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Sheila Jordan: From Motor City Vocalese to Pinball with Charlie Parker

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Bird came over and said, 'Kid, you have million-dollar ears,' and I said, 'Oh, million dollar ears. I wonder what that means?' And that was it, man!
—Sheila Jordan
The dynamic big bands of the 1920s-1940s were led by charismatic and confident kings of swing including Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb and Gene Krupa. Smooth and sophisticated dance sounds could easily cross pollinate with other styles including the syncopated rhythms bubbling up from the streets of Harlem such as 'Swing Street.' Beyond a lineup of up to sixteen musicians taking the bandstand, many of the bandleaders made sure to cast a spotlight on their male and female singers as well. Among the "girl singers" were Helen Forrest and Ivie Anderson. Others, including smooth-as-silk Ella Fitzgerald and sassy, saucy Anita O'Day got their start with the big bands but soon ventured out on their own. The economic realities of the Second World War accelerated the change of the musical landscape for a variety of reasons including changing tastes. Many big bands faded while smaller combos blossomed. Sadness, fear of separation and uncertainty were creeping into many songs while dance-oriented bands began to look over their shoulders and heard a postwar sonic boom called bebop. The new, modern sound was tight, energetic and coiled.

By the 1950s, the smaller combos were the norm. Annie Ross, who, in many ways set the stage as a singer influenced by an instrument (in her case, the trumpet) put lyrics to jazz tunes. Her 1952 version of "Twisted" was frantic, irreverent and catchy as hell. By the end of the decade, another version of the number was one of the signature songs for the vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Around the same time Ross was emerging, the fiercely independent singer Sheila Jordan got her start as part of a Detroit-based trio and she began to graft lyrics to jazz tunes with the aggressive, early bebop of saxophone legend Charlie Parker attracting her particular attention. When Parker played the Motor City, Jordan was determined to see him in person. Nearly three quarters of a century after that first, brief meeting, Jordan, now based in the New York City area, is still singing and performing. At the end of 2021, we had a chance to talk with this optimistic and energized lady (now in her mid-90s), just a few days before she made several live appearances at Birdland, the iconic NYC club named after Parker.

Not only did Jordan share stories about her career, but she also offered rare insight into the personality of a close friend of hers. As much as Jordan listened to and absorbed the sound and style of the a-list of female singers who came before her, Jordan's musical journey was charted even more decisively by her friendship with one of the definitive instrumentalists of the 20th century, saxophonist Charlie Parker. "It was incredible. I met my idol. He's the reason that I sing jazz. I admired all of the great singers: Billie Holiday was my favorite for her emotions, Sarah Vaughan had the most glorious voice and nobody to this day scats like Ella. But I was 'born into' instrumentalist, into Charlie Parker. I just wanted to learn all those songs because I'm an old bebopper," she said with a laugh. While countless music fans were listening to the traditional pop or novelty songs of the day, Jordan remembers first hearing Parker's music in the late 1940s. "We always played the jukebox. We had a hamburger joint at the school and I remember one time seeing this on the jukebox: 'Charlie Parker and his Reboppers,' not Beboppers, and I said 'Oh, that sounds interesting,' and I put my nickel in and I played it and, man, four notes and that was it. I was hooked."

She was soon old enough—barely since she was in her very early teens—to attend various Detroit clubs and dance halls. Jordan recalled that there was a downtown club she and her friends would go to where "kids could play and sing, and we would go there and sing, and I found these two young African guys and they were singing Charlie Parker and I love Charlie Parker and that's the music I'm going to dedicate my life to. That's where I met Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell. They were singing bebop and I wanted to sing with them and they took me on. It was wonderful," she said gleefully. A jazz trio was born.

The chance to see Parker perform came along a few years later. "There was a place in Detroit called the Graystone Ballroom where kids could go and hear live music. It was great because they didn't sell alcohol so we could go." When she heard Parker was going to perform there, she called up Spight and Mitchell and all three of them went. By then Jordan was friends with many of the area jazz musicians and one of them had told Parker about this jazz trio that was passionate about his music. "Bird took his break and then when he went back on again, he said, 'I understand there's some young people here who sing my music and I'm going to invite them up to sing for us.' We were looking around—me and Skeeter and Mitch, we were young, [and we thought], 'I wonder who that is?' And then Bird said, 'Yeah, you guys!'" The trio sang a Bird song: "It could have been 'Confirmation,'" was Jordan's educated guess. "Afterwards, Bird came over and said, 'Kid, you have million-dollar ears,' and I said, 'Oh, million dollar ears, I wonder what that means?' and that was it, man!"

By the early 1950s Jordan, who was barely out of high school, had moved to New York. "I wanted to be near Charlie Parker's music and I wanted to be able to go into the clubs on 52nd Street...you only had to be 18 at that time to go to these clubs. That's where I first [officially] met Bird. I remember my friend said, 'I'm going to go hear Charlie Parker at Birdland, wanna to go?' and I said, 'Oh, god yes!'" After the break, Jordan's friend "went backstage to say hello to Bird and she took me with her and Bird hugged her and looked over and saw me. 'Ah, I remember you. You're the kid with the million-dollar ears.' I was in shock! He just asked me where I lived. I told him I was in Brooklyn but I was moving to a loft in New York City on 26th Street off of 8th Avenue and he called me on the phone found out where I lived and he became very close with me...In fact, he would come up and I had these little cots that I would put friends from Detroit up in when they came to visit so they wouldn't have to go to a hotel and pay a lot of money." Jordan also remember that "When I first got my loft, I had a parakeet that I taught to say 'Hello Bird.' So Bird came up one time and he had a cot and it was called 'Birds Nest' cause he'd come up and take a rest. And I remember he came up and he wanted to lay down and rest and I said, 'Well let me get Tori in his cage, otherwise he'll bother you,' and Charlie Parker said, 'Oh, I don't care.' He went and laid down on the bed and of course the bird jumped right on him and said, 'Hello Bird' and Bird said (to me) 'what are you, a damn ventriloquist?!' And I said 'no, no, that wasn't me, that's Tori, he said that. I taught him to say that.' 'Oh, Sheila, that's too clear. I don't believe it.' So he lays down again and this time the bird flew right up by his mouth and said, 'Hello Bird' and Bird jumped up and said, 'God damn, that bird does talk!'"

The close friendship with Parker would continue for years. "I know that Bird one time came up with two LPs under his arm. One was Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' and the other one was Bela Bartok's, 'Theme and Variations' [sic]. And Bird said, 'I want you to hear these. You need to hear these,' and it was wonderful," confirming that the most potent musicians draw inspiration from a myriad of sources. And then she paused and recalled a magic moment from decades ago. It wasn't even a story about music, but about an evening two young people shared together on the streets of a vibrant New York City, most likely 'May in Manhattan.' "I was with Bird one time; we went up to Birdland. 'Let's go to Birdland,' (he said) and we went up and—you talk about suits and ties—the guy at the door, I think it was [part-owner] Oscar Goodstein said, 'Bird, you can't come in here in a t-shirt. Go home and get a suit on and a shirt and a tie.' Bird turned around and looked at me and said, 'Can you believe this? They name a club after me and I can't even get in!' I said 'Oh come on, Bird. Let's go play some games,' 'cause they had all these places on Broadway where you could play games. I was very close with Bird." Parker led a rough life and, after a pause in Jordan's story, her bright tone changed. "Actually, when he died, I couldn't believe it. He was only 34 years old. And I saw him in his casket and I couldn't believe it. I touched his hands. He's my idol, still is," she said with deep reverence as her voice trailed off to a whisper.

During the time that her friendship with Parker was growing, Sheila had met and married pianist Duke Jordan who had worked with Parker in the late 40s. She remembered that not only did Parker look out for her, he looked out for his band members as well. "I remember being at a sound check once with Bird. Duke was playing and Miles Davis) was still with Bird at the time and Miles said, 'Man, why don't you get rid of this cat on the piano and get somebody else? This cat can't play.' He was talking about Duke. And I'll never forget, Bird turned to Miles and he said, 'Miles, this is my band. When you get your band, you get John Lewis or whoever you feel you want but if you want to play with me then you're going to have to play with my pianist, who is Duke Jordan.' I never forgot that," Sheila said with pride. Parker was obviously right about Duke Jordan's musical skills since Duke went on to lead or co-lead over 40 albums and was the first-call pianist for numerous jazz titans before he passed in 2006.

Sheila and Duke's daughter was born in 1955 (ironically, the same year Parker died), but the couple began to drift apart since he led the quintessential nomadic life of a jazz musician. Sheila was working half-days at a regular job "to pay my rent, buy food and stuff like that—take care of my little baby at the time." She worked for an advertising agency whose clients included Whirlpool, Thom McAn Shoes and Bulova Watch Company. "They did a couple of commercials that they had me sing on because they knew I was a jazz singer because I used to sing at their Christmas party. When they had an ad that needed a jazz sound, they would call me up so I made a little extra money that way," and she concluded by singing a few upbeat lines from the commercials. As for the agency, Sheila confirmed that, "they were hip." Still dedicated to performing live whenever possible, Sheila appeared at several New York clubs on a regular but limited basis.

Sheila Jordan's early life in Detroit was tainted by family alcoholism and numerous challenges as she fought her way through a tough childhood. But fellow vocalese singer and friend Amy London proudly noted that the Sheila Jordan she knows is, "For real. She's sharp, sincere and wily." Not surprisingly, Jordan could also be feisty at times. Pianist, leader and arranger George Russell caught one of her club performances and approached her after the break with a sincere compliment: Jordan remember him telling her, "'Where do you come from to sing like that?' and I said, 'Hell, man, I come from hell!' I thought, Who is this guy? I didn't know who George Russell was, and he said, 'Oh, really, you come from hell? I'd like to visit hell with you sometime.'" The ice was broken and a friendship developed. They soon took a brief trip together but it wasn't to hell, it was back to a Pennsylvania coal mining town Sheila had lived in years earlier with her grandparents. Once there, Russell, Jordan and her grandmother stopped into a local club and there was a grand total of one person at the bar. "'Do you know 'You Are My Sunshine?' [the person] asked?'" Shelia's response? "Hell, no, I don't sing that anymore. He said, 'Why not?' and I said, '''Cause I don't sing it. It's not a jazz tune.'" No word on what she sang that night.

Several weeks later, back in New York, Russell called Jordan and invited her to listen to a song he was developing. "I went by and he played me this incredible introduction to 'You Are My Sunshine' and then he stopped and said, 'OK, sing,' and I said, 'Sing what?' and he said, 'Sing "You Are My Sunshine" and I said, 'Are you going to play with me?' and he said 'No, no. Go low. I want you to sing alone.' I said, 'Really?' So I sang it. He called me up a few weeks later and had me record the song with him. Although it was only one song, it was her debut recording and appeared on Russell's 1962 Riverside album The Outer View. A complex, elegant Third Stream song that spotlighted Sheila's deceptively simple delivery, it is one of the definitive jazz tracks from the early '60s. Jordan's vocals, which emerge from a silent pause, are mint cool and serenely understated and dramatic. Russell soon paid for a demo session for Jordan, and he quickly took the demo tape to the prestigious home of jazz, Blue Note Records. Alfred Lion of Blue Note loved it and Sheila proudly stated that, "I was the first singer on Blue Note." A few sporadic recordings followed but her career shifted more toward pay-the-bills office jobs for decades. Music, for the most part, was tucked away on the shelf. Jordan's career may have been a start-stop-start story, but in no way did that diminish her creative contributions.

Jordan limited her performing and recording during much of the 60s and early 70s as she concentrated on raising her daughter, but music was always her passion. Her interpretations of standards are just that, personal interpretations and never paint-by-number covers. Whether singing a decades-old classic or an original, Jordan always brings a spontaneous freshness to her presentations and, when singing live, the audience is always trying to keep up with her and guess what's next. You'll get everything from sincere solos to sassy asides. Just like snowflakes, no two presentations of any given song are ever alike.

In addition to a pair of mid-to-late '70s albums, she participated on several recordings in the 80s and 90s, often accompanied by a bassist. As an improvisor, Jordan has performed with several musicians through the years, including with bassist ({m: Steve Swallow}}. "I loved all the room it left me," she said of performing with just a bass. "I'm an improvisor and I love all that space .Maybe, in another life, I was a bassist—I don't know." She certainly was on to something since the results of her vocal/bass duo's were enticingly intimate and consistently rich. She became affiliated with City College in New York and by the 2000s, she was an artist in residence there until the mid-2000's. At the same time, other singers and groups became passionate about jazz and vocalese, and they picked up the musical baton and ran with it. One such group was the The Royal Bopsters, a jazz vocal group based in the New York/New Jersey area. By the mid-2010s, the Royal Bopsters had worked with veteran Lambert, Hendricks & Ross members as well as with Mark Murphy. In addition, Bopster Amy London reached out to Jordan and invited her to sing with the group on their 2015 album. As the liner notes of the disc pointed out, "Vocalese recalls a bygone era of groovy modern jazz... the art of setting lyrics to jazz improvisations." "They were looking for a guest artist to be with them and they had asked me, and I loved them," Jordan recalled." I said, 'Oh my god, they're wonderful. They were just fantastic.'" After recording a couple songs with them, which appeared on two different albums, a solid friendship was formed. The group was scheduled to perform at Birdland and they asked Jordan to come and join them. It wound up being a vocalese summit meeting that included, in addition to Jordan, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross and others. "It was fantastic," Jordan confirmed. "Any time they need me to be their guest artist, I'm ready. I love singing with them, I love hearing them, I love them period."

Years after the dapper gentleman at the door of Birdland turned away Charlie Parker and his guest in the 1950s, Jordan eventually returned many times as a performer, including a three-day run in November 2021 in celebration of her birthday. Beyond singing, she's still teaching. "I started a workshop at the Vermont Jazz Center—I started that workshop 20, 30 years ago—and I also teach two weeks of the Jazz in July [program] at University of Mass. Amherst," Jordan said. She proudly recalled that she secured that ongoing position through her friendship with Billy Taylor and Max Roach since they were both concerned that the former vocal coach was disparaging students and coming close to breaking their spirits. "I'm not out to break spirits," Jordan said. "I'm out to give all the help I can give and encourage singers so that they keep doing the music. I call jazz music the stepchild of American music because it's never been fully accepted, but it's the one music we can really call our own." She finished by acknowledging that it all started with the blues. "I will not take credit for anything. I'm only enhancing what was given to me and that was given to me by the African people and I do this music because I want to keep jazz music alive because it's the only music we can call our own in the United States of America."

As of mid 2022, Jordan was still singin' and scattin' at clubs, festivals, schools and other venues. Jordan was one of the featured performers when the Syracuse Jazz Fest, after a five-year hiatus, returned to the clubs and streets of the upstate New York city in June 2022. With a snazzy flower a la Billie Holiday in Jordan's pageboy hair, she strolled onto the outdoor stage at Clinton Square. Accompanied by only a guitarist and bassist, she gleefully presented a set sprinkled with ad libs about nature, the city, the audience and more. Songs such as "Humdrum Blues," "How Deep is the Ocean," "Fair Weather," "I Concentrate on You" (complete with an impishly clever "I'm through" at the end) and more proved that she is still sharp and has the memory of a singer half her age. The vast outdoors occasionally fought back, especially when she presented softer songs, so her show may best be experienced in an intimate New York City club or, as she continues to perform, at a venue near you. The set concluded as Jordan sang and scatted a mini-biography which neatly summarized her long and storied life.

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