Sheila Jordan: A Life of Honest Expression

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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Jazz is a music that allows us emotionally and honestly to express our lives and the lives of others.
Sheila JordanHer voice really cooks but what is the recipe for the way Sheila Jordan picks songs and transforms them into something special and swinging? Well, you take a quarter Cherokee child raised in poverty in Pennsylvania's coal-mining country, you add to it the definitive influence of a genius, Charlie Parker, and mix it all with a hard life, a great and creative voice able to express the soul through melodies and lyrics and... Sheila is ready to serve you plenty of good jazz and meaning.

All About Jazz: If I were a painter what colors should I use to portray you?

Sheila Jordan: My colors would be black, white, red, purple and green.

AAJ: What emotions would I capture in that portrait if I would do it right now? What is Sheila worried about in what concerns the world and politics?

SJ: Joy for being able to do the one thing in the world that is most important to me (after my daughter)—jazz music, whether I'm teaching it, performing for wonderful audiences all over the world or going out to hear it in clubs or concerts. There is nothing else for me. To be able to perfrom it, teach it and keep the message alive, this is my calling in life. These are the emotions you would capture...

AAJ: What is Sheila worried about in what concerns the world and politics?

SJ: I have no view on politics. I am against war and young peoples' lives being shattered and destroyed. I am against poverty, prejudice and brutality. Having grown up in poverty I know the plight of the young souls trying to find their way in life. Thank God for the music—I found my salvation.

AAJ: Who is, in fact, Sheila Jordan after all these years both as a singer and a woman? A diva, a star?

SJ: I am not a diva or a star nor do I wish to be. I consider myself a messenger of the music. I am only here to carry the message. In order to keep it you have to give it away.

AAJ: Would there be a Sheila Jordan singer if there wasn't a Charlie Parker?

SJ: I am sure I would have sung some kind of music but I never knew what kind of music I wanted to sing as a kid until I heard Bird, and when I heard him I said, "That is the music I will dedicate my life to."

AAJ: How was your learning process in jazz?

SJ: I learned through buying Bird's records (78 records) and playing them over and over and trying to sing with Bird and all the cats on the record. That was how I learned. By ear. Bird called me "the kid with the million dollar ears." I learned so much listening to all those bebop records. My God, what an incredible experience. I played those records over and over until they turned white. I learned rhythm changes when they played them. I could hear the tunes that the new bebop melodies were based on if they were based on standard songs. Quite a few bebop melody lines were based on the tunes of the times like George Gershwin, etc.

I had some piano lessons when I was young but we couldn't afford for me to study music. I had a great aunt who taught piano and she gave me some lessons but she would hit your hands real hard if you didn't place them on the right keys and I had small hands and couldn't always reach the keys correctly. She scared me so I didn't study with her very long. I wish I had been able to have the opportunity to study piano at greater lengths. I think I would be a composer of some sort by now. I can hear nice melodies but I can't always play them. I play better by ear than reading. I hear faster than I read.

AAJ: Any idea of what you could be doing professionally by now if your life hadn't been spent in jazz and music?

SJ: I have always been interested in looking at the stars so probably an astronaut or something along that line. The sky has always fasicinated me and the galaxies are something I can't quite comprehend but I am totally blown away by them..

AAJ: If you agree, let's reminisce a little bit about your early days. You were born Sheila Jeanette Dawson and raised in poverty in Pennsylvania's coal-mining country...

SJ: I grew up in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. I was raised by my grandparents because my mother had me when she was seventeen and since she and my father were not together I was sent to live in Pennsylvania with my grandparents. My mother stayed in Detroit to work in the factory. My aunts and uncles were more like my brothers and sisters. There were still six living at home when I was taken there to live. We had no heat or plumbing in our house and food was scarce. There was a lot of alcoholism in my family. None of my grandparents children went to high school except me, and one uncle who was six years younger than me. Singing became my savior. I sang when I was sad, I sang when I was happy, I sang when I was scared. All my emotions revolved around singing. Singing was necessary for my existence.

AAJ: By then you were singing in school and on amateur shows on Pennsylvania radio. How did you really get involved in singing to other people? Did your parents encourage you?

SJ: I sang in school at an early age. Plays, assemblies, etc. It was great. I also got on amateur hours and sang on Johnstown and Ebensburg radio stations in Pennsylvania. They encouraged me somewhat. I really can't remember a lot of encouragement but I guess if I was on radio shows someone must have been in my corner. I stopped singing though after awhile because the kids in school started to tease me and make fun of me so I became very shy about it and stopped singing in public but continued singing for myself.

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.


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