PAEP Profile: Jazz Percussionist Leon Jordan

Jordan & students

There’s a boisterous sound echoing the halls of local music classrooms – the sound of two dozen buckets being drummed in unison.  This could be a cacophony, but under the right direction, it’s actually a stunning example of music education meaning something in the lives of special students. Led by professional jazz percussionist Leon Jordan, Philly students are learning a new perspective and unlocking  talents through innovative jazz percussion.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Jordan has been a musician for over 35 years.  He started his musical journey by learning the piano, but one of his instructors noticed Jordan might have a different calling.

“I practiced piano really hard, and my teacher noticed I had a knack for rhythm and adding in multiple layers rhythmic layers. She felt that I was more suited for percussion, but maybe she was really saying I was bad at piano!”

Jordan’s talent led to an early career touring around the country with other musicians such as the great jazz violinist John Blake.  Jordan also began teaching his own students. As he became more skilled at percussion, he continued to teach and take on students – even from the road.

“We did a lot of workshops incorporated with our concerts at different colleges and clinics. We would do a question and answer segments and then do some on-hands teaching. It has carried through the rest of my musical career.”

Jordan might be best known for his incredibly popular band, Renaissance Orchestra – who have that played numerous high-profile special events and traveled with the television show Dancing With the Stars.  Jordan got involved with PAEP about six years ago, and now he teaches mostly at-risk students and disabled children. Many of the schools lack resources for music education, and it is up to Jordan to provide a framework.

“Nothing I do is conventional. I don’t really follow a certain set standard of curriculum. Like a lot of my music, my teaching is improvisational.”

Jordan trains kids to be able to play melodies from memory, but also to be able to incorporate their own creative spin, by changing chords and adding in new layers of rhythms.

“I want kids to learn how to hear poly-rhythms. These methods apply to other instruments and teach them to always interpret and articulate music in other ways.  A lot of these kids struggle academically and are discouraged from trying new things that aren’t perceived as macho or cool, especially the boys. There’s a lot of peer pressure not to be into anything besides sports.”

Jordan works hard to break down these barriers and to show students that being a part of an ensemble can give a student the same discipline and satisfaction as any sport.

“These are tough situations, but when they play percussions they bang out all their frustrations. It’s amazing therapy. It’s a surprise to people, but kids eventually enjoy the whole process of the discipline and structure from it.”

For students who practice their drumming outside of the classroom and show commitment, Jordan introduces them to other instruments beyond the bucket drum.  His teachings work – six of his students have gone on to universities via music scholarships.  Jordan believes it takes a flexible personality to teach in circumstances without priority funding to the arts. Like true jazz, ad-libbing sometimes is key.

“I’m always learning new techniques of teaching from my students. For my special needs kids, we figured out a way to attach their instruments and drums to their chairs so that they didn’t have to play from the ground. These schools don’t always have resources, so you just gotta make it up on the spot.”

Improvisation is not an obstacle; it enriches the student’s leaning experience by showing them how thinking outside of the box can produce harmony. Students learn leadership and teamwork as a body of musicians and take these traits outside the class. The kids aren’t the only ones benefiting from the PAEP program either.

“It gives me access to students and the ability to teach them music. You can’t just do that as a professional musician. PAEP allows me to bring teaching and music together, and also to make it fun for the kids.”

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