Jordan started playing in his hometown of Crowley. He finished high school early and came to college at Southern in New Orleans. Here he fell in with the students who were listening to modern jazz. "The hip cats were always listening to the modern thing, and that was Charlie Parker. Alvin Batiste was a year ahead of me, and he was the main one into modern music. I'd follow around these guys when they'd go to practice," remembers Jordan.
Downbeat Magazine used to publish famous solos transcribed, and Jordan studied and learned them. At the same time, he was getting schooled in rhythm and blues. "I hung out at the Dew Drop," he says. "Frank Pania (the owner) and (local promoter) Rip Roberts would have different artists that needed bands to go out with them. Cats would hang out like it was the union hall and see who they could go out with. I went out with the Hawkettes, Guitar Slim, Eddie Bo, Percy Mayfield, all those cats." Jordan was also getting his fair share of studio work. "The sax cats were Lee Allen and Red Tyler. In the evening, they'd be worn out and the producers would take the second tier cats. I made sessions doing that."
Even though Jordan was an excellent rhythm and blues player, he was already developing his own style. He listened to Ornette Coleman and 20th century classical composers. "One time some cats came in to jam, and I was listening to Ravel and Ives, and they thought it was Burl Ives," he says. Back then not many people in New Orleans were playing Jordan's style. "There was a cat named Billy White who played like that -- him and (drummer) Edward Blackwell. One time Clifford Jordan, Billy Higgins, Stanley Cowell and Bill Lee gave a concert at SUNO. I got up and played with them and stretched out. Cowell called Al Fielder and London Branch and told them to go down and play with me." Fielder, the drummer who came up in Chicago playing with Sun Ra and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians before moving to Jackson, has remained Jordan's closest collaborator.
Fielder will be in the IAQ band that Jordan will bring to Jazz Fest. Also in the band will be longtime musical partners trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr., bassist William Parker, pianist Joel Futterman and his son Kent Jordan on flute. "These guys bring a freshness," says Jordan, "I don't know what they'll bring, but it will be something different to play on. With some people you don't have to do nothing because they're going to bring a freshness and it's a challenge to hear where they're at and what they're doing and play something in the moment. Just get up and hit it. That's what is so good about it." The sets that the IAQ play at Jazz Fest are totally improvised. There are no tunes. They just start playing. This can be scary or intimidating to many listeners who are only accustomed to hearing songs or certain parameters in music. When asked how one might approach his music if one has never heard it before, Jordan pauses for a moment and half chuckles, half sighs before answering: "I don't know how to tell people to approach my music, really. I don't have the slightest idea. Some people come away going, 'Man, I know you got technique because I've never heard someone jump five octaves on the saxophone.'" Jordan's fans say that you have to hear what he plays as music and sounds and feeling and energy. As his most recent recordings have indicated, there is something beautiful and deeply profound in what Jordan is laying down on the saxophone and what his fellow musicians contribute to their collaborations. One must keep an open mind. "I've got to play what I'm feeling," he says. "I've got to play with my environment. I have to adapt the music to my personal feeling. I'll go to my grave thinking that you've got to play according to your personal feeling."