Photo by Ed Cohen
Sheila Jordan talks about her life in jazz. [34:48]
Life can be mighty monotonous,
We're always battlin' boredom;
Where, tell me where has it gotten us?
Everything's still so doggone hum-drum!
Stuck in a rut, gettin' nowhere fast!
Ooooooh, I got the hum-drum blues!
Fightin' the future and mad at the past!
Ahhhha-aaaaa, I got the hum-drum blues!
When you ain't got money,
Then you just can't do as you choose;
Just gotta live with the hum-drum blues! (fades under host)
That was singer and 2012 Jazz master Sheila Jordan singing "Hum Drum Blues."
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Sheila Jordan is one of the great singers in jazz. A superb scat singer, she can just as easily reach the emotional depths of a ballad. Whether singing well-known standards or original material, Sheila Jordan makes it all sound like no one else on Earth.
Sheila Jordan grew up in Pennsylvania's coal mining country with her grandparents, singing in school and on amateur radio shows. In the early 1940s, she returned to live with her mother in Detroit, where she heard a Charlie Parker recording. It changed her life; from that moment on she devoted herself to jazz. She met some of Detroit's young musicians during that time, such as Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, and Barry Harris. And as a part of the trio Skeeter, Mitch and Jean---she was Jean, sang versions of Parker's bebop solos. When she moved to New York City in the early '50s, Jordan sang in clubs and at jam sessions with some of the city's jazz giants, including Charles Mingus, Herbie Nichols, and Charlie Parker. In 1952, she married Parker's pianist, Duke Jordan. But the pianist was addicted to heroin and abandoned his family. Sheila Jordan worked for years as a secretary in an advertising firm but she still managed to keep the music in her life by singing in clubs and churches.
In 1962, with her first recording, she showed her vocal finesse with a ten-minute version of "You Are My Sunshine" on George Russell's album,The Outer View. Thanks to Russell, she released her first album, Portrait of Sheila, on Blue Note, and became the first female vocalist to record for the label. Jordan became a member of the Steve Kuhn Quartet. And is the pioneer in bass/voice duo in jazz.
From the late 1970s until 2005, Jordan taught jazz vocal workshops at the City College of New York. She continues to run workshops both locally and internationally. Sheila Jordan has received several honors, including the 2008 Mary Lou Williams Award for a Lifetime of Service to Jazz and now she's been named an NEA Jazz Master.
I spoke with Sheila Jordan the day after the 2012 Jazz Masters Award Ceremony and concert, I began our conversation by asking her when she left her job at the advertising agency at the age of 58 did she ever anticipate her career blossoming as it has.
Sheila Jordan: Oh my God, no. No, no. But you know, I never expected too much. All I wanted to do was just do the music and keep the music alive and be the messenger of the music either by singing it or going out to hear it or listen to it. Or teaching it, which I got into teaching. Which was a wonderful turn in my lifetime. I never in my life thought I was going to get this far with it. The advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach was a great creative advertising agency. And when they merged with another advertising agency they gave me the option of either staying there with them and floating around being a typist or they gave me a years severance pay because I'd been there for some many years and said "You can come back." I started to cry, I was so upset. I said "I'm losing my job." But I was always singing. I always sang. I always found places to sing that's what I try to tell the young people today that I teach. You will find a place to sing if you really want it. Even though you have to support the music until it can support you. And that's what I did. So at 58 that's when it happened. They said I could either stay there or take the money. And when I started to cry then a little voice came in my head and said "Why are you crying? You've been praying to sing more all these years now go out and do it and shut up." <Laughs> and that's what I did. And I have never looked back.
Jo Reed: That's great.
Sheila Jordan: It is, it is. I am so blessed.
Jo Reed: You sang when you were a kid?
Sheila Jordan: Yes.
Jo Reed: You always sang.
Jo Reed: Partly, it's because it's what you did, but partly it was sort of like chasing the blues away.
Sheila Jordan: Yes. I was a very unhappy little kid because of the surroundings. The poverty and the coalmines and the miners and the mine explosions. And everything that was going on. And then unfortunately some in my family like my grandfather who raised me until I was 14, he had the disease of alcoholism. It is a disease I found out years later. But I used to sing to keep myself happy, or connected I should say too. And I used to have to go to the store and pass a graveyard and I was so terrified of this graveyard you know? So I'd sing to the top of my lungs until I got past the graveyard.
Jo Reed: Now you were born in Detroit?
Jo Reed: How did you end up in Pennsylvania?
Sheila Jordan: Well my mother was very young when she had me and my father didn't stay with her. He went on and married another woman after he divorced her. I think he married her to give me a name. She couldn't raise me, she was like 17. She was so young so she sent me back to Pennsylvania and my grandmother and grandfather raised me.
Jo Reed: And did you hear music in that house?
Sheila Jordan: Well not all the time because if the light bill wasn't paid we didn't get electricity. So sometimes we'd have electricity if my grandfather saved enough money after his drinking period. He'd get paid and he'd drink and sometimes he'd pay the bill and sometimes he wouldn't. And so if he had paid the bill then they had the hit parade. That was wonderful that they had the hit parade. But we didn't really have electricity most of the time and we didn't have water inside and we didn't have a toilet inside. And we didn't have heat inside. We heated by a coal stove and wood stove.
Jo Reed: And Pennsylvania gets cold.
Sheila Jordan: Oh my God! I guess so. Yes it was very cold.
Jo Reed: Course Detroit isn't exactlyâ¦warm.
Sheila Jordan: Yes, but at least when I moved back to Detroit at 14 we had heat and running water and a toilet and a bathtub <laughs>. Oh my God. We used to bathe only on Saturday and then you'd have to bathe in the same water as one of the other kids <makes a growling sound>. I hated that.
Jo Reed: You moved back to Detroit, you were 14. When did you discover jazz?
Sheila Jordan: I was in high school. There was a jukebox downstairs and outside of the school, in a hamburger joint I should say, and they had a jukebox. And I saw this one recording. I said "Oh, Charlie Parker and his Re-Boppers. That looks interesting." And so I put my nickel in, I think it was a nickel. And I put my nickel in and up came Bird and his Re-Boppers playing "Now's The Time". I'll never forget it. Changed my whole life.
Jo Reed: Perfect title for your epiphany.
Sheila Jordan: Yes. "Now's The Time", he was playing it. I got thrilled. I was thrilled, like when something thrills you and you get chilled, your back and your arms have hair. The hair raises on your arms. And that was it, four notes.
Jo Reed: Do you know what it was that thrilled you?
Sheila Jordan: I think it was probably the emotion that Bird played with. The unbelievable emotion and just the way he played. Aside from his technique was fantastic. How he played those runs so fast I'll never know. But it was more than that, it was heavier than just the technique. I could hear Charlie Parker. And I knew at that point in my life that he was talking to me. Even though I didn't know him at that time. I of course knew him years later. But I said "This is talking to me. He's talking to me." And I got the message that this is the kind of music I should devote my life to and that's what I did.
Jo Reed: So what did you do next Sheila?
Sheila Jordan: I wanted to find the places where this music was. And of course it was all in the Afro American areas (of Detroit) and very prejudiced there. I mean, oh my God! I couldn't take it. My first boyfriend was Frank Foster so we had a place together, a little room together. And when Frank went into the Korean War I moved to New York.
Jo Reed: People forget how the racial tension was in Detroit in the â40s--
Sheila Jordan: Oh! Well of course they had terrible race riots. And I remember I didn't care. I said "I'm going to dedicate myself to this music." And I think somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it wasn't going to be easy because of the racial prejudice. I got taken to the police station more times than I can count.
Jo Reed: For?
Sheila Jordan: For being with the people that I wanted to be with. I didn't know what color they were. They weren't color to me. They were human beings with souls and hearts and played the kind of the music that was their music that I wanted to learn. And that's how I looked at them.
Jo Reed: So if you were with black people on the street in Detroit cops would stop you?
Sheila Jordan: Oh God yes, all the time. Never stopped One time I know I was in a taxi with the two guys I used to sing with who taught me so much about scat singing, Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell. And they wrote a lot of lyrics to Bird tunes. And I was in a cab with them one time coming from a concert that we went to or a club-- I think it was a club. But we were in a cab and a cop car stopped us. And said to me "What are you doing with these two--" and used the N-word. I don't use that word, I hate that word. And I looked at him and I said "Oh, I can't be with my brothers?" And I know they use the term brother today, but in those days brother meant you were related, blood-wise to these two people. And the cop just said "Ah, go on." In other words, he thought what white person would want to say they were black in those days?
Jo Reed: You saw Charlie Parker perform in Detroit?
Sheila Jordan: Yes, when I was young. That's when I tried to get in to the club <laughs> when I was a teenager.
Jo Reed: And they wouldn't let you in?
Sheila Jordan: No. But he knew we were there. I forget, I think I was there with my friend Jenny, my friend Jenny King and I think Barry might have been there and Kenny Burrell. But we were sitting on garbage cans. And he knew we were there, I think he saw us through the door and when I saw him I was thrilled. I said "Oh, I wish I could be an ant and just crawl in and hear all this wonderful music that I love so much." But he opened up the door.
Jo Reed: So you could hear him? When you moved to New York Sheila, how did you catch up with Charlie Parker?
Sheila Jordan: Well I went to Birdland because when he used to come to Detroit the few times, me and Skeeter and Mitch, these two guys I sang with, we would get him during intermission and sing one of his tunes in his ear. And one of the greatest compliments I ever got in my life was he said "You know what kid? You have million dollar ears." That's what he said to me. And I said "Oh my. Whoa. Really?" I thought to myself, coming from my idol, this genius.
Music up and hotâ "Confirmation"
And so when I came to New York, I started going out with Duke Jordan because by that time Frank and I were sort of separated. So I started going out with Duke Jordan and of course Duke played piano for Charlie Parker and so Bird remembered me. He said "I remember you. You're the kid with the million dollar ears." And then we became very good friends. Duke and I didn't stay together that long, he was back and forth, back and forth. But I finally got a loft on 26th street right off of 8th avenue and I used to have sessions up there. And there was a wonderful painter that lived next door to me, Virginia Cock. She was originally from Detroit. And there were painters that lived downstairs. And it was like a really artistic building and we had a great landlord at the time. But, Bird came to one of these sessions with a painter friend of mine. And he remembered me again and he started coming by. And he became a very frequent visitor and he knew that he could come to my house and lay down if he was tired, if he got in a fight with his wife or she'd get angry with him. Which that's understandable.
Jo Reed: He was fighting addiction.
Sheila Jordan: Yes, he was. But he never tried to turn me on to drugs. If anything he encouraged me not to even go that route. He said "This is something you don't want to do Sheila. You don't want to do this." And so what's what happened. Of course I didn't-- I would always be home if he'd come up usually. Well I was still working a day job typing in the advertising agency. I think I was at that advertising agency. But he would always come up to my house when he needed a place to rest. And I had a bed, like a couch almost.
Jo Reed: Like a daybed?
Sheila Jordan: A daybed! That's what it was, right. I had a daybed and I called it Bird's bed <laughs>.
Jo Reed: Tell me what you learned from Charlie Parker.
Sheila Jordan: Well some of the things I didn't learn was to stay away from alcohol and drugs. I should have learned that from him but I didn't. But luckily I found a solution 26 years ago.
Jo Reed: And you went to AA?
Sheila Jordan: Yes. I'm in program. I'm always in program, it saved my life. And I want to give back. But what did I learn from Bird? I learned to sing what I felt. But I also learned to sing the melody of the tune. To learn the melody of the tune. Because I know Bird, he would say "Do you know this song?" And I'd say "I don't know." And so then he'd play it and then I'd sing it and he'd say "Yes, there's a couple notes in here though, get them right." So I remember that.
Jo Reed: So it's almost like you learned the melody as the-- you have to have the foundation of the melody. And then you can move from there.
Sheila Jordan: Yes, that's right. You want to be able to take off and land. And you can't land if you don't have a landing field. That's how I look at it or see it or feel it. And so I always learned the melody of the tune as written first. But what I learned from Bird is the fact that he was so giving, he was so giving. I never saw anybody be so open to young musicians. I remember when I first came to New York and Frank came to New York on leave and he called me. And I said "Why don't you come over? I'm going down to hear Bird tonight?" By this time I was very friendly with Bird. And he said "Oh, that'd be great." I said "Bring your horn Frank." So he brought his horn and he came by and we went down to hear Bird at Birdland. And Bird came off the set and he saw me and came over to give me big kiss. And I said, "This is Frank Foster and he's a wonderful saxophone player, tenor sax." And Bird said "Oh." And I said "Bird can he sit in?" And he said "Yes!" But Bird was always like that. He'd see me at his gigs and he'd say "Come on up and sing a tune." Just like that, he was very open about that, encouraging. He was encouraging, that's what he did. And so Frank got up and played and after it was all over he kept playing. Frank kept playing with him for the whole set almost. So then when the set was over Bird came over to me and he said "Boy, that soldier guy sure can play." I said "I told you Bird." <Laughs>.
Jo Reed: What was that jazz scene in New York like when you arrived here?
Sheila Jordan: It was very thrilling. It was so thrilling. There was an energy that I don't have today. I had that energy last night though. At the awards I felt that energy. Now I don't know if that's because of the older musicians or what it is. But I felt it last night. But there was a certain energy that I find missing today. I hope it comes back again. But it was a special energy, a special feeling.
Jo Reed: I've heard musicians say that there was a camaraderie among musicians then.
Sheila Jordan: Yes. And they were very encouraging. very encouraging, then.
Jo Reed: Whereas now it seems a little more detached, a little more sterile perhaps?
Sheila Jordan: Yes and a lot of it has do with the teaching. I hate to put some of the teaching down but a lot of things happen in teaching. And some of it, teachers can break students spirits and they can be on power trips. You can't tell somebody "That's horrible. Why don't you know how to play this right?" I don't teach my students like that, I don't want to break their spirit. That's not what I'm here for. I want to encourage them. Of course they're not going to play it right, it's all new to them. A lot of times I think that a lot of the--especially a lot of the horn players, they learn exercises. All of these exercises. They have no place to try out ideas, like sessions.
Jo Reed: Like your loft?
Sheila Jordan: That's right, exactly. And they can't try out ideas and trade ideas with one another. So if they do go to a session or they do get a gig it's like playing a lot of exercises. They're almost afraid to give of themselves. And this isn't everybody, don't get me wrong. But they're almost afraid. And even though they have a lot of emotion and feeling inside I think they've been-- what is the word I want to use? It's like they've been told not to do that. Discouraged I'd say. They've been discouraged by not playing it right or trying an idea and "What are you doing? Are you kidding?" You don't talk to young people like that. So they haven't had a really good chance to go out there and try and fall on their face. That's the fun. I'm still falling on my face. I fell on my face last night <laughs>.
Jo Reed: I missed it.
Sheila Jordan: Well I didn't <laughs>. I fell on my face a couple of times but you know, I learned from that. I didn't know the Ornette Coleman composition. I didn't have the music for it, nobody sent me the music. Nobody's fault, but I didn't know it. I knew it was a 12 bar blues but singing the line was difficult because I wasn't sure. So I fell on my face a little bit and I picked myself up and I came home and even though it was quite late I put the recording on and I said "I'm going to learn this baby." And I did <laughs>. Better late than never <laughs>. So it's that kind of thing. I want to fall on my face sometimes. I want to improve what I do, I want to stretch out what I do.
Jo Reed: It's not about being perfect.
Sheila Jordan: No. God no. Oh no. Who can be perfect? Right?
Jo Reed: You were singing at Page Three, which is a club in the village, when George Russell comes walking through the door and the result was you recording "You Are My Sunshine" on his album The Outer View. But there's a story about how that happened. Tell us.
Sheila Jordan: <Laughs> George came down on a Monday night, which was called Jam Session Night at the Page Three. And usually it was great because we had piano, bass and drums. And one of the piano players on this specific night was Jack Reilly who was a student of George Russell's. And he came down to hear Jack. And so Jack was playing and I got up and sang my three tunes that I usually do every other set and after I was finished during the break George came over to me and he said "Where do you come from to sing like that?" And I was trying to be funny, I said "I come from Hell." Meaning, I have to do this. He said "I'm very interested in what you're doing." I said "Really?" He said "Yes, so can I have your telephone number?" And I said "Oh yes, that's a good way to come on." <Laughs> But I gave him my telephone number and then Jack told me what a great, great artist and composer he was which I found out later he was a genius. And so we became very close friends and he called me up and asked me to come down. But before that he said "I would like to see where you come from in the coalmining area." I said "Really? It's very depressing." He said "I'd like to go back there." So we drove back to Pennsylvania near Scoopytown Ehrenfeld where the coalmines are. And my grandmother was still alive so she said "Let's go up and have a drink at The Buhnt." This was a private club for miners. So we went up there and there was only one miner sitting at the bar. And so my grandmother was introducing us and saying we were these great big celebrities from New York. I said "Mom, not me. Him, but not me." And the miner looked up at me, I'll never forget his face. It was down and out. He said, "Well do you still sing "You Are My Sunshine," Jeanie?" And that was my nickname. At the time I hated Sheila, it was too strange back in this little town. "Do you still sing "You Are My Sunshine" Jeanie?" I said "Oh no, I don't sing that anymore." And George Russell said "Why not?" No the coalminer said "Why not?" And then George said "Why not?" I said "Well--." So he went up to this old, out of tune upright piano and started playing it and I started signing it for this coalminer. And my grandmother literally pushed him off the bench and said, "That's not the way it goes." And she played it. And so when she played it I sang with her. We came back to New York and I don't remember how long afterwards, not too long afterwards George called me up. He said "Come down, I want you to hear something." So I went down and he played this incredible introduction. It was incredible.
"You are My Sunshine" instrumental intro. up and hot
It was incredible. And then he stopped. And he said "Sing." I said "Sing what?" He said "Sing "You Are My Sunshine"." I said "Are you kidding? With no background? Nothing?" He said "You always sang alone with nobody playing for you when you were a kid so do it now." I said "Oh my God, I don't know if I can do that." He said "Yes you can." He encouraged me and so I started to sing it.
"You are My Sunshine" â vocals.
You are my sunshine, My only sunshine, You make me happy, When skies are grey,
You'll never know, dear,â¨How much I want you.â¨Please, don't take my sunshine away
The other nite, dear,â¨As I lay sleepingâ¨I dreamed I held you in my arms.â¨When I awoke, dear,â¨I was mistakenâ¨And I hung my head and cried.
We went into the studio and we recorded it. He wanted it to be called "A Drinking Song". For the coalminers. That's who he wrote it for. The arrangement that we do and me singing it is for the out of work, coalminers of Pennsylvania. But he couldn't change the title so we kept it Sunshine. But originally he wanted to call it "A Drinking Song." And that was the story of Sunshine.
Jo Reed: You are one of the people who pioneered-- well you're not one of the people, you did pioneer--
Sheila Jordan: Bass and voice?
Jo Reed: Bass and voice! What made you choose this format and what does it give you?
Sheila Jordan: Well I thought a long time ago in the early â50s, the first person I ever sang a tune with, out in public was Charles Mingus. I was in Toledo visiting my half sisters and we went to a jazz club, the one sister and myself, Donna and myself, because Charlie Mingus was in town. And I knew Charles from New York. And what happened was he had finished the set and they said to me after the set "Come on up and sing something." I said "With you? Just you and the drums? You have no piano, there's no guitar?" He said "That doesn't bother you when you're studying up at Lennie's." I said "I can't do that." He said "Yes you can." So I got up and that's the first time I ever sang with just Charles and it was on "Yesterdays" one tune. But I had the feeling of doing the bass and voice in the â50s from singing with Peter Ind and a few other bass players who were students at Lennie Tristanos. I like the sound of the bass. I might be a frustrated bass player, I don't know. I don't have any time now left to find out <laughs>. But I love the bass and voice and I love the space. I loved the space and I loved working off the silence.
Jo Reed: You know it sounds like it gives you a lot of space but there's also nowhere to hide.
Sheila Jordan: That's right. You're out in the open and I love challenge <laughs>.
Jo Reed: You must. Tell me, when did you start teaching and how did that come to be?
Sheila Jordan: It all started with Ed Summerlin. He asked me to come up and do a little concert for City College and I went up there with a trio and we did about an hour concert. And then afterwards John Lewis was there, he was still alive, and so John and Eddie came over to me and Eddie said "You know, you ought to teach here." And the classical teacher was there, Janet Steel. She said "Yes, we need to get you up here to do a workshop." I said "Are you kidding?" She said "No." I said "I don't know how to teach. I don't play the piano, I'm not technically that into the music." And so John said "Teach the way you sing. Just teach you. Teach what you do." And that's what Eddie said to me, Ed Summerlin. He said "You'll be fine." So I learned to teach from teaching. And I was terrified the first day I went in to teach. But I was just very honest with the kids. I heard them sing, I gave them some constructive criticism. And it's been a beautiful experience for me. And I don't know, I just try to teach from my heart and give them the support that I think that they need. I love to see young people out there keeping this music alive. It just thrills me.
Jo Reed: I know your goal was not to be a star but to keep the music alive.
Sheila Jordan: That's it.
But it still must be so gratifying to have gotten this acclaim from the NEA. But also to be able to support yourself by singing.
Sheila Jordan: Yes. Well now I can do that. That along with my Social Security. Well yeah, I'm doing okay. To keep the music alive is what it's all about to me. If I lost my voice tomorrow and couldn't sing tomorrow does that mean I'd give up? No. I'd keep teaching or I'd keep supporting both. Like going out and hearing music and giving moral support. This music, I live with it 24 hours a day. It never leaves me, it's always with me. From the time I get up in the morning until I go to bed. I think I even dream about it, I'm sure it's with me when I dream. So that's what it's all about for me. No divas, none of that stuff. I don't want that. That's not what I am. And I'm not putting it down. I am not putting a diva down. I'm just not comfortable with that term. I just want to be a messenger of the music. That's what I'm here for.
Jo Reed: Aww Sheila, thank you so much. And many congratulations truly <clapping>. Thank you.
Sheila Jordan: Thanks so much, thanks everybody for your belief and it's been a thrill.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That was singer and 2012 Jazz master, Sheila Jordan.
You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Confirmation" from the album, Confirmation, music by Charlie Parker, performed by Sheila Jordan, used courtesy of Test of Time Records.
Excerpt from "Hum Drum Blues" from the album Portrait of Sheila, composed by Oscar Brown Jr. and performed by Sheila Jordan, used courtesy of Blue Note Records.
Excerpt from "Falling in Love with Love" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, performed by Sheila Jordan, used courtesy of Blue Note records
Excerpt of "You Are My Sunshine" from the album, The Outer View, composed by Jimmie Davis and performed by the George Russell Sextet featuring Sheila Jordan, used courtesy of Concord Music Group.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes Uâjust click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, we kick off jazz appreciation month with pianist and jazz master, Ahmad Jamal.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Additional Credits: Publishing
"Hum Drum Blues" from the album Portrait of Sheila, composed by Oscar Brown Jr. used by permission of Edward B. Marks Music Company (BMI) and Bootblack Publishing Co. (BMI)
"Confirmation" from the album, Confirmation, composed by Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell and music by Charlie Parker, used by permission of Atlantic Music Corp. (BMI)
"You Are My Sunshine" from the album, The Outer View, composed by Jimmie Davis used by permission of Peer International Corp. (BMI)
"Falling in Love with Love" written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart used by permission of Warner Chappell Publishing (ASCAP) and Boosey and Hawkes/Imagem (ASCAP)