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Sheila Jordan: A Life of Honest Expression

By Published: March 12, 2007

AAJ: After a promising debut record, suddenly your recording seems to come to a halt—although we find you active singing jazz liturgies in churches and working on clubs—and you engage in a conventional day job (as a secretary, if I am not wrong) until you record Confirmation (East Wind) in 1975. Was it a personal choice of yours or was the public still not prepared for your very unique and unconventional singing style? Or were you having the blues?

SJ: I didn't have an agent after my Blue Note Recording, but I did manage to work through the help of other musicians. I also had a little child and I wasn't able to travel like I would need to. It really had to do with not having an agent or manager. George Russell did recommend me for many gigs in London, the Village Vanguard and Sweden. I took my kid with me but it was difficult. I could work in New York and the area surrounding but not any long extended trips because of my responsibility to my child.

I found places to sing to keep this musical yearning alive. Jazz masses in churches, continued two nights a week at the Page Three. I always found places to sing. I was approached by a record company in 1975 to record an album which I did and it was called Confirmation. It has just been reissued in the U.S. It was originally recorded on a label called East Wind. This was my first recording since the Blue Note [record]. Since I didn't push myself and had no one really to promote me I was just content to do my little gigs when I got them and happy to be able to sing when I could. I don't really know if the public wasn't ready for my unique sound. I never really had a chance to find out. I seemed to be accepted when I did sing somewhere. I don't remember getting booed off the stage... [smile]. As far as having the blues, I was born with the blues. That's why I identified with Afro-Americans so readily.

AAJ: In 1970 you start teaching at City College, in New York. How has the experience of teaching jazz vocals to new generations been? What are they looking for in your classes?

SJ: I was asked by a wonderful saxophonist, composer and friend, Ed Summerlin, to come up to City College and do a workshop and demonstration for one day. It was only a one-time shot. John Lewis was also teaching up there at the time and came to the workshop. Two of the classical teachers were also at the workshop that day and after it was over they recommended me along with Ed and John to the music office as a possible adjunct teacher. I had never taught before and was a bit nervous and scared but I decided to teach them only what I knew but all of it and not to hold back anything.

In order to keep it you have to give it away and this is what I do. It's a thrilling experience for me to see the younger generation blossom once they get the excitement of this wonderful music. Mostly, I want to give them encouragement. City College is where I learned to teach. I was learning as I was teaching and I will be eternally grateful to City College and those wonderful teachers who believed in me.

AAJ: Do you teach them standards or are they looking for fresh and unexplored songs?

SJ: I start out teaching them standards and work up to originals. I encourage them to compose and try out their own compositions if they have them. I believe that it is important to know all the good standards like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, etc. I think learning these songs the way they were written is very important before one can elaborate on them. I don't believe in forced improvisation. If I have to think about an improvisation and plan it out then to me it is not really an improvisation. Of course, this is my own personal feeling. That's why I learn the song in it's original form first so I can feel and hear other musical roads to take.....

Sheila JordanAAJ: Talking about different roads... why do you enjoy so much singing with the bass?

SJ: I have always loved the bass and the freedom it allows me vocally. I seem to get a totally different sound when I sing with the bass. I love the sparseness and the sound of this magnificent instrument. Maybe I was a bassist in a previous life... [smile]. I met Steve Swallow at the Page Three and would try things with him at my gig there. He came in on Monday nights to play. When I finally had the chance to record for Blue Note I wanted it to be just bass and voice but it was a little too risky at that time. There are some tunes on that recording with just the bass though.

AAJ: In 1977 you release your first album in duo with a bassist, Sheila (Steeplechase), accompanied by Arild Andersen, which was in fact the prelude to other duet partnerships with bass players, like Harvie Swartz and Cameron Brown. This is really your preferred method of working, isn't it?

SJ: I met Arild in Norway. This was also thanks to George Russell. George had arranged for me to do a festival and I met all of the wonderful Scandinavian musicians. Arild was one of them. I had been doing bass and voice any chance I could in NYC so at one point I asked Arild if he would like to record with me for Steeplechase Records. We had done a few gigs in Norway with the bass and voice. He agreed and we recorded Sheila.

I have since done quite a few more duo recordings. My two latest are with Cameron Brown. One is called I've Grown Accustomed to the Bass (High Note, 2000) and the last recording is called Celebration (High Note, 2005). To get back to my reason for wanting to sing with the bass only... I don't feel I have to push. Ideas and improvisation comes much easier. I never felt it was an unorthodox way to present music. If singers can sing with just a piano then why not just a bass? You have to be careful with pitch though. I work very hard on arrangements (head arrangements). I have to trust the musician I'm with. I work off of trust and silence.

Bass and voice is not easy to accomplish musically and creatively in a loud atmosphere. You really have to be tuned in to each other and that is why silence is the other instrument in a sense. When I asked Harvie if he would be interested in forming the first working bass and voice duo he agreed with the stipulation that we rehearse every week. This we did. Even though Harvie has left to do his own music I continued this combination and found Cameron Brown to take over Harvie's part of the duo.

I rehearse a lot the same way with Cameron. Lots of rehearsals and working out musical ideas which allow us to venture into other unexplored musical territories. It is a very exciting approach to music but again you both have to be dedicated and you must give complete trust to each other. This is without a doubt my favorite way to sing and I don't do it because it's different, I do it because I truly feel and hear the music this way. One last thing: the secret behind the complete communication for me is listening.

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