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Eric In The Evening: Sheila Jordan Interview

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Summary
Sheila Jordan Interview Highlights: Sheila Jordan talks about duo performances and recordings with only a bass player. She provides historical reference to earlier experiences she had performing duos with bassists in the 1950’s. Sheila Jordan shares her love for singing and shares that she approaches music for what is happening at the time. She expresses that God has given her a very special gift – the gift of singing. She shares how she feels when singing. She talks of the influence of Charlie Parker on her. Sheila Jordan speaks on the influence of Billie Holiday on her. Sheila Jordan shares her experiences teaching vocalists at City College of NY. Sheila Jordan shares insight into her relationship with George Russell and the significance of it, including a memorable experience with George and her family in West Virginia. Sheila Jordan talks of her years in Detroit, the prejudice she encountered and the wonderful musicians with whom she grew up and with whom she learned. These musicians include NEA Jazz Masters Tommy Flanagan, Betty Carter and Kenny Burrell. Sheila Jordan is also a NEA Jazz Master. (Editor’s Note: This interview was the first time Shelia Jordan was interviewed on Eric Jackson’s show. Sheila Jordan was appearing at the Starlight Roof in the Howard Johnsons in Kenmore Square. This transcription begins after Eric had played the song “Baltimore Oriole” from Jordan’s album titled Portrait of Sheila. The album was recorded September 18 and October 12, 1962 and released on Blue Note Records.) Summary and select metadata for this record was submitted by Leonard Brown.
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Jazz Musicians, Music Industry, Interviews, Jazz Radio Programs, Jackson, Eric, Jordan, Sheila, 1928-
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ERIC JACKSON INTERVIEW WITH SHEILA JORDAN
Jackson:
And we just heard a couple of things right there from Sheila Jordan. From the album called Portrait of Sheila, accompanied by Barry Galbraith on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass, and Denzel Best on drums. "Baltimore Oriole" and "I'm A Fool to Want You" right there. Sheila Jordan. And Sheila's here in the studios with us and Sheila just got off a train that was about an hour late and we are thankful that she is still here with us, even though she had that long train ride. Sheila, welcome.
Jordan:
Thank you. It's nice to be here.
Jackson:
Sheila, we're going to need you a little closer than that.
Jordan:
Oh OK. Is that better?
Jackson:
Yes, that's much better. Sheila, oh my goodness, with a career that stretches through a lot of things, let's start off with, I guess, the most recent thing. The most recent thing is what you're going to be doing here in town for the next few days.
Jordan:
Yes, I'm looking forward to that. I've never worked in Boston for three nights, so it will be really nice to do that.
Jackson:
What’s the difference between working some place three nights and one night? What is the difference?
Jordan:
Well, especially if it's musicians that, you know, I have never worked with. Gray Sargent and of course I know Joe Hunt from years ago. He's a wonderful drummer so it will be nice to work with him, but I mean…it'll be just…it'll be fun, you know, to just do that. It's always interesting to work with different musicians and we'll be doing some of the bass and voice things that Harvey Schwartz and I do. But three nights is good. You get a handle on everything.
Jackson:
You know, a lot of the clubs here now bring people in for three or four days, where as in say years past, we had clubs that would bring people in, say, for a week or something like that, and I would get the sense after a while, that by Thursday or Friday, people had sort of settled in. They were meeting new friends, old friends were coming out to see them, they were starting to get used to the ceiling falling here, or whatever…the little idiosyncrasies of the place and they were relaxing a bit.
Jordan:
Yeah, but I think also that working three nights, you really get a chance to… you know every night, you get a little looser and creatively, I mean a lot more things start to happen. So it’ll be really fun to do this. I mean I haven’t done this for a long time, except, you know…no actually I don’t think I’ve really worked, oh yeah, once with Harvey a couple of times in a club, but there were other…you know it was sort of a combination of another group, but to do something for three nights straight. It’s usually I’ve been doing mostly concerts recently, so it’s a one night hit, you know.
Jackson:
Do you prefer either one of those mediums to the other, concert as opposed to clubs?
Jordan:
Oh, I just prefer to sing. I don’t care where it is, whether it’s one night or one hour or half an hour or fifteen minutes. But, so naturally, the more I can sing, the better I feel about it. Yeah, sure.
Jackson:
Now you mentioned some of the things that you’ve been doing with Harvey Schwartz, the Sheila Jordan-Harvey Schwartz duo. What kind of…that obviously represents a whole new… I don’t want to say new, but a whole different kind of challenge to you, working with just one instrument. In this particular case, it’s the bass. How is that?
Jordan:
Well, it started way back, even before Steve Swallow. But on this Blue Note album that you have, I mean originally I wanted that to be a bass and voice - more bass and voice - and there are a lot of bass and voice things on there, you know. Denzel sneaks in there, you know, Denzel Best. But I had to…I did a lot of things even before Steve. This has been my concept for many years, actually since the 50’s, and I did some things with Peter Ind, when I was studying with Lenny Tristano, and I used to do some things at this club, The Page Three, before Steve Swallow came there to work. I mean I’ve always loved the bass and voice. I really hear the bass. I did an album with a bassist from Norway, Arild Andersen, and that was my first real try at doing the bass and voice and now this thing with Harvey, the Palo Alto album, that has been out now for a couple of years and we have really gotten a lot of concerts out of that and it’s sort of like a word of mouth thing and I really enjoy it. I mean we’ve done the Ottowa Concert, the Montreal Concert, and we’ve done outside concerts, thinking, “Oh God we’ll never go, this is gonna be crazy, ridiculous.” But for some reason, it hooks right in because for four years now, we’ve been doing this bass and voice and it’s really gotten…we’ve become very, very close, and we do hope to do some of those things tomorrow night at the Starlight Roof.
Editor’s note: Sheila Jordan and Arild Andersen-Sheila SteepleChase 1081 DK rec Oslo, Bendiksens Studio 8/27 and 28/77 Sheila Jordan-voc; Arild Andersen-b Sheila Jordan/Harvie Swartz Duo-Old Time Feeling Palo Alto 8038 USA rec NYC, Eurosound 10/15/82 Sheila Jordan-voc; Harvie Swartz-b
Jackson:
I was wondering, though, doesn’t it offer a whole different kind of challenge with…obviously a challenge you enjoy since you’ve been doing it for years…to have that much space on the bandstand?
Jordan:
Oh I love that! Oh my God, I love that! It’s wonderful. Yes, it’s a great challenge, but you know, I can do anything I want to do with that situation just about, you know. I mean anything I hear, I can sing, and it usually works out.
Jackson:
Do you ever feel like…and I’m playing the devil’s advocate here…do you ever feel like, “Where’s the piano player?”
Jordan:
Never, never. I approach music for what it is at that moment. If it’s a bass, piano and drums, that’s what it is and I’ll sing to that. If it’s the bass and voice, that’s what I’ll sing to. If it’s the vocal solo, that’s what I’ll sing to. I approach everything as music, music for that particular moment, or evening. So, no I do not miss the bass if it’s piano and voice. If it’s just piano and voice, I do not miss anything else. I just fit whatver is happening at that time.
Jackson:
Let’s talk a little bit about your train of thought while you’re singing. Do you think of yourself at any time as an instrument, or do you…?
Jordan:
You mean when I’m singing?
Jackson:
Yes.
Jordan:
I’m removed.
Jackson:
Removed.
Jordan:
No. God has given me a very, very special…a very, very special outlet and you know, I really feel very privileged. I mean I really feel that I have gotten this gift and it totally removes me from any pain, or any nonsense that I’ve gone through in my life for the day before or whatever I’ve gone through. Anytime I can open up my mouth and sing, I’m totally removed. Sometimes I feel like I’m floating out of my body. It’s a fantastic feeling - of course not all the time. But no, I don’t, to answer your question. No, I never think of myself as an instrument. I don’t know… I got tagged sounding more like an instrument and my God, I’m so conscious of the lyrics, it’s unbelievable. So I don’t know how I got tagged an avant-garde singer and not having any respect for lyrics or sounding like an instrument. I never deliberately try to sound like an instrument. True, you know, my guru is Charlie Parker and I love Bird. I mean he was my favorite and maybe because I was so enraptured with him, and so hung up on his music, that might have given a lot of people the idea that I wanted to sound like an instrument. But I just wanted to get the feeling that Bird was putting out, you know, and try to half way capture some of the tunes that he was doing and listen to the chord changes and learn how to sing with feeling over those changes. Basically that’s what it was.
Jackson:
So then if Sheila Jordan is sitting at home in her living room, if she’s listening to some music, consciously that music doesn’t effect Sheila on the bandstand? I mean, you know, she spends the whole night before listening to saxophone player or a singer - whichever, it doesn’t matter - and she goes onto the bandstand, that doesn’t have a conscious effect? You don’t consciously remember the phrases or something that you heard Wayne Shorter or somebody playing the night before, or something?
Jordan:
No. Sheila Jordan doesn’t really have much time to sit at home in her living room and hear records.
Jackson:
Yeah. I’ve heard that from a lot of musicians, actually.
Jordan:
I’d love to say yes. Of course, you know, I mean you’re inspired. I would say only from the inspiration point, I would get inspired from hearing other singers if I go out and hear music or other musicians. But I’ve never, ever - I’ve always been very careful to just be my own person in music. I’ve never… I mean first of all, I knew I could never sing like Sarah (Vaughn), and I could never possibly sing like Ella (Fitzgerald), and who could ever, you know, reach Billie Holiday’s steps, so I mean, you know, I said, “This just is me and I’ll work on it.” And it’s been hard because I’ve had a lot of people not understand what I’m doing, or try to understand what I’m doing, or really like me, or really love what I do, or just hate it. I mean it seems to be… there for a while, there was no middle, so it got discouraging at times, but it’s in me to sing. So you know, with all either good or bad, I just keep singing. Oh, it’s nice to get nice reviews, but then you get bad ones. Well, maybe it doesn’t make you feel so good, but it ain’t gonna stop me from singing…
Jackson:
Yeah.
Jordan:
…cause I’m gonna sing till I die.
Jackson:
Yeah, yeah, great. We’re talking with Sheila Jordan who is appearing at the Starlight Roof over at the Howard Johnson’s in Kenmore Square for the next three nights, Thursday, Friday, Saturday? Yes. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Sheila Jordan with Gray Sargent on guitar, Joe Hunt on drums.
Jordan:
And Harvey Schwartz on bass.
Jackson:
Oh, I didn’t realize Harvey was coming too?
Jordan:
Oh yes, yes!
Jackson:
Oh, Harvey Schwartz on bass too. Great, great. So that’s why, when you said you’d be doing some of those things, there will be some times when the guitar player and drummer will drop out and it’ll just be the…
Jordan:
Yeah, I think if it works around that way, that will happen. You know, I haven’t really set anything up yet, because I like to just, sometimes…I mean I will work up sets, but a lot of times, I’ll maybe jump into things just off the top of my head sometimes, so that will be fun.
Jackson:
Speaking of jumping into things, does Sheila Jordan have a spring board, a singer that…? Oh a singer - I’m asking about more now – that if you look back and say this is roots, or something. Is there one?
Jordan:
As a singer?
Jackson:
Yeah.
Jordan:
Naw, the only singer that… I mean I love all the singers. I know how difficult it is out there and has been for singers, you know. The closest singer that I would really say that would come close to, you know, what I felt - although, you know, I love all the singers - would have been Billie Holiday. But you know…and then I have these kids that I teach up at City College that I have a workshop with these kids and I mean… I tell them to listen, but don’t steal, you know. And it’s very easy to steal from great singers like Billie and Sarah and Ella Fitzgerald and the kids today, of course as great as Betty Carter is, they all want to sound like Betty Carter, so I have to get on their case immediately and say, you know, “Listen, but don’t steal.”
Jackson:
You know I think about just the process of growth and development. I think about playing basketball. When you go out to play basketball, every kid that goes out copies his idol’s shot or the way his idol dribbles the basketball or something like that, and then I think, as they continue to do that, then they begin to develop into their own thing. So does that really bother you, when you listening and you say, “Wait a minute. There’s too much Billy Holiday there”?
Jordan:
No, no. It doesn’t bother me - only if they get to a point where they start thinking it’s theirs…
Jackson:
OK
Jordan:
…And they start getting a little cocky behind it, and I pull them up, you know.
Jackson:
Yeah.
Jordan:
And then I tell them about it and they cool right out. But I’ve had some really wonderful singers in my class. I teach them the Charlie Parker line, you know, and we sing that as an ensemble piece. So we do a concert every semester and I have a lot fun with these kids, Theyre great kids. I love to teach singers. I love to work with young singers.
Jackson:
How long have you been teaching?
Jordan:
Since 1975.
Jackson:
Oh so that’s been going on for a while.
Jordan:
Yeah, I was off for a couple of years and I’ve been doing workshops in other places, too. A lot of times, when I go out on the road with Harvey, I’ll do workshops and then just recently in April, I did a workshop in Austria - Graz, Austria with Bobby McFerrin. In fact, we’re going do an opera in a couple of weeks.
Jackson:
You two would make a very interesting combination.
Jordan:
I’m looking very much forward to this. I’m going to be Queen Gwenevere and he’s going be Merlin and Howard Johnson is gonna be King Arthur.
Jackson:
Wow! I love that!
Jordan:
So that should be really fun.
Jackson:
Yeah.
Jordan:
You know that should be really fun. But we had a great time with these kids. We were there for one week, Bobby and I. He was in one room, I was in another, and then at the end, we’d get together for about an hour, and at the end, we did a concert together. What fun it was singing with him. I mean, I did duos with him
and he sang all the bass lines. It was fantastic. It was something else.
Jackson:
We’re talking with Sheila Jordan. Sheila, why don’t we do this? Why don't we take a listen to something - since we talked about some of the bass/voice duo things that you’ve done - why don’t we take a listen to something from the album, Old Time Feeling, which features you and Harvey Schwartz?
Editor’s note: Sheila Jordan/Harvie Swartz Duo-Old Time Feeling, Palo Alto 8038 USA rec NYC, Eurosound 10/15/82, Sheila Jordan-voc; Harvie Swartz-b
Jordan:
Oh fine.
Jackson:
OK, what did we cue up? “Sleeping Bee” - that’s what we’ve got cued up from this one.
Jordan:
All right, great.
Jackson:
This is Sheila Jordan and Harvey Schwartz.
And this is WGBH in Boston. Sheila Jordan and Harvey Schwartz right there with “Sleeping Bee” from the album, Old Time Feeling. We’re going to come back and talk with Sheila Jordan in just a moment, but first, we’re going take a break to take care of some business.
Sheila Jordan is here with us too, and we’re glad she’s here with us this evening too, as a matter of fact. Sheila, we also know that you have a long association with a Cantabrigian. Is that what we call George Russell?
Jordan:
Oh, I love George Russell. He’s the reason I’m on that record. He’s a dear friend.
Jackson:
The Blue Note record, Portrait of Sheila.
Jordan:
Um hmm. He got that album for me. He put out some money and had a tape made and took it around and Blue Note bought the idea and then at the same time, Quincy Jones was working for Emarcy…
Jackson:
Mercury?
Jordan:
Mercury and I got a letter…I got a contract from Quincy Jones, but I had already signed with Blue Note, but he sent me a nice letter. Oh yeah, Quincy. I wonder if he’d record me today?
Jackson:
You’d have to sing with Michael Jackson, you know.
Jordan:
I love Michael Jackson.
Jackson:
Now but you also recorded on the…what’s the album with the black cover and the white letters?
Jordan:
George’s The Outer View, the original Outer View. Yeah, we did “You Are My Sunshine” and that’s for the coal miners where I came from back in Pennsylvania.
Jackson:
There was a story behind that.
Jordan:
Yeah. I was back in Pennsylvania with George and my grandmother took us to a beer garden and, at that time, I was still drinking, yeah fortunate or unfortunate. Maybe “Sunshine…” wouldn’t have happened if I’d not been drinking. But we went into this beer garden and this miner came up and my grandmother was sitting at the bar, telling everybody I was some big shot, you know, some big star. I said, “Oh Mom please, why are you telling people that? It’s embarrassing,” ‘cause really I was working maybe once or twice a year, you know. She was proud, you know. It was sweet. So this miner said, “Yeah, well do you sing, still sing “You Are My Sunshine?” I said, “Oh I don’t sing that”. My grandmother said…no George said, “Well, wow, let’s play that,” so he went over and played it on the piano. My grandmother was…we’re feeling a little, you know…feeling no pain. So my grandmother pushed him off the piano bench and said “I’ll play that.” She didn’t like the way he played it.
Jackson:
Oh, is that right?
Jordan:
So she sat down and started playing.
Jackson:
Oh that’s great! I love that.
Jordan:
Yeah. She didn’t like the way he played, so she sat down and she played it. He’ll remember, he’ll verify it. So she sat down and George said she sounded like Monk.
Jackson:
Oh, is that right?
Jordan:
Yeah, so then, he didn’t say anything, but he got an idea and then he called up on the phone - I think it was quite a few years ago - and he said, “I really have an idea and I want you to hear this.” And so when I went down to rehearse with the group, he just said, “Start singing”, you know, so I sang alone. It’s the first time I’d ever sung alone, I mean as far as in a…in a concert or you know. I mean, I always sing alone at home, but I never had that solo spot…
Jackson:
Yeah
Jordan:
…And really, it was like, “Oh My God,” you know, but I just kept right on singing, you know, and then the band came in and it was like very beautiful and very strange and mystical and I thought, “Oh my God, the miners would love this”. But I remember reading, when that album first came out - this is so funny. I remember reading in, in a…somebody read it to me in London. I was in London at the time, again thanks to George Russell. He got me a gig in Europe. He was in Europe at the time and I was at Ronny Scott’s and somebody had this…Horace Silver was there and they had this interview in the paper and they played some records and they played “You Are My Sunshine” and Horace said, “God, that was a long and choppy voice. The singer came in…” They missed the whole point, you know. I mean everyone of those musicians were taking the part of a miner, I always felt.
Jackson:
Yeah.
Jordan:
I always felt that was very nice for George to do that for the miners. It was really a twelve minute musical documentary on the coal miners of Scooby Town, Pennsylvania.
Jackson:
Where is that near?
Jordan:
Near Johnstown.
Jackson:
OK. That’s central state.
Jordan:
That area.
Jackson:
The central part of the state.
Jordan:
Yeah.
Jackson:
Yeah and you also know, coming up on what must be twenty years now to this past September, you were at the Detroit-Montreux Jazz Festival.
Jordan:
Yeah. Well, when I was in high school, I moved to Detroit. I was about fifteen and I immediately got into Jazz. I sang from the time I was four, from the time I could open my mouth, I sang. Because I used to sing with the miners up in the beer gardens, you know, trying to get my grandfather home. And when I moved back to Detroit to live with my mother, because originally I lived with my grandmother because my mother couldn’t take care of me - she was only about seventeen. And when I moved back to Detroit, I went to high school and I immediately got on the Jazz scene and, oh boy, it was hard going, you know, because there was so much prejudice.
Jackson:
Who was on the Jazz scene at the time?
Jordan:
Tommy Flanagan. I grew up with Tommy and Kenny Burrell and Barry Harris, and I mean, it was fantastic. Oh, I just had the most wonderful, as painful as it was with all the racial prejudice, just the music and just being introduced to Charlie Parker, and, oh my God, it was fantastic. And, you know, I never got paid for a gig in Detroit - never.
Jackson:
Really?
Jordan:
I would sit in. Well, I wasn’t ready, you know. I was just learning.
Jackson:
You were a high school girl and they didn’t have to pay you.
Jordan:
Yeah. And I used to sing with these two young guys, Peter Spite and Leroy Mitchell. They used to write all these Bird things to Bird lines and we used to sing those and scat. They really taught me how to scat, but this year I went to the Montreux. I was invited only because Frank Foster couldn’t make it. They got me to come and do a jam session with Tommy Flanagan and Oliver Jackson, you know “Bops”. And so I went there and oh, I mean they paid me a nice salary and put me up in a fine hotel. I couldn’t believe it.
Jackson:
Nice way to come back to Detroit, right?
Jordan:
But the thing was is that they couldn’t…they were so complimentary to me. I just sang my “Detroit Blues,” my Blues about where I grew up and I just took off on Detroit, what it was like growing up and the people went crazy. They loved it.
Jackson:
Oh.
Jordan:
Yeah, and it was really inspiring and the guy from Baker (Baker’s Keyboard Lounge – the legendary jazz club in Detroit), because Betty Carter said to me one time, “Why don’t you get a job at Baker’s? Call him up. Maybe he’ll give you a gig.” I said, “Well he doesn’t.” But anyway he was sitting in the audience just a couple of weeks ago, so now maybe I can get a gig at Baker’s and the press said that Detroit should be very proud of me and I was happy for that…
Jackson:
Nice homecoming
Jordan:
…Because when I was there, nobody really…except for the musicians, they dug what I was trying to do, but it took a long time for me to get back to Detroit, where it all started and that’s where I got into the Jazz. It was Detroit and I love Detroit for that. Thank God I left Pennsylvania and went to Detroit, because I wouldn’t be sitting here today.
Jackson:
Yeah, I think we would have done another Sissy Spacek story if you’d stayed in Johnstown instead of…
Jordan:
Well, I think I would have sung. Sure, I would have been a Country singer.
Jackson:
Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Jordan:
Sure, sure absolutely, I always say that.
Jackson:
Yeah, we are talking with Sheila Jordan and Sheila, we’ve been talking for about the last 1/2 hour and I want to thank you for coming by.
Jordan:
Oh it was a pleasure. I’m so glad that I finally got to meet you and it’s so beautiful to know that they have such wonderful Jazz stations up here.
Jackson:
Thank you.
Jordan:
And such beautiful people doing Jazz music.
Jackson:
Thank you very much
Jordan:
And I thank you for your interest.
END OF INTERVIEW
TRANSCRIBED BY LEONARD BROWN
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