Interview with Sheila Jordan
Sheila Jordan, born Sheila Jeanette Dawson, Nov. 18 1928, Detroit, Michigan, USA raised in poverty in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country. She began singing as a child and by the time she was in her early teens she was working semi-professionally in Detroit clubs. Her first great influence was Charlie Parker and, indeed, most of her influences have been instrumentalists rather than singers. Working chiefly with black musicians, she met with disapproval from the white community but persisted with her career. She was a member of a vocal trio, Skeeter, Mitch And Jean (she was Jean), who sang versions of Parker’s solos in a manner akin to that of the later Lambert, Hendricks And Ross.
After moving to New York in the early 50s, she married Parker’s pianist, Duke Jordan, and studied with Lennie Tristano, but it was not until the early 60s that she made her first recordings. One of these (Portrait of Sheila, Bluenote) was under her own name, the other was “The Outer View” with George Russell, which featured a famous 10-minute version of “You Are My Sunshine”.
In the mid-60s her work encompassed jazz liturgies sung in churches and extensive club work, but her appeal was narrow even within the confines of jazz. By the late 70s jazz audiences had begun to understand her uncompromising style a little more and her popularity increased – as did her appearances on record, which included albums with pianist Steve Kuhn, whose quartet she joined, and an album, Home, comprising a selection of Robert Creeley’s poems set to music and arranged by Steve Swallow.
A 1983 duo set with bassist Harvie Swartz, “Old Time Feeling”, comprises several of the standards Jordan regularly features in her live repertoire, while 1990’s “Lost And Found” pays tribute to her bebop roots. Both sets display her unique musical trademarks, such as the frequent and unexpected sweeping changes of pitch, which still tend to confound an uninitiated audience. Her preference to the bass and voice set led to another remarkable collaboration with bassist Cameron Brown, whom she has been performing with all over the world for more than ten years so far and they have released the live albums “I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass” and “Celebration”. Entirely non-derivative, Jordan is one of only a tiny handful of jazz singers who fully deserve the appellation and for whom no other term will do (Copyright 1989-2000 Muze UK Ltd).
Mrs. Jordan, you started singing when you were just three years old.
Yes, I appeared at the Michigan Theatre in Detroit, Mich. My mother and her sister took me down there. It was amateur nite. I was about 3 years old.
You’re active in music for over six decades. You had a close relationship with Charlie Parker.
Bird was like a big brother to me. I met him when I was a teenager in Detroit. Our friendship continued after I moved to NYC in the early 50’s. I’m trying as best I can to keep Bird’s music alive. There are a few of us around who will never forget Charlie Parker or his impact on Jazz. Great musicians like Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb just to name a few of the older musicians. We all know the importance of Bird’s music.
You even married Parker-pianist Duke Jordan. You’ve seen it all! In which way jazzmusic evolved since you started?
Yes, I was married to Duke Jordan and have a beautiful daughter from that marriage. Jazz music has evolved and hopefully will continue to evolve in years to come. There are a lot of jazz schools cropping up all over the world. I think this is wonderful. I started one of the first vocal workshops at City College in NYC back in 1978. I taught there one day a week until a couple of years ago. I also do several summer workshops for a one or two week period. I find these workshops very successful and it’s a joy to hear the young singers dedicate themselves to this incredible music.
How can we label your beautiful music?
I have no label for the music I do except to call it Jazz. I have always been an innovative singer. I come from the school of the great Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. Don’t get me wrong … I don’t try to sing like them. Who could? More importantly who would want to try to imitate these great singers. I would feel like a thief if I tried to copy them. I have my own sound and a lot of it has to do with listeneing to Bird and Bebop music when I was growing up.
According to the Penguin Guide to Jazz, “Portrait of Sheila” is your best album. Is this your favorite too? Since then you have produced so many terrific abums, like “Last Year’s Waltz” (1981). Which album you produced do you like best? Why? Is this album your best appreciated album?
Firstly, I don’t have a favorite record of myself. I have yet to make one. Secondly, I never listen to my records once there completed. I will never be a jazz diva. I am only a messenger of the music. That’s my purpose in life, keeping this music alive.
The late Jazzcritic Joachim Ernst Berendt called your early version of “You Are My Sunshine” with George Russell “eine Persiflage voll beissendem Zynismus auf die amerikanischen Mittelstandsbürger.”, “a parody full of biting cynicism on the American middle class citizens.” He said the time was not ripe for your music, do you agree with him?
Joachim Ernst Berendt was entitled to his opinion of the arrangement. George Russell made a recording of me singing You Are My Sunshine and dedicated it to the out of work coal miners of South Fork, Pennsylvania. I lived in this area with my grandparents until I was about 14. I moved to Detroit, Michigan at this age to live with my mother.
I interviewed Norma Winstone last week, I offered her the occasion to ask you a question. Her question to you was: “How did you remain so dedicated and determined to carry on through the bleak times?”
Norma is a wonderful singer/musician. She writes incredible lyrics. So to answer her question about my dedication: I have loved music since I can remember. Growing up with no water or heat or bathroom can be very hard on a kid. I got thru all of these disadvantages by singing. It made me feel better when I sang. My life was not easy growing up. There was a lot of alcoholism in my family so times were really tough. I kept this dedication and still do to this day doing whatever I have to do to support the music. I worked in an office most of my adult life until I was 58 years old. I had a daughter to raise so I needed a steady income. That doesn’t mean I stopped singing tho. I always found places to sing. I was determined not to lose the one thing that kept me going all those years. Thank God I haven’t lost it.
You have worked with Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, who played at your debut-album. Tomorrow I will interview them (also by email). Do you have a question for (one of) them?
Ask Carla to please write another beautiful Jazz Opera. I would like a part in it no matter how small.
Is there jazz in the future? Jazz is the most recorded musicstyle by now, but do you think jazz will reach our youth? According to saxophonist and flautist Dave Liebman the future of jazz lies with how it will be absorbed and transformed by parts of the world where it is new to the people. Do you agree with him?
As long as older musicians, like myself keep teaching and encouraging the young musicians (instrumentalists/singers) coming up to stick with this wonderful music, the music will continue to stay alive. They need to be dedicated and support it until it supports them. Believe me if they don’t get discouraged and give up they will be given one of the most beautiful gifts in life. After all, Jazz is the only music America can call it’s own. Unfortunately, it seems to be the stepchild of American music.
Your musical activities span a wide range of styles and combinations. Which projects do you keep in store for us?
At some point, I would like to re-record my String Quartet project. I also have a bio coming out next year. So we will see where that takes me.