Sheila Jordan: An improvised life

In many ways Sheila Jordan, who was named an NEA Jazz Master this year, willed herself to greatness

If Sheila Jordan made a deal with the devil, she seems to be getting the best of the bargain. At 84, jazz’s most intrepid vocalist sounds like a woman half her age. She’s come through just about everything that life can throw at you: grinding rural poverty, thuggish police who harassed her for hanging out with black men, decades of scuffling for gigs in obscurity, and her own alcohol-driven demons. Nothing deterred her, and today she stands virtually alone as a survivor of the bebop era who literally sings praises for her late friend Charlie Parker at every gig.

Jordan makes a rare Bay Area appearance Monday at Freight & Salvage as part of a Jazzschool concert in her honor featuring Laurie Antonioli, Madeline Eastman, Kitty Margolis, and Ed Reed. The concert is a fundraiser for the Jazzschool Institute Mark Murphy Vocal Scholarship, which is awarded to a highly promising student (Jordan is also conducting a workshop at the Jazzschool on Sunday afternoon).

In many ways Jordan, who was named an NEA Jazz Master this year, willed herself to greatness. Born Sheila Jeanette Dawson to an unwed teenage mother and raised in Pennsylvania coal country, she found a welcoming family amongst Detroit’s tight-knit bebop scene in the mid 1940s. As a young white woman frequenting black jazz joints, the aspiring vocalist drew heat from Motor City cops, and at Charlie Parker’s urging she lit out for New York City in 1951.

“Those cops were not going to keep me from answering my calling,” says Jordan from her home in Middleburgh, NY. “I knew I was right and they were wrong. I thought once I got to New York it would be different, but it was heavy there too. There were a lot of obstacles in the way, but I knew it was going to be okay. This music saved my life in more ways than one, and continues to save my life.”

In the years before universities deigned to teach jazz, she found rigorous instruction in harmony and music theory studying with pianist Lennie Tristano, a guru to many of the era’s most adventurous improvisers. In 1952 she married pianist Duke Jordan, who played on Parker’s foundational bebop sessions for Dial (they divorced a decade later).

Jordan has come through just about everything that life can throw at you

She found semi-regular work in out-of-the-way spots but Jordan didn’t make her recording debut until 1962 when visionary pianist/composer George Russell recruited her to sing a startlingly advanced arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine” on his 1962 Riverside session “The Outer View.”

The same year Russell brought her into the fold at Blue Note, where she became only the second woman to record for the label with the classic album “Portrait of Sheila.” But with a daughter to raise, she put her jazz career on the back burner and took a job in the research wing of the groundbreaking ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (“Whenever they needed something with a jazz sound, they’d call me up to record the commercial,” she says).

While the Blue Note album earned her a cult following, Jordan didn’t record again for a decade, when she collaborated with fellow adventurers Carla Bley and Roswell Rudd. She began touring with pianist Steve Kuhn’s quartet in the late 1970s, a relationship that led to a series of acclaimed albums for ECM. She also forged a powerful creative bond with the band’s virtuoso bassist Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S), which led to touring and recording together in an unprecedented duo.

Jordan’s late blooming career got a boost when she lost her day job in 1986 after 21 years at Doyle Dane Bernbach. Offered a year’s severance or an ad hoc position floating around the company, she realized the lack of security offered her more artistic freedom.

“I think I started to cry and then a voice said to me, you’ve been praying for opportunities to sing more, take the money and go,” she recalls. “I was 58 years old when that happened and I never did look back. It’s gotten better and better. I’ve gotten wonderful gigs and I just got the Jazz Masters award, which I’m still in shock over.”

A supremely generous artist who has mentored generations of aspiring vocalists, Jordan reinvented herself as an educator, launching the innovative jazz vocal program at the University of Graz in Austria with Mark Murphy (a program that the Jazzschool’s Laurie Antonioli ran from 2002-2006). In concert, Jordan often seems like she’s in thrall to the moment, scatting and spontaneously generating lyrics. But she never hits the stage without a road map.

“I always work out a set,” she says. “I don’t like to get up there and be unprepared. But within a tune, I’m gone. I never force improvisation. All I know is I’m free. I improvise on the chord changes. I’ve got Charlie Parker to thank for that, for the fact that I even sing.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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