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Sheila Jordan's Slow Rise to Recognition

February 23, 1989|LEONARD FEATHER

Sheila Jordan has fought many demons in her life. The road that led to her current level of vocal success (she opens tonight for a three-day stint at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood) was long and tortuous.

Born in Detroit to a 16-year-old mother, she was raised by grandparents in an impoverished coal-mining area of Pennsylvania. "I never dreamed of becoming a singer," she recalls. "It was a struggle just living; we ate whatever my grandfather caught when he went hunting--deer, squirrel, porcupine. Often there was almost nothing to eat and not even much to wear.

"The church gave me strength to survive. I did sing for a while at PTA meetings and on local radio, but the other children kidded me so much about my singing that I gave it up."

Not until she visited her mother in Detroit was Jordan turned on to jazz. Before long, Ellington, Basie, Gillespie and Holiday were her idols, Charlie Parker her virtual guru--first on records and later in person.

For a while she and two fellow Bird fanatics formed a vocal trio, setting lyrics to Parker's music, thus becoming the unknown predecessors of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. But it was hard keeping interracial company in Detroit; she and her black friends were constantly hassled. "The cops would take me to the police station and search me--they couldn't believe that we were just enjoying our music."

After she had left high school and moved promptly to New York, Jordan met Parker through his pianist, Duke Jordan, whom she later married. "Bird was wonderful--when Duke and I were living in a loft downtown, he'd come over and turn me on to composers like Stravinsky and Bartok, and he'd talk about plays and books and bring his painter friend along. He was such a well rounded man."

During those years there were singing jobs now and then, and piano studies with Lennie Tristano, but two years after her daughter Traci was born, the marriage ended and Jordan took a job with an ad agency to pay the rent.

Recognition came very slowly. There was a much praised vocal on a George Russell album, singing "You Are My Sunshine" just the way Russell had heard her sing it for some coal miners during a return to Pennsylvania. And there was her first solo album, on Blue Note. Then came a brief period of recognition followed by long term oblivion.

Ironically (and it's a typical jazz world irony), she began to gain acceptance after paying visits to Scandinavia for concerts and recordings. The late 1960s and the '70s found her winning the Down Beat poll as the female singer deserving wider recognition. In fact, she won that poll nine times, but the recognition was never enough to enable her to give up the day job.

"I was praying like crazy, dear God, let me sing more. Then six months later I was laid off my job. I was devastated, but it was a blessing in disguise--since then I've been singing constantly!"

Jordan likes to sing standards, bop tunes, and a few originals by herself or by Harvie Swartz, the bassist with whom she has worked as a duo off and on since 1981. At Catalina she will be backed by Swartz and pianist Alan Broadbent.

"Things are getting better all the time," she says. "Last summer I was in Hamburg, singing in a jazz opera. It paid so well that I paid off the mortgage on my farm house in upstate New York."

Spending most of last year in Europe, she became a vocal teacher at a music school in Graz, Austria. She has also taught intermittently at City College in New York. "I expect to go back to Graz in the fall. They have some great students there--really talented singers and pianists. It's very gratifying to work as a teacher."

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