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Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Veronica Swift: Three Generations of Vocal Jazz

A roundtable chat about singing, career building, education, and more

Veronica Swift, Sheila Jordan, and Dee Dee Bridgewater
Left to right: Moderator Veronica Johnson, Veronica Swift, Sheila Jordan, and Dee Dee Bridgewater (photo: Lee Mergner)

One of the many highlights of the 40th Detroit Jazz Festival was a freewheeling conversation in the Talk Tent between three charismatic female vocalists. The eldest, 91-year-old Sheila Jordan (still a mere 90 at the time of this interview), is a Detroit native who burst onto the New York scene in the ’50s, struggled through several subsequent decades, then finally achieved broader recognition as a senior citizen, part of a delightful second act that continues to this day. Dee Dee Bridgewater, 69, grew up in Flint, Mich.; her talent and ambition as both an artist and an entrepreneur have been an inspiration to countless others for nearly 50 years. The baby of the trio, 25-year-old Veronica Swift, doesn’t have as much of a Michigan connection, but she’s been making waves aplenty with her confidently poised 2019 Mack Avenue debut album Confessions. An edited transcript of their discussion, moderated by music writer Veronica Johnson, follows. Thanks to the Detroit Jazz Festival for allowing us to transcribe and publish it.

Veronica Johnson: I want to start off with a question that’s been a hot topic when it comes to this genre—what do you think about the state of women in jazz now? Do you think there’s no longer a need to discuss gender equality in jazz, or are there still strides that need to be made when it comes to women being in jazz?

Sheila Jordan: I think there’s still time for improvement, absolutely. It’s getting better—it’s not as bad as it used to be. But, you know, we have to work a little bit more on it. Women are strong. We need a woman President. I won’t say any more.

Dee Dee Bridgewater: I’m in agreement that more needs to be done. Like Sheila said, we’ve made a lot of strides and there is a new consciousness about our involvement in the music and in the industry. We have a lot of organizations that are being created to support women in jazz, but I think that there are still a lot of musicians of the opposite gender who need to change the way they see women in jazz. There used to be a kind of unspoken allowing of men in jazz to say unsavory things to us, and we used to laugh it off or curse them out or give an occasional slap. Today more and more musicians are aware that things have to be kept in their proper place, and more and more is not being said. But we still have a lot to do. I think that it’s a reflection of society in general. I’m sorry, you guys—we love you, but we do need to have more respect, I do believe, in all areas.

SJ: We’ve got to get rid of that [idea], “She plays good for a chick.”

Veronica Swift: I grew up with my parents being jazz musicians, so I grew up in these bands with a lot of other kids, all boys. And I played trumpet too, and I was the only girl who played trumpet in school. But I was actually very lucky. Because of women like you who have opened doors for girls like me, I’ve had a very good experience, at least in my high school and college, reaching for that equality. We have you guys to thank for that, your strength and wisdom.

VJ: Sheila, because of what you went through, especially back in the ‘50s and ‘60s with so much gender discrimination, do you feel like you’ve opened up doors for both male and female musicians?

SJ: Yeah, but also way back then it wasn’t “Does she sing good?” or “Does she play good?” [It was] “What does she look like?” In other words, if you weren’t good-looking or what they thought was good-looking, forget it.

DDB: I’m a little bit after Sheila, so my professional career started in 1970. When I came along, I think I was fortunate because I was embraced by most of the jazz legends, and so they treated me—these men treated me—like their daughter. So I had that respect. And then if I would be around any of these musicians and a man would come up and make an off-color remark, they would deal with that individual and I never had to. But then when I would be in different work situations, I found that I really had to defend myself, and that was when I started learning to use my voice. I learned very young, in my twenties, to start speaking out. A lot of women that I was growing up with felt that, in order for them to have more respect, they needed to dress less feminine, and I still see that today. I opted to stay feminine and use my voice and use my attitude and go from that, because I’m very proud of being a woman and I’m not afraid of that difference. So on an individual level, I didn’t have problems.

VJ: Because of women like Sheila.

DDB: Because I stand on Sheila’s shoulders—Sheila, Ella [Fitzgerald], Betty [Carter], Carmen [McRae]. Whenever I would hang out with Carmen, she would always drop little bits of wisdom on me on how to take care of myself. We [female singers] had a fellowship, we had a sisterhood that got lost, I think, in the ’90s and the early 2000s, and I’m really trying to bring it back. We used to invite each other onstage for performances, and it was no big deal. In the ’70s and ’80s, when you would go to a concert in New York City, you knew somebody was going to sit in!

SJ: That’s right!

DDB: You didn’t know who it was, but you always [thought], “Oh, I wonder who’s going to sit in.” And it got lost.

VJ: Why do you think that is?

DDB: Because we’ve become a “me” society. It’s not about anybody else, it’s all about me. So if I’m doing a show and somebody’s around—like I just did the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival [in New York], and there’s a wonderful young singer named Quiana Lynell [who] had sung a little bit earlier than me, and I said, “Baby, come on and sing with me.” She said, “Really?” and I said, “Yeah!” So we did a number. And then Ravi Coltrane had played before me, and I said, “Ravi, come on and hit with me.” He was like, “Dee Dee, really?” I was like, “Yeah! Come on, y’all, let’s hit!” They were really surprised, but I think if you start doing this kind of thing, then it’s going to put it in the consciousness of those people to do that as well. And we’ve got to get back to that. We’ve got to get back to making this a family. I think it’s an unstated given that we are sisters in this industry. I mean, I don’t know. Let’s ask our youngster how she feels. How do you feel about that, Veronica?

VS: Well, coming up in New York City and going to the jam sessions as every young musician does and meeting all the young players—for me, [pianist and frequent Swift collaborator] Emmet Cohen was really special because he was looking out for me. I had that—it was brother-and-sisterhood. There’s such a community in New York, people coming up and having people sit in on their gigs and sharing each other’s voices and messages. It’s all a beautiful thing to witness. I didn’t go to school in New York, but all throughout college I was going up as much as I could and meeting more people. Emmet was introducing me to these legends like Ron Carter, Lewis Nash, Tootie and Jimmy Heath—we had so much fun with Tootie! Like [Dee Dee] said, these great people were treating you like their own and you were, you are. That’s how I felt too, and I’m so blessed to have been a part of that.