It is early into the conversation with Sheila Jordan when the jazz icon suggests she will be very busy in the next few months.
“Don’t ask,” she says with chuckle.
It turns out, Jordan is not exaggerating. The 91-year-old, Detroit-born jazz vocalist begins to list her upcoming engagements, revealing a hectic schedule that highlights her dual role as performer and teacher. In fact, she is booked straight to 2021.
That includes a Calgary stop on Friday, Feb. 7, when she will return to the Lantern Community Church for a concert. Then she is off to the Iron Horse Music Hall in North Hampton, N.H., before swinging into New Jersey and Chicago. Next month she’ll be in Oslo and then London. She’ll be playing New York City’s Lincoln Centre later this year and then back to the Garden State to teach jazz studies at the New Jersey City University. In June, she is heading to Korea for a week. In July, it’s the Toronto Jazz Festival. It goes on and on. In fact, she says it feels like she hasn’t slowed down in years.
“I’m exhausted from travelling,” says the singer in an interview with Postmedia from New York while on a rare break. “I’ve been working a lot. I don’t know, something happened all of a sudden and I’m just touring all the time.”
Jordan doesn’t care to speculate about what that “something” may be, other than in the vaguest of terms.
“I don’t know, I’m just saying something happened,” she says. “I stuck with the music. That’s what I tell the kids when I teach them: ‘Don’t give up, stick with it. You’ll always find a place to sing. Support the music until it can support you.’ It may never support you. But do you give up something you love? No.”
It does not take long into a conversation with Jordan to realize she is not one for self-analysis when it comes to her impressive career. When asked what Calgary fans can expect in terms of a set list on Friday, she remains decidedly noncommittal. They will be “songs that mean something to me,” she says.
It was one such song that introduced her to jazz nearly 80 years ago. In the 1940s, she made the life-changing decision while out for a hamburger in Detroit to spend a nickel on a jukebox to hear Now’s the Time by Charlie (Bird) Parker and the Reboppers. She was only 14 at the time, but says her path was set from that moment on.
“That was it,” she says. “I said ‘That’s the music I’ll dedicate my life to, whether I sing it, teach it or just support it.’ I loved it.”
That same year, she attempted to sneak into a club to hear the jazz saxophonist perform but was turned away. Parker overheard the commotion and eventually went into the alley to give the teen a private concert as she sat on a garbage can. Jordan eventually began performing herself, often improvising words to Parker’s music as part of a vocal trio. She was still a teenager when Parker famously told her “You have million-dollar ears, kid” after checking out one of her shows. By 1951, she set off to New York to find Bird, eventually forming a close friendship him. She patterned her unique scat and bebop singing style on Parker’s phrasing.
“He was like a big brother to me, eventually, and he would have me sit in when he was doing concerts and have me do a song or two,” she says. “He was a very dear friend. We were very close and I’ll never forget it.”
Sheila Jordan appears with bassist Cameron Brown at the 2018 Edmonton International Jazz Festival. Postmedia Archives
Parker died in 1955, but Jordan’s career continued to be linked to the legend in the decades that followed, even if much of her career wasn’t smooth sailing. She married and had a daughter with Parker’s piano player, Duke Jordan, who abandoned her shortly after the baby was born. Jordan worked as a typist while playing at night. In 1962, she released her classic debut, Portrait of Sheila, for Blue Note Records. It got good reviews and was reissued a few years back and marked the beginning of an impressive if somewhat sporadic recording career. More classics would follow, including 1977’s Sheila, a breakthrough collaboration with bassist Arild Anderson that introduced her pioneering bass-vocal stylings.
Over the years, she has worked with everyone from Charles Mingus to trumpeter Don Cherry and Canadian saxophonist and flautist Jane Bunnett. But Jordan is less-than nostalgic about her recorded work. In 2018, she revisited all the songs From Portrait of Sheila for the first time in half-a-century for a one-night celebration at Chicago’s Green Mill Jazz Club. A few months later, when Postmedia asked her how it went, she humbly suggested “I’m sure it was OK.” She admits she does not spend much time listening to or analyzing her own recordings.
“I listen to something I’ve recorded to get it in order, what I want first and what takes I want,” she says. “After I get it all together, I listen to the final one and then I don’t listen anymore.”
Still, Jordan says she would like to return to the studio at least one more time.
“Nobody has been knocking down my door to record me,” she says. “If a record company came and called me and said ‘I really want to do a recording,’ I’d do it, of course. But I’m not being hounded to record. Nobody’s interested. So when I record I have to record and pay for it all my own and hope a record company picks it up. And that’s it. That’s the story.”
Sheila Jordan will perform at the Lantern Community Church on Feb. 7. Doors open at 6 p.m., show starts at 7 p.m. Visit cindymcleodmusic.com/events.php for tickets.
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