Joe Jordan was a musical talent who, during the course of his long and productive life, helped to bring about several important changes in the entertainment world, and witnessed many more. He was not an actor, but his songs could turn an actor or actress into a star. And that is exactly what happened.
Jordan was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1882 and studied music at the Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University) in Jefferson City, Missouri. His name first came to light at the turn of the century when he played piano in St. Louis with Louis Chauvin and Sam Patterson. Chauvin was a brilliant ragtime pianist who favored the carefree life of a bawdyhouse piano player over a more structured and disciplined musical career, but Jordan was more ambitious. Under the guidance of Tom Turpin, a saloon owner whose piano playing was considered the best in the country at that time, Jordan formed a quartet that played in clubs and at church socials. The group was unique in that all four men--Jordan, Turpin, Chauvin, and Patterson--played piano at the same time.
Around 1900, Jordan played violin and drums in the ten-piece Taborin Band of St. Louis. In 1902, he visited New York where he and Ernest Hogan wrote the score for Rufus Rastus, a play starring Hogan. Hogan, who billed himself as The Unbleached American, had written the most famous of all coon songs, All Coons Look Alike To Me, and the play was an attempt to build on his success as the lead in Will Marion Cook's Clorindy.
In 1903, Patterson and Chauvin wrote the score and libretto for Dandy Coon, with Jordan acting as stage and musical director. Unfortunately, after a promising tryout in St. Louis, the playlet patterned after the popular Williams and Walker shows folded on the road in Des Moines.
When he was 21, Jordan moved to Chicago. The next year, he wrote the Pekin Rag, dedicated to Bob Mott's Pekin Theater, Chicago's great African-American-owned theater and first of the many such theaters and vaudeville houses that were to sprout up across the nation. The Pekin also set the stage for Chicago to become the center of the jazz world between 1915 and 1925.
In the spring of 1905, Jordan was called to New York by Ernest Hogan. Hogan had organized a group of seventeen men and women--singers, dancers, and musicians--and wanted Jordan and James Reese Europe to help turn them into an all-African-American ragtime orchestra and write their music. When The Memphis Students made its debut, it was the first group of its kind to play in New York City.
Up until this time, there had been no serious bands of African-American musicians. The role played by Jordan, James Europe, and Ford Dabney in the organization of such groups broke new ground in the development of early orchestral jazz.
The Memphis Students contained both string instruments like the banjo, mandolin, and guitar, and brass band instruments like the trumpet and saxophone; James Weldon Johnson called this "playing-singing-dancing" orchestra "the first modern jazz band ever heard on a New York stage." Later in 1905, they toured Paris, London, and Berlin under the leadership of Will Marion Cook. Solo vocalists during the first year were Tom Fletcher and Abbie Mitchell, Cook's wife.
The band was the first to sing in four-part harmony and play instruments at the same time. Their conductor, Will Dixon, also had a unique style: he danced out the rhythm across the stage as he conducted, a trick that Cab Calloway would use to thrill crowds 30 years later. Their hit songs were Rise and Shine, Oh, Liza Lady, Goin' to Exit, and Dixie Land, all by Joe Jordan.
He assumed the duties of musical director and orchestra leader for the Pekin in 1906 and wrote the theater's first stage production, The Man From Bam, with a book by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Jordan's band at the Pekin consisted of 16 musicians, the majority of whom were from minstrel show backgrounds. They remained the house band for the theater's comedies and vaudeville shows until 1909, with Jordan writing the music for most of their productions
Even though he was working in Chicago, Jordan was still involved in the New York musical scene. He wrote Ada Overton Walker's Salome Dance, which was used in a Williams and Walker production, and also wrote That Teasin' Rag for her in 1909. Eight years later, that song became part of a controversy when The Original Dixieland Jazz Band used its principal strain for their tune, Original Dixieland One-Step. After hearing a recording of it, Jordan brought legal action. The records were pulled from the shelf and relabeled with an additional credit: Introducing `That Teasin' Rag' by Joe Jordan.
In 1910, Jordan teamed with Will Marion Cook to write the song that made Fanny Brice a star: Lovie Joe. According to Jelly Roll Morton, its title implied "a great lover of the ladies." Another story has it that Lovie Joe was a gambler who owned a saloon in New York before the song was written.
Fanny Brice first performed Lovie Joe in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1910. Florenz Ziegfeld was impressed with his newly hired singer's dedication as she rehearsed it over and over again in the corner of the stage. However, his producer, Abe Erlanger, thought the song was ridiculous and the singer's interpretation and phrasing even worse, and he promptly told her so. An angry Brice informed the little man, "I live on 128th Street. It's on the edge of Harlem. They all talk that way," and walked off the stage. With that, Erlanger went into a tirade, firing her and canning Lovie Joe.
Ziegfeld coaxed Brice back to the show, but he told her that while the song would be used on the road for the Atlantic City performance, it would be dropped for the opening in New York. Brice decided to act on her own. Instead of the dress Ziegfeld had designed for her, she found one several sizes too small, and on opening night, she sang Lovie Joe in blackface as planned, but wiggling back and forth to make the clinging sheath accommodate her ungainly figure. At the end of the song, she drew up the skirt, struck a knock-kneed pose, then raced off stage in mock horror. The applause was so overwhelming that the singer took eight encores. Joe Jordan, who was standing outside the theater because African-Americans were not allowed inside, is said to have wept when he heard it. After Brice finally left the stage, Erlanger was the first to greet her, his broken straw hat in his hands. "See, I broke this applauding you," he said. She kept the hat as a memento for the rest of her career.
In 1911, Jordan visited Germany with King and Bailey's Chocolate Drops. He also toured the English music halls, and between 1911 and 1913, he was back at the Pekin as musical director. He joined Will Marion Cook again in 1918, this time as financial manager and assistant director of Cook's New York Syncopated Orchestra.
When Jordan was 46, he became the conductor for Keep Shufflin, a musical featuring stride pianist James P. Johnson and his best-known student, Fats Waller. The music and lyrics were composed by Henry Creamer and Andy Razaf, both of whom were active black songwriters.
Jordan was also a band leader who traveled and recorded with his group Ten Sharps and Flats. In the thirties, he directed WPA orchestras, and as a part of the week-long ASCAP Silver Jubilee Festival held in Carnegie Hall in 1939, he directed a symphony orchestra of 75 players and a 350-voice chorus. They opened the concert with Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson's rousing anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. During World War II, Jordan organized army bands and USO groups. Later in his career, he wrote songs with W. C. Handy and conducted the orchestra for Orson Welles's production of Macbeth.
In 1950, Jordan was in business in Tacoma, Washington. He died at the age of 89 on September 11, 1971