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Interview with Sheila Jordan

April 17, 2013 Leave a comment

23Sheila 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.sheila jordan

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.images

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.

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Interview with Norma Winstone

February 2, 2013 1 comment

norma winstoneI have been lucky in all my playing partners.

Last week I interviewed Norma Winstone.

Winstone sang in the early sixties mostly in pubs in East End of London (where she was born). She did sing around the Dagenham area too  (Norma moved there when she was 10) but quite a few of the London pubs featured jazz at the time and were a great learning opportunity.  Later on Norma joined Michael Garrick’s band in 1968. Her first recording came the following year, with Joe Harriott. In 1971 she was voted top singer in the Melody Maker Jazz Poll. She recorded the album, Edge of Time, under her own name in 1972.[1] Winstone contributed vocals to Ian Carr’s Nucleus on that band’s 1973 release Labyrinth, a jazz-rock concept albumbased on the Greek myth about the Minotaur.

Winstone has worked with many major European musicians and visiting Americans, as well as with most of her peers in British jazz including Garrick, John Surman, Michael Gibbs, Mike Westbrook and her former husband, the pianist John Taylor. With Taylor and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler she has performed and recorded five albums for ECM as a member of the trio Azimuth between 1977 and 1994  their CD “How It Was Then… Never Again” was given four stars by Down Beatmagazine. In addition she made an album with the American pianist Jimmy Rowles (Well Kept Secret, 1993). (Wikipedia and Norma Winstone)

Norma Winstone is a singer of of brilliant virtuosity and flexibility; she can handle very complex lines and wide intervals, improvise with the fluency of an instrumentalist and also breathe life into a simple song. Her favourite singers are Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams and Carmen McRae, and other inspirational figures for her are Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor (Ian Carr, Jazz, the essential companion).

Mrs. Winstone, you’re active in music for more than  4 decades. How has jazz music evolved since you started performing or singing. We know there are labels for different kinds of music, can we label your  music?
I would rather that music did not have to be labeled. I guess the music I am involved in and have been involved in for many years is jazz. What I wanted to be involved in was music like I had heard from Miles Davis, John Coltrane etc but I have always loved cassical music too and I think that somehow the music has evolved to include these influences too.
According to the Penguin Guide to Jazz, “Edge of Time” is your best album. Is this your favorite too? Which album you produced do you like best? Why?  Is this album your best appreciated album?
No, this is not my favourite album and I can’t see how they think it is my best. It has a spirit of the jazz scene in London at the time and it was fairly ambitious for a first recording under my own name, but I was much better recorded later on ECM. I began to be able to listen to my voice and hear what I had hoped I  sounded like. Edge of Time did have an urgency about it and was unusual in terms of a vocal album at the time (and probably even now), which is probably why the Penguin Guide thinks it’s the best, because I sound as if I am searching. I really like “Somewhere Called Home”, “Azimuth ’85” and “Distances” because I think that here I achieved something beautiful. “Distances” was nominated for a Grammy and won various awards for best vocal album so I would say that this has been my best appreciated album. 
Bill Evans. He’s been your inspiration, as he’s been for a generation of  (jazz)musicians. This year it’s thirty-three years ago he died. What does this mean to you?
Bill Evans always touched me with his playing. I saw him twice at Ronnie Scott’s club and as soon as he touched the piano he made it sound so beautiful, even though at the time it wasn’t such a great piano. He always made me cry. He had his own voice which is what we always want to hear from a musician. His harmonies were always the best you’re likely to hear.
Do you still learn from your youthful colleagues and what should they learn form you? Are you inspired by them as you were by the colleagues you played with in the seventies and  the early eighties?
I am always inspired when I sing with musicians who love the music and are prepared to be a bit adventurous. I don’t know what I’ve learned from my younger colleagues except how to make music with them. It is a precious thing when you find musicians with whom you don’t have to discuss anything and playing together just works. I have been lucky in all my playing partners.
norma winstone  visibelli group
Jazzcritic John Fordham called your cooperation with pianist Jimmy Rowles one of the highlights of the mid-nineties in his book Shooting From the Hip (published in 1996). How did you experience working with Mr.Rowles?
It was a great experience even to meet him and singing with him was a delight. I always loved the way he played the whole piano (not just the middle), rather like Duke Ellington. I remember breaking into a smile when we slipped into time after the verse of “Where or When”: it felt just right. He said that he felt that it was his job to make the singer sound as good as possible!
Next tuesday I will interview well known jazzsinger Sheila Jordan, who was very succesfull with her album Portrait of Sheila (1962), do you have a question for her?
 I love Sheila. She is such a warm and lovely human being and it shines through her singing…. what could I ask her? How did she remain so dedicated and determined to carry on through the bleak times?  but I guess I know the answer. She loves the music. What more do you need? To keep healthy, I guess, to cope with all the travelling.
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?
 I’m not sure I understand what he means… do we have to keep on until we’ve run out of people who have not been exposed to jazz? Lots of young musicians are still interested to play jazz albeit sometimes with influences from different genres of music as Dave suggests. It shouldn’t  have to stay the same. I think though that it gets more and more difficult for our youth to be exposed to jazz by chance, as it doesn’t have enough exposure in the media, but it was never easy anyway. It will survive in one form or another.
Your musical activities span a wide range of styles and combinations. Which projects do you have in store for us?
 I have just recorded again with my trio (Glauco Venier, piano and Klaus Gesing, soprano sax and bass clarinet) and we have included some more contemporary/ popular songs as well as originals. At the moment we seem to be about conveying the meaning of a song more than experimenting, but that may change. I will also be working in England this year with a group of great British musicians we call “The Printmakers” including Nikki Iles, piano, Mike Walker, guitar, Mark Lockheart, saxophones, Steve Watts, bass and James Maddren, drums. There is quite an age range in this group but we seem to have the same musical objectives. Other than this we don’t know what’s round the corner but as long as the voice holds out I shall be singing.
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