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: You’ve accomplished so much in your 25 years, Veronica: You first appeared at Jazz at Lincoln Center at age 11, you recorded your first album when you were nine, you toured with Wynton Marsalis and Chris Botti, you won second place at the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition.

VS: That’s where I met Dee Dee!

VJ: So she obviously noticed your talent. How does one get to where you are at such a young age—if there are any aspiring young jazz vocalists in the audience, what steps did you take to get to where you are?

VS: Just being open-minded and really listening to what everyone has to say. I’m lucky I had the upbringing I had, but there are so many who had that upbringing but who did not follow the path of music, so it isn’t always about where you’re from, it’s just who you are and how you’re listening to the world around you. I don’t really have ambitions in that way. I just want to play good music and share it with people. Go hear people you’d like to play with, especially if that’s an attainable goal. For me, it was Emmet Cohen. There was something about the drama in his playing, with the technique and the schooling, and also he went to the University of Miami, so there was that connection. So for young singers—I’m sure you guys would say the same thing—go listen to people you want to play with and be open to what they have to say, and share each other’s stories and see if it’s a good fit.

VJ: You mentioned being humble and that’s so important, especially if you’re trying to network and get to the next stage of your career—just acknowledging the past and where they come from.

VS: Oh yes, the past. That’s the key right there: history. Go to the source, like I said. It’s what kept me going. I don’t know.

SJ & DDB: You know a lot.

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VJ: Sheila, you’re also a pioneer of the bass-and-vocal duo format. Why did you decide to pair bass and voice? What did you see in it?

SJ: I just love the bass and I loved all the freedom it gave, you know? I didn’t have to worry about, “Is that chord change going to be okay on the piano?” I think I’m a frustrated bass player. Maybe in an ex-life, I was a bass player. I don’t know! But I remember one time when I first started doing the bass and voice—it wasn’t really accepted that much—we were doing the Montreal Jazz Festival and I was with Harvie [Swartz] at the time. It started out with [Steve] Swallow and then he went into electric, so I couldn’t sing with that. Then I started doing it with Harvie because he was part of the Steve Kuhn Trio, which I was with. We were doing this concert together, bass and voice, and this guy—the place was packed, which was surprising—this guy came in and stood at the door and says, “Where’s the drums? Where’s the piano?” I said, “In my head, man.” [Laughter] He turned around and walked out.

It’s not all like dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun. All the tunes are not like that. I work out ideas. Like, I have a dance medley that I do because, before I heard Bird, my idol was Fred Astaire. So I do a medley for Freddie and Ginger [Rogers]. Then I do a thing that I wrote that goes into all the great jazz musicians. So, you know, it’s not always just a straight-ahead thing. Then I have a thing I do with songs relating to children. Then just some straight-ahead stuff. But I love the bass! Oh my god.

VJ: Before we wrap up, maybe just Dee Dee and Sheila could impart some wisdom: What do you think is the secret to longevity as a jazz vocalist? If there is a secret.

DDB: [Laughs] You [Sheila] first, baby, because I’m trying to learn from Sheila. I keep saying, “I’m trying to be like you, Sheila!” Yesterday I said, “Whatever that elixir is that you have drunk, would you please share it?” This woman is absolutely amazing! That her instrument is still strong—I mean, she has just broken all of my concepts of 90 and singing. So, Sheila, what is the secret to longevity?

SJ: Well, first of all, I’m Native on my mother’s side. My fourth-generation grandmother was Queen Aliquippa of the Seneca Nation. So maybe it comes from there. [Starts singing]

DDB: Maybe.

SJ: I don’t know. I just don’t think about age, you know? And I just got a doctor’s report and he said I was in great health. I said, “Really? I don’t feel like it except when I’m singing.” But he said, “You’re in good health.” So I don’t know. I think it’s just that at this point in my life—I’ve worked, I’ve supported myself and my daughter by myself, and I always found a place to sing, even though I worked in an office. But I had to work in an office to make so much money to pay my rent and everything and take care of my kid. But I found a place in the Village, I made $6 a night at the Page Three on 7th Avenue downtown. I paid the babysitter $4, I took a taxi home, and I had a dollar left. But I wasn’t doing it for the money. So the thing is, if you have something that you love to do and you have to do another job to support your family or whatever—don’t give up that gift. Find a place to do it, and you will and you can. A lot of us give up, and sometimes if you give up it’s hard to get it back again. So that’s my whole thing—don’t give up.

DDB: I guess I’m the same. First of all, I don’t think about a career. I’m just thinking about, “Where’s the next gig?” I would say then I am blessed to know a year in advance. I have gigs into 2020, and once you know that you’ve got the gigs and so you’re going to have the finances to keep you moving it forward, it releases that stress and that tension. And so then, for me, it’s about, “How am I going to make the people happy? What am I going to do that’s going to please me, but is also going to please an audience that comes to see me?” I’ve always felt that if we’re true to that thing that makes us happy, it’s going to make other people happy. Because people are able to see our joy. I think that is what keeps pushing us. I say to people, “The music is healing.” I had this bad accident with my right leg two years ago, and people were like, “Oh my god, you’re not going to be able to sing.” And I was like, “What? They can push me out in a wheelchair, I’ll go out in my crutches.” You know? You just sing through it. And the music healed. Then my mother died, and the music healed me. So it’s the music, and staying true to the thing that we love, that helps to propel the career forward. Then just not thinking about stopping. People say, “Are you going to stop?” I’m like, “Stop? For what?” I mean, we are blessed. So I think that’s it. What gives us our longevity is our own desire to do it and the love that we have for it and then people like you all sitting here.