On January 10, Sheila Jordan will be honored in New York by the National Endowment for the Arts as a 2012 NEA Jazz Master—the nation's most prestigious jazz award. Joining her on stage will be co-honorees drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Jimmy Owens. It's going to be a big evening for her, and a long time coming. [Photo at top of Sheila Jordan at a 52nd St. club in 1953, courtesy of Sheila Jordan]
Many jazz fans may be unfamiliar with Sheila's music and likely know little or nothing about her background. She was never a pop singer, and as a jazz vocalist she didn't begin recording in earnest until 1962. Unlike many jazz singers, Sheila never was a coy stylist or an American Songbook warbler. Instead, she's a hard-core bebop insider. Married to pianist Duke Jordan [pictured] in the early 1950s, she was a close friend of Charlie Parker's, studied with pianist Lennie Tristano and hosted jam sessions at her loft in New York. Sheila sang at clubs until she met composer-arranger-pianist George Russell, who insisted she record just one song. More about that on Friday.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Sheila on the years leading up to her recording career, the 83-year-old singer talks about her raw and painful childhood, how singing helped her survive, and her passion for Parker's music and jazz.
JazzWax: You were born in Detroit but grew up in Summerhill, Penn. Why?
Sheila Jordan: My mother was very young when she had me. She was barely 17. So she sent me off to Summerhill in the coal-mining region to live with my grandmother and grandfather. She’d come home from time to time, but mostly she remained back in Detroit.
JW: What was your mother like?
SJ: She had a serious drinking problem. I didn’t know my father well. If I saw him five times growing up, that was a lot.
JW: What was living with your grandparents like?
SJ: My grandfather was an alcoholic. He was a good man, a quiet man. But he was strict. My grandparents did their best. We went to church every Sunday, and I was raised as a Catholic. But the house was crowded. They already had six people living there. There were two desperately poor families in town, and we were one of them.
JW: What were living conditions like?
SJ: There were no lights or a toilet. Everything was outside the house. Sometimes my grandfather would pay the electric bill but most of the time the power was turned off by the electric company. It was awful, man. But you know what? It made me strong. I knew what the bottom felt like. Everything I got I worked for.
JW: Did you study piano?
SJ: I took a few piano lessons for free from my great-aunt in Pennsylvania. But Aunt Alma was strict and rough. I had tiny hands and they couldn’t reach all the keys. I wanted them to, but they were too small. When my hands couldn’t do what Aunt Alma asked, she’d whack my hands. After she hit me, I didn’t go back.
JW: Did you listen to music there?
SJ: Music was always a part of my life growing up. I listened to our radio—when my grandfather paid the electric bill. But mostly I listened to friends' radios. There was a radio show back then called Your Hit Parade, which featured the top songs of the week. I had this crazy ability to memorize those tunes immediately after hearing them and sang them pretty well. Soon I was on radio stations in nearby Johnstown and Altoona. The shows were these amateur hour things that featured kids.
JW: Do you remember the first songs you sang?
SJ: Yes: My Ideal and He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings [laughs]. I also made up songs. I was often sent off to the store to buy stuff and had to pass a graveyard. That scared me, so I’d sing my head off as I passed it.
JW: How did you end up leaving your grandparents’ house?
SJ: One day my grandfather and grandmother were drinking with my mother. Naturally they got into a nasty fight, and my grandfather told my mother to get out "and take your kid with you." I was 14 years old.
JW: Thinking back, how did that feel?
SJ: I felt so bad. I felt unwanted.
JW: When you arrived back in Detroit with your mother, what was her life like?
SJ: My mother was on her fourth husband at the time. In those days, you didn’t live with a guy. You had to marry him. She was always with creepy guys—gangsters and abusive people like that. [Pictured: Detroit in the '40s]
JW: Had your mother had additional children?
SJ: No, my mother never had any more children. She had had me so young that my aunts and uncles were my age or younger.
JW: In Detroit, you continued to sing?
SJ: Yes, I was always singing to myself. My mother had a rented apartment that came with a radio. She worked at General Motors on the assembly line and as a barmaid after her factory job, so I had lots of time to listen to music.
JW: Where did you go to school?
SJ: I went to Cass Tech in Detroit for a semester but then transferred to Commerce High School. I did this because
I knew I'd have to find a job as soon as I graduated. Cass didn't offer typing classes and other secretarial courses, but Commerce did. During our lunch breaks at Commerce, we'd go across the street to a place that had a jukebox. I loved to listen to music, particularly Duke Ellington. I first got to hear Duke on a record that a kid next door had. My mother also had a record of Benny Goodman’s that I loved, too, but I've forgotten the name.
JW: What was your favorite record on that jukebox?
SJ: Charlie Parker and His Reboppers' Now's the Time. When I first saw the name of the group, I loved the sound of it. So I put my nickel in and played the song. After the first four notes, my hairs stood up. “Oh my god,” I said. I made the decision that day when I heard Bird to spend my life in jazz.
JW: When did you start putting lyrics to Parker’s songs?
SJ: After I heard Bird's records, I wanted to know where the music came from. I wanted to know if there were any people in Detroit playing it. I found out that Bird routinely came to Detroit.
JW: When did you first see Parker perform?
SJ: At the Club Sudan in Detroit. I went with a friend. The club didn’t serve alcohol so underage kids could get in. That’s where I heard Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell sing. They were about my age. After they finished, I went up to them and said, “You guys were great. Can you teach me the words. I love Charlie Parker.” They invited me to rehearse and we became a group—Skeeter, Mitch and Jean, which was my middle name. I used it when I was young because kids teased me by calling me Sheba instead of Sheila.
JW: The Detroit scene was packed with bebop talent then.
SJ: Yes, it was. I met Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell. They were the musicians I grew up with. I was crazy for jazz but couldn’t get into most of the clubs. I was just a teen. I remember trying to get into Club El Sino by changing my mother’s birth certificate and carrying a pack of Lucky Strikes. I also wore a pillbox hat with a veil.
JW: What happened?
SJ: I went up to the door but the doorman wouldn’t let me in. He said, “Go home kid and do your homework.”
JW: Did you?
SJ: Of course not. I went around to the alley with Skeeter and Mitch, who were with me. Bird somehow knew we were back there. He propped open the door, and we sat on garbage cans and listened. He must have told the owner not to close the door under any circumstances.
JW: Did you meet Parker that night?
SJ: Yes. When the set was over, he came out. We told him how much we loved his music. He was wonderful. We were adoring him, and we sang his Confirmation with our words that the guys had written.
JW: Sounds like you were creating lyrics for Parker’s tunes before Dave Lambert and King Pleasure or at least without hearing them.
SJ: Yes, but we weren’t nearly as polished, of course. And we were creating lyrics for the heads, not the solos.
JW: What did Parker think?
JS: Oh man, he loved it. Every time he’d come to Detroit, he wanted to hear us sing. He once said to me, “Kid, you have million-dollar ears.” I sat in with him several times at the clubs and again years later. When I was with Skeeter and Mitch, I started out singing the head part. But they taught me how to improvise on songs and scat the solos. We were loving the music, and our group sat in any time musicians invited us to.
JazzWax notes: On-stage tributes to Sheila Jordan and the rest of the NEA Jazz Masters honorees will be held at 7:30 p.m. on January 10 at Rose Theater at New York's Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
If you're unable to attend, you can watch on your computer from anywhere in the world by going to arts.gov or jalc.org (7:30 p.m., EST). The concert also will be broadcast live on WBGO-FM in New York and on SiriusXM Satellite Radio's Real Jazz Channel XM67. A video archive of the concert will also be available at arts.gov following the event.
Sheila tells me she is working on a memoir with writer Ellen Johnson. More on Sheila Jordan at her website here.
JazzWax tracks: Sheila Jordan's very first recording was Yesterdays on Looking Out: Jazz Bass Baroque, an album led by bassist Peter Ind and recorded in 1960. Sheila's not crazy about the track. "Peter's a great British bass player. I met him while I was studying with Lennie Tristano." You can find it at iTunes and Amazon.
Sheila's first monumental recording was You Are My Sunshine, with George Russell on his The Outer View (Riverside) in 1962. More on the dramatic story behind this track on Friday. You'll find it on the album at iTunes and Amazon.
A great intro to Sheila is her first album, Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note), recorded in 1962 with Barry Galbraith (g) Steve Swallow (b) and Denzil Best (d). You'll find it at iTunes and Amazon.
JazzWax clip: Here's Sheila Jordan singing Bobby Timmons' Dat Dere from Portrait of Sheila...