Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown
Sunday, March 8th, 8 p.m.| Morris Graves Museum of Art
"An accomplished and exploratory jazz singer…whose approach to jazz skews nearly kaleidoscopic."
—Nate Chinen, New York Times
"She's not an impressionist so much as a medium, channelling the jazz of the past through an imagination that constantly reinvents its own material."
—Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings
There aren’t many of them left, the Old Masters. Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Jimmy and Tootie Heath…all in their 80s, all still working. But they keep leaving us, and—well, not to be too morbid about it—we’d like to catch them before they go. Luckily for us, as her agent put it, the octogenarian vocalist Sheila Jordan “doesn’t feel age.”
As a teenager in 1940s Detroit, Jordan heard Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” on a jukebox at a hamburger joint near her high school. “I heard three notes of that tune,” she once recalled, “and I said that’s the kind of music I’m going to dedicate my life to.” (She keeps an old 78 of “Now’s the Time” on the wall of her home in Middleburgh, New York.)
By the early ‘50s she had moved to New York, where she studied with Lennie Tristano and performed with other idiosyncratic geniuses like Charles Mingus and Herbie Nichols. As jazz historian and critic Kevin Whitehead tells it: when Tristano gave Jordan her first assignment—memorize a Parker solo—she sang him one on the spot. She formed an especially close friendship with Parker (Bird told her she had “million-dollar ears”), and married his former pianist Duke Jordan in 1952.
Jordan made her breakthrough with a strikingly melancholy ten-minute version of “You Are My Sunshine” on George Russell’s The Outer View in 1962. Soon after, Blue Note Records issued her own debut album, A Portrait of Sheila, the first female vocal recording on that iconic label. But because Jordan was a working single mother, her career developed slowly. In the 1970s she toured and recorded with trombonist Roswell Rudd, and in the ‘80s she formed a quartet with pianist Steve Kuhn. But she’s been singing full-time only since 1987, when at age 58 she quit her day job at an ad agency. (“You have to support the music,” she has said, “until it can support you.”)
Her true love? The low end. “I love to flirt with the bass,” she once told Jazz Times. “I love to dance with the bass. I love to sing with the bass. Sometimes I even think it’s playing itself.” Her first voice-bass performance was in 1954 in Toledo with Charles Mingus; her first recording, in 1977 with Arild Anderson. But her most famous pairing was with bassist Harvie Swartz (later Harvie S), a sympathetic partnership that lasted fifteen years and a half-dozen albums. Since 1997, though, her musical other half has been Cameron Brown, who has accompanied everyone from Chet Baker to Archie Shepp (although he may be best known for his tenure in the Don Pullen/George Adams quartet). Brown first played with Jordan as part of a quartet on her 1975 album Confirmation. “Her voice and the bass almost become one thing,” he said, in that same Jazz Times story. “It feels like she gets inside the sound—that’s what she wants to do.”
In 1963, Jordan took the “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition” category in the DownBeat Critics’ Poll for what would be the first of a record nine times. Late in her career, the recognition finally broadened. In 2008 she received the Mary Lou Williams Award for a Lifetime of Service in Jazz, and in 2012 she was named an NEA Jazz Master, the nation’s highest distinction for the art form.
Jordan has often said that her purpose in singing is to be a “messenger of the music.” Her voice is singular: “small and fragile,” Kevin Whitehead calls it, but emotionally direct, with a deep bebop sensibility. For some, she’s an acquired taste. But she is hugely influential, revered by an entire generation of vocalists as varied as Theo Bleckmann and Kitty Margolis. Kurt Elling praises her as “a liberated jazz singer of the finest kind.”
Over the decades, Sheila Jordan has taken her message of musical liberation far and wide—including, notably, to the classroom. In 1978, she began teaching occasionally at the City College of New York, where she stayed until 2005. She has also been on the faculty of Jazz in July at U Mass-Amherst and of the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, Vermont, and she has inspired countless participants in her vocal jazz workshops across the country and around the world. (“I put my heart into it,” she says, “the same as I do when I'm singing.”) Just last November, she conducted a master class as part of a residency with Paris’s GPSO Big Band. She may be getting on in years, but as the title of her recently published biography suggests, she’s still a Jazz Child at heart.
(Adapted from the NEA)
Tickets ($15 General Admission, $10 Students & Seniors) are available here at our website and (soon!) at People's Records, Wildwood Music, Wildberries, and The Works.
Sheila Jordan will also present an open public workshop at 12:00 noon on Monday, March 9th in Music "A" 131 on the HSU campus. People of all levels of experience are welcome to attend, and admission is FREE.
Words & Pixels:
Video (see also at left):
Audio (see also at left):
Additional support for this show comes from Coast Central Credit Union, Holly Yashi, KHSU, Libation Wine Shop and Wine Bar, Paul Nicholson State Farm Insurance, Sewell Gallery of Fine Art, Tomo Japanese Restaurant, and Zwerdling Bragg Mainzer & Firpo LLP.