jazz & blues music blog with news, reviews, concerts & more, with a Canadian focus

August 19, 2005

Jazz Vocalist Sheila Jordan

Written by
cindy mcleod

Sheila Jordan is the Goddess of vocal jazz. Not only does she keep a mean schedule of performance, recording and teaching dates, she leaves her fingerprints as one of the pioneers of jazz vocal. As an artist, she is the pinnacle, as a woman, her spirit is as great as her talent; deep, strong, spiritual, and loyal.

I was a big fan of Ms. Jordan’s long before I had the blessing of meeting her in person during the spring of 1995. Several weeks after that initial meeting, I had the chance to spend some life-altering time with this Goddess of jazz when I got a call from a workshop organizer asking if I wanted to take a last minute master class with her. I jumped at the chance, and having less than an hour to get there, I grabbed my chequebook and ran.

It was to be a $50 one hour class with a bassist, pianist and Ms. Jordan, but it turned into a glorious afternoon in the intimacy of a club that was closed for the afternoon. Sheila takes vocal students under her wing and musically mothers them, benevolently sharing her wisdom and knowledge. We worked on phrasing, how best to communicate with musicians to get the results you’re after, and most importantly, how to relinquish the bonds of safety and explore. It has taken me many years to digest what I learned that day, and I’m not done yet! Sheila is demanding of herself and those she works with, while she embraces the essence of the composition and lyric, she frees herself from all musical cliches and structures, she knows the rules and she breaks them. She also has an inimitable way of inspiring her students to do the same. After three intense and glorious hours, Sheila finally decided to stop, saying she would have spent longer had it not been for the fact that the club was about to open. She also said “you can’t afford $50, just give me $40.” I protested loudly, for I was happy to pay a whole lot more for her precious time, but to no avail, she was adamant. Horrified, I realized all I had was a chequebook with me and not one penny of cash, and deeply embarrassed, I explained my predicament. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said “You can pay me later.” I couldn’t believe her trust in me.

The next afternoon I sent a $50 US bill inside a card and a flower up to Sheila’s room at her hotel. That evening, when I attended her concert with long time collaborator, pianist Steve Kuhn, I was surprised when she walked onstage with my flower in her hand. When she reached the microphone she held up the flower and said “Cindy, thank you. You didn’t have to do that… and you paid me too much!” That started a flood of tears that lasted through her performance, for after that inspirational lesson and her thoughtful acknowlegement of a simple flower, to hear this vocal master sing was the piece-de resistance. After the concert, a friend walked up and handed me a ten dollar bill and said “It’s from Sheila, she said you paid her too much.” I was about to refuse when he pointed out to me that Sheila had signed it with a message. He then invited me to join Ms. Jordan and Mr. Kuhn for a bite to eat, and I readily agreed, spending another couple hours with these two giants of jazz. To this day, she greets me by name and with a warm hug, this woman never forgets a student, and I feel supremely blessed to call her a friend.

Ms. Jordan, who was born in 1928 in Detroit, began singing as a child, and by her teens was performing in the clubs. After moving to New York in the fifties, she married Charlie Parker’s pianist Duke Jordan, and studied with Charles Mingus and Lennie Tristano. She cites her greatest influence as Charlie Parker, but is influenced by many, mainly instrumentalists. Her discography boasts more than twenty releases, and she teaches jazz vocal in several universities throughout the world. More, she touches souls, whether a listener, musician, student of jazz, or if you’re lucky enough to meet her in person, but you have not lived until you’ve heard the magic of Sheila Jordan in song.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.