[Dixielandjazz] Bless The Teachers - They Keep The Music Alive

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Jan 19 07:09:52 PST 2005

Bless Helen Hobbs Jordan. She and my mother were students together at
Columbia Teachers, Barnard and Juilliard in the 1920s.

Steve Barbone

January 19, 2005 - NY TIMES - By DANIEL J. WAKIN

Devoted Students Rally to Help a Music Teacher

A tart tongue, an iron will and tough love still live in the wisp of a body
that belongs to Helen Hobbs Jordan, a music teacher who turns 98 in April.
She passes her days in the same two-room suite at the Salisbury Hotel on
West 57th Street that she has lived in for 54 years.

The suite looks a bit barren these days. An armoire on the sitting room wall
is gone, sold. Mrs. Jordan, who has taught Broadway performers and aspiring
amateurs, jazz musicians and jingle singers, and stars like Bette Midler and
Melissa Manchester, now finds herself peering at hard times.

"I'm selling all my furniture," Mrs. Jordan said during a recent interview.
Why? "Pocketbook. Don't think it isn't so. It is." Last August, she gave up
her private studio several doors away and sold her Steinway grand piano.

"It broke my heart," she said.

If Mrs. Jordan is worried, she does not show it. Maybe it is because she
lives a life cushioned by the attentions of former students who have stuck
by for decades. Hers is an extraordinary example of a classic theme: the
beloved teacher who places her imprint on generations of students, who then
repay her with devotion.

The coterie includes Dr. Polina Liss, who acts informally as her personal
physician. Donna Kenton, a marketing specialist in municipal bonds at
Merrill Lynch, manages Mrs. Jordan's personal finances. Arlene Martell, a
studio singer, has her accountant prepare Mrs. Jordan's tax returns. Mary Jo
Kaplan, a writer and producer at Showtime, used to buy her groceries until a
full-time aide took over, and Ms. Kaplan still orders dietary supplements
every three months. Other close friends, like Rene Foss, a flight attendant
and a former student, visit frequently.

"I'm very lucky," Mrs. Jordan said last week in her suite. "I have all of
these girls. They are just lovely to me." She was dressed in elegant black
slacks and a red top, and golden hoops dangled from her ears. She has high
cheekbones, a sudden flashing smile and a wit.

"I call them girls because at 97, everybody is a girl," she added. She also
affectionately calls them her "victims." She has no children or other close

Mrs. Jordan's friends are about to perform another service. On Jan. 27, at
CAMI Hall, also on West 57th Street, they will hold a tribute to Mrs.
Jordan. Artists who are former students, including Bucky Pizzarelli, Lesley
Gore and Gene Bertoncini, have been invited to perform.

What the friends are not telling Mrs. Jordan, to avoid embarrassing her, is
that the tribute is actually a benefit, to raise funds to maintain the aide
who cares for her and to pay her rent so that she does not have to go to a
nursing home. Ms. Kenton said Mrs. Jordan has only enough money for another
month or so of expenses, although a fund-raising letter has gone out.

CAMI Hall holds about 200 people. The organizers, led by Ms. Liss's
companion, the jazz musician Bob Mover, are asking for $150 a person. If the
hall is full, they will raise $30,000. Mrs. Jordan will have some breathing

After the event, Fontana di Trevi - where Mrs. Jordan has eaten for a
half-century, usually sitting at the same central table - is giving a
wine-and-cheese party for her.

The former students agreed to talk about the benefit if it was not mentioned
in Mrs. Jordan's presence. With her eyesight fading, they said, she would
not be reading these words. But just as important to them was the need to
give Mrs. Jordan the recognition they say she deserves.

"All through school I basically coasted," Ms. Kenton said. "She was the
first teacher who demanded the best I could give. I've never worked so hard
for anybody. She made a big impact on my life, which is why I'm so devoted."

Most of Mrs. Jordan's teaching did not involve an instrument or the voice,
although she was a trained violinist. (She gave her violin to a cabdriver
whose instrument had been stolen.) She focused on ear training, sight
singing, music theory, score reading and general musicianship, teaching at
the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, Columbia University and
elsewhere. She had private students and gave classes years ago at the
American Theater Wing's professional school.

It was there, she said, that she taught Anthony Benedetto, soon to become
Tony Bennett, and Carl Reiner.

Ms. Martell produced index cards filled in by some of Mrs. Jordan's
students. Next to "objective," Mr. Bennett wrote, "To give me enough
foundation and the technical tools to work with more freedom and technical
taste." Mr. Reiner stated, "Desire to develop my ear and my rhythm (for
comedy singing primarily)." Other cards held the names of Paul Simon, David
Sanborn, Ben Vereen and Bette Midler (who wanted "to understand musical

Mrs. Jordan grew up in Topeka, Kan., and came to New York in the 1920's to
study at Juilliard and Columbia University's Teachers College.

She married, but said it was the biggest mistake of her life and calls
herself a terrible wife. "I don't know why I got married," she said. "But it
was being done."

Her greatest love affair was with David Collyer, a Broadway singer who went
on to teach and share students with Mrs. Jordan. His picture, a publicity
shot showing a dashing-looking man with a pencil-thin mustache, rests on a
sitting room table.

The affair ended after about a decade, but the two remained close, Mrs.
Jordan said. "He decided another girl looked good," she added. "It was his
hard luck." His daughter, Ingrid Saxon, also stays close to Mrs. Jordan.

Former students talk about Mrs. Jordan's perfectionism, her honesty, her
emphasis on decorum. Send thank-you notes to contractors, wear deodorant, do
not wear perfume in a close studio, and above all, do not make mistakes, she
commanded. Some students left in tears. Mrs. Jordan told them that producers
and studio executives would be much tougher.

"I don't tolerate errors," she said. "If you have a brain, for God's sake
use it."

In later years, many of Mrs. Jordan's students went on to become prominent
jingle singers, having learned from her the ability to master the music laid
before them in the studio quickly.

"Without Helen, I and all of the people I could mention wouldn't have had
the career we've had," said Ms. Martell, whose voice can be heard singing
commercial jingles like "It's a Sealy Posturepedic morning" and "I'm
Chiquita Banana, and I'm here to say." She studied with Mrs. Jordan from
1968 to 1970.

"We walked in little dummies who couldn't read music," she said, "and we
walked out musicians."

Ms. Gore ("It's My Party") was a student in 1979 and 1980. With Mrs. Jordan,
she said, "you get the education of an incredibly astute woman."

During the recent visit, Mrs. Jordan sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in
do-re-mi syllables with Ms. Martell, who was sitting in along with Ms. Foss.
Mrs. Jordan's voice was gruff, but the pitches were right on, and she even
corrected her star pupil. "That's a 'ti,' " she said.

Her bluntness is still intact. When Ms. Foss first came in, she said, "She
couldn't sing worth a damn."

As the visitor left, Mrs. Jordan insisted on being helped to the door to see
him out. She walked slowly, supported by Ms. Foss and Ms. Martell. It was,
she said, the proper thing to do.

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