Book Review: Jazz Child, A Portrait of Sheila Jordan by Ellen Johnson

Special Notice: Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown in Concert on Tuesday March 3 at the Ironworks, Vancouver, sponsored by the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society:

On August 27, 1962 a thirty-four year old Sheila Jordan stepped into Riverside’s New York Studio for the recording session of composer/pianist George Russell’s The Outer View. The producer was Orrin Keepnews, and the band included Pete La Roca on drums, Steve Swallow on bass and Don Ellis on trumpet. She sang on one composition only, “You are My Sunshine”, a song she had been singing since childhood.

The arrangemenJazz Child Sheila Jordan Covert goes something like this: a first note held second note succession from trombone, then tenor saxophone, then trumpet, a blues oriented riff from piano, then variations on the same motif for seven cycles. The arrangement has an intriguing form, but it is not clear where it is going except further into abstraction. During the seventh cycle,Russell runs the notes for “don’t take my”. The uncompleted melody is left alone for a few more bars and then the band makes a complete statement of it, light and airy at medium tempo. There’s a brief pause and Russell states the melody again, but very slowly, one note at a time with complement from tenor saxophone and trombone, so slowly that it sounds as if the the composition will break down in tears. Again on the the theme, the band plays a ‘normal’ tempo with solos from each of the horns. So far this is an old American folk song given composition gravity by an outstanding innovator. Then the extraordinary happens.

Russell plays a few notes, the wood and metal instruments stop their vibrations, and the very first instrument, the human voice, takes over. Sheila Jordan sings a cappella, each syllable articulated with an intensity as if this was the first time the words had ever been uttered, as if they were coming out of a primordial sunshine of love discovered. Her time is slow-motion, taking over five and a half seconds to state ‘sunshine’ and one-hundred twenty five seconds to complete the first verse of thirty-three words. The effect is stunning, spine tingling. The vocal quality is pure, unadulterated, the words rendered as immaculate emotions.

The second verse is sung with the same slow motion as the first, but midway at the fourth word “dear”, the band comes in with that first note held second note succession from the opening bars and Russell’s wonderful abstraction becomes a blue sky.  Jordan sings through it, perhaps increasing her tempo a bit, but holding the same intensity as in her a cappella part. The composition closes out with a fast version horn-piano version of the melody.

On this first major recording of Sheila Jordan, we hear what she sounded like when she sang for the coal miners as a kid named Jeannie Dawson in the beer halls of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. We also hear her as we hear her today in her eighty-seventh year, for Jordan has lost none of the immaculate emotional quality of her singing with the passing of decades. Ellen Johnson quotes several musicians who state that they have actually broken into tears on stage during her renditions of song. She is no doubt one of the great singers of any musical style, a woman who will make a listener believe every sound she enunciates in song.

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The effect of “You Are My Sunshine” was powerful enough that within a month she was recording Blue Note’s Portrait of Sheila as a leader. The recording took place in in the van Gelder studio with Barry Galbraith on guitar, Steve Swallow, and Denzil Best on drums, with Russell as the arranger. It was Blue Note’s first album with a female as a vocalist lead. She wanted to do the album almost completely as a voice-bass duo, but Blue Note’s Francis Wolff wasn’t having anything of that. The concept was simply too radical, but out of the session was birthed Jordan’s duo with Swallow on Dat Dere, the Bobby Timmons composition with lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr., a song she still performs today. As great as her work with Galbraith and Best was, Jordan was right: she almost single-handedly invented the voice-bass duo and much of her career has radiated it.

Jordan’s recording career is recounted in great detail in Ellen Johnson’s “Jazz Child, A Portrait of Sheila Jordan.” Chapter Four, called “A Helluva Town, 1950-1980”, opens with a Jordan statement, “I went to New York [from Detroit] so I could be closer to the music of Bird.” Her jump to recording with the leading lights of jazz in New York City was not the result of a John Hammond-like random discovery. She had been gigging at least one night a week at Page Three, a Greenwich Village gay bar and cabaret on Seventh Ave since 1958. Steve Swallow is quoted in the book saying, “The room fell still when she sang; everything stopped”. Her piano accompanists included Cecil Taylor and Herbie Nicols (too bad someone like Dean Benedetti didn’t make at least some amateur recording for the historical interest).

But Jordan’s discovery of Parker was in Detroit. She was still in high school when she walked into a burger joint, put a nickel into the juke box, and heard the music that would transform her. ”Now’s the Time” was the composition. She had always been a singer, to the point where her mother said that she didn’t cry when she came out of the womb, she sang. Her grandfather called her “Little Song” but she didn’t make everyone happy with her songbird quality. Her life from birth was marked by poverty and she was surround by drugs, alcohol, and kids who would mock her because she sang or because her clothes were shoddy.

But having heard Parker, she knew what she wanted to sing professionally and was soon able to word or wordlessly sing everything that he recorded. Jordan says. “I sang with Bird though his records, and it left no room for ‘shoobie-doobies.’” Jordan was not the only one in Detroit to be enamored by the be-bop sound. Together with Leroy Mitchell and Ulysses “Skeeter” Spight she formed a vocal trio. The regulars she would hang out with were the likes of Tommy Flanagan, Sonny Red, Kenny Burrell. The tenor saxophonist Frank Foster is quoted as saying, “She was… a tone natural. Her theoretical knowledge of music wasn’t much, but it didn’t matter. The way she sang, it sounded as if she knew everything there was to know.” Later in New York City, she did study music, Mingus introducing her to Lennie Tristano.

Jordan had a little apartment where Monk, Mingus, Max Roach, and Horace Silver used to hang out. That apartment had a spare bed, and Parker regularly used to crash his weary frame in it. There’s a funny story in such Jordan had a parakeet named Tori, which she taught to say “Hello Bird, Hello Sweetheart.” One day when Parker came over to crash, Jordan couldn’t get the parakeet back in the cage. Parker was just nodding out when Tori landed on his should and woke him up with “Hello Bird, Hello Sweetheart.”

Jazz Child goes far beyond Jordan’s associations with other musicians. Johnson reveals the struggles of a women clawing her way out of poverty, who was prone to alcoholism and drug addiction, who was often socially and professionally allied with people with the same diseases. That story is revealed in Jordan’s spiritual composition, “The Crossing.” Jordan is fundamentally a humanist at heart, and while some may castigate Charlie Parker for his well-documented despicable actions that accompanied that addiction, Jordan puts the problem to rest with, “He was a great man and a musical genius who unfortunately had this cunning, baffling , powerful disease.”

2015-03-02 Sheila Jordan Workshop 11_editedThere’s one particularly poignant story which would be hilarious if not for its inherent tragedy, a story which points to Jordan’s  fundamental psyche. While on the subway to a day at the park,  a White woman with two children said to Jordan, “What a cute little colored baby, where did you get her from?” Jordan asked the woman if the two kids with her were her own, and when she answered in the affirmative Jordan reparteed, “Well, I got my baby from the same place you got yours.”

Jazz Child is basically organized as six chapters of relatively straight chronology and then more specialized chapters on Charlie Parker, Jordan’s struggles against racism, her winning the battle against addictions, her ongoing specialization as a jazz educator, and a closing set of hallelujahs. The appendices contain Jordan’s discography, videography, and awards.

One area that is lacking development is Sheila Jordan’s Seneca heritage. It is referred to on many occasions in the book, and Jordan does occasionally used the Native American device of chanting in her music (perhaps that influence is the wailing heard during the openings of “Sheila’s Blues” and “The Crossing”). But there is no in-depth treatment of the fascinating relationship between the music of the First Nations and the American, European-derived song. There are a few peculiarities that stymy fluid reading, such as the repetitive use of musicians’ alternate names. For example, the drummer Bob Moses changed his name to Ra-Kalam. Most people will read a book from the beginning to end, and it is not necessary to remind the reader of this change with ‘now known as’ every time his name is mentioned.

What really shines in Jazz Child Sheila Jordan 2006-06 4 edit_edited-1is the multiple examples of how a community of artists, combined with the sheer guts and determination of a person like Sheila Jordan can overcome adversity. Jordan pretty much single-handedly founded the field of jazz vocal education, not only in the Americas, but also in Europe. She certainly is the musician who found the form of voice-bass duo starting with her work starting with Steve Swallow, later Arild Andersen, and in today’s work with Cameron Brown.

Sheila Jordan has survived many of her contemporaries, making her one of the living creators of be-bop. Crippled by circumstances of birth and early life, she rose through determination and creative will-power to the heights of artistry. At eighty-seven, she continues to solider on). She has sung in so many contexts, including an Allen Ginsburg opera in the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, with string sections, in vocal duets, and traditional jazz small ensembles  that it is hardly even fair to call her a be-bopper anymore. Maybe she is a song bird of multi-hues, for as she frequently sings, “It’s the love that I have when I’m singing for you, for the spirit of the music sets me free.” Not bad for a gal who shares a birth day with Mickey Mouse.

Jazz Child belongs, along with Randy Weston’s autobiography African Rhythms, Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning (on Charlie Parker), and Robin G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk as essential contemporary jazz reading and scholarship.

Publishing Information

Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan

By: Ellen Johnson, 2014

Rowman & Littlefield

Mark Webber has an interesting post on Sheila Jordan:


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