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: I want to switch gears for a second and talk about your musical influences. Sheila, you trained with the great pianist Lennie Tristano, and you mentioned in Ellen Johnson’s 2014 biography of you, Jazz Child, that you listened to instrumentalists more, to learn your craft. Why were you drawn to listening to instrumentalists?

SJ: Bird. I was going to Cass Tech [in Detroit] and they had a hamburger joint across the street [with a] jukebox. One day I went over there on lunch hour—I was about 14—and I had my nickel, and I saw this “Charlie Parker and his Reboppers”—not Beboppers, Reboppers—and I said, “Oh my god, I wonder what that is!” I put my nickel in. I always sang as a little kid because I grew up in a poverty-stricken area and singing helped me, it made me feel better. So I didn’t know what kind of music I wanted to sing—I put that nickel in, four notes, Bird. I said, “That’s the music I’ll dedicate my life to. Charlie Parker. Whether I sing it, teach it, play it, or support it.” And that’s what I’ve been doing. So it wasn’t a singer, as much as I love Billie Holiday and Sarah and Ella—who scatted like Ella? Who scats like Ella? Hello? I don’t think so! But Bird was it for me. I loved Bird’s music so much I married his piano player. Thank you! [Laughter]

VJ: The great Duke Jordan, yes. And just on the topic of the great Charlie Parker—what kind of personal influence did he have on you? I know you knew him.

SJ: Yes, he became a very good friend. He had a cunning, baffling, powerful disease and unfortunately there wasn’t help, or he didn’t go for help. He died at 34, he looked much older. But he was like my big brother. He used to come up to my loft all the time. I had a little cot that I called “Bird’s bed,” so if he had gotten in a fight with his wife or something, he knew that he could come by and lie down on his cot. And I had a little parakeet that I taught to say, “Hello, Bird!” One time [Bird] came up and knocked on my door and said, “Sheila?” Tory, the parakeet, was out of the cage. [Bird] said, “Can I come in and lay down?” and I said, “Yeah, but I’ve got to get Tory in the cage, he’ll bother you.” “No, no, it’s okay, Sheila. I don’t care.” I said, “He’s going to bother you to death.” “No, let me in.” I said, “Okay.” He came in, and of course the minute he laid down and the bird was out of the cage, he would fly on you—that’s what they do. So he flew on Bird, landed on his knee, and said, “Hello, Bird!” And Bird jumped up and said, “What are you, a damn ventriloquist?” I said, “No, no! That was Tory! I didn’t do that.” He said, “Oh, I really don’t believe that, Sheila.” So he laid back down again and then the bird this time jumped up right next to his mouth and said, “Hello, Bird!” And Bird jumped up and said, “Goddamn! That bird does talk!” True story.

VJ: There’s so many great stories about your relationship with Bird. And Dee Dee, I know you recorded a lot of tribute albums to people like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Horace Silver—can you talk about the influence that those musicians had on you and your decisions?

DDB: Well, I had a jukebox experience also. Every Thursday when I was a teenager, it was my evening to go out with my father. He would spend one evening with my sister and one evening with me. There was a little neighborhood restaurant that we would go to, and they had jukeboxes. This one particular Thursday, I wanted my dad to play some music for me—because we would go to eat, but we would never put a quarter in. So I’m asking him if he’ll put a quarter in, and my dad was going, “Yeah, I’m going to do it.” And I heard this song come on. We were talking, and I just stopped and said, “Daddy, what is that?” And he said, “That’s this young pianist Horace Silver.” It was “Song for My Father.” I was like, “Daddy, I want to do that.” So it was actually Horace that made me want to do jazz. Then I had a whole fixation with Horace, because my first husband Cecil ended up playing with him and I wanted to prove to Horace that I could sing his music.

When I married Cecil, he got this tour with Horace Silver, so we didn’t go on a honeymoon, I went on tour with them. Horace’s singer Andy Bey and I became very friendly, and Andy said, “Dee Dee, when we get to Detroit, you should sing one of Horace’s songs.” Well, we were young and stupid, so we didn’t ask Horace! Neither one of us thought to ask Horace. So the show starts, Andy’s singing, and then he takes a break and he’s supposed to get back out and sing “Love Vibrations,” and instead of him coming out, I come out. Well, Horace used to play with his head really down in the piano and that hair of his would be just down in his face, so he didn’t see. We started the song and I go, “Emptiness surrounds …” and that was it. That head popped up! It looked at me and said, “What are you doing on my stage?” And I said, “Singing.” And he said, “Get off!” Pointed his finger like that, “Get off my stage!” And I had to leave the stage, and all my family was there. But I hadn’t asked. I had not asked, Andy had not asked.

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From that moment on, my purpose in life was to show Horace I could do his music. When I decided to do this album of his music [1995’s Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver], I called him up and I said, “Horace, I want to do a whole album of your music and I would love for you to write all the lyrics.” And he says, “Well, Dee Dee, this is really surprising. You’re the first person that wants to do all my music on an album—no musician, a singer?” And I was like, “Well, Horace, I don’t think of myself as a singer. I think of myself as a musician. And I love your songs.” So he wrote all of the songs and then I asked him if he’d perform—and he never performed, he never guested on anybody’s albums ever—and he said, “Okay, Dee Dee.” So I flew him to Paris, he guested. He stayed for the whole session and it was beautiful. We were supposed to do a concert together, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and it was a big deal—we were all proud and they flew me up to announce Horace Silver’s coming because they hadn’t had him, so I was like, “Yes! Yes!” And the day of the show Horace calls me up and says, “Dee Dee, I know I guested on your album but I cannot guest with you.” And I was like, “But Horace, but …” He says, “Nope. I got to the airport and I said, ‘Nope, I’m not doing it.’” So what are you going to do? You say, “Okay.” We explained to the public because we decided to still do the concert.

VJ: Did he say why?

DDB: He doesn’t do that. He had made an exception to do the album, but he decided that he was going to stick to his principles. And you have to respect that. But it was Horace that really got me going, like you [Sheila] had Bird.

VJ: So it was instrumentalists, not vocalists, that influenced both of you to pursue jazz.

DDB: Isn’t that interesting?

SJ: And I gave Horace his first piano. He came up to the loft, knocked on the door, and asked me out on a date. I said, “Yeah.” I had a boxer dog, and the dog looked at him, jumped up on the couch with me, and when Horace came over to sit down, the dog growled at him. True story. So we went to dinner. At that time I had two upright pianos, and he said, “You’ve got two upright pianos?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to give one away.” He said, “Could I have it?” I said, “It has to be tuned, but if you want it, yeah.” So I gave him one of the pianos. Of course, Miles Davis went by [Horace’s] hotel [later] and said, “Where’d you get this old raggedy piano?” And I said to Horace after that, “How raggedy could it have been?” I think he wrote “All Blues” on it. But anyway, we went to dinner and we came back, he took the piano, I made sure it was moved to his hotel room. The next day, I took the dog out for a walk, and the dog was off the leash—I always let the dog off the leash—the dog went in the middle of the road, 18th Street, and turned around and looked at me and took off. And never came back.

DDB: What?

SJ: Yeah, he was pissed off! That I went out with Horace.

VJ: That’s crazy.