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Sheila Jordan, Jazz Legend, At Jimmy's In Portsmouth, September 11, 2022

Sheila Jordan, Jazz Legend,  At Jimmy's In Portsmouth, September 11, 2022

Courtesy Juan-Carlos Hernandez

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Her ballad performances are simply beyond the emotional and expressive capabilities of most other vocalists.
—New York Times
On Sunday, September 11, at Jimmy's Jazz & Blues Club in Portsmouth, New Hampshire the Seacoast Jazz Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering jazz music and jazz education, will host a special evening event and performance to honor legendary jazz singer, Sheila Jordan.

Jordan’s career began in the 1950s. Today she still performs all over the world. She is one of the few jazz artists in this country to be awarded the distinction of “Jazz Master Fellow” by the National Endowment for the Arts. This honor is one of the highest a jazz artist can receive, and Jordan is among only a handful to be able to claim it.

The event at Jimmy’s includes a three-course dinner starting at 5:30 p.m. with an on-stage conversation with Jordan, who recently turned 93-years-old. Jordan will talk about her life and her career in jazz. After dinner, Jordan will perform a 60-minute set, backed by four prominent musicians from New England: Eugene Uman, pianist, and director of the Vermont Jazz Center; Charlie Jennison, saxophonist, and multi-instrumentalist; John Hunter, acclaimed bassist; and Tim Gilmore, well-known drummer, and professor at Plymouth State University.

The New York Times has written this about Jordan: “Her ballad performances are simply beyond the emotional and expressive capabilities of most other vocalists.”

Perhaps the depth she conveys in her singing is drawn from her difficult childhood. “I grew up very poor,” Sheila says. “My mother had me when she was 17 and my father married her two days before to give me a name. I was raised by my grandparents in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. We were the poorest family in the town, without sheets on the mattress and barely money for food. Singing was what got me through. I sang all the time. Even as a very, very young girl. So much so I was called ‘Little Song.’”

It was when Jordan was 14 years old, visiting her mother in Detroit in 1942, when she put a coin in a coffeeshop juke box and first heard Charlie “Bird” Parker’s “Now’s the Time”. She says this was when she knew what kind of music she wanted to pursue.

So, she and two fellow “Bird” fans formed a vocal trio in Detroit, “Skeeter, Mitch, and Jean” (she was Jean). They sang to Charlie Parker’s solos, Jordan pioneering bebop and scat singing in a manner that Jon Hendricks later took up with “Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross”.

When one hears Jordan perform today, her scatting is mesmerizing, unpredictable, original, funny, or deeply moving, depending on the composition. A perfect example of this was when she recently performed this August in the faculty concert at the Vermont Jazz Center’s summer institute where she was teaching a workshop. She sang “Dat Dere”, a song on her 1963 debut album, “Portrait of Sheila”, recorded by Blue Note Records. The audience hung in suspense wondering where she was going next, but knowing her unique musical trademarks of scatting and her frequent and unexpectedly sweeping changes of pitch, would be an inevitable treat she would share.

Scott Yanow, jazz author and critic, once described Sheila as “one of the most consistently creative of all jazz singers... . One of the few vocalists who can improvise logical lyrics... a superb scat singer and an emotional interpreter of ballads.” A DOWNBEAT reviewer of one of her Cambridge, Massachusetts, performances said this: “Sheila Jordan reigns undisputedly as mellow mistress of any jazz club she visits... The Great American Songbook is Jordan’s oyster and she had us all shucking along.”

After moving from Detroit to New York City in 1950, Sheila’s career began to take off. She began singing, jamming, and recording with the giants, Charlie Mingus, Herbie Nichols, Charlie Parker, and studying music theory and harmony with renowned pianist/composer/arranger, Lennie Tristano and Mingus.

In the early '50s, Sheila introduced the concept of the bass/voice duo in jazz, including collaborations with bass players, Arild Andersen, Harvie S, and Cameron Brown, where the only instrument was the upright bass and the second “instrument” was her voice and the unique way she interpreted the music and lyrics.

Her ability to hear and interpret music in the way she did led Charlie Parker to introduce her frequently as “the lady with the million-dollar ears."

In the early 1960s, Jordan performed at bars and clubs in New York City, including the Page Three Club in Greenwich Village with pianist Herbie Nichols. In 1962 she worked with George Russell, and recorded another one of her signature songs, “You Are My Sunshine” on his album, “The Outer View”.

By the late '70s her popularity increased as did her appearances on record, including albums with pianist Steve Kuhn, whose quartet she joined, and an album “Home” comprising a selection of Robert Creeley’s poems set to music and arranged by Steve Swallow.

A 1983 duo set with bassist Harvie Swartz, “Old Time Feeling” comprises several of the standards Jordan regularly features in her live repertoire, while 1990’s “Lost and Found” pays tribute to her bebop roots.

Her preference to the bass and voice set led to another remarkable collaboration, the live albums “I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass” and “Celebration” with bassist Cameron Brown, with whom she has been performing for several years all over the world.

To this day, Sheila’s calendar continues to be filled weekly with gigs. At 93, this is a testament to her lasting artistry. A two-night performance at Dizzy’s Club in New York, another with Paul Marinara in Chicago, a tour in Spain, and the September 11 performance at Jimmy’s are only just a few of her upcoming engagements in the coming weeks.

Linda Conti, program chair and board vice president of the Seacoast Jazz Society, describes her enthusiasm about the Seacoast Jazz Society being able to bring Sheila to Portsmouth: “We are fortunate to have this rare opportunity to showcase such a distinguished and incomparable jazz singer as Sheila Jordan. She is a gem of a vocalist, innovative to the nth degree, interpreting a song like no other, and equally committed to educating young jazz vocalists in their own artistic style. A true legend, a genuine icon of jazz.”

An NPR seven-minute interview with Sheila recorded a few years ago gives an inside look at Jordan. “A 'Jazz Child' Looks Back on a Life of Sunshine, Sorrow” can be heard at here. Chronicling her life is a biography written in 2014 by vocalist and writer, Ellen Johnson, called “Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan.”

In addition to the NEA Jazz Master honor Jordan received in 2012, she is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including but not limited to the Sachmo Award, the DOWNBEAT critics polls, and this May, the Jazz Journalists Association’s “2022 Lifetime Achievement Award for Jazz Performances and Recordings” which will be presented to her live on September 11. One needs only to spend a moment “Googling” her name to see how distinguished she is in the field of jazz. Praise for Sheila’s vocal talent is abundant. She is indeed “a true Jazz Child from head to toe” (Jazziz), “one of the world’s best kept jazz secrets” (Blue Note Records), and “a liberated Jazz singer of the finest kind” (Kurt Elling).

Tickets for the September 11 event at Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club are $90, including the three-course dinner with choice of entree. Ticket proceeds help support the jazz education programs of the Seacoast Jazz Society. For more information click the link below.

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