Monday, July 6, 2015


Clifford Jordan, Toronto, Nov. 1988

I USED TO COMPLAIN THAT I WAS BORN TOO LATE to witness - and photograph - jazz at its last really vital moments. It was a complaint I'd make while listening to late swing or early bebop, the classic Miles quintets or that period in the early- to mid-'70s when almost everybody from all of those eras were alive, touring and recording. It's only with some distance that I realize that I was actually there to capture the last moment of the music's great if unsung players. Which is where Clifford Jordan comes in.

Jordan came through Toronto to play with a few nights at East 85th, a downtown east jazz club that was open for about five years. I knew him from records he'd done for Blue Note and Prestige over twenty years earlier, and talked someone in charge into letting me ask him to sit for a quick portrait session; I shot the show one night and came back the next with my C330 and a light, and photographed him in either a corner of the club or a dressing room or office.

It was, as I've said before, a time when one of my handful of ambitions - a small but fervently pursued handful - was to be Bill Claxton or Francis Wolff.

Clifford Jordan, East 85th, Toronto, Nov. 1988

Jordan was a tenor player from Chicago, and back when there were popularly imagined to be two ways to play the tenor sax - Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young - he chose the Lester route. Or at least that was how he was described to me. I was a huge Lester fan, so Jordan was someone I wanted to hear.

My live photos are dim; it would be a few years before I was consistently competent with concert shooting, but I have always been pleased with the portraits I shot. I have two rolls, with enough good frames to suggest that I managed to establish a decent rapport with Jordan, catching at least two shots where his expression hints at some mix of confidence and even intimacy.

Clifford Jordan, Toronto, Nov. 1988

While scanning the negatives I shot with my Mamiya TLR, I've been impressed with the sharpness and flattering quality the mild telephoto lens produced. It was a difficult camera to compose with - you were usually missing about half the frame when you hit the shutter after adjusting the shot with the parallax correction bar - but the information on these old negatives is startling to me today. I know why I sold it and traded up to the Rolleiflex and the Bronica SQa, but it was a lot better than a starter medium format camera based on what I'm looking at today.

Jordan never really had the reputation he deserved. An intelligent player and bandleader, he never embraced the excesses of the avant garde, even though he often played with musicians who made their reputations there. A couple of years after I photographed him he organized a big band that played regular Monday night gigs in New York, giving Jordan a showcase for his playing, which was one of the best justifications for the hard bop school after its moment was considered past. Quite without knowing it, I caught him at the start of this last creative period. My timing wasn't all that bad, in retrospect. Once again, these photos have never been published anywhere until now.

Clifford Jordan died in New York on March 27, 1993.


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