In his collection of essays Shadow and Act
, novelist Ralph Ellison writes about certain singers, female singers, who have "an uncanny ability to provoke our love. He continues, "Their simplest songs sing in our hearts like the remembered voices of old dear friends. Sheila Jordan is such a singer.
The ability to sing with great technique that is more than mere ruffles and flourishes is rare enough. Coupled with her almost unparalleled ability to examine the depth of a lyric, Jordan defines "jazz musician . By personalizing the stories, her lyric readings, especially ballads, always the greatest test, are equaled by only a few other singers.
Her main sources of inspiration are Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, especially Parker. Says Jordan, "I learned to love the music through buying his 78 records. I did not have much money but it all went for Bird's music. I always sang but never knew what kind of music I wanted to do until I heard him. I dedicated my life to the music after hearing Bird. Holiday brought a different perspective to the fledgling singer: "Billie's emotions and wonderful phrasing directed me in my lyrical approach. I learned from her that it was okay to sing what you feel and not be afraid to sing from your heart. It has always surprised Jordan over the years to hear herself described as an "out singer when so much of her inspiration comes from these two giants.
Peeling back the layers of her style, there emerges bebop, blues, Tin Pan Alley, Hebraic and Native American chants, even country. Growing up in the coalmining area of Pennsylvania, much of the grit in her sound and in her attitude, though elegantly garbed, comes from there - full of honest, clear-eyed sentiment. Reflecting on her life as a child in one of the most poverty-stricken regions of America, Jordan says, "Being raised in the coalmines and mountains taught me to keep doing what I loved and not become caught up with what was accepted and not accepted. I learned to support the music until it could support me. I learned to endure hardships when times were tough and just enjoy the music. I dedicated my life to it.
Jordan's dedication to the music means that she has never allowed commercial influences or concerns to guide her music, even when gigs were few and far between and she had a daughter to raise. She sang at nights, on weekends - whenever she could - but supported her family of two by working as an administrative assistant in an advertising agency. It was only later in her career, at age 58, that she left her 9-to-5 to concentrate on singing and teaching.
That she was so prepared to follow her calling stems from an enviable apprenticeship in Detroit, where she went to live with her mother in her teen years. In high school her best pals were Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell. "Tommy, Barry and Kenny are like my brothers. We may not see each other for years, but if something happens to one of us, you can bet they are on the phone to find out if everything is okay. Even though Flanagan has passed, he still remains in her heart. Barry Harris' surprise visit to her 76th birthday gig at The Triad last November was quite a treat. He presented her with his award of merit, The Barry, and sang and played an impromptu birthday ode. The two old friends reminisced about the Detroit years.
During those early years, she formed a pre-Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocal trio with Leroy Mitchell and Skeeter Spight. She calls them the "two young brothers who taught me to scat. Also in her Detroit musical orbit were bassists Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins. She adds, "Milt Jackson was on the scene but he was more like our big brother: He was already touring with Dizzy's band so you can bet we were proud of him. The rich Detroit-area scene at the time also boasted Betty Carter (in nearby Flint, actually) and the prodigious Jones brothers (Thad and Elvin, with older brother Hank having already made a name for himself in New York). Rounding out her list of associates was tenor saxophonist Frank Foster. Jordan adds, "Frank Foster moved to Detroit from Cincinnati and he took the city by storm. And he was my first serious boyfriend.
After her 1949 move to New York City, studies with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, two of jazz' gifted and most cerebral musicians, benefited her greatly, as did musical friendships with Charles Mingus and her idol, Parker, whose band featured her husband, the great lyrical pianist Duke Jordan.