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Sheila Jordan: A Unique Voice At 80

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, with its historic roster that once included jazz heavyweights Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Horace Silver. Singers were a rarity, but one of them has outlasted most of her former label mates.

Sheila Jordan, who was born Nov. 18, 1928, says she still loves nothing better than singing for her fans. But on an evening last November, it was their turn to sing for her, at a birthday party in the middle of one of her frequent gigs. Well-wishers also told Jordan that night that she never sounded better. Her recent CD, Winter Sunshine, proves them right.

But Jordan is modest in the face of such compliments. She knows her voice has changed over the years.

"My upper range is not as flexible as it used to be," Jordan admits. "A lot of the reviewers, that's the first thing they say: 'She doesn't have the voice she used to have.' But I laugh because I never thought I had a good voice to begin with."

A Scoopytown Girl

Like so many legendary jazz singers, from Billie Holiday to Betty Carter, Jordan's voice — along with her sense of phrasing and timing — has always been unique. She caught the ear of noted composer and bandleader George Russell at a club in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

"He introduced himself to me and he said, 'Where do you come from to sing like that?'" Jordan says. "Actually, I grew up in the coal mining area near Johnstown, Pa. — a little town called Scoopytown. And he said, 'Could you take me back there?'"

She took Russell to meet her grandmother, who'd raised her in a house with no heat, no hot water and electricity only on the rare occasion they could afford it. The three went out to a local beer hall and one of the coal miners asked if Jordan and Russell would perform "You Are My Sunshine." It was the kind of song she sang as a kid at local talent shows, back when they knew her as little Jeannie Dawson.

"So he played and I sang." But Jordan recalls her grandmother saying, "'That's not the way it goes.' So she pushed him off the bench and she sat down and she played it and I continued to sing it. And two weeks later, George said to me, 'Boy, your grandmother sounded like Thelonious Monk when she played.'"

When they got back to New York, Russell wanted to raise awareness about the plight of impoverished miners and recorded an arrangement of the song that featured Jordan and was dedicated to them. It was included on Russell's 1962 album, The Outer View.

Fighting Addiction

Jordan wanted to sing jazz from the moment she heard Charlie Parker on a jukebox in high school. She'd gone to live with her mother in Detroit and met the bebop legend in the alley behind a club, where under-aged fans were exiled. She later married Parker's pianist, Duke Jordan, and they had a daughter, Traci. But the pianist was addicted to heroin and abandoned his family. Sheila Jordan got a job as a secretary and struggled to keep music in her life.

"You find a way because the music is very important," she says. "That's how I survived, knowing that once or twice a week I'd get a sitter for Traci, and I'd go sing in this club and then get up the next morning and go do my day gig."

Jordan had to face her own addictions to alcohol and cocaine. But she's the kind of person who attracts a community of supporters.

One Sheila, One Voice

"She's my big sister, the sister I never had," says pianist Steve Kuhn. "We're very, very close and I'm glad she's in my life."

Kuhn was still in his 20s when he began performing with Jordan nearly 50 years ago. He's worked in ensembles ranging from duos to string quartets to full orchestras. But Jordan is just about the only singer he's played with — for a reason.

"The main thing is the feeling, and that comes across no matter what she does," says Kuhn. "In terms of instruments, maybe her instrument — her voice — is not as great as some. It doesn't really matter. She sings one note and you know it's Sheila. Unfortunately there are very, very, very few singers left now who are really unique. And she's one of the last ones."

Even at 80, Sheila Jordan's touring calendar keeps her on the road more than 100 days a year. She's quick to answer when asked if she ever plans to retire.

"Yeah, when I die. No, I couldn't. What would I do?"

Play golf?

"No, I don't want to do any of that," Jordan says emphatically. "I just want to keep singing and teaching as long as I can."

Lucky for her fans and the hundreds of students she's taught, there's only one kind of club Sheila Jordan will be swinging.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Times and the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.