Sheila Jordan: A Life of Honest Expression

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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AAJ: You arrive in the Big Apple and you start studying with the modernistic pianist Lennie Tristano (between 1951 and '52). Why did you choose him and what were you expecting to learn?

SJ: I didn't choose Lennie. I didn't even know about Lennie. Charlie Mingus and Max Roach told me about him. In fact I believe Mingus took me to Lennie's studio in the east 30s in NYC. I didn't know what I was looking for really in a teacher. I think I just needed some encouragement at that time. I sure got more than my share of that from Lennie.

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.

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.

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