Originally commissioned and published by Women In Jazz Media for their online magazine as part of their ‘Women Who Inspire’ series of articles, this piece is written by Georgia Mancio and Nick Lea. 

The albums mentioned are a representation of Sheila’s available recordings that we hope that you’ll check out in your own journey of discovery of this wonderful artist as we mark her 94th birthday (November 18th 2022)

In the pantheon of jazz vocalists, the names that immediately seem to trip off the tongue are Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

The name missing from that list is Sheila Jordan.

Sheila began singing on local radio stations in the late 1930’s, going on to working semi-professionally alongside her regular day job (she did not turn professional until she was in her sixties) to the current day as she still performs and tours regularly. Her remarkable career now spans nine decades, and she still shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

As well as her courage and indomitable spirit, Sheila is an acknowledged forerunner of jazz singing and along with her ability to scat, forged a new way of integrating vocals with the ever more complex harmonies of bebop. Her lyric writing and improvising skills were new at the time and continue to sound fresh and exciting today.

Sheila Jordan was born Sheila Jeanette Dawson on 18th November 1928, in Detroit, Michigan. Her mother, just seventeen, struggled to raise her young daughter and turned to alcohol. Sheila was sent to live with her grandparents in Pennsylvania where she grew up with nine other siblings who were really her aunts and uncles. Life with her grandparents in the small coal mining town of Summerhill in the Allegheny mountains was difficult. Money was tight, and the situation made worse by her alcoholic grandfather. Of this period in her life Sheila recalls, We were probably the poorest people in a poor town…we had an outhouse and no water in the house… In the wintertime all of us would sleep in one bedroom without any sheets of pillowcases on the beds; we just had blankets.”

Not a particularly conducive environment for a young girl to grow up in, with little warmth or affection from her grandparents. Sheila would, however, find comfort in music: quickly developing a good ear, singing popular songs she heard on the radio, and performing in school and local talent competitions. Sheila remembers often being taunted by fellow classmates, It was hard for me because the other kids would get jealous, try to imitate me and make fun of my singing”, but she was encouraged by one of her teachers which boosted her confidence.

In 1942 she left Pennsylvania, returning to Detroit to live with her mother, though this would again prove to be an unhealthy move for the young teenager, and with her mother’s alcoholism, another unhappy time for Sheila. “My mother was always very sweet but she had a lot of relationships that were very sick. She had very low self-esteem and being the alcoholic that she was I saw a lot of stuff growing up when I was with her, like beatings and it was horrible”. Continuing her education, Sheila studied at the Commerce High School learning clerical skills that would serve her well for much of her adult life.

Sheila Jordan

Music still remained an important part of her life and she would spend her lunch breaks listening to records on a jukebox in a place across the road from school. It was here that she first heard the jazz musician that would change her life forever, when by chance she selected a tune called ‘Now’s The Time’ by saxophonist Charlie Parker. Remembering that moment in her life, Sheila says that after the first four notes I was hooked. I got goose bumps, and I instantly knew that was the music I had been waiting to hear and would dedicate my life to singing.”

Charlie Parker, or ‘Bird’ as he was nicknamed, was part of a small group of musicians that were revolutionising small group jazz in the 1940’s. With its complex harmonies and fast tempos, the young musicians pioneering this new music – bebop – were seen as cool and hip by impressionable teenagers, and when Parker and his group would visit Detroit, Sheila and guitarist Kenny Burrell would often dress up to make themselves look older to gain access to clubs and their musical heroes. If the youngsters were refused entry, Parker would ask the club owners to keep their back doors open so they could still gather and hear the music.

1947 would be an important year for Sheila as the nineteen year old singer found herself performing in a vocal trio with Leroi Mitchell and Skeeter Spight, under the name Skeeter, Mitch and Jean (Sheila at the time was using her middle name). The trio would transcribe solos, sing standards and most importantly write lyrics to bebop compositions, the embryonic beginning of Sheila’s unique style recognised by Bird who told her, “You have million-dollar ears, kid.” That year she also secured her first clerical job, giving her independence from her mother.

In 1951 she moved to New York, working for a Madison Avenue Ad agency by day, and making connections and sitting in whenever possible in the city’s jazz clubs by night. It was during this time that she studied with pianist Lennie Tristano, who taught her the importance of lyrics and how to connect with them, and crucially encouraged her to find her own sound. Still captivated by the music of Charlie Parker, Sheila made the ill-fated decision to marry his pianist, Duke Jordan, who like Bird was a heroin addict.

The marriage lasted ten years and the relationship was an unhappy time for the singer, although did produce a daughter, Tracy in whom Sheila says she finally had someone “that I could truly love and that I was sure would love me back”.

The early sixties would find Sheila in a happier place. She had financial stability in her job and a 2 -3 night weekly residency singing at a gay bar called Page 3 in Greenwich Village. By now, she was really establishing her reputation, but concedes: “I made six dollars, gave the babysitter four dollars and since it was four in the morning, I had to take a cab home. You can see I didn’t do it for the money.”

Meeting George Russell at this time also played a big part in Sheila’s musical development, with Russell inviting her to sing on his album The Outer View in 1961, marking her recording debut. She and Russell were also briefly engaged but it was a demo that they recorded together which would have a more lasting impact, resulting in a contract with Blue Note. An auspicious start to her recording career: Sheila became the first vocalist to sign with this prestigious label, and it is with her solo debut album, Portrait Of Sheila, released in 1963, where the magic really begins.

Recorded over two sessions in September and October 1962 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, Sheila laid down some tracks that would immediately announce a major new artist. Listening again to the music, Georgia Mancio reflects: “Her 1962 debut album, still stands for me as one of the most important oeuvres by a jazz vocalist.

Every track is so strong, so full of character and authenticity, and although there is none of her trademark scat, its a masterclass in lyrical improvisation: placing and displacing words and changing the emphasis with ease and flexibility over multiple choruses. Her confidence and maturity is perhaps not surprising: by 1962 she was a single mum, working both during the day and at night.

When I listen in particular to the ballads on this set (‘Who Can I Turn To Now’, ‘Im A Fool To Want You’, etc), I am transported to singer/pianist/composer, Dave Frishberg’s recollection: ‘Sheila was magic. The customers would stop gabbing … and the whole place would be under her spell’.

It would be easy to underestimate the finesse here: the sheer breeziness of the fast paced ‘Lets Face The Music and Dance’; the change of intent from heartbreak to defiance in ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh’ (both firmly in the pocket); the final glide of ‘When The World Was Young’ and so many other subtly virtuosic moments.

It also shows she was ahead of her time. Since being invited to sit in with Mingus piano-less quartet, she had been exploring the idea of a double bass and voice duo, but as it was something new at the time, Blue Note allowed for only one song in this format: the witty parent/child dynamic of Oscar Brown Jrs lyrics to ‘Dat Dere’ (written by pianist, Bobby Timmons) which has since become one of her signature songs, here performed with bassist Steve Swallow.”

If, as it appears, that Blue Note bottled the suggestion of recording Sheila with just bass for accompaniment then the idea of using Barry Galbraith on guitar was an inspired one. Galbraith’s playing is suitably sparse leaving plenty of space for Sheila to work her magic with her timing and delivery, which she does with devastating effect.

After the spectacular debut album for Blue Note, Sheila would not record again under her own name until 1975 on a set with Alan Pasqua on piano, bassist Cameron Brown (who would later become an important collaborator with the singer), Beaver Harris on drums and tenor saxophonist, Norman Marnell. Titled Confirmation and released on the East Wind imprint, the album featured a mixture of standards and a medley of songs dedicated to children.

As good as the album is, it is on her follow up, recorded in 1977 that Sheila once again made here presence felt in an inspiring set. Simply titled Sheila, this was the setting for Jordan that Blue Note could have recorded but baulked at. Steeplechase showed no such qualms and arranged to recorded Sheila accompanied by Norwegian bassist, Arild Andersen. Recorded over two days in August 1977 the resulting album featured a nice mixture of standards and a couple of compositions by pianist Steve Kuhn.

The empathy between Andersen and Sheila is staggering, and as adventurous as the bassist is, Sheila’s delivery and improvisations at times make him sound the more conservative of the two. Sheila puts her stamp on Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ (I’ve never heard it sung like this before!), and ‘Better Than Anything’ is a real delight. The singer’s admiration for Billie Holiday is clear for all to hear on ‘Don’t Explain’, penned by Billie and Arthur Herzog Jr., and the beautiful dedication, ‘Lady Day’, written by Rudy Stevenson.

Now starting to make her presence felt on record, Sheila also made a couple of surprise but welcome appearances on ECM Records. The German imprint, under the guiding hand of founder and producer, Manfred Eicher, was always open to new sounds and concepts and was recording an ever-widening circle of artists from around the globe.

In 1979, Sheila appeared on Playground, a duet album with pianist Steve Kuhn with lyrics that have a tendency to lean to a darker side than normally associated with the singer. In an appraisal of the album for Jazz Views, Jim Burlong wrote “this truly is a highly impressive piece of work and connects with the listener in a similar way to much of Billie Holiday’s output. You may not be dancing down the street after your first listen to this album, but you may well return to it time and again…”.

Later that year Sheila was back in the studio, again with pianist Kuhn, but this time on an album under the stewardship of bassist, Steve Swallow, which Georgia Mancio notes is “Further proof that Sheila impresses and convinces in any situation: integrated into Swallow’s dynamic, sometimes quirky settings of Robert Creeley’s poems in Home”.

Indeed, Sheila is once again in fine company with Kuhn, Swallow, Bob Moses on drums, saxophonist Dave Liebman and the late Lyle Mays on synthesizer, in a set that draws on the tradition, along with some forward looking arrangements from Swallow that have stood the test of time.

From here on in, Sheila’s recording output begins to become far more prolific, with a steady stream of releases that find her settling on a more familiar repertoire: a mixture of standards and a few original compositions. She always brings out the best in both the material and her musical colleagues, remaining so fresh even when reworking familiar material that she has recorded and performed live on countless occasions.

Like Lee Konitz and her old teacher Lennie Tristano, Sheila believes that knowing a song so intimately enables one to go anywhere at any time, which this does make for some exciting listening.

The Crossing released in 1984 is a quiet classic with nine tracks featuring different line ups from duets to quintets. As Georgia is quick to point out, “The album showcases the (sometimes underestimated) range of Sheila’s vocal skills: gutsy blues (her iconic ‘Sheila’s Blues’), gossamer scat and vocalese (‘Little Willie Leaps’), the beauty of her legato lines and deep emotional connection to the lyric (‘It Never Entered My Mind’, and ‘You Must Believe in Spring’).

Her audaciousness (I love the descending run on ‘Don’t Explain’) never compromises the authenticity of her interpretation and storytelling, imbuing the whole album with a tangible tranquillity. The band is wonderful, Kenny Barron, Harvie S, Ben Riley plus Tom Harrell, and Sheilas life affirming original title track – originally inspired by an old lovers artwork and written in celebration of her sobriety – is one of my favourite songs of all time.”

Sheila would reunite with trumpeter and flugelhorn player, Tom Harrell, on Little Song recorded in June 2002. A lovely set, Harrell plays on four titles including a gentle ‘Autumn In New York’ and an absorbing ‘The Touch Of Your Lips’, with Steve Kuhn’s incredibly sensitive accompaniment to Harrell’s lovely, muted trumpet.

After the modest success of the album with Arild Andersen, Sheila was still fascinated by the concept of working with just a bassist, and two outstanding albums can be found with two different partnerships. The first is with Harvie S on an album Yesterdays (Live In Concert) recorded in 1990 but not released until 2012.

Of the album Georgia notes that, “Sheila immediately showed her absolute command in the pared back voice/bass duo setting with Arild Anderson in 1978, but the development, breadth and sense of an equal partnership really flourished in her later collaborations, first with Harvie S, then Cameron Brown. For me she is a peerless live performer: meticulous, engaging, spontaneous, with a sincerity and passion that never fails to move me.

So, I particularly love this live set with Harvie S, packed with intricate yet fluid arrangements (an epic, virtuosic ‘Honeysuckle Rose / Aint Misbehavin’) and beautifully restrained ballads (the rapturous ‘Lazy Afternoon’ with Sheila’s Native American scat).

Both demonstrate their enormous versatility including Harvie’s beautiful bowing and even an operatic foray from Sheila (‘I Could Have Danced All Night’). The recording quality is excellent, and the date really captures both the focus and exuberance between them.”

Equally fine is I’ve Grown Accustomed To The Bass (she certainly has!) with Cameron Brown, and it is fascinating listening to the two albums back to back, to hear just how different the two bassists are, and how Sheila interacts with each.

As if to show her versatility, Sheila had always wanted to record with a string quartet. In 1993 she got her wish and made an album, Heart Strings with pianist and arranger, Alan Broadbent. With an emphasis on ballads, Broadbent writes some exquisite arrangements for the strings, Georgia describing Sheila vocals as “melting into the luscious and endlessly inventive arrangements.

There are also some beautiful originals: ‘Out To Sea’ (Cheryl Pyle’s lyrics to Tom Harrells composition ‘Sail Away’); Clifford Brown and Abbey Lincolns ‘Japanese Dream’ in a moving medley with Irving Berlins ‘What’ll I Do’ and Broadbent’s own ‘Hearts Desire’ with lyricist (and Sheila fan!) Dave Frishberg. I was utterly transported by her live version of this album in London in 2018 with Pete Churchills Trio and The Tori String Quartet”

The remarkable recording career of Sheila Jordan seemingly went round in a complete circle, with the discovery by record dealers Jeremy Sloan and Hadley Kinslow of SloLow Records, of some long lost sessions, among a large collection of acetates they had purchased. Capri Records would release the cuts in 2021 as Comes Love: Lost Session 1960.

The music comes as a startling revelation as it was recorded a full two years before Portrait Of Sheila, and immediately marks her out as a major stylist in the making. With no identifying label on the acetate or packaging, there is much that remains unknown, and 60 years on, Sheila herself has no recollection of the session or the musicians who participated, adding to the mystery of the recording.

An important discovery, the music is impeccable, with Sheila weaving her inimitable magic on some beautiful ballads and standards, and an early example of one of her staple songs, ‘Don’t Explain’.

Remarkably, this is not the end of the story, as at the tender young age of ninety-four, Sheila is still touring and recording, and this year finds the vocalist releasing more new music. Steeplechase have again had the foresight to take the opportunity to record Sheila on an album title trioTrio Meets Sheila Jordan.

Recorded in March 2021 and featuring pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist David Ambrose and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, Sheila performs some of her well loved songs with a lovely ‘If I Should Lose You’ and a timely reprise of own composition, ‘The Crossing’.

The other new release from Sheila was recorded live at New York Jazz Club, Mezzrow, on 25th October 2021 with Alan Broadbent on piano and Harvie S on bass. This is a delightful meeting of old friends in an intimate venue with an appreciative audience, and I’ll wager there’s many a singer out there who would eagerly grasp an opportunity to be accompanied by Harvie and Alan who are impeccable throughout.

Sheila shows that she still has what it takes to hold an audience in the palm of her hand with a wonderful scat chorus on ‘The Touch Of Your Lips’ and reading of another staple in her repertoire over the years, ‘Baltimore Oriole’. This is quite a special recording, capturing the essence and spirit of Sheila Jordan doing what she does best.

With such an extensive discography now available there is much to enjoy, and it has been a great pleasure to be able to enlist the ears and advice of Georgia Mancio on some “new Sheila” to discover. When comparing our listening notes, we inevitably picked some of the same recordings, but also to our delight were able to come up some less obvious choices and new favourites.

The albums mentioned are a representation of Sheila’s available recordings that Georgia and Nick hope that you will check out in your own journey of discovery of this wonderful artist.

You can read the original article for Women In Jazz Media here.

And to read the full July 2022 edition of the Women In Jazz Media magazine here.