Jazz musician Stanley Jordan

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The four-time Grammy nominee demonstrates his extraordinary guitar sound with a performance of a track from his “Friends” CD.

Whether it's bold reinventions of classical masterpieces or soulful explorations through pop-rock hits, to blazing straight ahead jazz forays and ultramodern improvisational works—solo or with a group—Stanley Jordan does it. The four-time Grammy nominee has collaborated with a diverse array of artists and is a frequent guest with jam bands. Jordan began his music career at age six, shifted his focus to guitar at age 11 and applied the principles of his classical pianist training to develop his unique "touch technique" for the guitar. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a B.A. in music from Princeton. He's also a spokesperson for the American Music Therapy Association.


Tavis: Four-time Grammy nominee Stanley Jordan is known both for his innovative guitar work and his keyboard expertise. He’s a musician who’s consistently pushed the boundaries of conventional expectations for jazz and pop music, I think it’s fair to say, on some 11 CDs now including his most recent album titled “Friends.”

Stanley has excelled at innovation and improvisation, once again going so far as to invent a new technique for in fact playing the guitar. We’ll get a sample of his artistry at the end of this conversation. But now, Stanley, I’m glad to talk to you on this program. Good to see you.

Stanley Jordan: Thanks for having me here. I appreciate it.

Tavis: I want to cover the music here in a second and work our way up to this wonderful performance that I know that we’re all going to love. But I am fascinated by something you’ve been teaching for a while. You been teaching a class on practice and I want to get into what you’re telling these students in your class about practice.

And I start with this because I was in a conversation some years ago with a great basketball coach and we were talking about this adage that practice makes perfect.

And he said to me, “Tavis, that’s not actually true. I beat into my players that it’s not that practice makes perfect because what if you’re practicing the wrong way?” What he said was, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” You can practice all day long. If you’re doing it wrong, you’re not going to be perfect at what you’re working on.

Which is an interesting way into the conversation because, again, to your class about practice, what are you teaching these young artists about what practice is, about how to go about it, how to approach it?

And, for obvious reasons, we all want to perfect whatever it is that we’re doing. So I’m wondering if I can learn something from you about what you’re teaching about practice.

Jordan: Well, you know, there’s a lot of information out there about how – I mean, about what to learn, but not enough about how to learn, and that’s what this is about because there are principles that are universal that apply even beyond music. It’s sort of the universal principles of excellence in any field that you can apply to music.

And one of the things is, I slow everything down. I slow everything way down. I simplify everything. I find that a lot of musicians tend to try too much too quickly. And by simplifying it, you are able to achieve perfection.

And what I tell my students is it’s more important to be perfect than to play anything interesting. Do something even extremely boring, but play it perfectly, and you’ll find that even within three notes, as you repeat those three notes, there’s a whole universe of sound in those three notes.

You know how I got into this, is there was a time when I was beginning my career and I was doing a lot of meditation. And it occurred to me that by meditating, I was in a way sort of training my mind and that I wondered if that could somehow be applied to the music.

And I realized that what meditation basically does is it simplifies your mind to where you’re focusing on one thing and you can really master that one thought. And that same thing applies to music as well.

Tavis: So where do you stand or where do you come down on this Malcolm Gladwell notion, this Gladwellian notion, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become really proficient, to become perfect at a particular thing?

Jordan: I think it’s true that it takes a lot of hours. I don’t know if it’s 10,000, 10,001. I don’t know what the actual number is. But I do know that there are ways of dramatically accelerating that process.

Tavis: And the flip side of this notion of practice where artists are concerned – and I’m always curious about the way that artists approach life ’cause I think that our best ambassadors for anything in this country are really artists. I love talking to artists all the time for that reason, so I learn so much from them.

But this is almost the inverse of what Miles said to his band, speaking of great jazz artists. Miles didn’t want his band practicing too much because he didn’t want them to get onstage and do it the way they had practiced it because jazz at its essence is something that should never be done the same way twice.

Jordan: Well, when you talk about what it is that you’re practicing, I think that still fits what Miles was saying. Because he wanted his band to be creative, so he wanted them to practice being spontaneous.

Tavis: Okay.

Jordan: So doing something by rote and playing it over and over again, that’s not practicing what he wanted them to practice. So in a sense, they were practicing by not practicing.

Tavis: I get it, okay. I take it. So you answered that and I thank you. I’m always curious to learn from artists who obviously practice and perfect their craft.

Tell me about this project “Friends.” I know it’s obviously you and a bunch of friends, but how did the concept come together where you and all your friends are featured on these 11 different tracks?

Jordan: This was my dream team, some of my favorite musicians. I proposed this idea to the record label, Mack Avenue Records, and they thought it was great. I’ve had great artists play with me on various projects, but this was the first time that I did one where the collaboration is the concept.

So I gave them a lot of leeway as far as picking the music and I really went out of my way to help them to feel comfortable in the musical setting and the situation.

So like, for example, when I contacted Bucky Pizzarelli, he said, “Well, what do you want to play?” I said, “Well, one song I was kind of thinking was “Seven Come Eleven.” He said, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” Well, that’s from his era, you know, so it was a pretty good guess on my part, you know.

Regina Carter is a very sensitive violinist. She’s just so soulful, so we did some things like the improvisation on the Bartok piece where we gave her a chance to really savor every note. We had Christian McBride; we had Kenny Garrett, Ronnie Laws, Nicholas Payton, Charlie Hunter, so many great artists.

Tavis: You got some cool friends.

Jordan: Yeah [laughs].

Tavis: Must be nice to be a friend of Stanley Jordan. So Stanley invites you to play on his album and you can bring whatever piece of music you want to play and y’all figure out a way to make it work.

Jordan: There was a lot of joy and celebration in the studio and I think that comes through.

Tavis: It does come through. It’s a wonderful tribute to you and to your friends. Was there a piece that was brought to you and you had to think twice about, oh, I’m not really sure I can do this or whether it fits or whether or not there’s something I can work with? Or were you open to all of these at first glance?

Jordan: No. I was very open to it. And by letting the artist play a big role in choosing the material, it actually kind of stretched me beyond my comfort zone, and I like that too. It’s always good for us to try new things.

Tavis: Yeah. Well, he’s gonna try some new things now, some new things off this project, and you’ll get a chance to judge for yourself. I know you’re going to be turned on in a second as I am always moved and tickled by how Stanley plays. So just watch how he uses both of his hands on two different instruments at the same time. He’s a bad boy.

So we’ll conclude our show tonight with a performance from Stanley Jordan. It’s his version of the Katy Perry hit – that’s right. Katy Perry hit. We didn’t get a chance to talk about that. When you come back next time, we’re gonna talk about the purists who have a problem with you, I’m sure, covering Katy Perry.

Jordan: Jazz musicians have always taken pop songs – we’ll get into that.

Tavis: We’ll talk about that next time [laugh]. But it’s his version of Katy Perry’s hit, “I Kissed a Girl.” Playing with him are Robert Miller on the drums and Ed Livingston on bass. And as they get ready to play for you, I will say goodnight as I always do. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith. Enjoy this performance.


Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: March 31, 2014 at 12:03 pm