Sheila Jordan isn't a trained singer. But she is a passionate singer whose roots date back to Charlie Parker and other bebop musicians of the late '40s and early '50s whom she knew as a teen and asked her to sit in. Sheila also is an example of an artist who had a very rough early life but used her love for music as a way to keep her spirits high and positive through it all.
When Sheila walks into a room, everyone feels her presence. Much of her radiance has to do with how her eyes all but turn into crescents when she smiles broadly. She has one of those smiles that makes friends instantly. Speaking with her for this interview also made me realize how honest and blunt she is. There's no spin with Sheila.
In Part 3 of my three-part interview with Sheila Jordan, the singer talks about her marriage to pianist Duke Jordan and how she came to begin recording albums starting in 1962:
JazzWax: In the 1950s, you studied with pianist Lennie Tristano?
Sheila Jordan: Yes. Lennie gave me inspiration and an opportunity to try out vocal ideas. At the time, Lennie had a studio at 317 E. 32nd St. in Manhattan. I went to him because I was looking for a teacher. Max Roach, who I knew through Bird and Duke, had told me about him. Then Charles Mingus took me up to see him when Charles was playing a session there.
JW: What did you learn?
SJ: My first lesson was to learn Bird’s Now’s the Time. I told Lennie I already knew it. He said, “Great, go ahead and sing it.” I sang the song right off. Lennie said, “Well damn, you do know the song. What about Prez?” I told him I didn’t know any Lester Young solos.
JW: Was your marriage to pianist Duke Jordan a happy one?
SJ: No. We were in love—or I thought we were. The problem for us was that Duke was addicted to heroin, which wasn’t good for a marriage or anything else. He’d leave me and come back when he pleased. After my daughter Tracey was born, he didn’t come back at all, which was terrible. [Photo above of Sheila Jordan in the early '50s, courtesy of Sheila Jordan]
JW: Looking back, do you feel you should have tried to get Jordan to kick his drug habit?
SJ: Not at all. I didn’t feel as though it was my responsibility to police his habit. To be honest, I really detached. I had seen my share of addiction growing up and wanted to pull away. I was naturally allergic to it.
JW: Many black jazz musicians married white women. Why do you think that is?
SJ: I don’t know. Most of the cats that I knew had white wives, but I have no clue why. Most loved each other, and I suppose people are attracted to differences and the people they care about and respect most, regardless of color.
JW: Did Jordan take you seriously as a singer?
SJ: He did. We didn’t play together or record because I wasn’t ready to sing like that. I was just enjoying it.
JW: Are you sorry you didn’t record earlier, in the ‘50s?
SJ: No. I never set out to be a diva. I just wanted to dedicate my life to the music and have fun doing it.
JW: What changed your mind when you began to record seriously in 1962?
SJ: I was singing at the Page Three club in Greenwich Village two nights a week. I wasn’t singing for the money. I was paid only $6 a night, and by the time I paid the babysitter, I didn’t have much left. Then George Russell [pictured] came in one night.
JW: Your first major recording was You Are My Sunshine on Russell’s Outer View album. That’s quite a recording.
SJ: George had come in to hear pianist Jack Reilly, one of his students, and Steve Swallow on bass. Back then I would do two sets a night. Monday night was session night, when all the singers sang there. I was the jazz singer.
JW: What happened?
SJ: After I sang, George liked what he heard and came up to me afterward. He said, “Where do you come from?”—meaning where did I grow up and what was my background. I said, “I come from hell, man.” We then spent time talking and I told him my life story.
JW: What was Russell's response?
SJ: He asked for my number. I gave it to him, and not long afterward he called me. He asked me to come down to his place to hear something. My daughter was at a friend’s house, so I went.
JW: What did Russell play for you when you arrived?
SJ: He played this incredible introduction to a song. Then he stopped cold and said, “Sing You Are My Sunshine here.” I said, “What, are you kidding? There’s nobody to sing with.”
JW: What did he say?
SJ: George said, “That’s OK. I want you to sing by yourself. You said you sang by yourself as a kid.”
JW: How did he know so much about you?
SJ: What I didn’t tell you is that in addition to talking about my background, we actually drove down to Pennsylvania, to my grandparents’ house. George wanted to get a full feeling for where I had come from.
JW: What happened down there?
SJ: Well, it was me, my grandmother and George. Everyone else in my family there had died or moved away except for her. She said, “Let’s go up to the bar for a drink.” So we did, and my grandmother tried to pass us off as big stars. A coal miner in there looked at me and said, “Do you still sing You Are My Sunshine” Jeanie?”
JW: What did you say?
SJ: I said, “No.” George turned to me surprised and said, “Why not?” So he goes over to this beat-up upright piano and starts to play the song. My grandmother soon pushed him off and said, “That’s not the way it goes” and played it while I sang. I think that’s when he realized where I came from [laughs].
JW: So when you went down to Russell’s place, he had written an arrangement that reflected your background?
SJ: Yes. He wanted it to be like a documentary of my rough upbringing in coal country. He wanted to call it, A Drinking Song. But there was only one miner in the bar that day, so he couldn’t really do that.
JW: Looking back, what do you think of Russell?
SJ: I think he was an underrated genius. He was also a kind man. He paid for my divorce from Duke in 1962 or ’63 and was good to my daughter. He’d take her to nursery school when I couldn’t.
JW: Was it hard breaking up with Jordan?
SJ: Yes. He left me, and I had to raise my daughter alone. Duke was a drug addict and had left because he had met someone else who would support his habit. He didn’t even come to the hospital to see his child when she was born. It was all very painful.
JW: How did your first album Portrait of Sheila for Blue Note happen?
SJ: George loved my singing and paid for a demo. Then he took it around to Prestige and Blue Note. Blue Note picked it up first, and that was the beginning of my serious recording career.
JW: How would you describe your vocal style?
SJ: I don’t’ know. Honest, I guess. I don’t try to be anything else but that. I just sing for the joy of singing. I never worried about why some singers were making it and I wasn’t. I just wanted to keep the music alive, especially Bird’s music. Musicians always thank Miles Davis and John Coltrane for inspiring them. They never thank Bird. Sonny Rollins talks about Bird all the time. Sonny is something else. He’s a beautiful human being. He’s so special. So humble.
JW: Are you recording again soon?
SJ: I’m trying to work on a duo album with Steve Kuhn. But I hate to record. I don’t like studios.
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 clip: Here's Sheila Jordan singing You Are My Sunshine with George Russell...