— by Kim Davenport
The image above is the 1915 passport photo of Joseph Zachariah Taylor “Joe” Jordan, who was born in 1882 in Cinncinnati, Ohio, and enjoyed the last few decades of his life in Tacoma, where he passed away in 1971.
Joe Jordan was a composer, arranger and pianist who made substantial contributions to ragtime. His long and diverse musical career is full of fascinating stories, from his early work as an African American writing music for minstrel shows, to his many collaborations with notable figures in the entertainment industry, whether in Chicago, New York, or in travels through Europe. He even once crossed professional paths with Orson Welles, providing music for a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which the young director led for Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre in April 1936.
Here is one example of his work as a composer, from a recording on the New World Records label:
I am clearly glossing over a fascinating career here, and encourage you to follow the links above to learn more of his life and work! But my awareness of Joe Jordan came not through his contributions to the genre of ragtime or his work on Broadway; I first stumbled on his name as the composer of a new school song – Dear Lincoln – for Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, published in 1949. What had brought this man to Tacoma, and what was the story behind this song – significant enough at the time for the sheet music to be captured by a Richards Studio photographer?
As it turns out, by the 1940s, Jordan was U.S. Army Captain Jordan. His service to the military, first in Arizona and later at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, was as a musician leading entertainment for still-segregated troops during World War II. Although Jordan had seen much of the world by this point in his life, the natural beauty of the Tacoma area pulled him in, and he settled with his family here for the remainder of his life.
His drive to compose music, however, never waned, and he composed not only Dear Lincoln but also Go Giants Go for the Tacoma Giants (Pacific Coast League), One Hundred Years of Progress for Tacoma’s Centennial in 1969, among others. On Jordan’s 87th birthday in 1969, he was honored by the City of Tacoma for his many contributions to the local community.
But back to the story of Dear Lincoln. Jordan wrote and published the song in 1949, and rather than accepting the proceeds from sales of the sheet music, he donated them to a fund to purchase a new Steinway grand piano for Lincoln’s auditorium – an especially generous gesture given that Jordan had no family connections to the school. Mrs. Margaret Goheen, longtime director of Lincoln’s choral program, was quick to incorporate the new song into her students’ regular repertoire.
Here is where I have the pleasure of sharing a particularly special experience from my research into Lincoln’s music program. After discovering Mrs. Goheen’s scrapbooks at the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room, and learning that they had been donated by a family member who still lived in Tacoma, I eagerly made contact with her daughter, Judy Selby. Was I interested in the tapes that Judy still had in a box somewhere in her house? Tapes from the 1950s? They probably wouldn’t have survived the decades, but I decided it was worth a drive to her house.
As it turns out, the original tapes were professionally recorded for a local radio broadcast from the Lincoln auditorium in 1950, and then transferred to cassette tapes sometime later – and had survived remarkably well. Before launching in to a program of challenging classical choral repertoire for live broadcast around Tacoma over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Lincoln choir sang Jordan’s Dear Lincoln while the announcer opened the program to come:
Late in his life, Jordan received renewed attention for his work decades before as a ragtime composer, with renewed interest in the genre on the part of scholars, composers, and performers alike. In addition to seeing his work mentioned in scholarly works about the ragtime era, Jordan had the opportunity to mentor a Tacoma pianist, Lois Delano, who released a recording of his works in 1968 (The Music of Joe Jordan, Arpeggio Records No. 1205). The album received positive responses from critics at a time when ragtime music was experiencing a newfound attention on the part of performers and composers.
Jordan also appeared on a recording alongside two old friends from New York and Saint Louis, Charley Thompson and Eubie Blake. Released in 1962 on the Stereoddities label, Golden Reunion in Ragtime includes both performances and conversation between the musicians.
Jordan died in Tacoma on September 11, 1971, leaving behind a substantial legacy of musical contributions, and having impacted many lives in his adopted hometown.