The Oregon Mandolin Orchestra has lost one of its original members, as well as the OMO’s link to American mandolin orchestra history. Bill Jordens, adept at both mandocello and mandolin, died at his Gresham home on July 29 – just three days short of his 90th birthday.
“There are many of us in the orchestra who learned from Bill and shared both music and laughs along the way,” said OMO President Michael Tognetti. “Those of us who played and laughed with him will treasure those moments.”
In 1938, while just 10 years old, Bill joined his father, Harry W. Jordens, and his grandfather, Paul Bruno, to play in the Bonne Amie Musical Circle in Milwaukee, WI. The circle, established in 1900, is the direct predecessor of the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, making that orchestra the world’s longest-continuously performing mandolin ensemble. “I had the last chair and I wasn’t very good,” Jordens told The Oregonian/OregonLive in 2013. “But they still let me play.”
After moving to Oregon, Bill joined the old Portland Mandophonic Orchestra, playing until it disbanded in 2001. He joined the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra when it was established in 2010, leading the mandocello section and providing a strong positive example to others in the ensemble. Health issues forced him to leave the orchestra in early 2017. Throughout the years, however, Bill still played with several of his Portland Mandophonic friends on Saturdays and Tuesdays.
Pam Gurnari, who played with Bill in both orchestras as well as the weekly get-togethers, said he left a lasting impression on everyone. “Bill was a good man -- and a great friend to me,” Gurnari said. Chuck Whitman, another veteran of both orchestras and weekly sessions, said Bill often injected comic relief into OMO rehearsals. His sharp, rapid-fire comebacks to the orchestra’s co-founder and first music director became the stuff of legend. “Bill had a very quick wit,” Whitman said. “Many will remember his responses to many of Brian Oberlin’s comments from the conductor’s stand.”
In addition to playing mandocello with these different groups, Bill forged a successful career as a high school science teacher. Ken Culver, who formerly led the Portland Mandophonic, said Bill joined the orchestra in 1983 after attending a concert in downtown Portland. “He was a superb addition to the Mandophonic,” Culver said. “He was very happy to be playing.” Culver said Bill volunteered to take hand-written scores and feed them through computer programs that made the music more uniform and easily understandable by orchestra members. “He never said a word about it,” Culver said. “He just did it on his own – and it was much appreciated.”
On Sept. 3, 1949, Bill married Margaret Howe in Milwaukee. They soon settled in Northeastern Oregon. They moved to Gresham in 1968, where Bill became a respected educator. Margaret, who worked in retailing, died in 2010. Survivors include their daughters, Mary Lynn Fisher of West Sacramento, CA, Susan Davis and Patricia Jordens of Portland; son, William J. Jordens of Beaverton; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. on August 7, 2018 at the Gresham Memorial Chapel, 257 S.E. Roberts Ave., followed by a reception.
Last year, the OMO Board of Directors established the Bill Jordens Education Fund to recognize his lifelong commitments to music and education, as well as his contributions to the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra. The Jordens family asks that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the fund or to a nonprofit of your choice to honor Bill.
“Mandolin orchestras definitely made life richer for my father after he retired,” Fisher said. “He loved playing music.”
OMO's International Debut, Continued
“This is a great honor for the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra,” said Christian McKee, the orchestra’s music director. “We are really looking forward to performing, as well as hearing – and learning from – some of the finest musicians in the world.”
The festival will feature some 25 concerts in Bruchsal, a city of considerable Old World charm on Germany’s southwest flank, between Frankfurt and Stuttgart.
Michael Tognetti, Oregon Mandolin Orchestra board president, said the orchestra will launch a fundraising effort to help pay for members’ registration, airfare and lodging in Germany.
“We are a community orchestra and the only mandolin orchestra in Oregon and Southwest Washington,” Tognetti said. “As such, we are proud to represent the community and the audiences who appreciate and support us.”
For more information, contact:
Christian McKee: firstname.lastname@example.org
New Director, Same Passion for 8 Strings
The Oregon Mandolin Orchestra is proud to announce that Christian McKee of Northeast Portland has been named the organization’s new music director.
McKee, a longtime figure in the Portland-area music scene, will be taking the conductor’s baton from founding music director Brian Oberlin, who is in the process of moving to Michigan. The hand-off will occur in stages through the end of 2017.
“I am gratified to have been selected,” McKee said. “I am looking forward to the challenge and to continue the good work the orchestra has done.”
McKee formerly played with the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra. But he is best known for fronting The Big North Duo, teaming up with bassist Paul Prato since 2009 to play classic swing, blues and country, along with original material that draws on those traditions. McKee and Prato began playing together in 2004.
McKee has a soulful singing voice and is adept at mandolin, mandola, and mandocello.
Oberlin co-founded the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra with Elizabeth Farrell in 2010 to revive the beauty of the mandolin music tradition of turn of the century. Oberlin also founded the annual River of the West Mandolin Camp, which brings top mandolin instructors to the Columbia River Gorge. River of the West will continue every year under Oberlin’s direction.
Oberlin, who also will launch the Great Lakes Mandolin Camp in Michigan in October, said he regrets leaving the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra.
“The orchestra has been my baby,” Oberlin said. “But I know Christian and the board of directors will take good care of it. The orchestra is in good hands.
Oregon Mandolin Orchestra’s New Music Director...a Man on a Mission
Oregon Mandolin Orchestra
Instruments: Mandolin, mandola, mandocello
Best Known For: The Big North Duo, with bassist Paul Prato
Residence: Portland, Ore., since 2002
Born: Minnesota; grew up in Madison,Wisc.
Family: Wife, Lisa; daughter, Zadie, 4
Hobbies: Biking, homebrewing, Southeast Asian cooking
Quote: “I get cranky when I’m not gigging.”
Oregon Mandolin Orchestra
When Christian McKee talks about the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra, it sounds like a simple melody that hints at much more to come.
“My mission, in the short term, is simply to sustain what the orchestra already has accomplished,” said Christian, 39, of Northeast Portland. “In the long term, it’s to continue to improve our musicianship and to grow our audience. I really want to do that.”
Christian, a longtime mandolinist and Portland-area performer, took the conductor’s baton from Orchestra co-founder Brian Oberlin in April. A former playing member of the Orchestra, Christian agreed to lead the 25-member ensemble after Oberlin announced he was moving back to Michigan.
The Orchestra, an all-volunteer, community orchestra based in Portland, was established in 2010. Since then, the Orchestra has put on at least four concerts a year, offering everything from classical to Tin Pan Alley, American folk, Brazilian choro, modern rock and Christmas carols.
“I do like that mix,” Christian said. “But I’ll definitely be looking for ways to broaden our sonic palette.”
For Christian, leading the Orchestra simply is the next movement in his life’s musical score.
Homeschooled by his parents in Madison, Wisconsin, Christian grew up in a household alive with his father’s recordings of Baroque-era pieces, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery, and his mother's Folk Revival, Beatles and Jefferson Airplane records, to boot. While immersed in that heady mix, he was encouraged to develop his ear and voice by singing in choral groups and entering vocal competitions. He also learned to play violin by ear in the Suzuki method.
When he was 12, Christian traveled with a choir to sing in Austria and Germany. Later, he worked for a listener-sponsored community radio station in Madison that features jazz, world music and indie rock.
After graduating from Kalamazoo College, Christian spent a year serving in AmeriCorps, leading a team working in Detroit, Michigan, elementary school. In 2001, he followed his college girlfriend to Portland and went to work for the American Red Cross, a job he held for 10 years.
Meanwhile, however, he already had discovered the mandolin – and it was almost love at first strum. When he heard the avant-garde banjoist Bela Fleck and his group, the Flecktones, he was struck by mandolinist Sam Bush’s contributions.
“I played that CD for about a year and I was hooked, Christian said. “I figured the world didn’t need another guitarist, but there might be room for me to play mandolin.”
When he was 18, Christian borrowed a no-name, flat-top mandolin from a friend and began to get the hang of the eight high-tension strings. After a couple of years, he bought an Aria – definitely a step up despite its buzzing frets.
In 2004, Christian bought a Breedlove Columbia, Central Oregon builder Kim Breedlove’s graceful reinterpretation of Gibson’s classic carved-top, oval-hole F4 model.
“I thought it was going to be my forever instrument,” Christian said. “It played it for about 10 years.”
But then, he succumbed to the siren call of the highly regarded Buckeye, made by Pete Hart of Ohio to echo -- and improve upon -- Gibson’s top-of-the-line F5 mandolin. Christian simply fell in love with the carved-top, F-hole model’s throaty tone and projection, along with its responsiveness and the beautifully figured maple back.
“I spent twice as much on it as I did for my car,” Christian said, chuckling. “But I really love that mandolin. It keeps getting better and better.”
Eager to play and perform, Christian co-founded the Portland band Rustica in 2003. The five-piece band, performing “an eclectic blend of Americana,” lasted four years.
But Christian’s friendship and collaboration with Rustica bassist Paul Prato has endured to this day. They formed The Big North Duo in 2010 and plunged into jazz and favorites from the Great American Songbook, along with songs with roots in Appalachian folk. The duo, featuring Christian’s soulful voice, continues to perform at venues across the Portland metro area.
Christian said he and Paul were hired to provide “dinner music” at an Italian restaurant. So, they methodically mastered songs made famous by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. From there, they explored other composers of the Songbook, finding Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
“We found that a lot of the Great American Songbook wasn’t that far off from David Grisman’s ‘Dawg’ music, Gypsy jazz or swing,” Christian said. “To this day, I’d be happy doing ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ or ‘Mood Indigo’ every time we play.”
Around this time, Christian reached out to some other cousins in the Mandolin Family of instruments. He bought a Flatiron mandola, attracted to the broader reach of its voice and tone. After a while, he graduated to one of builder Paul Lestock’s Arrow mandolas, which reflect both their Gibson H-series roots and a dash of Art Deco-inspired whimsy. Christian still plays his Arrow today.
Christian’s interest in the mandocello grew from his experiments to play the larger-bodied cousin to provide some of the same tones as a guitar – “without actually having to learn the guitar.” He bought a sadly neglected 1919 Gibson K1 and had the top re-braced, restoring its sound.
In 2012, Christian caught an Oregon Mandolin Orchestra concert and immediately was intrigued. He soon contacted Brian Oberlin and joined the Orchestra’s mandocello section, helping to provide a solid baritone voice to the orchestra’s collective sound.
“I played in the Orchestra for about a year and really enjoyed myself,” Christian said. “But our lives really changed and I had to quit after OMO’s April 2013 concert, right after our daughter, Zadie, was born.”
Christian also quit his Red Cross job and plunged into full-time caregiving for Zadie. Though he no longer could commit to the Orchestra’s demanding schedule, Christian continued to perform in The Big North Duo and regularly attended the annual River of the West Mandolin Camp that Brian runs at the Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in the Columbia River Gorge.
When Brian announced he would be moving, Christian’s name appeared prominently on the short list of potential candidates to replace him. Endorsed by Brian, Christian was the unanimous choice of the OMO Board of Directors. Christian formally accepted the music director’s position in April.
But Christian admits to being unsure when Brian approached him about the job.
“Coincidentally, my wife, Lisa, and I had been talking about changes,” Christian said. “We realized that Zadie was growing up quickly and soon wouldn’t need full-time care on my part, so I was beginning to think of other things I would like to do.”
That’s when he began to fully appreciate how good a fit the Orchestra music director’s job could be for him. He accepted, then began an informal-but-intensive internship under Brian, discussing everything from how to select music for the orchestra to the best ways to set tempo and give cues to the musicians.
“I really appreciate the help Brian has given me,” Christian said. “One of Brian’s greatest strengths as a musician is his clarity of vision about the music and his understanding of how to bring the Orchestra to that point.”
Christian has spent the summer combing catalogs of music the Orchestra could perform. He said he is looking forward to resuming regular rehearsals in the fall, when the most important cue he delivers will signal a rosy future for himself, the Orchestra and audiences across the region.