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)

VJ: Dee Dee, you performed earlier this year at [Detroit’s] Carr Center and you visited the Detroit School of Arts, and you were just so nurturing to those students—I could just feel it. How important is it that youth continue to be mentored and get nurtured?

DDB: That is always important, that doesn’t change. Because the youth are our future and I’m just at a point in my life, it’s not even about my career—I don’t know if it’s because I’m a grandmother, but I feel a strong need to nurture. Much stronger than I did, say, 10 years ago. Working with the Carr Center, and coming to Detroit at least four times a year now, and working with the DSA and working with those children—that was just a natural thing. In fact, I said to the Carr Center, to Oliver Ragsdale, I said, “I want to go into the DSA. I want to work with those babies.” You know, you can have one session with children and say just one little thing that will give that child the ammunition they need to go for their dreams. And being a Michigander, it’s nice to come back home—even though I’m not from Detroit, I’m from Flint, as you all know. For the state to know that you’ve got a Michigander who left who’s coming back and working in communities—I think that’s really important.

I’ve had amazing moments with these kids. There was a child, for example, at the DSA. I was working with the vocal ensemble and she wouldn’t sing. Every time I’d go, they were in a semicircle and I would get to her and she’d be mouthing [the words] and I’d be in her face saying, “Baby, I can’t hear you!” You know? And so finally I just gave everybody five and said, “I need to speak to this child,” because something was wrong. And I spoke to her, I found out what the problem was, I was able to then let the teachers know what the problem was, and they were able to resolve it. Then I found out she was going to college this year, and it was a college that one of her teachers had gone to. So her teacher was then able to speak to the college on her behalf and make sure that everything was going to be okay for her. Those are the kind of things that will happen when you go into a school, if you allow yourself to be open so that you can receive what the children are trying to say. I had a young man come up to me and say, “I’m gay but I don’t know how to say it, and I’m in high school and I’ve been teased.” So I had a whole conversation with him about his sexuality. It’s very important that all these young people know that they’re in a safe environment, at least in an educational setting.

SJ: I think it’s very important not to break the spirit. A lot of teachers sometimes are in competition with their students, and they can easily break the spirit of that young person. I had a couple of students from Manhattan School of Music take some privates with me a few years ago, when I was still young enough to teach [laughs].

VJ: You’re still young.

SJ: This is true. But anyway, they said, “Our teacher”—I won’t mention a name—“she said we couldn’t sing.” I said, “Sing for me!” And they sang and they were wonderful. I said, “Stop! You can sing. Get a new teacher! Get rid of her!” Because you have to be very careful in order to be a teacher. You’ve got to give them encouragement and enjoy them. Who wants to be in competition? It didn’t start with me and it didn’t start with them, and it ain’t going to end with me and it ain’t going to end with them.

VJ: Speaking of education, Sheila started one of the first vocal jazz programs.

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SJ: I did, 1978 at City College [in New York].

VJ: Can you speak a little bit about that?

SJ: I went up there and did a trio concert, thanks to Eddie Summerlin, who was the head of the jazz department, and [pianist] John Lewis was also a teacher there. When I was finished, the classical voice teacher Janet Steele said, “You ought to do a workshop here,” and John said, “I was just thinking that.” I said, “I can’t do that—I don’t have a degree, I didn’t go to college.” And John said, “Teach what you know.” I said, “Well, I’ll try.” You know what? I learned to teach from teaching! [Laughs] So I started that workshop, and then Dr. Billy Taylor and Max Roach got me to come up to Jazz in July [at UMASS Amherst] because there was a teacher there that was not being very kind to the students—you know, they were paying a lot of money for the two-week program and they were being called turkeys and told they couldn’t sing or whatever. So I went there, and I’m still there two weeks in July. Then I started a vocal workshop at the Vermont Jazz Center in the summer, one week in August. It’s all instrumentalists, but they didn’t have singers at that time because [Vermont Jazz Center founder] Attila Zoller—great guitarist—didn’t like singers. But for some reason he liked me, because I guess I was weird. [Laughs] Anyway, he said, “Okay, if she wants to do a vocal program,” because let’s face it, the singers all came! They paid the money, you know? So I started that, and that vocal workshop is still going. Actually, I just got finished there. I want to keep it going. I mean, I’m 90 years old but I don’t feel that when I’m teaching or singing. But when I’m not, I feel it!