Imagine a film about the life of 90-year-old jazz chanteuse Sheila Jordan. Much of it would be set in the bebop-era jazz clubs of New York City. Some of the music’s legendary artists — Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Charlie “Bird” Parker among them — would play key roles. Quincy Jones would make a cameo. As much as it would carry the airs of classic jazz films such as Clint Eastwood’s Bird and Bertrand Tavernier’s ’Round Midnight, it would also be a bit Coal Miner’s Daughter. At its heart, it would be a tale of persistence, resourcefulness, and devotion to jazz.
Born in Detroit to a single mother and raised by impoverished alcoholic relatives in Pennsylvania coal country, Jordan transcended her hardscrabble beginnings to become an international star with her inventive approach to jazz standards and an agile, playful improvisational style. Her 1963 Blue Note recording, Portrait of Sheila, the distinguished label’s first of a female jazz vocalist, regularly makes lists of the most essential jazz recordings.
In 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a Jazz Masters Fellowship, one of music’s highest honors. “I never wanted to be a diva, never wanted to be a star,” Jordan said in a phone call from her home in upstate New York. (She maintains a residence in Manhattan as well.) “I just wanted to be a messenger of the music.”
Remarkably, Jordan’s singing has only gotten more confident with time. In a 2018 concert in which Jordan revisited Portrait of Sheila, Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich discussed how the singer navigated the “twists and turns” of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole.” “If Jordan finessed them in the album, she owned them in this performance, stretching rhythms and reinventing phrasing with welcome unpredictability,” he said. Jordan performs at SITE Santa Fe on Friday, May 17.
“It wasn’t an easy childhood,” she said. “The only way I could deal with the chaos, to feel good, was through singing.” She picked up songs from Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and others she heard on the radio, when her grandpa managed to pay the electric bill. She sang so much she remembers one of her uncles shouting, “Can’t you shut that kid up? All she does is sing.” (“I think he was hungover,” she said.)
Jordan returned to Detroit to attend high school, and it was there at a café jukebox that she first heard saxophonist and bebop progenitor Charlie Parker. She was so taken with the music that she memorized Parker’s solos and could sing them. She joined with friends William Spight and Leroy Mitchell to form the vocal trio Skeeter, Mitch and Jean ( Jordan’s given name is Sheila Jeanette Dawson), singing bebop in a way that foreshadowed the vocalese of the popular 1950s jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
“We were all growing up together,” Jordan said, noting that their circle of friends at the time included guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianists Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan, all future jazz stars in their own right. “We could go to the Club Sudan because you didn’t have to be 21, and we would sing and do our vocal experiments. Those were my first ventures into performing bebop.”
It wasn’t long before they were performing in front of Parker himself. “We were all too young for the clubs, but Bird did a concert in Detroit at the Graystone Ballroom, and they didn’t sell alcohol so we all could get in. During the break, he came off the stage and we just couldn’t get close enough to him. Our friend [saxophonist Billy Mitchell] said to him, ‘Bird, you have to hear these kids sing.’ And Bird asked, ‘What do they sing?’ And Billy said, ‘They sing you.’ If he was impressed, he didn’t say anything. But when he opened the second set, he said to the audience, ‘I have a surprise for you,’ and called us up to the stage to sing with him. Afterward, he said to me, ‘Kid, you have million-dollar ears.’ ”
When she turned 21, Jordan went to hear the saxophonist at Birdland, the club named in his honor. She went backstage with friends to meet him. “I remember you,” Jordan recalled Parker exclaiming. “You’re the kid with the million-dollar ears.”
But a Sheila Jordan movie wouldn’t be all song and success. Her story is also about the blunt bigotry of the times, especially the sometimes-violent reactions generated by the sight of blacks and whites together. After returning to Detroit to attend high school, she resisted the calls from her high school principal and the Detroit police, among others, to stop hanging out with black musicians. She recalled one policeman who dragged her into the precinct for “fraternizing with nonwhites” and then gave her a lecture. “He said, ‘See this gun? I have a nine-year-old daughter at home, and if I found her with these ... [here, Jordan paused to say she won’t use the policeman’s single-word epithet] I would go and blow her brains out.’ ” Later, in New York, Jordan and two companions would be assaulted outside her apartment by men yelling racial slurs. Still, she paid them no mind.
She and Parker eventually became friends. Her then-husband, Duke Jordan, took a turn as the pianist in Parker’s band, and the couple kept a place in their apartment where Parker could crash when he couldn’t make it home — or didn’t want to. “We called it Bird’s Bed,” she explained. She fondly recalled a time when Parker brought over a couple of classical LPs from Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, and they spent the afternoon just listening. “Bird was like my brother. He told me, ‘Don’t drink, don’t do drugs,’ despite his own behavior. He was one of the sweetest, kindest men you’d ever meet. But he had a powerful, cunning, baffling disease. People didn’t want to accept his addictions as a disease, but that’s what he had. He died of it when he was 34 [in 1955]. When you saw him in his casket, he looked like a man in his 60s.”
At a later point in her career, Jordan found herself slipping into drinking and drugs, until she had what she said was a “spiritual experience.” She said, “This voice kept coming to me, loud and clear and decisive. ‘Haven’t you learned anything from me? I gave you a gift and I can take it away.’ It might have been Charlie. Or it might have been something else. But right then I called for help.
“A lot of people would have given up,” she said. “But I don’t think in terms of black and white. I think in terms of heart and cool. I suffered all this and survived. Now I just want to keep jazz music alive.” ◀
▼ Santa Fe Music Collective presents Sheila Jordan with pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Cameron Brown, and drummer John Trentacosta
▼ 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 17
▼ SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta
▼ $30, $25 for SFMC members; 505-946-7934, santafemusiccollective.org