From humble beginnings to painstaking struggles and ultimately heroic triumphs, the jazz life of Sheila Jordan could inspire an epic play with a challenging lead to cast. Blessed with a haunting voice that is at once innocent and worldly, the animated jazz legend nicknamed Lady Bird shares the same birthday as Mickey Mouse. Sheila Jeanette Dawson was born on November 18, 1928 in Detroit to unwed teenagers. As a toddler she was sent to live with her grandparents in Summerhill, a poverty-stricken coalmining town in rural Pennsylvania.
“I lost a lot of self-esteem as a kid,” Sheila recalls. “Being one of the two poorest families in town, we were always hounded in this coal mining area. There was a lot of alcoholism in the family. My grandfather was an alcoholic and most of the kids in the family turned out to be alcoholics, including me, but not at that time…”
It was in Summerhill that she began singing regularly in the beer gardens for an inebriated crowd of coal miners. She returned to Detroit at fourteen, but her alcoholic mother’s abusive husband drove the precocious child to early independence. Thankfully by now she had discovered her saviour in bebop. The innovations of modern jazz, especially those by its magical main man, Charlie “Bird” Parker, struck a chord deep within the adolescent. She inspired the song “Chasing the Bird” and he lauded her “million dollar ears”. They were close friends until his death in 1955.
“Bird was always very supportive…he was just wonderful to me…he never made a pass at me, he treated me like I was his little sister. Even with his heavy drug use and his heroin addiction, there was a very sweet side of him.”
In Detroit and even in New York of the day, Sheila was persistently harassed for belonging to a predominantly black community of jazz musicians.
“There was a lot of racial prejudice, but I knew I was right. These men would stop me and ask me why I was hanging out with black people – of course that’s not the word that they would use – but I never let them scare me into not being what I believed in…I mean, I loved these people! I loved the excitement of finding this music and finding people like Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Burrell and Barry Harris, and Skeeter Speight and Leroy Mitchell who took me in and taught me how to scat sing. I loved these people. They changed my whole life. I finally found a place where I could be comfortable within…it was the only thing that made me survive, in a sense…”
“The last time I got stopped in Detroit, the officer took me in a room. He said to me ‘I’ve got something to tell you. Do you see this gun in this holster? I’ve got a 9-year-old daughter at home, and if I thought I was going to find her like I did you tonight, with those N’s, I would take this gun out of its holster and go home and blow her brains out.’ And that’s when I thought oh my God, I have to get out of here!”
A short-lived marriage to Bird’s piano player, Duke Jordan, brought daughter Tracy (born 1955) into this world and the two remain very close. Like most people in her family, Sheila battled with addiction for years but thankfully managed to get out just in time. Very rarely a composer, she wrote a poignant song, “The Crossing”, about beating her addictions.
“I had a spiritual awakening. I just realized, I don’t want to end up like my mother, I have many songs to sing and many kids to teach, I don’t want to go out like that. I knew my spiritual awakening came from somebody much more powerful than I was, and it was this message: ‘I gave you a gift, and if you don’t respect it and take care of it, I’m going to take it away from you.’ I stopped on my own for 8 years, but in the interim I got involved with cocaine because I didn’t know it was addictive. I just thought it was a rich person’s drug. It was very popular then…a lot of musicians were into it because they didn’t know. But thank God that didn’t last. That voice came back to me again, and I said, oh, I gotta get out of this, too.” For the past 32 years and in a sense, since childhood, Sheila’s drug of choice has been the music. “It’s the best addiction I’ve ever tried!” she chuckles warmly.
Sheila Jordan is known in the jazz world for being the first vocalist to work exclusively with the acoustic bass in a duo format; no one has devoted more albums to this concept. Her first public performance was at a jam session with Charles Mingus in 1950, but only in 1977 did she release the first “bass & voice” album with Arild Andersen. Currently she works with the breathtaking Cameron Brown. Apart from the importance of being strongly connected, bass & voice demands that both musicians have excellent pairs of ears and a rich musical imagination. When an audience member once famously asked her where the piano and drums were, Sheila said “In my head, man, in my head!” Unable to depend financially on her singing career, Jordan was a legal secretary for over twenty years while supporting daughter Tracy. At age 58 she finally retired to focus on performing and teaching.
Sheila’s most recent recording, her 21st as leader, is on the prominent Canadian jazz record label, Justin Time. Just in time for Valentine’s Day 2008, Winter Sunshine was recorded live at Upstairs in mid-February of last year. Sheila’s performance on this highly recommended recording is inspiring. She is sharp as tack throughout and full of good ideas. Over the years the timbre of her voice has grown fuller, but even if the voice weren’t as strong as it still is, Sheila’s art is rooted, as it always has been, in groundbreaking creativity; lyrics are cleverly improvised throughout the album. “Lady Be Good” is a precious cut that’s a testament to the artist’s sincere modesty. An impressive medley of “All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm” and “Little Willie Leaps” culminates in a memorable scat solo. Also included on the album are three tracks of dialogue, all examples of her spontaneous sense of humour. Has she always been the consummate entertainer?
“Oh no! That only happened after years of doing it, and relaxing, and getting my self-esteem back. Actually, a lot of it was because I was in AA and I was dealing with my demons and realizing I’m not such a bad person. Before that, I was really scared… if I stopped to try and talk, I’d stutter and that would take away from the music… now it feels like I’m related to my audience and we’re having a conversation.”
Although she does scat sing on this recording and many others since the 1970s, she has expressed a concern about a “scat virus” that has been going around. Back at the Art of Jazz Celebration of ’07 she elaborated: “Jazz singers sometimes feel a pressure to scat – actually I don’t really like that word, let’s call it taking a solo – or they don’t know why they are doing it. Like if you don’t do it the instrumentalists won’t dig what you do. Well Billie Holiday never scat sang and who wouldn’t call her a jazz singer? SINGERS: If you don’t feel it, then why do it?”
Sheila’s workshops are consistently enlightening because she is a fantastic teacher. In high demand as a jazz educator, she has mentored thousands of students over the past 30 years. Jordan began teaching in New York’s City College 1978, is a current faculty member of ”Jazz in July” at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a visiting professor at Stanford University.
“I’m totally dedicated to this music, whether I’m singing it or teaching it or going out to support it.” Now 80 years young, the treasured performer, recording artist, educator and jazz ambassador maintains a busy schedule. One might say she’s in the prime of her career.
“I’m not as successful as most people think I am…not in America anyway. But I don’t care! I never wanted to be, you know, ‘a star’. That’s not my purpose, that’s not my calling. My calling is to be a messenger of this music, and I’m very happy being that. I’m very thrilled with the awards I’ve won and the recognition that I’ve gotten.”
Fans are still waiting on the National Endowment of the Arts, but recently Sheila has accepted numerous prestigious awards, including the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the International Association of Jazz Educators Humanitarian Award (2007) and the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz for Lifetime of Service Award (2008).
“I used to just put all my little awards in the closet and my daughter got very upset. She said ‘Mom, you earned those. Put ’em up on the wall.’ I said ‘That looks like I’m bragging’. She said ‘Brag’.”
LISA PARTICELLI’S GIRLS NIGHT OUT
& ART OF JAZZ PRESENT:
Sheila Jordan live in concert on Valentine’s Day
Saturday, February 14th (2 shows: 2-4pm, 6-8pm)
at Chalkers Pub, 247 Marlee Ave
Tickets: $25 each per concert
Vocal Jazz workshop with Sheila Jordan
Sunday, February 15th from 1-5pm
at Art of Jazz Studio in the Distillery Historic District.
$30-$60 for the workshop