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Sheila Jordan: A Life of Honest Expression

By Published: March 12, 2007

AAJ: It's the '50s and you are in NYC. What happened by now to the poor girl raised in Pennsylvania? What's on her mind?

SJ: I got a job as a secretary and supported myself. Met Duke Jordan and got married to him in 1952... Duke left me in 1955, right after my daughter was born. I lived in Brooklyn with Duke for awhile and then moved to a loft on West 26th street in NYC. I was still studying with Lennie. Duke was away a lot and I kept studying with Lennie and going to the clubs to hear the music. Went to Minton's after hours up in Harlem on the weekends. We would go up there after the clubs closed and stay until eight or nine in the morning. Everyone came to those sessions. It was fantastic.

AAJ: It took you some time to start singing in the clubs. Was it hard for you to be accepted?

SJ: I got a job in a Greenwich Village club called the Page Three. It paid six dollars a night and by the time I paid for the cab (two bucks) and the baby sitter (two bucks) I had two bucks for me. I wasn't doing it for the money obviously. It was a place to try out material and work on my music with the presence of an audience. I had other gigs too but a lot of the club owners were more interested in what you looked like than anything else. I didn't like those places so they didn't last long for me. The Page Three I stayed at for a good six years, working on Monday and Tuesday nights. It was my salvation from working a nine-to-five job and supporting my little girl. Page Three accepted everything I did. I was referred to as "A New Note in Jazz."

AAJ: In March 1955 Charlie Parker suddenly dies. Where were you and how did his departure affect you?

SJ: He could have died at my loft because he was there a lot of the time. I was very upset but not surprised in a way. He was really in bad shape mentally and physically. He was such a sweet man... very caring... but the drugs and alcohol made him a different person. When I saw Bird at St. Peter's church lying in his coffin he looked over 60 years old and he was only about 34 at the time. I was totally heartbroken. My hero had fallen prey to this cunning, baffling powerful disease.

AAJ: OK, now we are in 1962, an important year in your career. You record for the first time, with George Russell [The Outer View (Riverside/OJC)], and also make your debut album [Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note)], with Steve Swallow, Barry Galbraith and Denzil Best. Who or what opened you those two important doors, specially the second one, considering Alfred Lion produced very few vocal albums for this label?

SJ: George Russell was teaching the pianist, Jack Reilly at the time, and Jack played piano at the Page Three on Monday nights. George came in to hear Jack and heard me. He introduced himself and asked me where I came from to sing like that. I told him I originally came from the coal mines in Pennsylvania. He said he would like to see that area and would I take him back there. We arranged to go to Summerhill, Pa. My grandmother was still alive and she took us down to the beer garden in Scoopy Town (nickname for Ehrenfield, Pa.).

We had some drinks at the bar, and my grandmother was bragging about us being big-time musicians from New York. There was an old coal miner at the bar and he said, "Oh really Jeanie (my nickname back there). Well do you still sing 'You are My Sunshine'?" I said, "Oh no, I don't sing that anymore." George said, "Let's play it and sing it for him. So we did. My grandmother didn't like the way George played it so she pushed him off the piano bench and played and I sang it.

George and I came back to NYC and a couple of weeks later George called me up and said can you come down to my apartment. I have something I want you to hear. I went down and he played this unbelievable intro... Then after he finished he said, "Sing, and I said, "Sing what? He said, "Sing 'You are My Sunshine.' I said, "Alone, with no music? He said, "Yes." So I sang it and he went to Riverside with the band and we recorded it.

It was the first time a singer had sung without accompaniment to my knowledge. It really surprised the jazz world when they heard it. Then he paid for me to do a demo of regular songs I had been singing at the Page Three. He took it to Blue Note and Prestige. Quincy Jones was the A&R man at Prestige at the time. But Blue Note picked it up and recorded me. I was the first singer to record on that label. Thanks to George and Ruth Lions (who later married Alfred Lions and was a singer at the Page Three at the time), Alfred came to hear me. The rest is history. Portrait of Sheila, with George's input on the rhythm section which was guitar, bass and drums.

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