With “La La Land” tapping into theaters around the country and a strong contender for this year’s Oscars, we wanted to re-visit one of the quintessential American art forms: jazz. And nobody sings jazz better, or more distinctly, than Sheila Jordan. We talk to Jordan and her biographer about Jordan’s rise, the racism that jazz musicians – both black and white – experienced, and the need to preserve from poverty to her career singing with some of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century this music for future generations.
Gary Price: There’s no mistaking it…that’s jazz. The rhythm, the vocal styling, the bass all point to that quintessential American music genre. And the vocalist behind the tune is Sheila Jordan, who has been singing the standards – and the not-so-standards – in her own unique style for nearly seven decades. Jordan is not only a singer, but also a songwriter and jazz innovator. Jordan’s life in music piqued the interest of writer and musician Ellen Johnson, who thought it was a great story that needed to be told.
Ellen Johnson: I actually didn’t make the decision to write about her. It just kind of came out of a situation of wanting to have a story written about her and nothing was happening, so I sort of flippantly said, “Well, then I’ll write it.” Here I am.
Price: Johnson’s biography of the singer is titled “Jazz Child: A portrait of Sheila Jordan.” We talked to Johnson and Sheila Jordan, herself, about Jordan’s decision to become a singer, her inspirations, innovations, the jazz lifestyle, and her battles with racism, drugs and alcohol. Born Sheila Jeanette Dawson in Detroit in 1928, she was sent to live with her grandparents in a poor coal-mining town in Pennsylvania because her mother couldn’t take care of her. Johnson says that the singer’s life was not a happy one, and she turned to music to survive the tough times.
Johnson: Because she grew up in poverty, really intense poverty, and she felt ostracized as a child, I think the music became such a significant part of keeping her going, giving her something to believe in, and it kind of saved her life. And I think what she found, jazz music, and particularly, the music of Charlie Parker at the time. She was looking for something to inspire her, to take her through these tough times. Even though as a child she didn’t have it, as a child she sang and it was in her. So I think the music has been the string that has held her, throughout her life, together, and all these really tough times.
Price: At the beginning, Jordan says she didn’t really know about jazz – she just liked to sing and to watch her favorite stars dance at the movies.
Sheila Jordan: I was just singing the songs of the day like those Fred Astaire tones, you know. Because I loved Fred Astaire when I was a little kid. Oh, I’d walk two miles if I could get money from scrubbing this woman’s floor for her; she was crippled and I would scrub her floor as a little kid – and we’re talking big floors, long floors, and then, she would give me money and I would walk two miles to see Fred Astaire and Roger Moody. That’s before I heard Charlie Parker. Those songs stayed in my head. Actually the songs of the day when I was growing up were all these beautiful, standard tunes like Gershwin and Cole Porter, and all these great composers, you know.
Price: The turning point in her life in music was when she moved back to Detroit to live with her mother. Jordan was 14 and loved listening to the jukebox.
Jordan: I always, you know, had a nickel or whatever. I saw that Charlie Parker and his Beboppers on the jukebox, and I didn’t know what kind of music I wanted, I just loved to sing. I put a nickel and played that tune and I, four notes, and I tell you, you know that expression, “your skin crawls”? My skin was crawling and I said, “That’s the music that I’ll dedicate my life to.” I loved this music – whether I sing it or teach it or just go out and hear it. It’s still wonderful, wonderful music.
Price: Jordan says she could identify with the music because she could put all of her pain and joy into it. Charlie “Bird” Parker was her idol, and a great saxophonist. She was enthralled by his talent and ability to innovate, despite the demons that plagued him and other jazz musicians.
Jordan: He was this great innovator of bebop music and he was a genius. Nobody played like him. Not only did he have the depth and soul playing what he felt, but also he had this incredible technique. I mean, he would like whiz through these notes like a bird singing. It was incredible what he did. To watch him play and never, ever, ever missing a note – it was like amazing. I couldn’t believe it and on top of all of this, he had this terrible, cunning, baffling, powerful disease of drug addiction and alcohol. So that’s pretty amazing. I mean, he was only 34 years old when he died.
Price: Jordan moved from Detroit to New York City in the early 1950s, partly to follow parker and study music, but also because she thought the environment would be more welcoming to a white woman who performed with and befriended black musicians. Johnson says the attitude about interracial mingling then was very different then than it is today.
Johnson: Well it was terrible. I mean you could be killed. I think the people today – even though we still have racism – they don’t have those kinds of issues. You can be with a person of another culture. Back then you could be killed for that. Back then, you were ostracized for that. So the thing that I really admire about Sheila was that she had tremendous courage to stay with what she believed to be true. Even though she wasn’t getting the support. And she was beat up, pulled over by the police and just horrible things that happened to her, but she never stopped believing that this was the right thing.
Price: Jordan says that although in New York there were more people who were accepting of blacks and whites together, it was no interracial utopia by any means. She tells the story of almost being killed as she stood in front of her apartment with two African-American friends.
Jordan: We had dinner, we were coming back, I sat in front of my house and four white guys jumped us. In New York! I tried to get away from this and here it is in New York. The three guys held my friends up against the wall and the other guy threw me down on the sidewalk, kicked me in my face, knocked my tooth out, kicked me in my ribs, was ready to kill me, and all of a sudden, this guy walks across the street fully dressed in a suit and an overcoat with a gun, pointing the gun – I thought at me – and I said, “I’m going to die over this. He’s going to kill me.”
Price: Fortunately the gunman was a plainclothes police officer who rescued her from the attack. During her time in New York, Jordan married Charlie Parker’s piano player, Duke Jordan and had a daughter, Tracy. The marriage didn’t last, but Jordan continued in her career, singing, recording and trying out new musical styles. Charlie Parker wasn’t the only innovator in jazz at the time. Jordan created the “bass – voice duet” that Johnson says is one of the singer’s trademarks.
Johnson: Sheila does a complete bass and voice concert of material that’s specifically arranged for bass and voice, and I do feel that that’s one of her innovations that she’s brought to this music. That was my attraction to her because I liked singing with the bass and voice, and I had never heard anybody do it to the extent that she did it.
Price: That song, “The Crossing,” holds a special significance for Jordan. She is a 29-year recovering alcoholic who gave up the bottle when she realized she was wasting her musical gifts.
Jordan: “The Crossing” is written for my recovery from alcoholism and drugs. I never got into heroin or the shooting drugs, but I did get into cocaine use. I had a spiritual awakening, and it was very strong and powerful and I was coming out of a sort of like a hangover. And the voice said to me, “I gave you a gift and if you don’t take care of that gift, I’m going to take it away and give it somebody else.” So this voice was not a voice, voice, but this message, and I jumped off the couch and said, “Oh my god. Where does that come from?” And it was so prominent and so strong that I knew that I had to do something about my problem. And I did.
Price: Jordan’s “scat” singing – that is improvising melodies and lyrics that aren’t really words – is amazing. It’s a difficult thing for any singer to do, but Jordan makes it sound effortless.
Price: This is the music that Jordan wants to preserve for future generations. She conducts workshops and teaches a bit, and Johnson says she does it to bring the message and the history of jazz to the public. Jordan adds that it’s a piece of Americana that we can’t let fall by the wayside.
Johnson: Her teaching comes out of her desire to want to share this music. It’s so important to her that people get this message from someone who’s been there. She’s a mentor to many, many, many, many singers and instrumentalists around the world, and I think it’s very important for her to get that message out and share her experiences, and in a way, she’s a link to this past. When we hear her stories, we’re there with Charlie Parker, we’re there with, you know, Horace Silver, we’re there with all the people, that, you know, Don Cherry, that she sings about – cause even when she sings on stage, it’s almost like a history lesson in a way because she brings all these people’s stories. Miles Davis – there’s a beautiful ballad she does for Miles Davis – and so I think her mentorship for people around the world is significant because, look, she’s the real deal on how to swing. She’s the real deal on singing bebop. I mean you can listen to a recording, but there’s a woman who learned it from the source.
Jordan: I just want to keep this message of jazz music alive, and how beautiful it is. Hey listen, this is the only American music that we can call our own, and still it’s like the stepchild of American music. It doesn’t make sense.
Price: You can read all about Sheila Jordan, and the rough road jazz musicians and singers walked to create their music, in Ellen Johnson’s biography, Jazz Child: A portrait of Sheila Jordan, available in stores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her website, jazzchildthebook.com, and Jordan’s site at SheilaJordanjazz.com. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpointsonline.net. I’m Gary Price.