VOCALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE SHEILA JORDAN RELEASES 'WINTER SUNSHINE,' HER JUSTIN TIME DEBUT; CELEBRATES 80th BIRTHDAY IN STYLE This fall brings two remarkable events to Sheila Jordan: the veteran jazz singer is not only turning 80, but she is launching a brand new recording affiliation with the distinguished Montreal-based label Justin Time Records (now in its 25th year). Along with Abbey Lincoln, Carol Sloane and not many others, Jordan is among the last great living jazz singers, extending the legacy of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Jordan's own contemporary, Betty Carter. Winter Sunshine, her first release for Justin Time, marks Sheila's lucky 21st album under her own name (in addition to dozens of guest appearances on albums by well-known jazz instrumentalists).
Considering that Jordan has been a professional jazz singer for over 60 years, this is not an enormous catalog. Rather, the comparatively small number of recordings she has made testifies to the fact that over the course of her long career, Sheila Jordan never makes records gratuitously. She never does an album just for the sake of making an album, but rather, only goes into the studio (or brings recording equipment into a club), when she has something to say. Winter Sunshine is an example of the latter, taped live in Montreal on Valentine's Week 2008.
Early Life Born Sheila Jeanette Dawson, on November 18, 1928 (the same exact birth date as Mickey Mouse), in Detroit, Michigan, Jordan was raised under the care of her grandparents in the coal mining town of Summerhill, Pennsylvania (near Altoona). It was through her grandfather's Native American heritage that she learned the chanting style heard on "Whose Angry Little Man Are You" on Winter Sunshine (her grandfather gave her the name "Little Song").
At 14, Jordan moved back to Detroit to attend high school and live with her mother. In her high school years, Sheila was immersed in Detroit's burgeoning modern jazz scene, which was especially rich in great bop pianists Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris as well as guitarist Kenny Burrell. She was also singing in a trio called "Skeeter, Mitch and Jean" that adapted jazz instrumentals into vocal terms in a manner that anticipated Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. To this day she still sings these vintage lyrics she still sings to the bop standards "Confirmation" and "Barbados."
A Career In bebop From the beginning, her idol and inspiration was the legendary Charlie Parker. The modern jazz mastermind worked occasionally in Detroit and frequently encouraged the young singer to sit in with him. As she later told journalist Don Heckman, "When I first heard him do 'Embraceable You,' I used to sing the lyrics just straight with him. I became so familiar with his music, that I'd know when he substituted another bridge or used altered chords. I could hear his chords." Parker called her 'the kid with the million-dollar ears.'
A few years later, Sheila married Duke Jordan, then the pianist in the Charlie Parker Quintet. During that time, she also had the opportunity to study with pianist Lennie Tristano. The marriage to Jordan ended after seven years, but left Mrs. Jordan with three things: her daughter Tracy (born 1955), her professional name, Sheila Jordan, and extended opportunities to sit in with Charlie Parker. She was also extremely impressed with Parker's trumpeter, the young and comparatively unknown Miles Davis. She became a lifelong fan of the would-be trumpet icon, and on Winter Sunshine, the song "Ballad For Miles," which leads directly into "It Never Entered My Mind' was directly inspired by Miles Davis.
The 1960s In the early '60s, Jordan sang frequently at a club called Page Three in Greenwich Village. In 1960, a group of Tristano-ites, led by bassist Peter Ind and including pianist Ronnie Ball, recorded Jordan for the first time on Looking Out, the first release on Ind's label, Wave Records, singing 'Yesterdays.' Two years later, two of the musicians she sang with at Page Three, pianist Jack Reilly and bassist Steve Swallow, brought her to the attention of George Russell. Russell was so taken with what he heard that at the age of 34, she made what is generally listed as her recording debut with a highly original rendition of the classic "You Are My Sunshine" on Russell's 1962 album The Outer View (it was dedicated to out-of-work coal miners near Jordan's Pennsylvania hometown). As Russell told Nat Hentoff, 'Sheila's singing made my skin crawl.'
Later that year, Jordan made her first full-length album, A Portrait Of Sheila, which was all the more remarkable for being on Blue Note Records - a label that concentrated on major modern jazz instrumentalists and, apart from Sheila, pretty much avoided singers altogether. Unfortunately, the prediction made at the time by Nat Hentoff did not immediately come true: "She's waited a long time, but I'll be very surprised if Sheila soon won't have to leave that day job and spend all her time at doing what she is best at - being herself through music." In 1966, thanks partly to George Russell, who was then living in Stockholm, she started appearing regularly in Scandinavia and Europe.
The 1970s and On Jordan began to work more regularly, both at home and abroad, around the time her daughter had grown up in the mid-'70s. In 1977, critic Lee Jeske observed "Her luck started to turn around. Members of the so-called avant-garde, Roswell Rudd and Carla Bley, for example, were using Sheila Jordan's vocals and her singing began to expand." She was working overseas more than ever, which led to her second and third albums, respectively, Confirmation (1975, for the Japanese label East Wind) and Sheila (1977, Steeplechase), her first of many bass-and-voice duos and her only duo recording with the Swedish bassist Arild Andersen. It was during this period that Jordan originally recorded the song, "Whose Angry Little Man Are You," in another bass-and-voice duo with bassist Harvie Swartz (it also appears on Winter Sunshine).
In the 1980s, Jordan co-led a valuable quartet with the celebrated pianist Steve Kuhn, recording several albums on the ECM label. One of the most poignant songs on Winter Sunshine is "The Crossing," the title tune of a 1984 recording which addressed her recovery from drug and alcohol addiction (a disease that plagued her family and eventually killed her mother). In 1985 and 1987, Jordan quickly climbed to the top of the Down Beat Critics Poll, placing second after Sarah Vaughan and ahead of Betty Carter; Jordan has in fact, won the Down Beat poll for "talent deserving of wider recognition" a total of nine times starting in 1962, the most for any vocalist. She has also won the IAJE Lil Hardin Armstrong Jazz Heritage Award, the IAJE Humanitarian Award, the New York City MAC Award and in 2008, Jordan was awarded the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz award for Lifetime of Service.
For much of the last 30 years, Jordan, like her colleague Mark Murphy, has been extremely active in teaching young students the ropes of jazz singing, and has made her living by a combination of touring and teaching. More than any other singer, she has been honored by major composers and instrumentalists who ask her to contribute vocals to their albums, most famously on Carla Bley's classic Escalator Over The Hill, as well as, many others, four albums each by trombonist Roswell Rudd and German big band composer George Gruntz.
In the '80s, '90s, and millennial era, Jordan has shown a penchant for partnerships with bassists, most notably Cameron Brown, with whom she has made several albums of voice and bass duets, she has also recorded with a string quartet arranged by Alan Broadbent, and done a set of duets with Mark Murphy. She splits endeavors between her trademark bass and voice and traditional rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, as on Winter Sunshine. As she says early in the live album, "I'm just happy I'm still alive - you never know." Thousands of Sheila Jordan fans all over the world would go along with that.