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All That Jazz

Bebop Roots, and So Much More

Sheila Jordan's first L.A. appearance in more than a decade reflects her highly eclectic choices.


Singer Sheila Jordan remembers the exact moment when she decided what her life's work would be.

"I sang all the time when I was a little kid," she recalls. "But I didn't know what kind of music I wanted to sing until I heard Charlie Parker. It was on one of those old Savoy 78s, I think--Charlie Parker and His Re-Boppers. And as soon as I heard it I said, 'Oh, that's it. That's the music I want to devote the rest of my life to. Whether I sing it or just support it or whatever.' "

Jordan has remained remarkably true to that childhood vision. Although she has never had the audience reach of, say, an Ella Fitzgerald or a Diana Krall, she has always been highly regarded by musicians and critics. And in her role as a vocal instructor in the jazz program at the City University of New York, she has had--and continues to have--a powerful impact upon a generation of young artists.

This week Jordan is making her first local appearance in more than a decade, singing with pianist Steve Kuhn at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday night.

She has always reached in many directions for her material, and her opening set Wednesday night was no exception. Jordan sang an odd, off-the-wall rendering, with words, of Tom Harrell's "Buffalo Wings," then dipped into some of the Native American chanting that is part of her own personal heritage as an introduction to "Jazz Child." Moving in a different direction, she found the atmospheric subtleties in Jimmy Webb's "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" and combined her own "Ballad for Miles" with a touching, highly personal rendering of "My Funny Valentine."

Between numbers, she chatted amiably with her listeners, careful to identify each of her songs and their composers, for the music students in the audience.

Her musical sensibility is rooted in bebop. For the Detroit-born Jordan, raised in coal mining country, the music was both a revelation and an escape. And Charlie "Bird" Parker was the catalyst for her musical growth.

"The first time I actually saw Bird, in person, was when he came to the Club El Cino," she says. "I was determined to get in to see him, but when I tried, the manager just said I should go home and do my homework, even though I'd forged my mother's birth certificate to get in. But we were just kids, so we snuck out into the alley behind the club to hear him. I remember that Tommy Flanagan, the piano player, was with us too. And it was incredible."

Her connection with the inner sanctum of bebop became somewhat more direct in 1952, when she married pianist Duke Jordan, who had worked with Parker in the late '40s. (They were divorced in 1962.) But until the early '60s, her own singing was largely relegated to performances in small Greenwich Village clubs, honing her highly personal style. In 1962 she became one of the rare vocalists to record for Blue Note. That album was followed by a remarkable version of "You Are My Sunshine" on a George Russell album--a rendering that blended the dark perils of her own childhood with her growing efforts to bring an instrumental-like improvisational freedom to the process of jazz singing.

"Someone once asked me," Jordan says with a laugh, "if I do some of the offbeat things I do--like occasionally singing solo with just bass accompaniment--to be different. And I told him, 'No, I just do the things that I hear in my head.' "

Those "things" can range from intense, almost Middle Easternscatting to dark, throaty tones, from whimsical humor in lightweight vocalise numbers to storytelling in ballad standards--but storytelling that often puts a completely new slant upon familiar items, both musically and lyrically. Audiences are sometimes startled by Jordan's musical unpredictability, by her insistence upon maintaining improvisational spontaneity--refusing to do a number the same way twice.

"I know, I know," says Jordan. "After all these years [she will be 74 on Nov. 18], I'm still pretty much of an underground act. But when I first heard Bird, when I first decided to devote my life to this kind of music, it wasn't with the idea that I'd just imitate what somebody else was doing. Bird inspired me to find my own path. And I've been doing it that way much too long for me to do anything different now.

"It's kind of like what they say in the program," concludes Jordan, who has been drug- and alcohol-free for 17 years. "You have to give it back to keep it. It's the same way with music. Which is why I love to teach. And which is why I know that the only way I can keep my music is for me to give myself to it completely."

Sheila Jordan and Steve Kuhn perform at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, through Sunday. Shows at 8 and 9:30 p.m. $25 admission. (310) 271-9039.

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