Sheila Jordan at the Firefly
by PIotr Michalowski
In August 1962 jazz composer-pianist George Russell recorded a forward-looking album, The Outer View, that included a twelve-minute version of "You Are My Sunshine," a song first recorded in 1939 by the Pine Ridge Boys and hardly a jazz standard. Halfway through the piece, after a number of instrumental solos, everyone lays out, and the air is filled with a lone female voice, singing the lyrics with clarity but without much vibrato, with feeling but without exaggerated pathos. Listening to it once again after all these years, I'm still amazed by the original-ity and beauty of this unexpected entry. The voice belongs to Sheila Jordan, and this idiosyncratic debut is emblematic of her artistic life.
Jordan grew up in the coalfields of Pennsylvania, where she sang that song as a child, but early on she moved to Detroit, where her musical taste was forever altered when she heard Charlie Parker and the local youngsters who were learning his kind of music, which they called bebop. Sheila fell in love with this music and was soon putting lyrics to bebop solos, eventually join-ing with two friends, Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell, to form the trio Skeeter, Mitch, and Jean. They sang Charlie Parker's saxophone solos note for note, and did it so well that when she finally met her idol, he told her she was "the chick with the million-dollar ears."
Eventually she moved to New York, where she married, had a daughter, divorced, and worked for decades as a paralegal while she raised her child on her own. Although her roots lay in be-bop, she associated mainly with the more adventurous musicians of the time, who were reinventing jazz in the lofts of the Big Apple. In the late seventies she became a member of pianist Steve Kuhn's quartet; this was highly unusual in that she was not a "featured" singer but an integrated member of a group in which the voice was just another instrument. She also
began performing and recording in duo with just a bass player, an unusual combination that she still uses, most recently with bassists Cameron Brown and Jay Clayton. Not surprisingly, her uncompromising and original reworking of the role of a female singer in jazz was appreciated more abroad than at home, and she began to travel internationally, singing, recording, and teaching in various countries.
Jordan belongs to a small club of singers who really do sing jazz, as opposed to pop songs with jazz arrangements. Her models and mentors have been instrumentalists, and she phrases as if she were playing a saxophone or a trumpet with lyrics, relying more on her ear than on the sound of her voice. But she does not abandon the meaning of the words, and when she sings standards, blues, or jazz tunes, she likes to tell a story. Sometimes she makes up lyrics as she improvises, and her sets usually end with an autobiographical bebop blues. She'll be at the Firefly Club on May 23.
[Originally published in May, 2009.]