Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan
November 4, 2014
The very welcome publication of Ellen Johnson’s new biography, Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan, prompts not only a review of this book but also a few very brief comments about CDs. This is because the book’s arrival not only sent me to albums recorded by the subject of Jazz Child but also to some of those recorded by the author herself.
For some decades now, Ellen Johnson has vividly demonstrated that she is a remarkably gifted exponent of that same difficult art at which Sheila Jordan excels. Indeed, not only does Ellen sing jazz, she also teaches jazz singing. During the past several years I have had enormous pleasure in listening to and writing about her albums, sometimes in Jazz Journal, other times on my old website. Among these albums are Too Good To Title, Chinchilla Serenade and These Days, all on Ellen’s own label, Vocal Visions (numbered respectively 2300, 2310 and 2700). Her eclectic repertoire includes compositions by jazz masters Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Thad Jones, Charles Mingus, and Michal Urbaniak, for some of which she has written lyrics ably demonstrating another facet or her multi-talented persona. The third of these albums is dedicated to Sheila Jordan, who appears as backing singer on Little Messenger, a song composed by Ellen for Sheila, and the two singers duet on The Crossing. As if being singer, teacher and lyricist were not enough, in recent years Ellen Johnson has also proved herself to be an able writer on jazz. Previously, Ellen’s writing consisted of short pieces while here she has produced a full-length book that recounts with skill and insight the story of a remarkable woman.
Today, there are thousands of young singers around the world, many of whom find open doors through which to pass and perform their art. It is likely that they would be surprised, horrified even, were they to encounter the problems that faced Sheila Jordan when she was starting out in the early 1940s. Among these problems were poverty and the racial divide, and overhanging these widespread issues was another related specifically to the jazz world. This was the fact that while nowadays the term ‘jazz singer’ is acceptable as a definition of a young woman’s career choice, back then it was a decidedly disagreeable negative.
Sheila Jordan, then Dawson, was raised in a poor mining community in Pennsylvania but as a young teenager she headed for Detroit, which is where she was born in 1928. Back in the city as a young teenager, she hung out in jazz clubs, decidedly not the done thing, and sang with and socialized with black musicians, another alienating act seventy-plus years ago. The music itself was another no-go area because the young girl was immediately captivated by bebop, a genre that was a turn-off even for many in the jazz world, musicians as well as fans, who were still attuned to swing era styling. Then, if all these negatives were not enough to deter all but the armor-plated, Sheila crossed the racial divide by marrying black jazz pianist Duke Jordan. In her private life, she did everything with astonishing determination and dedication, including raising single-handed her daughter, Tracey, after Duke Jordan went off while she was pregnant. With equal grit, the singer took her own musical path, refusing to follow the commercial route and instead sticking uncompromisingly to jazz – and modern jazz at that. Now, more than seven decades later, she is still following her chosen path and doing so with flair and skill and consummate professionalism.
It goes almost without saying, that the story of Sheila Jordan is one that needed to be told and we are fortunate that it is Ellen Johnson who has brought us this estimable biography. Johnson has interviewed many of the musicians with whom her subject has worked, among them several bass players, appropriate given Jordan’s predilection for the voice-bass duo format: Cameron Brown, Harvie S, Steve Swallow. Other musicians whose comments illuminate this story include Theo Bleckmann, Kenny Burrell, Carol Fredette, George Gruntz, Alan Pasqua, Ra-Kalam, Sonny Rollins, Roswell Rudd. The life and music of Sheila Jordan is explored in intimate detail and many readers will find especial value in her warm recollections of Charlie Parker and the important personal role he played in her early life, and whose influence continues to guide her through to the present day. Biographer Johnson and her subject take a hard look at racism in America, while addiction is another topic explored; both of these troubled areas are approached with clarity and honesty. The overriding impression left after reading this book is that jazz, indeed all music, has been blessed to have had such an amazing artist in its midst for such a long time.
Listening again to some of Sheila Jordan’s CDs there is everywhere rich evidence of all those skills she has demonstrated over the decades. On albums such as Jazz Child (HighNote HCD 7029) and Little Song (HighNote HCD 7096), her performances are a joy. Hearing them again, this time with the underpinning of knowledge of the personal background to her career, adds immeasurably to the experience. It might be argued that a singer’s work should be assessed only on the basis of what is heard; but sometimes that rubric places an impossible demand upon the listener. Sheila Jordan is an exceptional singer, knowing the details of the life she has lived, evoked so masterfully in Ellen Johnson’s biography, makes this singer even more interesting and worthy of our attention and admiration. Music is her life; her life is in her music.
For many reasons Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan is a book that should be read not only by those with a specific interest in jazz singing, but also those whose interests in jazz extend to the life of jazz musicians in general, and those active during the early days of bebop in particular. It should also interest anyone who wishes to follow the inspirational tale of a woman who was determined to make her way through a minefield of antipathy and antagonism to achieve what is in essence a simple ambition: to sing her song.
ISBN 978-0-8108-8836-4 (ebook 978-0-8198-8837-1)