At 86, A 'Jazz Child' Looks Back On A Life Of Sunshine, Sorrow

Nov 30, 2014
Originally published on November 30, 2014 6:43 pm

Many fans first encountered one of the great voices in jazz as a whisper: Sheila Jordan made a quiet but lasting impression as a guest singer on pianist George Russell's 1962 arrangement of "You Are My Sunshine."

Since then, Jordan's career has taken her all over the world, and in 2012, she received one of the highest honors in jazz: she became an National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. Her music has soared, but her story starts with pain.

"I was very unhappy as a little kid," she tells NPR's Eric Westervelt. "The way I got rid of that was to sing, so I was constantly singing."

A recent biography called Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan, by Ellen Johnson, describes Jordan's life, starting with her days growing up dirt poor in Pennsylvania coal country, raised by alcoholic grandparents.

Jordan, now 86, tells Westervelt about that time in her life, as well as falling in love with the music of Charlie "Bird" Parker, struggling to feel confident about her work and experiencing violent racism at the hands of other white people because she hung out with black musicians and artists.

To hear the full conversation, click on the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On the night in Detroit when, at the age of 14, she tried to get into a club to hear Charlie Parker's Reboppers

You had to be 21 years old to get in there and I said, "Oh, I've got to hear my hero!" And I forged my mother's birth certificate and I dyed my hair blonde and I wore a hat with a veil and high-heeled shoes and I was smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette, unfiltered, and I was sure I was going to get in the door smoking my cigarette and going through the whole trip.

And I got to the door and the man said, "No no no, you can't come in here. Hey, you better go home and do your homework, little white girl." And I was so disappointed. And then I went around in the alley and sat on the garbage cans. Now, Bird was by the door so he heard all of this. He went to the back door of that club and he stood there at one point and played. The door was open and I sat on the garbage cans and Charlie Parker played for me. And it was incredible.

On the racism she faced as a white woman hanging out with a predominantly black crowd

I came to New York thinking it would be so much different here. And I remember I was going out with these two painters, two guys, and they were black, and we went to get something to eat. And on our way back, four white guys on the corner and on the bar, just before we got to the front of my building, jumped us. And three of 'em held my two friends and the other one threw me down on the street, was kicking my face, knocked out my tooth.

And all of the sudden, I looked up and here I see a guy coming with a gun pointed, I thought, at me. I said, "You know what, I'm going to die over this. But it's OK — I know I'm right. I know this is wrong." [The] guy was a plainclothes [police]man; he saved my life.

On the 12-year gap in her career after her critically acclaimed debut album

Why I never did anything after that, I don't know. I wait for people to call me. I'm kind of shy and I just could not call up and ask them, "Could I do another recording?" I couldn't do it. ... I don't know, I was kind of surprised [by the praise for her first album]. Why did they think it's so wonderful? I don't! ... I don't like to listen to my own music and I don't like to record.

On why she performs with just a bass as accompaniment

I don't know, I just love the sound of the bass. It just touched a certain part of me. I loved all that, you know, space.

I remember I was visiting family in Toledo, and my half-sister, I said, "Hey, do you want to go hear some music? Charlie Mingus is playing at this club," and she said, "Yeah, let's go."

So we sat at a table and Mingus saw me and he was shocked. He said, "Wow, what are you doing here?" I said, "Well, I'm visiting family." So then he was like, "OK, come on up and sing something with me!" I said, "What?" He said, "Come on up and sing."

... And my sister said, "Yeah, go sing, go sing!" So I'd never sung out with the bass and voice before and I did, and I sang "Yesterdays."

On being an icon in the jazz community, without being a household name

The people that respect what I do and hire me, that's all I need, you know? I just need to keep doing this music as long as I live. And in your 80s, to be able to still perform this music, and get on an airplane and go all over the world, which I've done in the last couple of months — I was on a tour in Norway and I just got off of a tour of Germany — so I'm doing OK.

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

One of the great voices in jazz was introduced with a whisper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE")

SHEILA JORDAN: (Singing) You are my sunshine.

WESTERVELT: This is how many fans discovered Sheila Jordan - as a guest singer on pianist George Russell's 1962 arrangement of "You Are My Sunshine." Since then, Jordan's career has taken her all over the world. And in 2012, she received one of the highest honors in jazz. She became a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

A new biography called "Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan" tells her story - from discovering and befriending Charlie Parker to the racism she faced as a white woman hanging out with black musicians, all the way back going up dirt poor in Pennsylvania coal country, raised by alcoholic grandparents.

JORDAN: I was very unhappy as a little kid, and the way I got rid of that unhappiness was to sing, so I was constantly singing. And then I moved back to Detroit when I was 14 to live with my mother, and that's where I got turned onto jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOW'S THE TIME")

JORDAN: I went down to this hamburger place that had a jukebox, and I was always playing music on that. And one day, I saw - it said Charlie Parker and his Reboppers - "Now's The Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOW'S THE TIME")

WESTERVELT: One night in Detroit, not long after you discovered Charlie Parker on the jukebox, you tried to get into a local club to hear Parker and his band. You were 14. Can you tell us about that night?

JORDAN: Bird was playing at a club called The Club El Sino, and you had to be 21 years old to get in there. So I said, oh, I've got to hear my hero. And I forged my mother's birth certificate, and I dyed my hair blonde, and I wore a hat with a veil and high-heeled shoes. And I was smoking the Lucky Strike cigarette - unfiltered. And I - for sure, I was going to get in the door, smoking my cigarette and going through the whole trip.

And I got to the door, and the man said, no, no, no, no, you can't come in here. Hey, you better go home and do your homework, little white girl. And I was so disappointed. And then I went around in the alley and sat on the garbage cans. Now, Bird was by the door, so he heard all of this. He went to the back door of that club, and he stood there, at one point, and played. Opened the door - the door was open, and I sat on the garbage cans, and Charlie Parker played for me. And it was incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER SONG)

WESTERVELT: When you wanted to go to a predominantly African-American jazz clubs, you'd sometimes get harassed for hanging out with black folks?

JORDAN: Oh, yes. I mean, I came to New York thinking it would be so much different here. And I remember I was going with these two painters - two guys - and they were back. And we run out to get something to eat. And on our way back, four white guys on the corner in the bar - just before we got to the front of my building - jumped us. And three of them held my two friends, and the other one threw me down on the street, was kicking my face, knocked out my tooth. And all of a sudden, I looked up, and here I see a guy coming with a gun pointed, I thought, at me. I said, you know what? I'm going to die over this, but it's OK. I know I'm right. I know this is wrong. The guy was a plainclothesman. He saved my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO CAN I TURN TO?")

JORDAN: (Singing) Who can I turn to? Where can I go? How can I face it alone?

WESTERVELT: I'm speaking with jazz singer Sheila Jordan. The new biography of her life is called "Jazz Child." Sheila, your debut album, 1962's "Portrait Of Sheila," was critically acclaimed. I mean, by most accounts, it was a big triumph. But you didn't record, then, your own album again for another 12 years.

JORDAN: Yes.

WESTERVELT: Tell us what happened.

JORDAN: Why I never did anything after that, I don't know. I wait for people to call me. I'm kind of shy. And I just could not call up and ask them, could I do another recording? I couldn't do it. I was too shy.

WESTERVELT: Even if your first recording was so well-received, you just didn't feel like you had the confidence?

JORDAN: I don't know. I was kind of surprised. Why do they think it's so wonderful? I don't. (Laughter) I don't know. That's me.

WESTERVELT: You don't like to listen to your own music?

JORDAN: No, no, no.

WESTERVELT: Why not?

JORDAN: I don't like to listen to my own music, and I don't like to record.

WESTERVELT: So you prefer live performance with, you know, minimal backing - a bass, often - just you and a bass player.

JORDAN: Oh, yes. I start the bass and voice in the very early '50s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOOD INDIGO")

JORDAN: (Singing) You ain't been blue. No, no, no. You ain't been blue till you've had that mood indigo.

I don't know. I just love the sound of the bass, and it - you know, it just touched a certain part of me. Oh, I loved all that, you know, space. And I remember I was visiting family in Toledo, and my half-sister - I said, hey, you want to go and hear some music? Charlie Mingus is playing at this club. And she said, yeah, let's go. So we sat at the table, and Mingus saw me, and he was shocked. He said, whoa, what you doing here? I said, well, I'm visiting family. So then he was like, see, OK, come on up and sing something with me. I said, what? He said, come up and sing. Oh, no. And my sister went, yeah, go sing, go sing. So I'd never sung out with a bass and voice before, and I did, and I sang "Yesterdays."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YESTERDAY")

JORDAN: (Singing) Yesterdays - days I knew and happy, sweet, sequestered days...

WESTERVELT: Sheila, you're an innovator and an icon, but you're hardly a household name. Does that ever bother you?

JORDAN: No, I don't care. To people that, you know, respect what I do and hire me - that's all I need, you know. I just need to keep doing this music as long as I live. In your 80s, to be able to still perform this music and get on an airplane and go all over the world, which I've done in the last couple of months - I was on a tour of Norway and on a tour of - I just got off of a tour of Germany, so I'm doing OK.

WESTERVELT: You're 86, and you're still going full steam ahead, Sheila.

JORDAN: Yes.

WESTERVELT: It's amazing.

JORDAN: Yes.

WESTERVELT: That's singer Sheila Jordan. There's a new biography out by Ellen Johnson called "Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan." Ms. Jordan, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you.

JORDAN: Oh, such a pleasure to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YESTERDAY")

JORDAN: (Singing) ...Was my... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.