Volume 73, Number 44 | March 3 - 9, 2004


In the prime of her career

Chelsea jazz singer is ‘all about the truth’

By Lionelle Hamanka

Jazz singer Shelia Jordan, a Chelsea resident, will tour three continents this year

Sheila Jordan is a jazz singer and long-time Chelsea resident whose career has spanned five decades. Born in Detroit to a teenage mother, Jordan was sent to Pennsylvania, where she was raised by her impoverished grandparents.

“I used to sing and improvise in the mountains all the time,” Jordan said. In ‘Scooptown,’ (Southport, Pennsylvania), she sang to calm her fears as she walked past a cemetery in the dark. Ms. Jordan, who is one quarter Cherokee, was heckled as a ‘halfbreed’ in coal mining country.

She returned to Detroit at the age of 14 to live with her mother and arrived in time for the birth of bebop. Her peers — Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Kenny Burrell — teenagers at the time, became bebop stars in the Detroit jazz movement. As a student at Cass Tech and Commerce High School, she “freaked out” over Charlie Parker, eventually moving to New York to be close to “Bird.” At a local non-alcoholic hangout — Club Sudan — she hung out with other teens, listening to the latest jazz recordings.

Before the civil rights movement, jazz bandleaders like Benny Goodman hired Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, despite death threats and insults to the entire band. In Detroit, Jordan paid a heavy price for integration – she was picked up by police and hauled into the station as a teenager. Her high school principal ‘interrogated her’ for hanging out with ‘colored.’

“I could have just given up,” she recalled. “It was scary, all these authority figures telling me I was wrong for hanging out with black jazz musicians.”

In the 1950’s she moved to New York to get away from the discrimination but was assaulted (a tooth was knocked out) when she opened a jazz loft in Chelsea.

In New York she married Duke Jordan, (at that time, Charlie Parker’s pianist). Unfortunately he was addicted to drugs at the time, and they split up. Ms. Jordan then had to continue struggling against discrimination as a single parent raising her daughter Traci, (for many years a successful executive at Motown who now freelances, developing artists’ careers).

Jordan’s first big hit was “You Are My Sunshine,” a coal miner’s song recorded by George Russell, a famous modern jazz composer and musician.

Russell shopped her demo around and got her a record deal with Alfred Lion, founder of the Blue Note label. A musician’s singer, Ms. Jordan’s fans included Charlie Parker, the great saxophonist who revolutionized jazz in the 40’s and 50’s. She said, that Bird told her, “You’ve got million dollar ears.” Charles Mingus, the landmark composer and bassist, introduced her to Lennie Tristano, who taught her modern theory and harmony.

Eschewing the success formula of the music industry, Jordan has forged a successful career. This year she tours three continents, from Calgary to Brazil and Greece to Italy. She has recorded about 15 albums as a leader on the Muse, ECM, High Note, Black Hawk, Sony, and Steeplechase labels.

“I’m not into, ‘I gotta make it,” she said. “I wasn’t out there pushing myself…as long as I can sing what I want to sing. I never expected to get as far as I’ve gotten, if you want to call it commercial success. I worked in an office until I was 58 years old … I always found a place to sing.”

When she was laid off from her job, with a year’s severance pay, she made the leap into full time music-making.

“I prayed so hard that I would sing more.” She flashes a wide smile and her eyes sparkle.

Jordan received the Lil Hardin Armstrong Award from by the prestigious International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) at the Hilton Hotel earlier this year. The Hilton’s East Suite overflowed with musicians, singers and fans from Europe, South America and the U.S., many people cried during testimonials to Ms. Jordan’s help and influence.”…

“Thank you for your beautiful expressive sound — it’s all about the truth,” said Joe Lovano, one of the foremost tenor saxophonists in the world today, recorded on Blue Note records.

An ‘organic’ singer, Jordan, in a long black dress and a sequin cap, played at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse to a sold out crowd earlier this year. She got the crowd loose and laughing early on. She swung hard, scatting, using surrounding, diminished notes, blue and bent notes, and Native American chants with ease, delighting the crowd and moving many to tears during renditions of “Everything Happens to Me,” and “If I Should Lose You.”

Jordan teaches at City College; is visiting professor at Stanford University and holds seminars around the world. She tells her students… “‘Don’t be afraid to take chances’…This music will live forever, [but] you have to give it away to keep it.”


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