The masterclass of Sheila Jordan

I know Sheila Jordan he made a deal with the devil, he seems to have made a good deal. At 82, the most intrepid vocalist in jazz sounds like a woman half her age.

She has surpassed almost everything that life can offer: between grueling rural poverty, violent policemen who harassed her for dating black men, scrambling for decades for concerts in the dark and their own demons driven by alcohol.

None of this discouraged her. Today she is practically the only survivor of the bebop era, and at every concert she sings the praises for her late friend Charlie Parker. In many ways Jordan sought and wanted greatness. Born Sheila Jeanette Dawson to a single teenage mother and raised in the Pennsylvania coal region, she found a welcoming family in the Detroit bebop scene in the mid-1940s.

Being a young white woman who frequented black jazz clubs, the aspiring singer was harassed by the Motor City cops and, urged by Parker, left for New York City in 1951.

“Those cops wouldn't stop me from taking calls,” Jordan says 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 difficult there too. There were a lot of obstacles along the way, but I knew it would be okay. This music has saved my life in many ways and still continues to save my life. "

Before universities deigned to teach jazz, he found a rigorous education in harmony and music theory by studying with bassist / composer Charles Mingus and pianist Lennie Tristano, a guru for many of the most adventurous improvisers of the time.

In 1952 she married the pianist Duke Jordan, who had played key bebop sessions with Parker for Dial (with whom she will divorce ten years later).
She found semi-regular gigs in a few small New York clubs and made her recording debut in 1962 when visionary pianist / composer George Russell recruited her to sing a surprisingly advanced chord of "You Are My Sunshine" for the 1962 session " The Outer View. " with the Riverside label.

That same year, Russell signed her to Blue Note, where she became the second woman to record for the label, with the classic album "Portrait of Sheila."
But having a daughter to raise, she put her jazz career on the back burner and started working in the research wing of the innovative advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (“Whenever they needed something with a jazz sound, they called me to record the commercial ").
Although the Blue Note album brought her a cult following, Jordan stopped recording for a decade, when she collaborated with other adventurers such as Carla Bley and Roswell Rudd.

In the late 1970s, Sheila Jordan began a tour with the Steve Kuhn Quartet, a relationship that led to a couple of acclaimed albums for ECM. During this same period he forged a powerful creative bond with the band of virtuoso bassist Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S), which led to touring and recording together for an unprecedented duet.

Jordan's belated career explosion got a boost when he lost his job with Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1986; this allowed her a greater artistic freedom.
"At the moment I started crying but then a voice said to me: 'You prayed for the opportunity to sing more, so take the money and go," ’, he remembers. “I was 58 when it happened and I never looked back. And it got better and better. I got wonderful gigs and just got the NEA Jazz Masters, I'm still in shock. "

An extremely generous artist who has mentored generations of aspiring singers, Jordan has reinvented herself as an educator, launching the groundbreaking jazz singing program at the University of Graz in Austria with Mark Murphy. She continues to be a beacon for exploratory singers like Dominique Eade.

In concert, Sheila Jordan often appears as if she were prey of the moment, singing in scat and inventing the lyrics spontaneously. But she never goes on stage without a road map.
“I've always worked on a set,” he says. “I don't like getting up there and being unprepared. But within a piece, I go. I never force improvisation. All I know is that I am free. Improvising on chords. I have to thank Charlie Parker for that, for me singing ”.