Sheila Jordan: Jazz Child

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Sheila Jordan
By Lauren Deutsch

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Charlie Parker Place doubles for the stretch of Avenue B bordering Tompkins Square in New York’s East Village. Not one of the city’s more distinguished neighborhoods, it has yet to be touched by currents of gentrification. The elderly and infirm inch their way down the street, slowly entering and exiting the park. They inhabit its benches by day, only for less savory characters to take their places after sunset. Sirens blare. Teens practice gymnastics, hoping to earn change from passersby in better, touristed locations. Among forlorn and crumbling apartment buildings, an anonymous window of Parker’s former home surveys this drab scene.

What few people know is that Charlie Parker Place occupies an alternate locale hundreds of miles north: a cheerful red barn in rural Huntersland, N.Y. The barn, where a street sign identical to the one in NYC perches above chunky double doors, sits atop a tiny hill on five wooded acres. A modest house keeps it company, home of vocalist Sheila Jordan. “I was presented with that sign at the first Charlie Parker Festival, about five years ago,” she remembers happily, recalling the same occasion that renamed Avenue B. “I brought Bird here to live with me.”

And, in a sense, he does. Photographs of Parker decorate walls and his albums line neatly organized shelves. Tiny winged figures peep from nooks and windowsills. More importantly, he is a constant presence in 72-year-old Jordan’s memories and music.

From the first time she heard him—via a 78 record on a high school jukebox in Detroit—Jordan has immersed herself in Parker’s music. She first saw him in person when she was about 17, from her seat on a back alley garbage can (an amusing anecdote lyricized as “Sheila’s Blues”). She joined two other singers in an amateur trio and performed vocalese versions of his tunes, a precursor to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Parker would generously invite them to sit in. When she moved to New York City in 1952, he frequented her loft on 26th Street—albeit at rather odd hours—sometimes toting records of Bartók and Stravinsky. She would marry his pianist, Duke Jordan.

“Anthropology” and “Confirmation” still remain part of her vibrant sets co-led by pianist Steve Kuhn, a longtime collaborator, as well as others. Yet what Jordan learned from Parker has molded her on a deeper, more personal level. “He didn’t sit down and say, ‘OK, this is how you do it. These are the chord changes,’” she explains. “He didn’t have to do that. All he had to do was talk about the music and the way he felt about it. He always encouraged me to follow my heart, to do what I felt and believed in.”

Jordan has done just that. And following her heart has taken her in some unusual creative directions, in particular, performing whole evenings of bass and voice duos. “I am in love with the bass,” she professes, naming the duos as her favorite expressive vehicle. “I love to flirt with the bass. I love to dance with the bass. I love to sing with the bass. Sometimes I even think it’s playing itself.”

Lest someone feel left out, the bass doesn’t really play itself: Cameron Brown pulls the strings as Jordan’s most recent partner. Last November they performed to a packed house at New York’s Cornelia Street Café, celebrating their new High Note release, I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass. The album, recorded in Bruges, Belgium, documents their very first concert performance back in 1997.

The chemistry shared by Jordan and Brown can be gleaned from visual cues alone. Brown’s playful romps, predicted by animated facial expressions, meet with smiles and batted eyelids. He’ll snuggle closely with the fingerboard, eyes closed, plaintively bending pitches on “Good Morning Heartache” or “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” Jordan, in turn, sings directly into the strings, head bowed close to the instrument. “She’s right there,” Brown says, measuring about eight inches between his hands. “Her voice and the bass almost become one thing. It feels like she gets inside the sound—that’s what she wants to do.” The difference in range and timbral quality renders the effect all the more incredible.

One might assume adjectives like “sparse,” “stripped down” or “bare bones” would best capture this texture’s inherent qualities, but Jordan explodes such limitations, creating a fully realized world of sound. “I can hear the rhythm in my head. So, in essence, I’m keeping the time, I’m the drummer,” she reasons. “I’m playing the chord changes in my head. So, in essence, I’m the piano player. I create my own rhythm section. Whatever I want to hear, I can hear.” She never imitates those instruments, yet Jordan projects her inner hearing so forcefully she creates the illusion of a larger ensemble.

It may not surprise some that so vivid a musical imagination finds parallels in her everyday life. A personal tour of her tranquil domicile, for example, uncovers spirits besides Parker. She bypasses plaques and awards to point out artwork: a dignified engraving of a Native American that reflects part of her ethnic heritage plus a wide-mouthed, almost operatic-looking bust of Michael Jordan. She kids he’s no relation. Her houseplants have names like Paris and Jewel with Tiny the tree just outside. Buddy the car resides in the garage. She communes with fish in her pond and the woods themselves. Local cows, too, who apparently enjoy “Scrapple from the Apple.” (“How stupid could they be? I don’t see horses come over when I run bebop changes.”)

Anything she comes to cherish can assume its own personality. As for her affinity for the bass, she struggles to express it in words: “It’s because of the sound, but it’s the whole feeling, it’s in the wood. I love the way the bass looks. Although it seems like such a big bad instrument, it’s so light and so delicate. It reminds me of a sweet monster.”

“Not unlike Charles Mingus?” I offer in response.

She chuckles, but gracefully declines to comment. The first time she performed just bass and voice was with Mingus. He happened to be in Toledo while Jordan was visiting family there. “You want me to sing?” she questioned, as he called her up. “But there’s no piano!” Mingus, who already knew Jordan’s interest in bass and voice work, gambled nothing by inviting her to the stage. The two had already played together on a few club dates in New York and, in the mid-1950s, he sent her to study jazz theory with Lennie Tristano. She would begin to experiment with the form at Tristano’s in-house sessions. A fellow student, bassist Peter Ind, became an early collaborator, and his album Looking Out would be her first recording.

The work became so enticing that Jordan suggested her debut recording, Portrait of Sheila (1962), be entirely bass and voice. Blue Note impresario Alfred Lion didn’t warm to the idea. The album, however, clearly illustrates her early predilection for this sound. Bassist Steve Swallow supports many tracks like “Dat Dere” on his own, drummer Denzil Best merely swooshing in the background. Liner notes by Nat Hentoff contain a revealing quote that explains Jordan’s minimalist tendencies: “The reason I like only a small group is that I have a lot of ideas going once I start to improvise, and I can’t help but concentrate on what I hear behind me. If I hear too much, if someone plays changes that don’t go with the way I feel the song, my own invention begins to fade.”

So what might feel limiting to other singers actually feeds Jordan’s creativity and offers her greater control in shaping musical events. In particular, her harmonic choices become freer without a piano’s full chords. “Less is more,” as she now likes to put it and, logically, having a single partner rather than three or four increases the amount of space allotted each individual. It also enables more direct communication and, with it, a higher level of spontaneous interaction.

Jordan and Swallow would do some live bass and voice work at the Page Three in New York and, by 1977, she got to make her first bass and voice album, Sheila, with Arild Anderson. The bulk of her experience, however, has been in the company of Harvie Swartz. They began practicing together without any particular agenda in the early ’80s while on tour with Kuhn’s band. A concert at Temple University put them on the road together, and the relationship, which Jordan likens to a musical marriage, lasted over 15 years. The fruits of their labor yielded three albums, including an outstanding new release on MA Records, The Very Thought of Two (recorded 1987).

Jordan and Brown may be a more recent aggregate, but, ironically, he was the first bass player she tried to enlist back in the ’70s. Both worked, at separate times, with bandleader George Russell and performed together in bands led by trombonist Roswell Rudd. Brown played in the house rhythm section at St. James Infirmary, a club managed by Rudd’s wife, where Jordan, along with Chet Baker, Zoot Sims and others, would come to sit in. She hired him for her regular Thursday gig at Sunny’s Place on Long Island and he played for her second album, Confirmation (1975). In retrospect, he hears an underlying bass and voice conception in that recording.

He doesn’t recall Jordan’s attempts at his earlier recruitment, but doubts his initial response would have been favorable. (As Swartz put it, “Just you and me the whole concert? I don’t think so.”) While their witty, engaging concerts appear almost effortless, their ease masks daunting creative and technical difficulties.

“Surely, you’re in an accompanying role, but you’re the only other thing there,” says Brown, articulating the bassist’s perspective. “You become the whole rhythm section in a way, giving it continuity, holding it all together, and, most importantly, making it musical. Every note is completely exposed and you can’t be afraid of space. It becomes painfully obvious whether or not you can hold a tempo, whether it’s very slow or very fast. You also have to be really in tune.” Brown has conquered these challenges with aplomb.

With such a distinguished background, it’s hard to believe that Jordan has only been performing full-time for the last 13 years. Left on her own with her young daughter Traci, she took a secretarial job in the ’50s and worked for an advertising agency through 1987. She packed touring into vacation time, singing locally nights and weekends. The way she views it, a day job granted financial stability and, with it, the freedom to choose work she really believed in. With music providing a modest second income, she put aside savings to purchase her country home. As she likes to put it, “Bird built this house.”

Walking out to the barn, Jordan hints she would like to start her own summer school for jazz vocalists right at Charlie Parker Place. “Couldn’t you just see it?” she inquires hopefully. Teaching became an important facet of her career in 1978 when she joined the faculty at New York’s City College. She still gives classes there and regularly holds private clinics. “I could have a dressing room in the back, workshops right here. They could go practice in the woods. We’re surrounded by 166 acres. Nobody would complain because nobody is here.” With Jordan’s gifts, it’s not difficult to imagine. All it would take is a little funding to get it off the ground. A neighbor, who holds retreats on his farm, would host the musical visitors a short drive away. Performances could take place there as well as workshops, attracting the same townsfolk who sold out Jordan’s show at a local Masonic Temple. Former stalls for livestock could be converted to individual practice spaces, students literally learning in the woodshed. With the invaluable wisdom that Bird imparted invaluable wisdom to Jordan. Charlie Parker Place would be the perfect location to pass it along.

Originally published in March 2001

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