There aren't too many musicians today who have truly lived the jazz life in the '40s and '50s. To live the jazz life back then, you had to be completely committed to the music and at one with the artists. Creativity was currency, and the music you heard coming from musicians' instruments often said more about humanity than the written and spoken word. You also had to see integration as a normal way of life at a time when much of society and law enforcement viewed racial mixing as a threat that needed to be stopped, often with intimidation and violence. Vocalist Sheila Jordan lived the jazz life. [Photo at top of Sheila Jordan in 1951, courtesy of Sheila Jordan; Detroit police on motorcycles in the '50s]
When we read about racial prejudice in the late 1940s and 1950s, it's most often told from the perspective of black jazz musicians who experienced it. But white women who dated, married or just associated with black jazz artists often were subjects of intensive scrutiny and hostility. Sheila experienced her share in Detroit and New York. [Pictured: Baroness Pannonica Rothschild with Thelonious Monk]
In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Sheila—who will be honored next week as an NEA Jazz Master—the jazz singer talks about her experiences with racial hostility in two cities...
JazzWax: As a white woman with black friends and a passion for black culture in the '40s and '50s, did you face racial prejudice then?
Sheila Jordan: Oh sure, all the time. After high school I was going to all the black clubs and had to deal with a lot of racial prejudice by whites who didn't like what I was doing. Even in high school, the white principal made cracks.
JW: Like what?
SJ: She once said, “You dress so nice, why do you hang out with colored girls?” I said, “Oh, are they colored?” She said, “Yes,” sort of hissing the final “s.”
JW: What did you say?
SJ: I said, “I feel comfortable. They’re my friends.” I had had such a rough home life and a hard time in high school. I was always looked down on. The music lifted me up and the people who played it gave me purpose. Because of my background, I could relate to what they were going through.
JW: As a white woman frequenting black neighborhoods in Detroit, was the prejudice toward you particularly rough?
SJ: Oh sure, man. After I graduated from high school, I hung around all the black clubs and sat in when asked by musicians. When we finished at places like the Blue Bird Inn and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, we’d pile into a car or cab to go home or go out. Cops would stop us all the time and ask where we were going.
JW: What did they say to you?
SJ: They’d say, “What are you doing with these two…” I can’t even say the word.
JW: What did you say in response?
SJ: I learned early that you had sound a little naïve. Otherwise you could put yourself and everyone else in the car in danger. I’d say something like, “What? I can’t be with my brothers?” The word “brothers” wasn’t used like it is now. I was using it as though I was truly related to them, like we shared the same mother.
JW: What did the police say?
SJ: They’d seem perplexed and say, “Oh, go on, go on.” Essentially, I had to convince them I wasn’t white for it to be OK.
JW: Did you date black musicians?
SJ: Yes. I started going with tenor saxophonist Frank Foster in Detroit. We lived together until he went into the Army. I remember one time we were going on a picnic to Belle Isle park in the Detroit River with Jenny King, who was white and her boyfriend, who was black. The cops stopped us. They were plainclothes cops. I had thrown a cigarette from the window, and they crawled under the car to get it, thinking it was grass or something. Just another excuse to jam up an interracial couple.
JW: What happened?
SJ: They took us down to headquarters. They separated us and spoke to me alone. One cop said, “I want your mother’s phone number.” I told him I hadn’t lived with my mother since I was 17. I told him I was on my own.
JW: What did he say?
SJ: He said, “You see my gun? If I found my daughter with a—that word again—I’d blow her brains out.” You can’t even imagine what life was like back then without understanding the kind of blind hatred that existed for blacks by whites in certain cities, particularly among the police. There was racism and then there was this horrible fury that was reserved for interracial couples. It was horrible to experience.
JW: What did you say?
SJ: I told the cop I was moving to New York. He said sarcastically, “How cosmopolitan.” I shut up, and they let us all go. I heard later that they weren’t too rough with the guys. After that, Frank went into the Army during the Korean War, and I moved to New York in 1951.
JW: Where did you live in New York?
SJ: My best friend Jenny King and Virginia Cox, a Detroit artist, already had an apartment they were sharing in the Gramercy Park area. A room there was vacant and I took it. I came later because I was still with Frank Foster, before he left for the Army.
JW: What did you do for work?
SJ: I went to a temp agency and got a job as a typist at the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency. They liked my work in the research department, so I took a full-time job.
JW: Why did you move to New York?
SJ: To hear Bird. When I arrived, I went to see him right away at a club with my friend Jenny. I guess I was chasin’ the Bird [laughs]. When Bird saw me, he immediately said, “Oh you’re the kid with the million dollar ears.” How he remembered is beyond me [laughs].
JW: Was Parker's Chasin’ the Bird written for you?
SJ: No. I don’t know how that rumor got started.
JW: When did you first meet pianist Duke Jordan?
SJ: Back in Detroit, when he came through town with Bird. I loved his piano playing. His invented song introductions were the most beautiful things I had ever heard. I would go and hear him, and eventually I got to know him. This was before I had met Frank. Duke said, “If you ever come to New York, I’d be happy to see you.”
JW: When did the friendship turn romantic?
SJ: After I moved to New York. I started living with him in Brooklyn. Bird used to play these “cocktail sips,” which were formal Sunday afternoon parties that the black community threw. Bird would play with Duke on piano.
JW: Was there racial prejudice toward you by the black community?
SJ: Not at all. Everyone was wonderful to me. I was always accepted.
JW: Did you stay in Brooklyn?
SJ: After I had been with Duke for a while, I decided to move back into Manhattan. I got this loft on 26th St. and 8th Ave. and held jam sessions there. It was actually two lofts cut in half. My friend Virginia had the other half. Bird was at my loft all the time. He turned me on to Bartok. He’d bring records up to the loft. But he never came on to me. I was his little sister. I married Duke in 1953.
JW: Why would Bird come to your loft?
SJ: Just to visit or crash, or after fights with [his wife] Chan. Bird was so positive. He never talked about anything that was down or unhappy. The only time I heard him say something with disgust was when Duke was high [on heroin] and was nodding out. When he saw Duke in that condition, Bird scowled and said to him, “Man, didn’t you learn anything from me?”
JW: In New York, did you encounter the same kind of racial prejudice that you had faced in Detroit?
SJ: Yes. One time I went out to get some Chinese food with two black artist friends. On our way back, coming around 26th St., four white guys jumped us.
JW: What happened?
SJ: The guys threw me down and started kicking me, knocking out a cap on one of my teeth. They had run out of a bar as soon as they saw me with my two black friends. Three of the white guys grabbed my two artist friends and held them while the fourth guy was kicking me. He was ready to kill me when a white detective got out of a car and came across the street with a gun pointed in my direction. He approached the guy beating me up and asked him what I was to him and did he know me. The guy who was beating me up said, "No." The detective ordered him to stop beating me and put them all up against the wall This plain clothesman saved my life. It infuriated those guys in the bar that I was with two black guys. People today think this stuff went on only in the South, but it also happened on 26th St. in New York.
JazzWax notes: On-stage tributes to Sheila Jordan and the rest of the NEA Jazz Masters honorees will be held next Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. 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: One of my favorite Sheila Jordan albums is One for Junior, recorded with Mark Murphy for Muse in 1989. The sound of these two together is bliss—like two saxophones going at it. Sadly, the album is out of print, but it appears to be available on CD from used sellers at Amazon.
JazzWax clip: How good is the Sheila Jordan-Mark Murphy album? Hear a track for yourself. If ever there was a charmed jazz pairing, this is it...
And here's Sheila singing Confirmation a few years ago. Dig those strings!...