Stringing Together Jazz and New Beats : Music: Guitarist Ronny Jordan, who plays the Coach House tonight, blends the traditional with funk, hip-hop. ‘Now’s the time for new ideas and a new direction,’ he says.


Ronny Jordan grew up in London listening to such mainstream jazz guitarists as Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and George Benson, saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Miles Davis. But simply retracing the giant steps of his predecessors isn’t enough for this guitarist.

“There’s little point in doing what they did. It’s pretty much been covered,” said Jordan, 31, who has been playing guitar since he was 4 and jazz since he was 12. “I respect the great jazz people of yesteryear, but I do feel now’s the time for new ideas and a new direction.”

Jordan, whose septet plays tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Tuesday at Ole Madrid in San Diego, has long been enamored of blending jazz vehicles and improvisation with today’s rhythms, particularly funk and hip-hop beats.


And he’s been quite successful at it. His 1992 debut album, “The Antidote,” has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. His latest, last year’s “The Quiet Revolution,” has sold about 300,000 copies so far.

“It seems clear that if you’re going to fuse jazz with a contemporary style, it would be hip-hop,” Jordan said Friday by phone from a hotel in Hollywood, one stop on his 22-city U.S. tour. “I’ve thought this since 1980, when I heard the first rap and hip-hop records by the Sugar Hill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa.

“Jazz and hip-hop can go together, because hip-hop is just a beat,” said Jordan. “But I feel this blend has to be done by a jazz musician, because no matter what style of music you play, if you solo, it ends up pretty much jazz. I also figured it had to be done by somebody young, who’s not stuck in the old ways.”

A lot of musicians talk up this kind of won’t-play-mainstream game--in some cases, only because they’ve failed to master the arduous ins-and-outs of be-bop-based jazz.

Not Jordan. On recordings and in person, the guitarist makes it clear he can play the fluid, snappy lines we’ve come to expect from journeyman improvisers. So his decision to enter new territory can be seen as sincere, as well as pragmatic.

“I played strictly straight-ahead music for about a year, from 1988 to 1989, in small underground clubs in London,” he said. “It just wasn’t enough for me, musically. I think that jazz should be dance music, for both the head, and the feet.”


The other factor in Jordan’s opting for a blend of music that would appeal to his contemporaries is the old bottom line: making money.

Jordan admitted that his days of straight-ahead playing didn’t earn him a lot, so he looked for a way of breaking through to a larger audience.

That break came via “So What,” the anthem of modal jazz by Davis that he recorded on his classic 1959 album, “Kind of Blue.”

“I was playing that tune on a jam session and at the end I dropped in some funk licks, and, I thought, ‘Hey, this could work,’ ” he said.

He whipped up a demo with a hip-hop rhythm and sold it to Island Records owner Chris Blackwell in July, 1991. By Christmas, his first single, a rap called “Get to Grips,” had landed on the British pop charts.

The album, “The Antidote,” was released four months later with an extended version of “So What.” Jordan felt the tune carried a stern message to jazz purists.


“Any mix of jazz and contemporary rhythms is going to be controversial,” he said. “The purists had slayed people like Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Donald Byrd when they went in a commercial direction. I knew what I was doing was commercial, but it was like saying to the purists, ‘So what?’ ”

Besides, he said, “I’ve got to be a realist. You sign with a major label, the objective is to sell units. That’s it. If you don’t, you get dropped. And if you do, you have to go out and promote yourself, try to sell yourself, and try to live.”

Still, Jordan feels his direction allows him to reach young people with a variety of elements. His rap tunes are his way, he said, “of making a social statement, of getting kids to reflect on where their lives are going.” And his jazz-based numbers are designed both to please, and to educate, audiences.

“I want younger people to respect jazz a lot more,” he said. “I want them to become aware of the people who have influenced me. And I also want to present jazz without its serious image. It’s the music of the street, and it’s become too elitist.”

Jordan, who acknowledges that music is a never-ending learning process, hopes he can develop into a singular stylist. In the meantime, he’s irked at people who compare him to his idols.

“That’s terribly unfair,” he said. “I regard myself as a disciple of Wes and George. Being compared puts unnecessary pressure on me.


“I won’t ever be as good as George Benson, but I can be a good Ronny Jordan, and that’s what matters.”

* Ronny Jordan’s septet, with rapper Radical MC, appears tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $10. (714) 496-8930.