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Sheila Jordan: Now's The Time

Ian Patterson BY

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I don’t know how long I’ll be able to go on but I need to do this. Not because I need people to adore me. I just need to keep this music alive...
—Sheila Jordan
Sheila Jordan, one of the last great jazz vocalists from the bebop era turns eighty six on 18 November. Happy Birthday Sheila! There's much to celebrate. The Pennsylvanian-born singer's remarkable life story has just been published—the first complete biography to cover Jordan's life and career in detail. Written by Ellen Johnson over seven years, Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) relates Jordan's life from her upbringing in real poverty and her first steps as a teenage bebopper in the late 1940s to her induction as an NEA Jazz Master in 2012.

At various times in her life Jordan has been subjected to physical abuse, abandonment and racism. She's suffered alcoholism and drug addiction too and yet she's still come through it all smiling. She is a great survivor. She's also, without a doubt, one of the great jazz singers, with a rare emotional intensity comparable to Billie Holiday and scatting skills to rival Betty Carter.

She's sung with the greats, contributed innovations of her own to the jazz idiom—notably the bass and vocal duo—and, for over thirty five years has been a tireless jazz educator in New York and at workshops and colleges around the world. Despite her achievements and the invitations that fill her diary up to a year ahead, Jordan is reluctant to bask in her glories or look too far ahead. Music, for the woman who played with and for Charlie Parker, is very much in the here and now.

All About Jazz: You waited until you were fifty eight to launch yourself into full-time jazz singing and you wait until you're eighty five to tell your life story in a book; you're a good example of it's never too late to try, aren't you?

Sheila Jordan:: Yes, I would say so. I was singing before I was fifty eight. It's just that I had an office job so I wasn't doing it full time. I lost my office job when they merged with another company. They gave me a year's pay and I left. I started to cry. I was very upset and then that little voice inside my head said "Shut up! You've been wanting to do this music full-time all your life and now you've got a year's pay so go out and sing and shut up!" That's what I did and I never looked back.

AAJ: Was Ellen Johnson the obvious choice as the writer from the beginning?

SJ: She wasn't even going to write it. She just wondered if anybody was writing a book on me. There was a guy at one time in London, I think. We did a few taped interviews but he got ill and we never got around to it. I felt bad about it but it never went anywhere. I don't know, I have to be pushed.

I met Ellen at an IAJE conference where we were on a panel with Jon Hendricks, Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy, Kitty Margolis and Jay Clayton, all putting out two cents in. She'd always been a great fan of mine, which was very nice. We became very good friends. She dug what I did and she was doing the bass and voice too. She said: "Is anybody writing it?" I said: "No, not really." She said, "I'm going to write it." I didn't realize what I was saying at the time but I had to stick to my guns and she did it. It took her seven years and she did a wonderful job.

AAJ: Yes she did. Sheila, you've lived through some tough times in your life: was it painful to go over old ground for this book?

SJ: Not really, 'cause I've been in the program recovering from alcoholism for many, many years now and it's helped me through a lot of things that ordinarily might have been painful for me. With the help of my program I was able to face it. It was okay. I looked at the positive side. I said "That was then and it was terrible but look where you are now." Some of the stuff was hard to remember at first because I had blocked it out but then it came back. I'm glad Ellen wrote it, I'm glad it's out there and I hope it will maybe encourage and help people who have been through what I've been through.

AAJ: Was it a cathartic process in any way?

SJ: Oh yeah, yeah, of course. The one thing I kept out of the book, which I'm glad I did, were the three serious relationships I was in that were all very brutal. The men were very jealous of the music and they were physically and verbally very abusive. I thought, you know what? I'm not going to waste pages talking about these guys. They're not worth it. They didn't add anything to my life. The only one I talked about was my ex-husband [Duke Jordan], who's passed on now. Of course I had to talk about him and his disease [heroin addiction] but it was okay. I don't hold any hate or anger towards any of them. I've learned how to let that go.

AAJ: Back in the 1940s you took your first steps with Afro-American singers Leroy Mitchell and Skeeter Spight who wrote lyrics to Charlie Parker's tunes; was that common practice then, to write lyrics for bebop tunes?

SJ: Well, not in Detroit. It wasn't common. After we'd been singing together for a while we found out that Jon Hendricks had a group with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They were much more professional than us. We did it for the fun of doing it. We would just sing with Bird or Dizzy [Gillespie] when they came and they'd always get us up to do a tune with them. We were known in jazz circles as Skeeter, Mitch and Jean and we were beboppers. I learned how to scat from these guys.

I sang with Bird even after I moved to New York if Duke [Jordan] was playing on a gig with him, because he was Bird's pianist. Charlie Parker loved him, even if Miles Davis didn't. If Duke was playing a gig with Bird he would always have me sit in at that time. I got very close with Bird.

AAJ: Coming back to the question of writing lyrics to bebop tunes; is it something you would encourage aspiring singers to do?

SJ: No. I'm not a lyricist. I've written a few tunes, not a lot, and they're in the back of the book. They mean an awful lot to me but I am not a Jon Hendricks.

AAJ: Racial prejudice and segregation was the norm at the time you started singing; did you ever encounter racism from blacks who resented a white girl singing their music?

SJ: Not at all. It was quite the contrary. I never got anything like that at all from the Afro-Americans. They were very open with me and they knew that I wanted to be their friend. I wasn't a threat. Even today, I haven't encountered it yet. It's possible it could happen but if it does I'm not going to be upset about it but what they have to know is, "Hey kids, I worked my ass off to have this nonsense lifted so please don't turn it back on me. We don't need that. Let's try and get along together."

SJ: Back in those dark days of pervasive racism could you ever have envisaged someone of mixed race like Barack Obama being President of the United States, or the ending of Apartheid in South Africa?

SJ: No, I never would have.

AAJ: You must feel heartened, particularly remembering how years ago, as you mention in the book, you were attacked, kicked and beaten on the street just for being in the company of Afro Americans?

SJ: I'm very happy with what's happening today. I walk down the streets of New York City and there are so many beautiful inter-racial couples with these beautiful little children and it's so fantastic. It makes me feel so good to see that. People should be free to be with whoever they want.

AAJ: Your first record Portrait of Sheila came out on Blue Note in 1963 but the next one didn't come out until 1975 with Confirmation (East Wind, 1975). I can understand you couldn't tour with a young child but why was there such a long gap between recordings?

SJ: Because I didn't have anybody pushing me for another record. I got the Blue Note record through George Russell. He heard me in a club. He was very helpful and encouraging. He got me the record date. He paid to have a demo made. He took it to Blue Note and they picked it up. He took it to Quincy Jones too, who was the A&R man at Mercury at the time. Quincy wanted to record me but I'd already signed with Blue Note. Did I go back to Quincy after Blue Note? No I did not because I'm not a pusher.

You know, I don't even like to record if you want to know the truth. I don't mind live recordings because then I don't have to hear all those little studio clicks and everything. I'm not crazy about recording but I am going to do another. I'm going to do a duo album with Steve Kuhn. We're going to lay out the money on it on our own and do this recording and see it someone will pick it up. But I'm on the road so much that it's hard to get together and rehearse and he's the same way too so it's hard, but we'll do it. Another guy I'd love to do a recording with is Brian Kellock. He's incredible. I just love his playing.

AAJ: For many years you worked a day job as you were bringing up your daughter and singing whenever you could: do you think aspiring young singers today, or indeed, jazz instrumentalists, have the necessary patience to succeed, to pay their dues and graft hard?

SJ: I've met a few. Not a lot. Sometimes they get into it and they give up. My message to singers—or even if I'm talking to a rhythm section or horn players—is don't give up. You've got to keep it going. If we get five out of a thousand who are really dedicated and really want to do it I feel good. You're not going to get too many because a lot of the young people coming up are all into pop or rap. But when they come to a jazz camp they get enlightened and I do say this to them: "You know what? You might not do this music for the rest of your life but if you decide to do another music this is only going to enhance that other music."

Hopefully it will keep going. It had better. It's the only music that America can call its own. I always call jazz the step-child of American music because it is not accepted. I've had people who don't know the music say "oh, yes, but you really have to be intellectual." I say: "Intellectual? Do you know where this music started? It started from slavery, from slaves brought over from Africa working in cotton fields for long hours in unhealthy conditions. And what did they do? They sang the blues, because of the pain." I always identify with that because as a little kid there was so much pain in my life I sang all the time too. I tell that to people who call jazz intellectual. That's where it started. It started with the blues.

AAJ: That's universal.

SJ: Yes, absolutely.

AAJ: For many years you worked without an agent; is the business of jazz an aspect of the music that causes you much grief?

SJ: No it doesn't because I don't let it. If I feel like it's going to cause a headache then I don't do it. I'm not going to do something if I'm going to have a hard time or if I feel that in any way there's an attitude or they're going to try to disrupt in any way what I've set out to do. I'll take constructive criticism, don't get me wrong.

It happened after the Blue Note recording. There were a couple of agents who said "We could have you do this..." and I said "No, you can't. I'm doing jazz music. That's what I'm doing." That was it. It'll never happen. I'm too set in my ways. You have to be careful with these old people.

AAJ: You studied with Lennie Tristano, a legendary figure yet one who maybe hasn't been given the credit he was due; the first biography on Tristano didn't come out until 2005 with Peter Ind's book, Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano And His Legacy (David Brown Book Co, 2005); how important a figure do you consider Tristano to be in jazz history?

SJ: He should be right up on top. Lennie Tristano is so underrated. Lennie was the first free player I ever heard. He was a great teacher, he was very encouraging. He didn't yell at you, he did not break your spirit. He was a very special teacher. He just taught me, like Bird always said to me, to trust in who I am. Take constructive criticism but not to give up. That was Lennie. He was the best.

AAJ: Why do you think he has not been lionized more by jazz historians or the jazz establishment?

SJ: I don't know. I don't have a clue. If he were alive today they would be tearing his door down. I'm sure they would be breaking his door down. I don't know what it is. I never understood it. Lennie was so individual. He had his own sound and his own way of playing. I always know piano players who have studied or listened to Lennie [laughs]. I'm talking about some really wonderful players. I hear it.

If nothing else, besides his incredible playing, Lennie worked so hard with students. He was so prominent in helping young people. He played in and out. He was the first free player. All these great lines he wrote, all those standards like "Lennie's Pennies." I just don't understand it. But then it's the same thing with Herbie Nichols. He never got much recognition.

AAJ: Peter Ind makes the point in his book about Tristano that a big part of Tristano's legacy is the success of his students, not only the famous ones but the hundreds who were empowered by him; would you say that is also true of your own legacy?

SJ: Could be, yes. I'm sure it will be. There are organizations out there. NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts picks a few people every year and gives them the honor of Jazz Master. For some reason they gave it to me. There's the Mary Lou Williams Award and others. So there is somebody out there who appreciates what we're doing. But I don't need medals or scholarships. I don't need any of that. I would still sing the same way I sing, but it is kind of nice when you're recognized like that.

AAJ: Jazz education was just getting started when you began at New York City College and now there are jazz colleges and courses all over the world; is there a danger that jazz is becoming overly codified? I mean everyone taught with the same approach, the same techniques...

SJ: I totally agree. It's becoming homogenized. It's great that they have schools for this music but it has got a little academic in some of the schools, as far as I'm concerned. You shouldn't be afraid to make a mistake. Of course make a mistake, that's how you learn where to go. I don't want to read everything. That doesn't let me get to what I'm about. They're losing the heart and the soul of the music. They're not getting to that. I teach with my heart.

Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell, [Thelonious] Monk played with freedom. They took all kinds of chances. Even Miles, when he was young he didn't have the chops of Dizzy Gillespie but he played from the heart. They played their whole life experiences from their soul and it all came out in their music. Billie Holiday for God's sake! She was so natural.

AAJ: Just as many jazz instrumentalists believe they have to reference the greats in order to have credibility, many singers also feel compelled to scat. What do you say to your students about vocal improvisation?

SJ: I tell them they've got the scat virus, using all these shooby dooby corny syllables. "Do you really like doing these?" I ask. "No." "So, why are you doing it? You've got the scat virus." If somebody says you need to scat or you're not a jazz singer I say "Really? Would you consider Billie Holiday as a jazz singer? She didn't scat at all." Although, I have a tape of her at a party where she was scatting and she did a great job but that wasn't her thing. You have to be comfortable with that. The only reason I scat is because it was embedded in me when I heard Charlie Parker. You have to feel the music you sing and be yourself. I got that from Bird and Lennie. I'm passing it on.

AAJ: A fascinating part of the book and an area I would like to have learned more about was the jazz played in your New York loft. Have much of that was serious music exploration and how much was just hanging out having fun and jamming?

SJ: It was fun but it was very serious about the music, about improvising. Any time you have a session or you're sitting in you're having fun because you're doing something you love. It's joy to connect with other musicians and try out ideas and just let it happen. That's what my loft was like. One time Bird came up to the loft and there was nobody there yet. There was no pianist so he played a solo for about an hour. He never shut up [laughs]. That was Bird.

Of course we had fun, but talking, drinking and laughing, getting a little stoned and carrying on where the music is the background? I wouldn't let that happen in my loft when there was somebody playing. No way. It was not like that. You had fun by listening to what was being played and where they were going with the music. There are places where people talk and music is just the background. I know because I've played places like that but I've used it to learn to take chances and to communicate with other musicians on the bandstand.

AAJ: You use an imperfect situation to the best of your advantage.

SJ: Absolutely.

AAJ: The jazz-loft scene is always attributed to the free-jazz movement in the 1970s, people like Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), when they couldn't get regular club gigs; what's your own take on the origins and nature of the jazz-loft scene?

SJ: I don't know. My loft scene was in the early 1950s when I was studying with Lennie. You could play whatever you wanted to but mostly it was straight ahead jazz and people were exchanging ideas for the love of the music. There were lofts that came up after, I know, yeah. The reason was they couldn't get hired to play. There wasn't an audience for it. A club owner wasn't going to hire anybody who was playing out. They didn't understand it.

AAJ: When you had your loft going in the early 1950s were there other lofts with musicians doing the same sort of thing?

SJ: The only one I remember was at Lennie's. He used to have sessions on a Saturday night at his loft. Somebody else did have one going on but I forget who. I think maybe [multi-instrumentalist/composer] David Amram had one. Mine was very popular. It wasn't just musicians either. Poets, artists and painters all came. People from all the arts came.

AAJ: It sounds amazing.

SJ: It was [laughs].

AAJ: In the book you talk openly about your alcoholism and you mention that you turned to cocaine. What you don't mention in any detail is the impact, if any, that it had on your music; did your addictions adversely affect your music career in any way?

SJ: No. Nobody knew about it. I wasn't an everyday drinker and I wasn't an everyday user of cocaine. I had stopped drinking eight years when I picked up cocaine. But I wasn't shooting cocaine, I was just snorting it. My drug of choice though was alcohol. I tried not to drink when I sang. I don't remember any time at all when I sang that I was drunk. It was something I went through.

The program gave me the confidence and helped me get rid of my low self esteem. That's how important the program was to me and still is today.

AAJ: Do you have special routines for taking care of your voice these days?

SJ: I do exercises every day twice a day. I never used to exercise at all but now I do [laughs]. And it's helping. It's something this wonderful speech therapist gave me. He's known all over the world. I go to him every three to six months.

AAJ: What advice would you give singers with regards to taking care of the pipes?

SJ: No smoking for one. I quit smoking at fifty. I should have quit earlier. I don't think smoking is good for singing. It's not good for anything really [laughs]. But an addiction is an addiction. I gave up smoking 'cause I wanted to preserve my voice. At eighty six, so people tell me, I may not always have the higher range I once had, it depends, but I've obtained a lower range. These exercises I'm doing have helped me a tremendous amount. The other thing I do is I steam my nose twice a day and that helps too.

AAJ: In the chapter of the book titled "Better Than Anything" , Ellen Johnson quotes Leslie Gourse, [author of Madam Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists, Oxford University Press, 1995) who described jazz as "the most macho of all the arts"—have you had to overcome much male chauvinism in your career?

SJ: Well it was there in the club owners. They didn't care how you sang; they just wanted to know what you looked like. That was a drag. There was some of that but now they respect me because at this age and as long as I've been out here they don't do that.

AAJ: How significant do you think the advances women jazz musicians have been in your lifetime? Do you think they've come a long way?

SJ: They've come as far as the male world will let them. We're still trying to get rid of "she sure plays great for a chick." Little by little that's going to leave. Guys are getting a little bit more accepting of women jazz instrumentalists than they used to be. Bird didn't care if you were a woman, He'd just say "Go play." Lennie Tristano was like that too. There weren't a lot of women instrumentalists back then because I think they felt the prejudice against them. They're doing much better now.

AAJ: There was a lovely album of yours that came out in 2012, Yesterdays (HighNote Records), duets with Harvie S from a 1990 concert; do you have much stuff in the vaults that you might yet release?

SJ: No, I do not. That was an accident. That was the last concert that we did. That was in Florida for a friend of mine. We'd played together for quite a few years as a duo and after that concert he told me he didn't want to the bass and voice anymore. I was totally destroyed but he said he wanted to do his own music and I understood that.

AAJ: It's a wonderful document of your time together.

SJ: Yes it is and it's not going to happen anymore because now I'm with Cameron [Brown].

AAJ: You've had a couple of heath scares, pneumonia in 2010 and irregular heart beat but you don't seem to have slowed down much. In the book you say you've only cancelled one concert due to illness, which was when you were ill through pneumonia? Only once? You never had flu or a stomach bug or food poisoning in all these years that made you cancel other concerts.

SJ: No, I've been lucky [laughs].

AAJ: Lucky for seventy years.

SJ: Yeah, very lucky. I try not to even think about it.

AAJ: You're back from a tour of Germany, you've got concerts and workshops in France in November and a tour of Japan in December, you have bookings through until August next year. Where do you get your energy from?

SJ: From God, from my higher power, from the spirit of Bird, the spirit of George Russell and the spirit of all my heroes. They give me energy. They say "Go do it. You're the messenger now." And I do! [laughs]. I don't know how long I'll be able to go on but I need to do this. Not because I need people to adore me. I just need to keep this music alive and teach the young people coming up. It's part of me. I need to do music.

The author wishes to thank William Ellis, who helped set up the interview.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of OhWeh

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