Conversation with NEA Jazz Master, Sheila Jordan

Recently for my Jazz History class at school, I was tasked with interviewing a musician connected with the bebop movement. Sheila Jordan, a friend and mentee of Charlie Parker’s, Duke Jordan’s former partner, a former student of Lennie Tristano (said by Max Roach to be the leader of the “downtown” school of bebop), and of course, an incredibly studied and accomplished musician herself, seemed to be a perfect candidate. I was lucky enough to make contact with her, see her perform for her 90th birthday celebration at Blue Note NYC, and have a wonderfully enlightening conversation at her residence a few days later.

Photo from NewMusic USA

Sheila Jordan Interview – 11/28/2018

AZ: First question is, who were your largest influ-SJ: Charlie Parker. He was my one and only influence. I mean I loved all the guys in the bebop era: Bud Powell, Max Roach, Monk, Miles; my ex-husband was Duke Jordan so… I always tease and say I married Duke to get closer to Bird’s music haha, but that’s not true. But you know, I did meet him through Bird. Bird was my influence, was and still is. If it weren’t for Charlie Parker I wouldn’t be doing this music. I know that. Heard Bird when I was a teenager, on a recording called “Now’s The Time.” It was on a jukebox near my high school in Detroit, Michigan, and I put a nickel in and said, “oh I wonder what this sounds like” –cus I always sang as a little kid you know. I grew up in poverty, and I didn’t have a happy childhood so I was never happy unless I sang. And I put this nickel in and I heard 4 notes and I said, “oh my god what is that, it’s incredible.” I was shaking it was so incredible. I said I’ll dedicate my life to that music. Whether I sing it, teach it, or just go out and support it. It just got to me immediately and I’ve never looked back and I’ve never regretted.

AZ: That’s so beautiful. I’ve read that you cite Bird as one your mentors and performed with him, but I never was able to find any recordings.

SJ: Oh no, no, no. That doesn’t mean I recorded. I’ve recorded his compositions, “Confirmation.” I used to sing with 2 young guys in Detroit, 2 Afro-American guys, and we did all of Bird’s heads: “Confirmation”, “Anthropology”, you name it; we had all those heads down. But it was hard growing up in Detroit because it was very racially prejudiced. Being, you know, white, even though I am on my mother’s side Native American, the Seneca nation. That’s my grandmother up there (points to picture); she’s Queen Alliquippa of the Seneca nation. Even though, I had that, the cops were always taking me down, questioning me, why I was hanging out with Afro-American kids. I said, “I didn’t know they were a color? Color, what are you talking about, orange, pink, blue, green, what? Color?” You know, I was just hassling them. They said, “ahhh get out of here.” But it was hard, it was difficult, but the music was so important to me. I went to any lengths to keep it alive and still do to this day. So that’s how important Charlie Parker’s music was to me and music of bebop. Of course, I loved Dizzy, got to know Dizzy, got to know all those guys. But, I never sang with them, I mean I sat in at sessions, but I was never hired to be part of it. I was too young first of all and I wouldn’t have done it! I would’ve been too shy. So that’s what happened to me.

AZ: You mentioned the racial prejudice of the time; do you feel like that heavily influenced not just the business and social side of music, of course, but also the music itself?

SJ: Well I always say that I think of jazz music being treated as a stepchild of American music. Because they don’t respect it here the way they should, like they do in Europe you know Asia, all other countries love jazz. But they don’t respect it here as they should, that’s my feeling. It’s too bad because it’s a wonderful music and it’s great that people like yourself are going to school and learning it and supporting it, and you’ll be out there playing it one day for everybody to hear you know and that’s fantastic. I mean you might be doing it now, I don’t know, I’m just saying the fact that these young people coming up… and I started 2 workshops of this music. One in University of Massachusetts, Jazz in July it’s called, 2 weeks in the summer and also the Vermont Jazz Centre. I do one week up there in Putney, Vermont where all instrumentalists of all ages, young people, go and take a week and study with different artists. I started the first jazz vocal workshop in City College in 1978 and I was encouraged by the great John Lewis from the Modern Jazz Quartet. He said, “you need to come up here and teach,” because I did a little concert up there and the classical teachers said, “We have nothing like this up here for voice. Would you consider doing a workshop?” So and John said, “yeah do it.” I said, “John I can’t, I don’t have a degree in music.” He said, “it’s nothing to do with a degree. Teach what you know, teach what you feel, teach what you are.” And that’s what I did and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I don’t have a degree in music, no. It’s not about that. I mean this music started in the cotton fields with the slaves singing the blues because they worked endless hours picking cotton with very little food and no pay and they were slaves! So, I mean, you don’t get a degree in that! I know where it started and I know whose music it is. But I know that through my own background and upbringing I can identify with that music and be part of it even though it didn’t start in my culture. But I love it and I love what’s happening. The racial prejudice is getting a little better, not great, but it’ll take some time.

AZ: Do you think that jazz being created by young people today is still rooted in all that?

SJ: I hope so. I hope that they’re not being overly schooled in colleges. Everything is from the book. I hope that they have classes and encourage young musicians to go out there, fall on their faces, and take chances. Learning and doing, soloing and creating! I hope that’s what’s happening. That’s what I teach anyway, I teach, go out there and do it man! Just keep it alive, do it. You love it, you wanna do it? Support it until it supports you; it might never support you! But does that mean you give up something you love? God, I used to work for 6 dollars a night. By the time I paid a babysitter to take care of my little girl for 3-4 dollars and took a taxi cab home because I didn’t get out of the club until 4 in the morning, I had a dollar left! Big deal, but it wasn’t about the money because I had another job. I did another job to support the music. Typing and office work. You find a way.

AZ: Do you have a philosophy about why you do this?

SJ: I do it because it’s part of me! It’s part of my body, part of my heart, part of my soul. It’s part of me! I can’t imagine myself not being involved with this music in some kind of way. As I said, whether I’m teaching, singing, or going out and hearing it, it’s very much a part of what I am. It’s my extended arm, my extended voice you know. It’s very important. I’ve been digging this music since I was 14, when I first heard that record. It’s very important music and I just hope young people won’t get discouraged and give up. That’s what I tell all of the kids that I teach. It won’t be easy at first, sometimes it will, but surely it takes a little while. But as long you don’t give up, if you give up then that’s it. Then it’s over.

AZ: Speaking of schooling though, how long did you study with Lennie Tristano?

SJ: I studied with Lennie for 2 years I think maybe it was a little longer, but it was a good 2 years. He was a wonderful teacher; he gave me encouragement. My first lesson was Charlie Parker. He put it on, he said, “Ok this is your first lesson. I want you to learn Now’s The Time.” I said, “I know it.” He said, “Yeah? Well sing it.” So I sang and he said, “Oh, well you do know it.” Then he said, “Well how about Lester Young?” I said, “Oh no, no, no. I don’t know him, I don’t know his solos.” I know him but through Billie Holiday, and I love his playing but I don’t know his solos. So we started with Lester Leaps In (starts singing Lester Leaps In) so I had learn that and he was fun. But he encouraged me, he said be yourself, don’t take from anybody else. There are great singers out there that you can be easily influenced by, like Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday was my favorite. But the point is, why would I wanna sing like them? Why would I want to study them and not sing about my own personal endeavors and situations? I had a story to tell, so why would I want to take? I tell my kids that I teach: singers, don’t learn the song from a singer. Listen to the tune to be inspired but if you wanna sing that song, go get the original music and learn the exact melody the way it was written. That’s how you learn a tune, then you know it. Why would you want to sing like anybody else? Would I try to sing like Sarah Vaughan? I don’t think so. Not with a voice like hers, come on! And Lady Day? I mean I have my own pain that I grew up with, but I didn’t know Billie’s pain. I mean her soul was so deep. Ella Fitzgerald, who the hell is gonna scat like Ella Fitzgerald come on! She was the greatest scat singer ever. So I’m just saying, I teach them, be yourself. Be inspired by other singers, but don’t imitate them. Because then you’re not being you. That goes for horn players too, or piano, or rhythm section players. Be inspired but don’t copy!

AZ: Did you feel like all the players involved with the Tristano school, like Denzil Best from your first record and Konitz, did you feel like they were very original compared others on the scene?

SJ: I felt a lot of Lennie’s students tried to sound like him. I felt a lot of them even talked like him. He had a special way of talking. “Yeeaaah kid, yeahhh” (raspy voice) you know I can’t imitate it. But I’ve heard them speaking, I said, “damn they’re like imitating Lennie even when they speak!” But he had a lot of original players too. The greatest saxophone player, Warne Marsh! Warne Marsh is a killer! Never got the just recognition but people who know the music know Warne Marsh, and they know his music and they know how he played. Then Lee Konitz was with Lennie. Bird loved Lennie Tristano. He LOVED him!

AZ: Maybe we’ll talk a little more about your recording career, you mentioned on Monday that George Russell got you your first record date. Maybe you can elaborate on your relationship with George?

SJ: Okay, I met George at a club that I worked at where I was making 6 dollars a night, the one I told you about. It was called the Page Three. George Russell had a student of his who played the jam session on Monday night. The other nights it was just a lot of different singers. And I was the “New Note in Jazz,” so I did jazz, and one of the piano players who played for all the other kind of singers, the comedians, and that, not the jazz night but the rest of the week, Tuesday through Sunday, was Herbie Nichols. Yeah, he was great. But Monday night was jam session night and this one particular student of George Russell’s, Jack Riley, played for us but it was mostly session. I mean I was on it because I was into jazz. So George came in to hear his student and he heard me, and I didn’t know who he was. After I sang, he came over the table during break and he said, “Where do you come from, singing like that?” I said what is he kidding? I thought he was putting me down. I said, “I come from Hell” and he laughed. He said, “Really? I’d like to visit hell with you one day, can I have your number?.” I said, “Yeah.” So I gave him my number and we became very good friends and he was very kind. He helped get my daughter to school; he’d come up and pick her up in the morning and drive her to nursery school and kindergarten, he was wonderful. He said, “I would like to go back to where you grew up and see the coal mining area of Pennsylvania.” My grandmother was still alive at the time. I said, “Ok if you want to.” So we went back to the coal mining area and there was a club, a beer garden. But it was only for members, especially on Sunday, because you couldn’t sell alcohol in Pennsylvania on Sunday. Beer gardens weren’t open on Sunday but this place was open. So we went out to the Bount (the club) and all the miners were out of work. So no miners were there except one miner because they didn’t have any money to buy any booze. They were home waiting for the strike to be over. This one old miner was there and my grandmother she starts bragging, “Oh they’re wonderful, they’re famous, and blah blah blah from New York”. And I said, “Mom I’m not famous. George Russell is famous, but I’m not.” and the old miner remembered me as a kid. He said, “Oh yeah do you still sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’?”. I said, “No, I don’t sing that”. He said, “Why not?” and George Russell said, “Yeah why not?”. So there was an old terrible, out of tune, upright piano in the corner so George went over and he started playing you know, out.You know he was OUT, beautifully out and my grandmother stood there, watched him, and pushed him off the bench and said, “that’s not the way it goes!” So then she played for me, and I sang with her. And then George and I drove back to New York, we were only there for the weekend. We drove back to NY, he dropped me off, and he called me up about 1 or 2 weeks later and he said, “I want you to come down”. He lived on Banks street at the time which was very close, in the Village. He said, “I’d like you to come by. I want you to hear something, do you have time?” I said, “Yeah my daughter is still in nursery school.” He said, “that’s ok, I’ll get her for you, but I want you to hear something.” So I went down and he started to playing this incredible piano aaahhh out and it was beautiful. Then he stopped. He said, “ok, sing”. I said, “Sing? Sing what?” He said, “Sing ‘You Are my Sunshine’”. I said, “Well are you going to play for me?” He said, “No, no! Sing it alone.” Nobody had ever recorded singing alone, not in jazz, at that time; we’re talking about 1962. I said, “Alone?! With no accompaniment?”. He said, “Yes, I’m gonna fill in but I want to hear it.” So I sang it, 1st chorus. Then he said, “Ok I want to record this on Riverside. Would you let me record with you? Because if you don’t sing it then I don’t want to record it.” We wanted to call it “A Drinking Song” because it was all about the miner drinking, my grandmother drinking, and us both drinking, but they wouldn’t let him change the title. So he dedicated this particular composition to the out of work coal miners of that area of Pennsylvania. Because they weren’t working and they were very poor and it was very bad times for coal mining. So I went up and I recorded it and he had all these incredible horn things going on in the 2nd chorus when I sang. It started out with a beautiful saxophone solo by this, well he’s passed on, he was from Ohio somewhere: Paul Plumber. Lot of people never heard of him but he was incredible! But George had a knack for finding musicians and helping them. He was very responsible for bringing Bill Evans on the scene, not that Bill wouldn’t have eventually made it, but you know he was started. I don’t know if you ever heard Concerto for Billy the Kid with Bill Evans? It’s incredible!! You gotta get it, if you can’t get it, call me and I’ll play it for you. So George was famous for doing that. He was always looking for original kind of musicians or just who had a whole different sound. Anyway, he took me in to the studio and recorded it for Riverside. There were a number of his arrangements on it, but it was called The Outer View. And I said, “Wow ok.” Then he had a tape made of me, a demo tape, and he took it around. Took it to Quincy Jones –was an A&R man at the time at Mercury– and he took it to Blue Note. They both wanted me, but I signed with Blue Note. George picked Blue Note for me because they offered first. Then Quincy sent me a letter saying, “Oh I’m so sorry. I thought we would do this, maybe another time?” I thought, yeah (indistinguishable) now. But anyway, I recorded for Blue Note. I was the first singer on Blue Note; they didn’t record singers. That was all thanks to George Russell, who paid for the demo. And then after the recording date happened he said, “I want you to do this with guitar not piano, bass, and drums.” I said, “No, no, no, I couldn’t do that George.” He said, “yes you can.” That was not being done with singers yet. I’m pretty sure Ella didn’t even record with Joe Pass yet; it was very unique. I was glad I did it because I was so used to piano. Steve Swallow was on it! Acoustic bass! He was not into the electric bass yet, then a great drummer, Denzil Best. We recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studios. It was a great great engineer, kinda scary you know he was, “errr don’t do this, don’t touch that, errr” you know, but he was a nice cat. The Blue Note guys, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, were fantastic. Alfred Lion was very much in my corner. In fact there’s a movie out! A documentary on Blue Note!

AZ: It Must Schwing? You mentioned i-?

SJ: You know about it! You know about all this stuff! God bless you! Yeah, It Must Schwing, did you see it yet?

AZ: No, but you mentioned it before and I wrote it down

SJ: Yeah well you gotta see it. It was here for the film festival but I don’t know… Well, I hope somebody will pick it up because it was about their lives, and it was all jazz musicians before 1970. Anybody after ‘70 they didn’t interview. It was only before, because it had to be during the time of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. And what the two gentlemen went through, I mean they had a hard life trying to escape Hitler in Germany, it’s quite the story. So I was very honored to be on that and actually I went to the premiere in Munich, Germany; they sent for me. I walked the red carpet! And I got them Sonny Rollins! Sonny doesn’t like to do interviews you know. I called Sonny I said, “Sonny, they’ll come to you, they’ll come to your house” –cause he lives outside of New York City–, “You gotta do this, this is for Alfred.” All I had to mention was Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff and he said, “Oh! I’ll do it.” He’s in it, Ron Carter’s in it, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, a lot of the musicians are passed on now from that era, you know, but there was some of us. Lou Donaldson! He’s so funny. I was honored to be able to do that and I’ve been so honored by all of these incredible awards I’ve been getting. There’s a part of me that feels like I don’t deserve it, and I’m only doing something I really love and to keep it going and all of a sudden I’m getting –I just got the Satchmo award for teaching. I was freaked out. I said, “I don’t have a degree in music!” They said, “That’s not what it’s about. You supposedly have a very good reputation as a teacher.” I said, “I don’t know” but also, keeping jazz music alive. It was a combination of a few things you know. So I was very honored, that’s it. I can die peacefully. Knowing that, oh my god, I did my best to keep this music alive. I can die peacefully knowing that there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for this music to keep it alive, that’s what it means to me. And I really respect where you’re coming from cause you’re really into it I can tell.

AZ: Aw thank you, I’m trying to do the same, learning from people like you.

SJ: Well I know you are and that’s what’s so amazing. Who’s your teacher?

AZ: Jaleel Shaw

SJ: Who?

AZ: He’s a saxophonist who plays with Roy Haynes

SJ: Oh yeah, yeah with Roy! I knew Roy when he was with Bird. I met him in Detroit, always dressed incredible.

AZ: I don’t want to take too much more of your time. I just want to ask, which of your recordings, other than Portrait of Sheila, are you most proud of?

SJ: Do you know that I don’t even listen to myself? I only hear it when it’s finished to pick out the order and all that, and then I never listen again, because I’m too critical. “Ah I could’ve done this, ah I could’ve gone there”, and I don’t want to be in that, so I don’t listen, no. You know, I’m not really proud, I haven’t made it yet. I haven’t made the record I’m most proud of yet. I’ve recorded with Steve Kuhn and Kenny Barron. I’ve recorded with great musicians, and I’m the pioneer of the bass and voice. I started that in the early 50’s with Steve Swallow on acoustic bass when he was still playing acoustic bass. Actually, I wanted my Blue Note record to be bass and voice. They said, “I don’t think they’re ready for that yet.” haha. I just want to keep the music alive and keep the young people like yourself interested in it, be they singers or instrumentalists. It’s a hard road, but I’m here to tell you in the end, nothing in the world could buy it, nothing! It’s an incredible gift, and if you get on that jazz train, you will not get off. If you get on that jazz train, trust me, you won’t get off. Because there’s no music like it, and I’m talking about the listening, not about my own music. But the cats like Bird, I mean oh my god who plays like that! And unfortunately, they all had life bad. Cunning, powerful diseases of addiction cause they weren’t accepted and there’s many reasons you know, some low self-esteem. So they start taking drugs to make themselves feel better. I know that route too, I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been sober for 33 years, haven’t touched alcohol in 38 years going on 39, but it’s a cunning, baffling, powerful disease and usually because you don’t feel you’re worth anything. But if we’re alive and doing what we love and trying to give it back to younger people or anybody, young or old, give it back. And we don’t get stuck on ourselves with an attitude of how great I am; if we just really give up ourselves, that payment! There’s no payment like that. Nothing can buy that, it’s an incredible feeling. That’s all I want to do. I’m only a messenger of this music, that’s all I want to be. I don’t want to be anything else. I don’t want to be a diva, I’m not a diva, I don’t want any of that. All I want to be is a messenger of jazz, thanks to of course, the Bird haha! Charlie Parker. (sings) Charlie Parker was his name and bebop music was his fame.

Austin’s Recommended Sheila Jordan Recordings:

George Russell Sextet – The Outer View (Only appears on “You Are My Sunshine”) – Riverside 1962

Sheila Jordan – Portrait of Sheila Blue Note 1962

Steve Swallow – Home ECM 1979

Sheila Jordan – Lost and Found Muse 1989

Sheila Jordan – Jazz Child  HighNote 1998

Sheila Jordan & Cameron Brown – I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass HighNote 2000

Sheila Jordan – Little Song HighNote 2002

Also, Sheila has a book out! You can find it at

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