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Sheila Jordan: A Life of Honest Expression

By Published: March 12, 2007

AAJ: Things really started when you moved to Detroit and had some notorious high-school mates, among them pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. What was happening then musically between you?

SJ: I went to a high school that had a great juke box across the street from the high school and it was there I heard Bird for the first time... He was called Charlie Parker and his Reboppers at that time. What a thrill. I always knew I wanted to do music but it wasn't until I heard him. That is when I decided to dedicate my life to music. I found places I could hear the music live where you didn't have to be 21 years old to get in. That is where I met Tommy and Kenny and Barry. They were playing in these non-alcoholic places, especially Tommy Flannigan. We were all Bird freaks and learning the music together, singing those bebop lines. I learned the bebop lines from the records. Singing the lines. They had one club that was great. It was called the Club Sudan. Tommy and the young cats all played there. It was our hang out.

AAJ: Do you remember what were your feelings when you first heard Charlie Parker on that jukebox?

SJ: It was a moment I will never forget. I heard that sound and said this is the music I will dedicate my life to. I had finally found the music I wanted to sing. I always sang but never knew what kind of music I wanted to sing until that day after my high school classes [that] I heard a tune by Charlie Parker.

AAJ: And then you got to meet him personally...

SJ: I met my idol shortly after at the Greystone Ballroom playing with Max Roach and Duke Jordan... Can't remember who the bassist was and me and Skeeter and Mitch caught him coming off the stage after the first set and sang one of his tunes that Skeeter had put words to. We sang in his ear. He later referred to me as the kid with the million dollar ears.

AAJ: Is it due to Parker that your influences have been instrumentalists rather than singers?

SJ: Yes, because I was so addicted to his sound and how he phrased that I had to try to sing along on all of his 78 recordings. I would save the little bit of money I earned doing odd jobs and buy the latest Bird sides as we called them. I tried to sing everybody's solo. I said tried... I didn't have enough money to buy lots of records so I had to choose between Bird and the singers and I chose Bird.

AAJ: At what time did you become a member of the vocal trio Skeeter, Mitch and Jean?

SJ: It was during one of the non-aloholic clubs I went to with my good friend who loved the music as much as me. These two guys were singing and I asked them if I could sing with them and they said maybe. So they told me to come by a friend's house and go over some tunes with them. They were very helpful to me. They heard me sing and said I had soul. At the time I was still in high school and drinking illegally was very popular. These two guys saw that I drank even though I was underage and said they would let me sing with them but I would have to stop drinking, which I did. We would always sit in with the name bands when they came to town. We got a reputation for being a swinging trio... Skeeter, Mitch and Jean... That's what we were called.

AAJ: Who was the mentor of that project, which basically was about singing versions of Parker's solos in the style of Lambert, Hendricks And Ross?

SJ: I believe it was a combination of Skeeter and Mitch. Mitch was probably the lead of it all. I came in after they had been singing for awhile. Skeeter was the greatest scat singer I ever heard. Until this day I have not heard anyone scat like him. Mitch and Skeeter taught me how to scat by letting me sing with them. They didn't actually show me how to scat, they merely taught me how to listen and I imitated them somewhat until I found my own sound.

Sheila JordanAAJ: And then in 1950 you decide to move to New York. Were you attracted by the Meca of jazz or by Charlie Parker as a musician?

SJ: I was chasing Bird. The racial prejudice had gotten so bad in Detroit I had to leave. I couldn't take the harassment from the police constantly stopping me when I was going [to] or coming from the black clubs where the music I loved and the people I felt comfortable with were. They would stop me and my black friends for no reason and ask where I lived, how old I was, etc. It was a real drag. The last time I got taken down to the police station a cop asked me if I saw his gun in his holster. I said yes I did see his gun. Then he said, "I have a nine year-old daughter at home, and if I thought I was going to find her like I did you tonight with two N........, I would take this gun and blow her brains out. That was it for me. So I would say the music of Bird and the racial prejudice drove me out of Detroit.

AAJ: You arrive in the Big Apple and you start studying with the modernistic pianist Lennie Tristano (between 1951 and '52). Why did you choose him and what were you expecting to learn?

SJ: I didn't choose Lennie. I didn't even know about Lennie. Charlie Mingus and Max Roach told me about him. In fact I believe Mingus took me to Lennie's studio in the east 30s in NYC. I didn't know what I was looking for really in a teacher. I think I just needed some encouragement at that time. I sure got more than my share of that from Lennie.

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