BY KAYLA PONGRAC
Our Town Correspondent
Matt Jordan studied mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University until he said he became “distracted and disillusioned with college.”
After two years, he dropped out.
“I was looking for something else to do with myself,” said Jordan, who now travels around in a minivan equipped with a piano, playing “pop-up performances” for unassuming audiences.
His first appearance in Johnstown, for instance, was well-received. Men and women who were gathered inside Mill House Café, located along Diamond Boulevard in Westmont, were beckoned out of their comfortable chairs when sounds of the blues suddenly emerged from the parking lot area.
The sight of Jordan playing the piano was almost as delightfully entertaining as his obvious musical talents. Jordan’s strawberry-colored instrument was installed inside his minivan like an art exhibit on wheels. As Jordan stood and played, his upper body poking through the sunroof, more Mill House customers continued to gather ‘round.
Some folks reached for their phones to record video and take photographs, while others danced and clapped. The blues, it seemed, had never sounded better on that crisp October morning.
“Where did that guy come from?” one lady asked when she returned inside.
This reporter had wondered the same. I found out later, after asking Jordan for an interview, that he was in Johnstown on a business trip that involved delivering ice to local customers. Jordan’s employed part-time by Home City Ice.
“The regular guy needed a vacation, and I’m the ‘floater,’ so I took the gig,” Jordan said. “I brought my piano and stayed an extra day to explore, because I’ve always thought Johnstown seemed like a cool place.”
On that day, Jordan did what he always does when he’s in a new town, or near public places in general: He went looking for people going about their days as usual, people whose days Jordan knew he could brighten by simply pulling off the road and sharing his talents.
“Most people don’t expect to see a guy sitting in a van playing a piano and singing to them, so it’s fun how people react,” the 25-year-old said. “When I’m looking for a place to stop and play, I look for people. Playing to an empty street or the side of a highway wouldn’t benefit anyone besides me, so I look for populated areas.”
Jordan’s performing name is Matt’s Blues, and he’s been entertaining audiences throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky since early 2016.
As far as the piano-inside-the-minivan is concerned, it took some time and effort to get it inside that van in the first place.
“I received my piano from a guy who didn’t need it anymore,” Jordan said. “I wanted a red piano for my shows, so I painted it with the guidance of a friend from church. The piano ended up in the van as soon as I figured out that I could use the van to transport it. The Dodge Grand Caravan is spacious enough to fit a console (mid-height) piano behind the front seats, through the side door.
“I built a six-wheeled cart for moving the piano, and it loads into the van by rocking back and sliding up onto the van floor. It weighs several times what I do, so it’s all about leverage. More recently did I discover I could play the piano while it was in the vehicle.”
A piano man in a piano van. And nowadays, Jordan is as happy as can be.
“There is no such thing as a typical day for me, and that’s something I enjoy about my current lifestyle,” he said. “Between working on cars, tuning, repairing and painting pianos, practicing, promoting, performing and sometimes driving trucks, one week is never the same as the last.
“I hope to grow as an artist and become a great musician. Learning to tune pianos has opened my ears to the infinite range of intonation and inflection present in sound, things I’ve been hearing my whole life but only recently picked out or focused on, so that tells me there is a certain bit of eternity present in music. No two pianos are the same, no two performances are the same, there’s no absolute standard of success and there’s no upward limit of creativity. People who say it’s all been done are conceited. My goal is to see how far I can go with music.”
Jordan started traveling in his piano-equipped minivan when he realized “how low of a demand most places have for live music.”
“It’s like a traveling sales job,” he said. “You work on expanding your territory.”
Jordan became interested in music at an early age, thanks in part to his parents.
“My dad always had a keyboard and would show me stuff,” he said. “I would say I was 16 when I started to learn (how to play piano) intuitively.”
His parents introduced him to artists such as the Beatles, Paul Simon, James Taylor, John Denver, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Joel, Steve Winwood, Men At Work, Boston, Heart, Peter Gabriel and more.
While attending high school in Garrett County, Maryland, Jordan also learned how to play the trumpet. From there, he picked up the organ, keyboards and harmonica.
It was an Eric Clapton album (specifically, “The Cream of Clapton”) that turned him on to blues music. And so, he said, his exploration of the blues began.
During his two years at college, Jordan took the blues more seriously than his academic studies (plus, he said, playing and listening to music was an escape “from the prevalent alcoholism” on campus), and, a year after he quit school, he landed a gig playing organ with the Dennis McClung Blues Band.
“I met Dennis while working at Sam’s Club and started talking to him about my interest in music,” Jordan said. “He invited me to a jam session to audition, and, next thing I knew, I was part of the group.
“It was a great experience playing with the DMBB. Dennis and his bandmates gave me an incredible foundation of music to build upon, and gave me a real love for the blues. Historically speaking, without the blues, there’d be no rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, R&B or boogie-woogie, so it’s an essential and pure art form to me, the study of which I see no end to.”
Jordan mentioned that while the band never embarked on an “official” tour, they played in places he had never been to or heard of before — the kinds of places he now seeks out as a solo artist.
Even though college didn’t quite work out for him, the metaphorical weight of his school loans inspired Jordan to pay them off as soon as possible and, in turn, he gained the confidence he seemed to have needed to hit the road and pursue his musical passions.
“Getting into debt going to school for something I wasn’t convinced I wanted to do seemed like a bad idea, and from that mistake I found the motivation to get a job and work to pay them off,” he said. “Once I had done that, I felt like I could do anything, like be a professional musician.”
Jordan sought the help of professional musicians, including Tom Roberts, a pianist, composer, transcriber and arranger from Pittsburgh.
“Studying with various teachers has opened my brain to the many different ways people approach the common goal of making music,” he said. “One only has to witness a few seconds of Tom playing to realize he is seriously good at what he does, so I’m super blessed to have him in my life. Tom has completely reinvented the way I approach the piano.
Others have also given Jordan guidance and support throughout the years.
“Dennis McClung has many profound ideas on music that I still think about every day. Randy Franklin, DMBB pianist and keyboardist (also a piano salesman) was the first to give me real practical advice on my technique. Jonathan Wilson, a software engineer from Montana, via the digital magic of YouTube, got me started in my dorm room playing funk grooves on my keyboard.”
Dr. John floats to the top of Jordan’s list when it comes to musical influences.
“Dr. John is the artist to beat because he has mastered his craft,” Jordan said of the 76-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. “It would take a very special person to play his music and do anything better than Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John the Nite Tripper). It’s evident he has put in the effort, or ‘paid his dues’ to become extremely proficient as a musician. Besides his chops, which are definitive, the stuff he writes ranges from funky to heart-wrenching to thoughtful to weird, with a little of everything in between, and a persona to match.
“In other words, he is fabulous. I think I could dig him for the rest of my life and never get to the bottom.”
He’s also a huge fan of Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, James Booker, the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, the Meters, Tuts Washington and Jelly Roll Morton.
“Listening to them, and so many more, has taught me everything I know about music.”
Lately, Jordan said he’s been on a “psychobilly kick” since he discovered Reverend Horton Heat.
“In my spare time, I listen to whatever strikes my fancy,” he added. “The less it sounds like generic pop music, the better. And I never go too long without some New Orleans jazz.”
The pianistry, stories and humor typically associated with the music of music of New Orleans is what makes Jordan so interested in playing, and sharing, it with others.
“New Orleans music attracts me because it’s everything,” he said. “Nothing is excluded in their appreciation of music, because like people, all notes are created equal.”
Jordan said that he hopes his unique approach to playing music for crowds will allow him to “communicate some truth to the people listening.”
“In life, I feel there is a lot of confusion,” he said, “and people’s plans rarely turn out perfectly. To sort through all the thoughts and emotions of a situation and find the truth in it, and possibly communicate that truth to someone else, is maybe the highest goal a mortal person can strive for.
“Pertaining to the piano van, I think what I do makes a positive impact because it’s unusual, and something most people have never seen before. I always hope to deliver a soul-stirring performance, and I feel great if I brighten even one person’s day. I think it’s something everyone should make a goal for themselves. If everyone took time each day to be kind to someone else, then there’d be a lot less insecurity in folks, I think.”
Thanks to the attention Jordan received in Johnstown during his stop at Mill House Café, he will be returning to the city in the new year. On Jan. 21, he’s scheduled to play a gig at PRESS Bistro in downtown Johnstown.
“I’m looking forward to coming back to Johnstown,” he said. “I landed some gigs by meeting some folks who were looking for an entertainer. I was out being the ham I am, and was asked to play, so I said, ‘Yes please!’
“I’m looking forward to seeing the same nice Johnstown folks I met earlier when I come back. I hope to deliver an unforgettable performance, see some more scenery, and make some more friends along the way.”
Jordan said he’s enamored by Johnstown’s history and the people who call the city home.
“I think Johnstown is cool because it’s a place with a lot of interesting history and surviving architecture. A lot of places I’ve seen in West Virginia and Pennsylvania are like this. The industry moved out a while back, but the towns are still there,” he said.
“People call it ‘economic depression,’ but to me it’s just a different time for the same place, and every place has a story to tell.”
In addition to playing in Johnstown in January, Jordan will also be playing the Lancaster Roots and Blues Festival in February. His up-to-date list of future performances can be found on his official website at www.mattsblues.com.
At the end of the day, Jordan might not have become an engineer, but he certainly has, in his own right, engineered a way to bring people together.
“I think society has for a long time been heading in an impersonal, antisocial direction, so I like breaking down that barrier with random strangers and coming into contact,” he said. “I used to be afraid to talk to people, and I think a lot of people are afraid of being awkward.
“But there’s beauty in awkwardness, I think. We’re all people, and people are amazing. It’s never not worth my time to give someone my attention.”