If you were to ask the average music listener who is not a jazz aficionado to name the three or four best female jazz vocalists of all time, you’d probably get Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day or possibly Diane Krall as your answers; but ask anyone who is really into the music, and one of the first names that will come up is Sheila Jordan. The almost incredible career and stamina of this amazing octogenarian continues to startle the music world as she has done since she first appeared on the scene in the 1950s.
But the reasons why Jordan is vastly under-appreciated by the public at large have as much to do with her artistic vision and individualism as with her remarkably understated way of singing. Sheila has never really sought popular acclaim at any stage in her career; she resisted recording until she was 34 years old, appearing on one startling track (You Are My Sunshine) of George Russell’s superb 1962 album, The Outer View, and even after her singing attracted raves from the critics she was stubborn about recording with only piano and bass and, later, with bass alone. She has consistently resisted pressure to sing with bands of almost any size, particularly big bands; the closest she has come to singing with a “full band,” to my knowledge, was her 75th birthday concert with trumpeter Paolo Fredu and Serge Forté’s piano trio, and three tracks on a 2005 studio session with German singer Sabine Kühlich on which the piano trio was enhanced by tenor saxist Hubert Winter. Because of her strict rules about who and where she will sing, Jordan has become a living legend among musicians but scarcely a popular favorite.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the first time I heard, or heard of, Sheila Jordan was in the mid-1970s, watching a PBS documentary about jazz singers. Suddenly, in the midst of the show, a diminutive, dark-haired woman sporting a bob hairdo with a flower in it appeared at a microphone, singing in a way I’d never heard before. The voice was so soft that at times it was almost a whisper, but my God, what style! She could scat like Ella, sing vocalese like O’Day, or just sing the lyrics and the tune “straight” while still swinging and bending notes like a jazz horn. She was probably close to 50 years old at the time, but her voice had an amazingly youthful, girlish sweetness which she has retained to this day, and the overall impression was of a real musician singing jazz. What I mean by that is that Sheila Jordan, unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard, sounds like she also plays an instrument (like, say, Dena DeRose or Chloe Feoranzo) but she doesn’t. She was just able to absorb everything she heard from her youthful idols, particularly alto saxist Charlie Parker, and transform it in her mind into jazz singing.
What led to this interview was a group e-mail that my friend, pianist Jack Reilly, sent around with a link to a YouTube video of Bill Evans playing Without a Song. Sheila wrote back, in part, that “There isn’t a word to describe Bill’s playing. He’s beyond all words. Thanks Thanks Thanks and Thanks again.” She hit “Reply All.” I was so startled so see her name in my Inbox that I clicked “Reply” and told her how wonderful I thought she was. And so here we are.
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Art Music Lounge: I’m going to try to ask questions that you haven’t been asked a million times before, but I’m sure I’ll slip up a little. To begin with, you often talk about how you were impressed by Charlie Parker at age 17. Did you first hear him in your native Detroit?And before you heard him, who were the jazz musicians you liked the most?
Sheila Jordan: I heard Bird on a jukebox when I was in high school and was hooked on his music from that point on. I was aware of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but wasn’t thrown a huge jazz loop until I heard Bird. I didn’t hear or don’t remember hearing anyone that impressed me as deeply as Bird.
AML: When I listen to you sing, I surely do hear echoes of Bird, but I also hear a deep harmonic sense based on piano chords. Were there any specific pianists whose work you studied and learned from?
SJ: I studied with the great Lennie Tristano for a couple of years but not piano, just improvisation which I was already doing but he freed me up a lot. Singing with him was a big challenge at my lessons. It made me listen real closely to the chords.
AML: After Bird’s death, did you ever sing with, or consider singing with, Sonny Stitt or Phil Woods? Their styles were so close to Parker’s, I would think you would feel right at home with them.
SJ: I didn’t really sing with Bird. I just would sit in and do a tune or two when he asked me to. I never worked a gig with him. …. the only horn player I ever had the pleasure of working with was Roswell Rudd, a wonderful trombone player. We even recorded something quite a few years back.
AML: I’ve heard you say in an interview that women who went to jazz clubs, particularly white women, were reviled and “called all sorts of names” back then, but surely men who went to see jazz played live, even white men, brought dates with them. Were they all treated that badly, or only those women who tried to perform jazz?
SJ: Not women who were with dates or white men. I got name called by white guys because I was hanging out with black musicians trying to learn the music and I sang with two great scat singers who helped me with my scatting. We had a group together in Detroit in the early ’50’s. I learned a lot from these two gentlemen. They were my friends and like brothers. White guys always thought if they saw a white woman with a black man it had to be a sex thing which was not the case at all most times.
AML: Did you know Nica (Baroness Pannonica von Königswarter) at all? I’ve always felt that she probably suffered the most from discrimination because she was European royalty and not just a regular working class American woman. When I read her biography I was deeply saddened by the ending; her family has confiscated all the hundreds of hours of jam sessions she recorded in her apartment and won’t let them be released. They’d just as soon that the world simply forget about her.
SJ: No, I didn’t really know her. She mostly hung with the male musicians. I remember one time after a concert that my late husband Duke Jordan was playing at she made the statement in front of me and Duke…. “Come by the pad Duke because I’m having a party for the musicians after you take your ole lady home.” Needless to say Duke did not attend that party.
AML: Speaking of pianists, I’ve always wondered if you enjoyed, from a professional standpoint, working with your first husband Duke Jordan. I’ve always liked his playing myself.
SJ: I didn’t work with Duke really. Only when Bird would ask me to sing a tune or two with his group. Duke happened to be the piano player but we didn’t work together nor do any music together so to speak.
AML: To refer back to your email about Bill Evans, I’m just wondering if you ever had the chance to work with him?
SJ: No, but I did sit in with him one time at Trudy Heller’s in the Village. He was playing at her club which I think was named after her and I came in to hear him and he invited me to sit in and do a tune or two.
AML: When you first became famous in the jazz world and were pressured to record with jazz orchestras, how did you manage to resist that and still have a career? Were you your own manager at the time, or did you have a manager who agreed with your insistence on working only with bass or bass and drums, or what?
SJ: I was never pressured to record or work with any jazz orchestra. I kept a day job ‘til I was 58 working in an office but sang in a little club in the Village called the Page 3 a couple of nites a week. I also took vacation days to travel and do music sometimes too. I always found a place or way to sing even tho I had to keep a day job. I didn’t or don’t do the music to become famous. I do the music to keep it alive and teach it to the younger generation. I don’t have a manager or agent so to speak. Most of my gigs I get thru jazz musicians or word of mouth.
AML: I have to admit that I am curious as to how you managed your career considering that your appeal has always been primarily to musicians, critics and hard-core fans. Have you had lean years, or lean periods, professionally speaking? And, if so, how did you weather those periods?
SJ: As I state above, I had a little kid to support and I supported her by myself therefore I always kept a day job but found places to release my musical urge. I don’t think of what I do or did as a career. I think of it as a calling and my calling is to keep it alive thru performances and teaching it to the younger generation.
AML: One of the most interesting features of your singing, to me, has always been that unusual combination of soft intimacy and joyous swinging. It’s a very rare quality that I can’t remember hearing in most other singers…in fact, the only predecessor you seem to have had in terms of a light, sweet voice and a quiet delivery was an obscure singer who mysteriously disappeared without a trace in 1956, Marcy Lutes, though Lutes didn’t improvise like you. Were there any singers who influenced you at all, either in terms of the lightness of delivery or style?
SJ: Only Lady Day. I was more of an instrumentalist freak. That’s who I listened to growing up. I always sang tho even as a little kid.
AML: What did you think of Jackie Cain? I always loved her boppish scat performances.
SJ: I loved her singing, especially what she and Roy Krall did together. I don’t remember ever hearing her actually scat but their arrangements and harmonies were incredible! It was a great duo.
AML: One of my all-time favorite of your recordings is the album you made with Mark Murphy, One For Junior. He’s another singer, I have to admit, who I discovered somewhat late in his career…another singer who appealed primarily to musicians and flew under the public’s radar. Were there any other singers you’ve performed with who you feel were on that high of a level?
SJ: Mark was very special and it was a joy to record with him. It was Joe Fields from High Note records who approached us to record together. Mark was a very very close friend of mine and we spent many years having a close friendship. We did a couple of Jazz Operas for George Gruntz and I think that started us thinking of the possibility of recording something together. It was good timing on Joe Field’s part.
AML: And now I simply must ask you the million-dollar question: how on earth have you managed to preserve your sweet vocal quality for so many decades? That’s one of those things that generally goes with age, regardless of how much you keep yourself in good condition, but I keep listening to you and the basic timbre of your voice has darkened only slightly since the 1970s!
SJ: Thank you so much my dear for such a lovely compliment! I don’t think about it and I don’t strain or misuse my voice. I do however do a twice a day steaming with my steamer and I now do exercises which I got from a wonderful speech therapist. I also have an incredible throat doctor who I see twice a year just to check on the vocal chords. It’s strange because I really don’t do anything special or eat special foods. Maybe it’s my Native American background ha ha … My three generation was royalty. She was Queen Aliquippa of the Seneca Nation….
AML: This may seem like a silly question, but do you feel that you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to in your career? Or, even now, is there anything you’d like to do that you haven’t already done?
SJ: It’s not a silly question at all. I am always striving to learn more music. I love my string quartet project and would love to be able to do that more. I don’t feel I will ever accomplish all I want to. I would love to be able to have more time to compose. I have millions of melodies in my head but they disappear quickly if I don’t record them which I rarely do, therefore they’re lost.
AML: Who are your own favorite jazz singers? I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked you that before!
SJ: I don’t remember if anyone ever asked me that question. I would say the singer for me was Billie Holiday. Her emotion and phrasing. She didn’t have an outstanding voice like Sarah but it’s what she did with it. I think Ella Fitzgerald is the greatest scat singer who ever lived. This is of course my opinion.
AML: To wrap things up, is there anything you’d like to share with my readers about jazz singing, the state of modern jazz today (lots of rock beats, ambient jazz and hip-hop) or any other musical matters?
SJ: No, not really. Just don’t give up the music. Keep it alive and if you play it or sing it. Keep doing it. Dedication always pays off in some form and I found that out ….
AML: Thank you so much for your time! I’m sure my readers will love this!
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley