Born in 1928 in the jazz-rich city of Detroit, Sheila Jordan was sent by her 17-year-old mother to live with family in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, where she began singing mostly in church. She moved back to Detroit as a young teenager and began singing and playing piano around town, as well as performing with a vocal group in the style of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. It was there that she first heard Charlie “Bird” Parker, the innovative saxophonist who would change her life forever just based on the power of his music.
As she explained in a panel sponsored by The Jazz Cruise at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2019, it was an old-fashioned jukebox that made the introduction. “I was going to Cass Tech [High School in Detroit] and they had a hamburger joint across the street and on the lunch hour, they had this jukebox,” Sheila said. “And one day I went over there — I was about 14, I was quite young — and I had my nickel, and I saw this ‘Charlie Parker and his Reboppers’ — not Beboppers, Reeboppers. 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. I didn’t know what kind of music I wanted to sing. But 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.'”
Sheila would go to all of Bird’s shows at the local clubs, including at venues she wasn’t old enough to get into, in which case she’d listen from outside the club in the back. The saxophonist took to the young singer and encouraged her to explore the new sounds of bebop. Sheila admits that she and her friends would follow Bird around town to the point where she would joke that his song “Chasin’ the Bird” was written about her and her friends.
She moved to New York City around 1951 and studied with the pianist Lennie Tristano and bassist Charles Mingus. She also befriended her idol, Bird, who would often come over to her apartment to visit, as she described in the following funny story about that time.
“He used to come up to my loft all the time,” Sheila said of Bird. “I had a little parakeet that I taught to say, ‘Hello Bird!’ And one time he came up and he knocked on my door and said, ‘Sheila?’ — 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 my loft and lie down on his cot. So Tory, the parakeet, was out of the cage one time, he came up and he knocked on the door and he said, ‘Can I come in and lay down?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but I’ve got to get the bird in the cage — Tory’s out of the cage, he’ll bother you.’ Bird replied, ‘No, no it’s okay, Sheila. I don’t care.’ I said, ‘He’s going to bother you to death.’ He goes, ‘No, let me in.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He came in, he sat down, laid down on the couch, 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, he landed on his knee, and he 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.”
Bird, the musician, died in 1955 at the age of 33.
In 1952, Sheila married the pianist Duke Jordan, who was a member of Parker’s band. They had a daughter together, Tracey, who is now a successful music business executive. But the marriage didn’t last and Sheila became a single mother struggling to make ends meet while trying to forge a career as a completely unique jazz singer. Although she had been playing and singing around town and had even recorded a few albums during the 50s and 60s, Sheila eventually cut back on her presence on the jazz scene. For much of the ’60s and early ’70s, she supported herself and her daughter by working as a secretary at an advertising agency, a job she would hold for more than 20 years.
It wasn’t until she was in her late 50s that Sheila resumed her musical career on a full-time basis, performing and recording often with just a bassist, initially Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S) and later Cameron Brown. That voice and bass blend became her signature sound, as she would improvise lyrics and combine songs in a narrative all her own. Sheila’s singular approach and affable stage presence would connect with audiences at clubs and festivals all over the world for the next 40+ years. She’s recorded more than 20 albums, including Playground (1979), The Crossing (1984), Jazz Child (1999) and Yesterdays (2012). She also became an educator, teaching vocal jazz technique for more than two decades at the City College of New York as well as at various workshops and camps. In 2012, Sheila was given the highest honor awarded to a jazz musician, when she was named an NEA Jazz Master.
In April 2021, Sheila joined fellow vocalist Kurt Elling for a LIVE conversation on The Jazz Cruise’s YouTube Channel. You can hear her talk about her life in her own words here.
Sheila Jordan is a genuine jazz master who really paid her dues and never stopped growing as a singer and musician. We’re thrilled that this truly original vocalist will be joining all the other great musicians on The Jazz Cruise in 2022.
A few years ago, the singer Ellen Johnson wrote a biography about Sheila called Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan and I recommend it to anyone who wants to hear her inspiring life story in greater detail.
In her performance of “Sheila’s Blues,” Sheila Jordan doesn’t just tell the story of her life. She sings it: