilliant work as a drummer and producer with such diverse acts as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Sheryl Crow, LeAnn Rimes, John Mayer, John Scofield, James Taylor, Boz Scaggs, and many, many others. He also currently leads the band the Verbs with his wife Meegan Voss, playing what has been described as "the perfect cocktail of girl group, Brit-pop, country, ska, and rock 'n' roll."

In the course of this interview, Jordan details the many musical experiences, recordings, and interactions with legendary musicians that have helped shape his musical sensibilities as well as guided him through working with some of the greatest artists in the history of modern music.

"My dad said to me, "If you can learn how to play Art Blakey's "Blues March," you can play anything."

---What were the specific factors that led to you becoming a musician?

There are a few things. First of all, there was always music playing in my home growing up. My parents loved music, and my dad had a really cool record collection, primarily jazz. And I was always banging on pots and pans for as long as I can remember. He was a big Clifford Brown fan, and when Clifford tragically passed, he flew his allegiance to Miles Davis, so I heard a lot of Miles as a kid. Records were the thing—I had cousins with great record collections, like Cheryl and Donna, two teenage girls who had the best record collection ever! Everything from the Beatles' Twist And Shout—and the original Isley Brothers' Twist and Shout—to the Meters' Cissy Strut. They had everything! I tried to buy the collection from them, but they said no!

My favorite records were the Coasters' Yakety Yak and Charlie Brown, and very early on my parents started buying me my own record collection. I made up my own charts, and when I was 8, I got my own portable battery-operated Panasonic record player. I'd carry it everywhere and act as the DJ. I was a very big Chubby Checker fan, so I had the Twist singles and Limbo Rock. The first album I ever owned was Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn soundtrack.

--Was there a certain record that you heard at a young age that really got you moving on the path?

By the time I was 8 years old, it was clear to my parents that I was a music fanatic, and I had been beating on pots and pans for a while with an aspiration to become a drummer. My dad said to me, "If you can learn how to play Art Blakey's Blues March, you can play anything." It was a very astute observation, because "Blues March" has the swing in it, but it also has a lot of melodic composition in the drums, and you need real dexterity in your hands to pull it off. So the first thing I really learned how to play on the drums was Art Blakey's drum solo on "Blues March," and that has served me very well over all of these years.

As an aside, many years later I had the opportunity to play with the great saxophone player Benny Golson, who wrote "Blues March." My wife Meegan and I are the directors of special events and development for the Jazz Foundation of America, and this year we gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Sonny Rollins at the yearly gala. We had so many legendary players at the event, such as Billy Harper, Ravi Coltrane, James Carter, Bob Cranshaw, Jack DeJohnette, George Cables, and Benny Golson. He's close to 90 and he looked 60—he's ageless! Benny took like seven choruses on Alfie's Theme, and it was beyond belief. I finally got to tell Benny that my dad was responsible for me hearing his great composition "Blues March," and that's what got me started on my journey as a musician and as a drummer. That's one of the amazing things about being a musician: if you are lucky enough, in your travels, you get to meet your heroes and the people who inspired you. That was a really wonderful, incredible night.

--Was there a musical performance that you saw as a young musician that you could say had a life-changing impact on you?

Just as it was for millions of other people, when I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, it changed my life forever. That was the "big bang" moment for me. As a student of pop culture, I always found it fascinating to look back to watershed moments like that. There had been a crazy mania for Frank Sinatra in the '40s, and certainly a crazy mania for Elvis Presley, so every generation had a moment like that. To me, The Beatles changed the world. They brought themes like universal love into the dialogue, and the people of the world coming together as a mantra of their message as musicians, more so as they matured as a band. And they were also always at the cutting edge of modern recording technology and sound—it was all very new, inspiring, and groundbreaking. To have such an everlasting impact for a band that existed for such a short period of time is unprecedented. It was the perfect storm at the time—the civil rights movement and the sociopolitical dialogue worldwide was on the ascension, and the Beatles reflected the nature of the times brilliantly in their music.

I will never forget the day my dad brought home Meet The Beatles for me. That was a big day—it was so great that he'd bought me the record. He got it at Alexander's Department store, and, as most people know now, it was originally released on Parlophone in England as "With The Beatles" and it had some different tunes on it. What many people do not know is that when it came out in the U.S. on Capitol, there were two different versions, one with blue in the label and one that was just black and white. The blue one is super rare—I've never met anyone that had a blue one. I had the black and white one. I fell completely in love with that record instantly, and just could not get enough of it.

--What was the first record that you bought on your own?

There were two that I remember very clearly. When I was a kid, there were three AM radio stations in New York that would play the new music: WABC, WINS, and WMCA, who were known as "The Good Guys." They all had the same playlists, so, if you were lucky enough, after hearing your favorite song on one station, you could go down the dial and it would just be coming on again on the other station. [The Isley Brothers'] It's Your Thing was a song like that for me—as soon as it ended on one station, I'd go hunting for it on the other stations. It's one of the best records ever made, and certainly one of my favorites. A groundbreaking record. I still have my original single, but I played it 'til it was gray! Almost all of the black was worn out of the grooves from playing it so much!

The other was Devil With A Blue Dress by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, which was another record I simply could not get enough of. My grandmother on my dad's side had given me some money for my birthday for me to go buy a record with, and she knew that I loved that record and it was the one I'd be buying. Great groove and sound, and a really exciting sounding record that I absolutely loved.

--Can you mention a few other records from that era that had a huge impact on you?

I remember my cousin playing the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations for me for the first time—that feeling was the closest I'd gotten to doing drugs at that early age! It was like my first acid trip!

I was such a music fanatic as a kid, I was always the DJ wherever I was, whether it was at home or at school. My record collection was growing, and each one of those records was so important to me. I had a portable record player I'd carry around, along with my box of singles, and I remember being on the school bus playing James Brown's Licking Stick for everyone to hear. Another time, I was DJ'ing at a party at the school, and I remember playing I'm Black And I'm Proud, which was just an unbelievably powerful record. When I played that record, I had this feeling of the possibility of it being very controversial even as I was dropping the needle on it, but I had an African-American teacher named Mrs. Crawford who was very vocal about our identity as we moved out of the "colored" people category into a new type of identity.

And those portable record players actually sounded amazing—really punchy, and you could also put a microphone through it. It was an AV squad/Board of Education thing. I loved that player so much, I went out not that long ago and bought one so I could have one today.

--Would you say that was when you began to focus on the drumming of Clyde Stubblefield and Jabbo Starks, the great James Brown drummers?

I listened to WWRL so I heard a lot of soul/R&B and James Brown. In those earlier days, I was listening to Meet The Beatles with one ear and Miles Davis's Seven Steps To Heaven with the other ear, so Ringo Starr and Tony Williams were it for me! But pretty soon thereafter I became focused on Benny Benjamin's playing on the Motown records and Al Jackson, Jr.'s playing on the Stax records, and those two became the cornerstones of my drumming style. Those were the guys on the records I was hearing, so it was a little later that I was able to go back and listen to drummers like Earl Palmer, whose playing was so essential on Little Richard's records. And the same was true with Fred Below's drumming with Chuck Berry. I got turned onto Roll Over Beethovenfrom the Beatles version, and then soon after I discovered Chuck Berry's original version of the song.

Being a DJ like I was when I was a kid, I saw the effect playing a great record could have on people, and it's something that I never forgot. As a drummer, learning how to play the right drumbeat on Cold Sweat was a really big thing in the neighborhood. If you couldn't play that beat, you were not moving in the right direction. My best friend back then, Leroy Clouden, who is a great drummer, was the first guy I ever met that knew how to play that beat the right way. Leroy played with Donald Fagen, and played on the B-52's record,Roam. Fantastic drummer.

--Did you study classical percussion as well?

Yes, I did. I played symphonic music and started out playing timpani, and then concert snare. I acquired my first drum set piece by piece, because it wasn't like someone was just going to buy me a set of drums. My grandmother bought me my first snare drum, which was a Zim-Gar, with the stipulation that I would have to study the drums to earn the privilege to have it. The better I got, I would be rewarded with another piece, building toward a whole kit. I remember getting my first hi-hat, and the first record I played along to was [Sly & the Family Stone's] Everyday People, which was a double-A side backed with Everybody Is A Star. I learned how to use a hi-hat from trying to mimic the hi-hat sounds on that record. The cymbals were like the worst cymbals ever made! But there is an amazing thing that happened later, which is another indication of the crazy things that can happen to you in your musical life.

Years later, I became very good friends with the great drummer Greg Errico, who was the drummer for Sly & the Family Stone. In the early '90s, I was the drummer with Keith Richards in the X-Pensive Winos, and we recorded some stuff up in northern California. He's California-based, so I called him because I needed a few things, especially cymbals. So he sent me some cymbals and some hi-hat cymbals that were just fantastic. They were the same hi-hat cymbals on "Everyday People"! And I ended up being lucky enough to be able to keep those cymbals, and I have them in my home studio and have used them on countless recordings. You can't make this stuff up—it's crazy!

--Who were some of the jazz drummers that you were enamored with when you first began to play jazz in earnest?

Billy Higgins, for one. His playing in the '60s with Lee Morgan, among many other people, was absolutely incredible. My dad had an incredible jazz record collection, and one of my favorite albums from the day I first heard it was Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder. Billy Higgins on drums and Bob Cranshaw on bass—you don't get any more swinging than that! I mean, come on!

I have kind of a crazy Lee Morgan story: When I was 15, I auditioned for the High School of Music and Art in New York. Most of the guys would audition with really hard pieces of music—since it was classically/symphonically based, you'd pick out a piece of music that was difficult to execute. I had picked out a bunch of different things, and I compared what I was doing with what other students were working on.

But when I went to the audition, they said, "Did you bring a piece of music?," and I said, "You know what? I didn't. Just because a person works on a piece of music for days or weeks, that doesn't mean they can really read, and to me it's not the best way to judge someone's ability as a musician." They weren't too happy about that! So I said, "Give me something to read and I'll play it." And they said, "Whoa! Okay!" They gave me something, and compared to what I had been working on, what they gave me was so much easier that I blew right through it. I passed the audition with flying colors and they accepted me into the school.

A few weeks later, I was scheduled to meet with the head of the jazz band to see about becoming the new drummer. Earlier that morning, my dad, who was an architect and worked for the city, said to me, "There is a Jazzmobile performance tonight of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band on 156th Street"—and the school was on 135th Street, and my grandmother lived on 156th Street—"so why don't you go to your grandmother's house after school and wait for me, and then we'll go uptown to the Jazzmobile." So I said, "Great!"

I go to the school to meet the professor and the members of the band, and I'd never seen a professor like this: he had this beautiful white shirt, these cool glasses, navy-blue bell-bottom pants with bold white pinstripes, and super cool brown square-toe Chelsea boots. I was thinking, "This is a teacher?!" He was cool and it was a good meeting. Then I go to my grandmother's and my dad meets me there, and we go around the corner to where the Jazzmobile is. The drummer was amazing—it was Mickey Roker, playing the first set of Fibes drums I ever saw, and they sounded incredible! Then I looked in the trumpet section and I said, "Dad! That's my teacher!" And it was Lee Morgan! Very sadly, he was killed not very long after that, so I was very lucky to get to meet him at that time.

--Is there a particular instrument that you find yourself drawn to because it provides you with inspiration?

Well, I love to play the guitar, and I spent some time a little while back away from the drums working on guitar and bass, because I had become a little bored with the drums. And I do love to play the guitar a lot. But then I rediscovered the drums and fell in love with them all over again. I think my strength will always be playing the drums. 

--Is there a certain kit that you really love?

I have some Yamaha kits that I really love and have relied on for so many recordings and gigs. Yamaha has made some custom kits for me over the years that have been brilliant. I originally got involved with Yamaha drums through a Blues Brothers gig I had, where I needed some drums to use for a gig at the Universal Amphitheater. Willie Hall and Levon Helms, who had the RSO All-Stars at the time and was endorsed by Yamaha, had both received a shipment of drums from Yamaha, and the drums were sent, for some reason, to Duck Dunn’s house, when Duck and Steve were living in LA. Before the drums were shipped on to Willie in Memphis, he was kind enough—and to this day I could never thank him enough—to let me use his drums. And they were all the dimensions that I was using: a 22” bass drum, 8x12 tom and 14x14 floor tom, and the 7” snare drum. I played these drums and they sounded amazing, and that’s how I became a Yamaha endorsee. 

--Do you have some favorite vintage drums?

Steve Maxwell, from Steve Maxwell Vintage Drums, who is the premiere collector and distributor of vintage drums in the world, just turned me onto this great set of drums that I got for my birthday—not that I need another set of drums! I do love Rogers drums, and he found this incredible kit for me that was in mint condition, so I bought them. I’ve been using them in the studio in LA. I love Trixon drums, too. It’s hard to beat a vintage Gretsch Broadkaster kit. Gretsch has reintroduced the “round badge” Broadkaster model and it’s really good. I have several classic Ludwig kits; the Club Date Kit is one of my favorite kits, and I have several of those. I am fortunate because I have a really wide selection of drums that can cover a lot of territory, musically.