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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.

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