It is a reception that might cause most performers to come unstrung like a cheap pair of shoes. Guitarist Stanley Jordan, mounting the stage at New York’s Village Vanguard, encounters no hubbub of applause, only a hush. But he seems unbothered, as though he’s heard this silence before—and seen the eyes focused on his hands, waiting to learn how this 25-year-old newcomer had prompted George Benson to welcome him to “the elite guitar players club” and Quincy Jones to proclaim him “my favorite kind of musician.”
They soon find out. Jordan barrels into his set, but instead of strumming or picking his specially tuned electric guitar, his fingers fly over the fret board like tiny mallets, tapping out his own compositions and others by Bach, the Beatles, Thelonious Monk and even Jimi Hendrix.
“The front rows are very often guitarists,” Jordan says later after the now appreciative crowd has filed out. “I play guitar the way you’re supposed to play keyboards. That’s the simplest way I can explain it. It allows me to sound like two or three guitarists at once.”
Stanley’s unorthodox fast-tap method of playing earned him entry into last summer’s Kool Jazz Festival. The exposure helped him land a Capitol/Blue Note record, which surprised chart-watchers by claiming the No. I spot on the jazz lists for more than 12 weeks and selling a sizzling 225,000-plus copies since its February release. The record, Magic Touch, also led to appearances on The Tonight Show and Merv Griffin, a VH-1 video, more than 100 gigs in the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan, as well as a contract for a book Jordan is now writing about his technique.
Jordan was eking out a living busking on the sidewalks of Manhattan just last year. Although “I always did great on Wall Street,” he says, there were hassles with cops, street crazies and even a memorable dousing from a Greenwich Village window. It was not the sort of splash the former child prodigy had hoped to make.
Born in Chicago and raised in Palo Alto, Calif., Jordan began studing classical piano at the age of 6. His mother, Camellia, now an English instructor at the University of Massachusetts and at Wentworth Institute in Boston, recalls the time shortly after Stanley’s 10th birthday when she was struggling to teach herself a Beethoven piano sonata. “One day I got a page that was giving me a lot of trouble and he said, ‘I think I can show you how to do that.’ He amazed me by playing the whole page without hesitation. He had such an instinctive sense of music theory that he could enter Beethoven’s mind.”
After his parents’ divorce, Jordan and his older sister, Phyllis, moved with their mother into an apartment, and the piano was left behind. Jordan switched to guitar but, accustomed to playing with 88 keys, he was troubled by the limitations of six strings. “The keyboard players had the level of orchestration I was after,” he explains, “so out of sheer frustration I worked out this strange way of playing.” By 15, he had developed his two-handed “touch technique” and later devised his own system of musical notation.
After graduating from Princeton in 1981, Stanley produced his first album, financed with the help of friends, and hawked it from bandstands during gigs throughout the South and Midwest. He settled for a year and a half in Madison, Wis., where he built up a considerable following and met Sandra Kilpatrick, then a University of Wisconsin student. After the birth of their daughter, Julia, in 1983, the couple moved in with friends in Orange, N.J. and Jordan hit the streets. Last March, however, buoyed by Jordan’s concert fees, the shared quarters gave way to a 10-room house in Plain-field, N.J. “Being broke and desperate has never helped my music,” says Jordan, who now seems unlikely to see such days again. Plans for a new LP are already in the works, and the onetime street musician recently donned his finest threads for his first appearance at Carnegie Hall. Among the happy concert-goers, the response was anything but quiet.