Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life
Whatever Sheila Jordan sings she makes completely her own to the point that the line between composition and interpretation is extremely blurry. Now in her late 80s, Jordan is booked for the rest of the year with performances and masterclasses across the USA, as well in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan.
April 6, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Seventy years ago, Sheila Jordan was in high school in Detroit and heard Charlie Parker’s recording of “Now’s The Time” for the very first time. It’s a moment she still remembers vividly. She instantly decided that she wanted to devote her life to jazz and that’s exactly what she did. Obsessed with bebop, she moved to its epicenter in New York City, tracked down Parker, and ultimately married his pianist, Duke Jordan.
Although she remained steadfast in her devotion to this music, the path from falling in love with it to establishing a career in it—and to ultimately being named an NEA Jazz Master—was circuitous. Only a few years after she moved to New York, Parker died at the age of 34, a casualty of heroin addiction. Her husband, also addicted, left her soon after the birth of their daughter Tracey. Sheila, a single mother, worked a full-time job as a typist (a job she kept until her late 50s) and—when able to find a babysitter—sang at a Greenwich Village club called the Page Three where she was accompanied by various pianists including Herbie Nichols and Cecil Taylor.
But the first jazz icon to utilize her unique vocal gifts and to attempt to bring the world’s attention to them was George Russell, who made her voice the centerpiece of the intense rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” which appeared on his seminal 1962 LP, The Outer View. Russell also arranged for Jordan to record an entire album which was released later that same year on Blue Note; Portrait of Sheila is one of the only vocal LPs in the discography of that legendary jazz record label. Despite that album’s now iconic status, Jordan remained in virtual obscurity for the rest of the 1960s—making only a brief cameo appearance in Carla Bley’s jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill. In fact, Jordan did not make a follow-up recording until 1975’s Confirmation, which was released by the Japanese label East Wind and was not available internationally until its CD re-release thirty years later.
That album nevertheless proved to be the turning point in Jordan’s career. Two years later, she made her first recording as part of a voice and bass duet—a combination she pioneered—with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen. By decade’s end, she co-led a quartet with pianist Steve Kuhn, an ensemble in which her voice was totally integrated with the ensemble rather than the typical singer and back-up group configuration. In the 1980s, the voice and bass duet format really took off, first with Harvie S, and has continued since the ’90s with Cameron Brown. She also began composing her own material, although whatever she has sung she has made completely her own to the point that the line between composition and interpretation is extremely blurry.
Now in her late 80s, Jordan continues to perform both here in the United States and abroad. A few days before we spoke with her for NewMusicBox, she had a one-week engagement at the Times Square-area jazz mecca Birdland (a club named for her idol Charlie Parker), and a few days after that she headed to Austria and Germany for a series of concerts and masterclasses. She’s booked for the rest of the year with upcoming appearances in Massachusetts, Italy, and even Japan. It’s a far cry from her days performing at the Page Three where her $4 payment only covered the cost of a babysitter and her cab ride home.
“It’s a little bit better than that,” Jordan exclaimed with a laugh. “But, sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to make. … I get all these gigs through musicians, most of them. I love to work with young musicians. They go out there and they set up a tour. They ask me if I will do a tour with them and I say yes. You have to be able to read music and you have to be able to swing. That’s all I ask. If you have those things covered, we have no problem. I love to sing with them.”
Sheila Jordan’s passion for music is stronger than ever. It’s contagious!
Sheila Jordan: I know it’s music that saved my life. I mean, I never thought about it too much, except that as a little kid growing up, it wasn’t a happy childhood. The only way I made myself happy as a kid was to sing, and I would just make up songs. I would do, like, improvising on the hits of the day or whatever, and at that time the hits of the day were by the great composers, so there were great tunes. If my grandfather paid the light bill, we’d have lights and electricity, and I would be able to hear the Hit Parade. I had to learn that stuff really quickly.
So I really tuned my ears up at a very young age to listen and keep it in my head. I was only going to hear this maybe once or twice. Then you’d get the sheet music. Well, not the sheet the music, but you’d get a book that had all the lyrics of the songs. My friend would get it, and she’d loan it to me. So that’s how it started, but I know music saved my life. I never realized how much until I went through different times in my life—I didn’t feel like killing myself, but I felt so hopeless. You know, it’s like, whoa. But I would go and find a place to sing and do some music, and I’d feel better. I’d say, “Why was I feeling so bad when I have this?” Plus, of course, I had my daughter, too, but there were rough times even after my daughter was grown.
It’s always been my goal in life to keep jazz alive. I never expected to come as far as I did in this music. Never. I really didn’t. All I’ve ever wanted to do is let people know that this is a wonderful music. I call it the stepchild of American music because it’s not accepted the way it should be. And in actuality, it’s the only music that we can really say came from America. Jazz. You know?
FJO: Well, another music that came from here is Native American music, the music of the people who were here originally. And that goes back to your ancestry.
FJO: I’m curious about when you became aware of that ancestry and when it became part of your musical vocabulary.
SJ: I knew it was there. I know it’s on my father’s side, though I never really knew my father that well. You know, he married my mother to give me a name when I was born and that was about it. Then he disappeared, basically. On my mother’s side, I knew we had it. I knew as a kid because we were the poorest family. The two poorest in Pennsylvania at the time—we were one of them. And sometimes, we were referred to as half breeds. I remember as a little kid hearing that expression. I also remember hearing the expression, “Don’t give those half breeds firewater.” My family was into alcohol. My grandfather had the cunning, baffling, powerful disease of alcoholism. Alcoholism was very prominent in my background, but I really never knew too much about the Native Americans. It came up—I knew it of course—but I’m more into it now. I remember thinking when I was a little older had I not gotten into music, one of the things I really would have gotten into would have been the culture and the whole thing about Native Americans. I would have gotten into the whole Native American background thing and I would have worked for that cause.
FJO: In almost all of your performances for decades now, there’s always some element of Native American chanting.
SJ: Yeah, that’s always been there. But I just never thought about it one way or the other.
FJO: So you wouldn’t have heard that music growing up necessarily.
SJ: No, I did not hear it. It’s just in me, as they say, born right in. It’s nothing that I was taught or heard or anything. It’s just there.
FJO: You were saying the other night during your gig at Birdland that you found out that you had a grandmother or a great grandmother who was a Seneca queen.
SJ: Her name was Queen Aliquippa. She was the queen of the Seneca nation, and she would be my three-generations grandmother. I think three generations. So, my feeling was, “Oh my God. She was royalty. So that makes me royalty had Columbus not discovered America. If he hadn’t discovered America, and we were still within the native nations, I mean, I would be royalty, wouldn’t I?”
FJO: Well, one good thing about Columbus discovering America is that all these people came here and jazz happened.
SJ: Well, that’s true. The amazing thing about Native Americans is there are a lot of Afro-Americans who also have a Native American background [like] Don Cherry—he and I were very close—and Jon Hendricks. Jon is always on me about “you have some land coming to you or some money coming to you from the government.” I never get into it. Yeah, right, how much? Two dollars!
Anyway, I was so involved with the music that I never thought one way or another about Native Americans. But I did think, when I got older, about the Afro-Americans and their suffering and my suffering in order to stay with the people that I wanted to be with. Most people would have just given up. They would have just said this is not worth it. It’s not worth it to constantly go to the police station as a young woman in Detroit because I was hanging out with friends who happened to be Afro-American. But the music was very important to me. So it was the music that kept me going. They would knock me down and I would pick myself up and go right back out and find out where this music was going on and learn as much as I could. It was hard learning, but it was worth it.
FJO: Now the incredible thing about jazz is it’s the byproduct of this coming together. It is the music of integration.
SJ: It is.
FJO: It’s the melding of European harmonic sensibilities and African rhythmic sensibilities and creating new music from pre-existing music—from popular songs of the day—or taking a 12-bar blues and making it your own, turning it into something completely different. You said that when you were a little girl, you were making up songs.
SJ: Oh, yeah.
FJO: So you were composing.
SJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
FJO: So at what point did you become aware that you were creating something, making someone else’s creation actually into your own creation.
SJ: I don’t think I’ve ever been conscious of it. The thing is I don’t deliberately think about it. I never did, and I don’t think that I ever will. It’s what happens. When I hear a song, the thing that captures me first, more than anything, is the melody, which is the total opposite of singers usually. They hear the lyrics. I hear the melody first, and I would suppose that’s what an instrumentalist does. But I’m so influenced by instrumentalists, mainly Charlie Parker. The minute I hear a song that has a beautiful melody, “Huh, I love that.” Then I’ll say, “Gee, I wonder what the words are like.” Usually they’re okay, but if they’re not, I’ll just change ‘em. I’ll make them okay for who I am and what I feel.
The one thing I do though—which I feel is very important and also respects the composers—is I learn the melody exactly as it’s written. I learned that quite a long time ago. I basically think I learned from Charlie Parker that learning the melody of the tune is so important. Even now, teaching singers, I tell them learning melody notes are the stepping stones to improvisation. You can’t go anywhere safely in the music if you don’t know what was there originally because you could go out somewhere and get lost. It could be a disaster. But no matter where the spirit of the music takes you—it might take you all the way out on the other side of nowhere, and you’re there in the reverie of the feeling of the music itself, you almost leave your body, seriously, then all of sudden you get that jolt, “wait a minute, oh my God, where am I?”—if you have the original melody in your head, you come back.
FJO: What’s so interesting about that though is every time you sing a song, it’s completely different.
SJ: Is it?
FJO: To my ears, each time you sing a melody it has a slightly different shape. It’s clear that you love the melody, but the melody that winds up happening is often a new melody, your melody.
SJ: Yeah, but at some point in the tune I usually state the original melody. But I’m not thinking about it. When I sing a song, after I’ve learned the tune the way it’s written, and then after I learn the chord changes, and hear the music, and get the depth of what the song is about, I don’t think about it when I sing it. I just sing it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t even plan it. What I plan is how to get into the tune, and how to get out of it. The rest is just conversation.
FJO: In terms of knowing the melody as it’s written on the page, you’re talking about reading music notation.
FJO: So at some point early on, you learned to read music. When did that happen?
SJ: I had a great aunt who was a piano teacher. But she was tough, and I have little hands. When I was a little kid, I couldn’t reach the keys the way I was supposed to, but she used to beat my hands with a ruler if I placed them on the wrong keys. I knew what I was supposed to reach, but my hands were too small. She’d smack my hands with that ruler, and I’ll never forget—my hands were black and blue. My grandmother said, “What’s wrong with your hands?” I said, “Well, Aunt Alma hit me because I didn’t put them on the piano right.” So she said, “That’s it.” I couldn’t go for piano anymore. We couldn’t really afford piano anyway. She gave me the lessons free, but the torture of having my hands beat all the time was not worth it.
So I’m not great at reading, I will be very honest about that. But in today’s world, and that’s what I tell the students that I teach, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take advantage; it’s all there now. It’s free, man. You could go and learn all this stuff for nothing, you know? I’ve said to myself, “When I have some time, I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to really learn how to play the piano the right way.” I don’t have any time now. But I can pick out the tune well enough to learn it, so I can read enough. I’m not a great sight reader, that’s for sure. I hear quicker than I read.
FJO: But in terms of hearing vs. reading, in the interview with you that’s in the book Jazzwomen, you stressed not learning from recordings. Particularly, I think, because if you focus only on a specific recording, that particular interpretation will influence you too much.
SJ: It will not be yours. And it will not be what’s there originally. You want to sound like them? Come on. Do you honestly think that you hear Billie Holliday sing a song, and you’re going to sing that song exactly the way you heard her sing it? Are you out of your mind? Billie Holiday? The amazing thing about Billie Holiday is I always thought that [she was singing] the original melody of the song, because she was so precise and it was so smooth that you never in a million years thought that she was altering notes. But she was. That’s another beauty of learning the music the way it was originally written. I’d like hearing a song, and then I’d play the notes and say, “Wait a minute!” Sometimes I’d like her melody better. You know, that’s okay. But in the meantime, I’m not going to try to sing like Billie Holiday. Who could?
FJO: You mention Billie Holiday and the other night you sang about Ella Fitzgerald. They are both heroes of yours. Yet the people who really were your mentors weren’t singers. They were instrumentalists. Charlie Parker…
SJ: That’s right. He was it.
FJO: Lennie Tristano.
SJ: Charlie Parker was my main influence. I mean, I would do anything in the world to hear Charlie Parker. Anything. I would pay anything. I would go anywhere I could possibly go to hear Bird, and he became a very dear friend of mine. And he turned me on to so many things. After I moved from Detroit to New York, I had a wonderful loft where I used to have wonderful sessions. I was studying with Lennie Tristano at the time, but I had known Bird before that and he started coming up to my loft a lot. A couple of times he had an LP under his arm and he said, “I want you to hear something.” He put it on and it had nothing to do with jazz. He turned me on to Hindemith. He turned me on to Béla Bartók. He turned me on to Stravinsky. Bird that did. He was very much into that music, and he felt that I should hear it because he always told me I had million dollar ears. I used to say, “Bird, I tried to play these tunes, but I hear it quicker than I can play it.” He said, “Well, you got million dollar ears, so use your ears.”
FJO: It’s so interesting that the advanced harmonic vocabulary of composers like Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky had such an impact on jazz during the transition from swing to bebop. You mentioned Hindemith. There was this fabulous pianist, Mel Powell, who played with Benny Goodman and recorded with his own trio. But then he decided he was going to go study composition with Hindemith at Yale, and he wound up going away from jazz completely and was an early pioneer of electronic music.
SJ: Oh yeah, that’s right.
FJO: In those days, you had to be either this or that. I think we’re living in a time now where you don’t have to make those kinds of choices as much; you can do both.
FJO: You can write “classical” music and still do jazz. You have always clearly identified with the word jazz, so I wonder what the word means for you.
SJ: Well, first of all, I never felt that I had to go in any direction. My heart and soul were totally into this music from the first moment I heard four notes of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time.” That’s the first tune I ever heard. That was in high school. Before that I was always a singer. I sang on radio programs, amateur hours, and whatever. I was always singing as a kid. But I never knew what I wanted to sing until I heard “Now’s The Time” by Charlie Parker and his Reboppers. They weren’t even called Beboppers yet. That to me was the beginning. And I knew from that moment, I said, “Oh my God, this is the music I’ll dedicate my life to. This is it.” I was a kid, but it was almost like I was a grown-up person all of a sudden.
I never thought about any other music. Did I like other music? Oh yes. But did I go and hear other music? No. First of all, I couldn’t afford it. If I could afford to buy any music at all, it was always Charlie Parker, or bebop. To answer your question, I would say jazz is the name, but it’s beyond a name. It’s a feeling that when you get it, you don’t think about doing anything else. I never thought about any other music. It was the music that I said I’ll do. And I worked hard and long to do it. But did I give up? No, because it was embedded in me. It was like food. It was like sleep. It was like everything I have to do every day. It’s become part of who I am and what I am.
FJO: So what was it about “Now’s The Time” that was different than anything else you had heard?
SJ: Just hearing Charlie Parker play. It wasn’t even the tune. It was Bird, man. My skin was crawling it had moved me so much. I can still see myself at that jukebox with that nickel saying, “Oh, ‘Now’s The Time,’ that sounds interesting” and putting that nickel in and then hitting that number. Was it G6? Something like that. I hit that number, and all of a sudden [starts singing the melody of “Now’s The Time”]. I get chills just remembering it now. And I never forgot that. I found the music that I want to dedicate my life to, regardless of how I do it—whether I talk about, whether I teach it, whether I sing it, whatever.
About two years ago, I was doing a concert in Connecticut with a poet, Billy Collins. Cameron [Brown] and I were doing a bass and voice concert. This friend of mine, Peter Ash, who’s a lovely artist and a drummer came to see us. He’s always on the scene when he can be, if I’m up that way. And he said, “I’ve got a present for you.” I said, “Oh really. What is it?” He said, “Open it up.” It was in a box, and I said, “Well, can I open it up after the concert?” He said, “No, no. Open it up now.” So I opened the box, and here there was this beautiful thing all framed up; I could see it was a frame. I took the tissue paper off—Charlie Parker and his Reboppers’ ‘Now’s The Time,’ framed. I was so emotional that I said to Cameron, “I don’t know if I can sing, man. This is heavy for me.” And he said, “Yeah, you can sing. Just go out there and do it.”
It took me all the way back, and it reminded me of the struggle of trying to keep “Now’s The Time” alive. I went all the way back, and I said well, well, well. Now look where I am today. How blessed I am to be able to go out there today and do this music! And it was all because of Charlie Parker and “Now’s The Time.”
SJ: It was the heart and soul. It was the feeling. It was—whew—it was just this sound, this feeling. You knew that it was true. It was honest. It was just something I’d never heard before. I never heard anybody play music that deeply. It was so deep. It’s beyond words what I felt. Jazz is beyond words for me.
FJO: Yet you’re a jazz singer, and it’s about music and words.
SJ: Yeah. But to express verbally what it is is impossible. I can’t find the words to express that feeling. I wish I could. Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve thought about it, but there’s never a word that’s true enough, or big enough, or strong enough. That’s how big this whole music thing is to me.
FJO: So you knew you wanted to devote yourself to the music after that. Then you found a way to hear Charlie Parker live for the first time, which is something you sing about in your song “Sheila’s Blues.”
SJ: I had already moved from Pennsylvania to Detroit—I went to high school in Detroit—and Bird was playing at the Club El Sino. It was an interracial club. Of course, the police didn’t like it. It was run by a white couple from Canada; Canadians were much cooler about race than Detroiters were. We had all the race riots and the whole trip, it was horrible. Anyway, one time Bird came to Detroit, which was not that often, and he was playing at the Club El Sino, and you had to be 21-years old to get in there. And I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go see Bird. I’ll dye my hair blond. I’ll put on a lot of makeup, smoke cigarettes, and wear high heels.” I found my mother’s hat and I got myself all decked out. I forged my mother’s birth certificate. I knew I was going to get in. But I’ve never looked my age. Look at me today. I’m 86 years old, and I don’t look 86; I’ve been told that. Well, you can imagine, I was about 15, something like that. I looked 12, dressed, you know, like kids dressing up in their mother’s clothes.
I got to the door. I’ll never forget. “I’m gonna light a cigarette because he’ll see me smoking my cigarette and he’ll know that I’m 21.” And he just looked and said, “Kid, first of all, you shouldn’t be smoking.”—I don’t sing this in the song—“Second, you’re too young. Go home and do your homework. I can’t let you in here. You wanna have me arrested?” Because it was a black club. I was so upset. “Please, please, I’m 21.” “No you’re not. Don’t give me any trouble. Go home and do your homework.”
So I left, and I was heartbroken. But I noticed that there was an alleyway where I could get close to the window, or maybe the door, and if it opened a little bit, I could hear the music. I tried the door, and it did open a little bit. I didn’t want to open it too much. Obviously when all this went down at the front door, Charlie Parker was standing nearby and heard all this. For some reason, he must have realized that I was going to the alley. My feet were killing me, because I never wore high-heeled shoes at that age. So I sat on the garbage can, so my feet wouldn’t hurt. I moved it up closer to the door, and Bird started playing. He must have walked off the stage, because he came and sort of lightly kicked the door open, and he stood in the doorway, and he played for me. I’ll never forget that. I can see it now.
FJO: It’s an amazing story.
SJ: That’s how Bird was. Giving, kind—I mean, we loved him as a kid. Well, we love him as an old person. Barry Harris doesn’t talk about anybody else except Charlie Parker and Bud Powell when he teaches. Those are his idols, too.
FJO: How soon after that did you form the vocal trio?
SJ: I think we might have had the vocal trio then, too. But why those guys weren’t with me [that night], I don’t remember. All I remember is for some reason I had to be alone. I guess they realized they couldn’t get in, because they were all too young also. But I was determined. I really thought I was going to get in. I didn’t, but hey, that was much greater than getting in the club. I got to hear a whole tune of Charlie Parker, solos and the whole thing. It was wonderful.
FJO: The vocal trio never went into a recording studio.
SJ: No, we only did it for the love of the music. I never thought that I’d get this far with this music. It was never a big thing of mine to become a jazz singer per se. I just wanted to keep the music alive. And when we had the trio, we just did it for the love of singing, singing Charlie Parker hits. And they were great those two, Skeeter [Spight] and Mitch [Leroi Mitchell]. Skeeter is the greatest scat singer that I ever heard. I’ve never heard anyone scat like him. I had a cassette tape of him scatting. At one point, I went to Detroit. I was doing a bass and voice [concert] with Harvie S. And Skeeter and Mitch came to the concert, and I got them up to sing with me. And there was a cassette tape made. When my house burned down, that tape burned down with it. I lost everything when my house upstate burned down, but of all the things that I lost, the one thing that I really regret was that tape. The other thing was a napkin with Bill Evans’s chord changes on “If You Could See Me Now.”
When George Russell got me the recording date with Blue Note, I said I wanted to do “If You Could See Me Now,” but I wanted to do Bill Evans’s chord changes, because I had heard Bill’s record, and I said, “Oh my God, I love that.” So I met Bill. We went to—I forget, it might have been the Embers or one of those clubs. I remember the stage was on top of the bar. They had to walk up to the stage from the bar, and that’s where they played.
After the intermission, Bill came down and George, who was very friendly with him because he actually brought him from Chicago, said, “Sheila wants your chord changes to ‘If You Could See Me Now.’ She wants to record it. How do you feel about it?” He said, “Fine, but what do I write them on?” And I said, “Can you do it on this paper napkin?” And that’s why I had the paper napkin. I gave it to Barry Galbraith, who transcribed them and put them down on paper, but I kept that napkin, and that burned in the fire, that and that tape of the trio singing after so many years. But that trio was great. I learned a lot singing with that trio, because they were very dedicated, those two, Skeeter and Mitch. Every time somebody’d come to town, all the local musicians would say, “Get them up to sing.” It was unusual at the time. We didn’t realize that Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were coming up.
FJO: But as wonderful as it was to sing in the trio, you opted to leave Detroit.
SJ: Well, I left Detroit because I couldn’t take the racial prejudice anymore. I was going with Frank Foster at the time. When I finally did leave, he was going into the Army, and I had no reason to stick around in Detroit. It was painful enough. As I said, most people would have just given up and said, you know, this is too much. I’m going to go live in the white neighborhood. But I never felt white-white anyway, because I’m not white-white. And I wanted to come to New York anyway, because I wanted to hear Charlie Parker. I wanted to be closer to that music. And he remembered me. He always remembered me as that little kid sitting on a garbage can. He remembered that. And he said, “You’re the kid with the million dollar ears” because every time he came to town, if it was a club where you didn’t have to be 21-years old to get in, me and Skeeter and Mitch would go and hear Bird. He knew we sang, and he’d get us up to sing with him, “Confirmation” or whatever.
FJO: If only there was a recording of that.
SJ: I know! They didn’t record in those days. Listen, if only I had a camera at that time, when Bird was coming up to my loft after I moved to New York.
FJO: Nobody realized, and he died so young.
SJ: He was 34. It was shocking. One thing I’m grateful for is that he was not at my loft when he died, because he was at my loft a lot. I had a special bed for Bird. He had his own little couch. He’d come up and take a rest. But he was hanging out at the Baroness’ [Pannonica de Koenigswarter].
FJO: It’s fascinating that your other important mentor at that time was Lennie Tristano, whose approach to music was very different.
SJ: I found Lennie Tristano through Max Roach and Charlie Mingus. I was looking for a teacher. I wanted to be more knowledgeable technically about the music, and they gave me Lennie. Strangely enough, at my first lesson with Lenny he said, “Okay, this is your lesson.” And he put on, guess what, Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time.”
SJ: I said, “Oh, I know it.” He said, “Oh really? Sing it.” So I sang it. And he said, “Wow, you do know it!” So then he said, “Okay, how about Lester Young? Pres.” I said, “Oh no, I don’t know Pres.” He said, “Okay, that’s your lesson.” But what I learned from Lenny was not so much technical stuff as it was really believing in myself, and just going out there and doing it, and not to be afraid because I was a young woman that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. He gave me encouragement more than anything else in the world, which was priceless, because you don’t get that from a lot of teachers. I learned a lot about teaching from Lenny. He never broke your spirit. He never came on like a big shot. He never yelled. He never screamed. He was very understanding. He gave me a lot of encouragement.
FJO: Some time after those studies, but before that Blue Note recording we started talking about, you were singing at a club and Herbie Nichols was your accompanist.
SJ: That’s right.
FJO: I wish somebody had made a recording of that underneath the table the way someone did with Monk and Coltrane.
SJ: Herbie was a sweetheart. He didn’t talk very much. That was at the Page Three. And this again goes back to the dedication to the music, needing to keep the music alive within me and just in general within my soul and outside of my soul. I worked in an office for years as a typist to support my daughter and to support myself. I wasn’t out there looking for jobs singing. The kinds of jobs for singing were like bar mitzvahs and weddings and ceremonies. I don’t do the Top 40. I’m not putting that down. It’s just that I don’t do them. My music is jazz, and that’s what I want to do. But there were no jobs out there for full-time jazz unless you were a big star. And I wasn’t a big star, and I didn’t care to be a big star. I found a place to sing, though, a place in the Village called the Page Three. I got paid four dollars a night. I was still having my office job, but two nights a week I would go to the Page Three. It started off being five nights a week, but I couldn’t do it. It was too much. And they were cool. They gave me two nights a week. So, Monday night was jazz session night. We’d have a whole trio. But usually during the week, they just had piano and drums. Sometimes bass players would come and sit in.
Anyway, on Monday nights there was a regular piano player, John Knapp usually, and the trio. But on Tuesday and Wednesday nights it would be Herbie Nichols, or somebody of that caliber, so I worked with Herbie for a long time. But the point is, singing with Herbie Nichols, I never realized how important and how incredible he was. I just enjoyed singing with him. I was doing “When the World was Young” and I went on a trip with him that, when I came back, it was like, “Wow, where were we man?” It was incredible. I totally left my body. I’ve had out of body experiences singing—not a lot, because if you have too many, then it doesn’t mean anything. But when you have an out of body experience doing something that you love and you truly believe in, you totally leave your body. It’s like you’re floating over and I remember having maybe one or two of those. I know definitely one. It could have been two with Herbie Nichols. He took me on a musical trip that—whew—one time I was doing “Love for Sale” and he did that. Oh my God, I forgot where I was. I was just floating around.
FJO: Did you ever sing any of Herbie Nichols’s own material?
SJ: No, I did not. But I have his tunes. In fact, I have a whole book on his music. But two songs that I did with Herbie were with his chord changes.
FJO: Now when you say he took you totally somewhere else with “Love for Sale,” it makes me think about one of the early recordings of Cecil Taylor. He recorded “Love for Sale.” Cecil Taylor was another one of the accompanists that worked with you there.
SJ: Yeah, he was at the Page Three. The amazing thing with the Page Three was that they had all of these entertainers that came in from all over the world, but I was the only jazz singer there. And they called me a new note in jazz. But there were people that would come out and do blues. We’d have a stripper. The first time I ever heard Tiny Tim, he came into the Page Three. I’d been there quite a few years, and he came in with his ukulele and played [singing] “Tip toe, through the tulips.” We were hysterical. Whoever thought! And he had long hair at the time which was very unusual. Men did not wear their hair like that then. I used to say, “Tiny, do me a favor, when you go home”—because he’d take the subway home—“put your hair underneath your cap. Because you don’t want to get beat up.” He loved to play the ukulele, and he’d give you little presents. He’d wrap all the presents up in little packages, with a fancy bow, and you’d open it up, and it would be throat lozenges. Oh my God, those days at the Page Three were incredible. And the people that came in there, it was not to be believed.
FJO: But you and the people who accompanied you were the only jazz musicians.
FJO: I didn’t realize that. We talked about jazz being the music of integration, and jazz was certainly a force during the civil rights movement, a force for social change, reform, and tolerance. This was right before the era when many groups began to demand to be treated fairly and with respect. Page Three was a gay bar.
SJ: It was a gay bar. Absolutely.
FJO: This was pre-Stonewall.
SJ: That’s right. Not acceptable, man. But you’d be surprised, the big shots that came in there. I will not mention names. I remember somebody said to me, “Well, you’re not gay, why do you work in a gay bar.” I said, “I don’t care who people go with; what do I care? I don’t care about color. I don’t care about sexual preference. I don’t care about any of that. The only thing I care about is being around people who understand what I am trying to do musically.” The Page Three hired me. They gave me four dollars a night. I paid the babysitter three, and took a taxi home, because it was four o’clock in the morning. And at that time, a dollar for a taxi was a lot. After I paid the sitter, I had nothing left. I didn’t do it for the money. I did it because I needed a place to express the music. I needed to sing. But I had my day job.
FJO: All of this happened after Duke [Jordan] left.
SJ: Yes. Duke left right after Tracey was born.
FJO: And you never worked musically with him.
SJ: No. A lot of times when he was playing with Bird, Bird would ask me to sit in. And I would do that. I sat in with Bird a lot. I didn’t get paid. It wasn’t a job, you know, a gig. Bird would just say, “Come on, sing a couple of tunes. Sheila and Duke play.” That was the only time.
FJO: So the connection to him wasn’t really musical.
SJ: No, not at all.
FJO: It’s a pity. I have a trio record of his that’s quite good.
SJ: Oh yeah, he was a very underrated piano player. Nobody ever talks about him, or the incredible songs that he wrote and his incredible solos. His intros for Charlie Parker’s tunes are masterpieces as far I’m concerned. Oh my God, his introductions are so beautiful. But, you know, I’m grateful to him for two things. He gave me a beautiful daughter, and I love my last name. So, after I got divorced, I kept my married name, Jordan, because I like it. I’m going to keep the Jordan name alive, but you know, he had a cunning, baffling, powerful disease like Bird. I never took him to jail, or to court, or anything. It’s just not in my nature to do that. It’s too bad, because Tracey called him and she finally got in touch with him just before he died, and they sort of had like a little relationship going. But yeah, it was sad that he didn’t get to know Tracey, because I think he would have been very proud of her.
FJO: I’m curious about how you went from performing at the Page Three while working as a typist and raising your daughter to your recording “You Are My Sunshine” with George Russell. I have to tell you that I still remember the first time I heard it, which was more than 30 years ago, and it was something that changed my life.
FJO: Hearing the vulnerability of your voice, when it comes in completely unaccompanied after this chaotic polytonal George Russell arrangement, and then hearing both elements come together is one of the most remarkable things I’ve heard in my life to this day.
SJ: I’m so glad to hear that, because a lot of people are not aware of “Sunshine.” I think some musicians a long time ago with Horace Silver’s trio, not Horace though, were in London somewhere—I forget—and they were on a radio show and they played “Sunshine.” And you know what the guy said? “Man, that was a hell of a long introduction.” They didn’t get it. He was a genius, George Russell, another underrated, incredible, extraordinary musician. The whole tune was primarily about the struggle of the coal miners being out of work, the union taking over, all the deaths and the tragedies that happened in the mines. It was horrible. You know, I saw that as a kid; I saw mine explosions. That’s why George wrote that because he wanted to know where I came from to sing the way I did. He came into the Page Three to hear one of his students, Jack Reilley, who was playing piano after Herbie Nichols. And he said, “Where do you come from to sing like that?” I said, “I come from hell, man,” just sort of joking around but serious, too. He said, “Well, can I visit hell with you sometime?” And I said, “Yeah, you can, if you want.”
So he drove me back to Pennsylvania. My grandmother was still alive. And she said, “Come on; let’s go up to the Bundt.” That was a club where all the miners hung out in Summerhill, which in South Fork was the mining area and was about a mile and a half away from where we lived. So we went up to the beer garden, as they called them, and there was only one miner in the place. He was sitting at the bar and my grandmother introduced us and started carrying on about us being famous and I said, “Please, I’m not famous. George is famous.”
But that sole coal miner looked up at me and said, “Well, do you still sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ Jeannie?” Jeannie was my nickname. Sheila Jeanette is my name, but I went by Jeannie as a kid. I hated Sheila, because they made fun of it; it was a very unusual name back there. And I said, “No. I don’t sing that anymore.” And he said, “Why not?” And then George Russell said, “Why not?” There was an old out-of-tune upright piano in a corner, so George went over and started playing it. And I started singing it with him. My grandmother was a little looped, and she literally pushed him off the bench. She said, “That’s not the way it goes.” And she sat down, and she played it, and I sang it with her for the coal miner. Later George said to me, “Man, she sounded like Thelonious Monk.”
George lived down on Bank Street and not too long after he said, “Sheila, why don’t you come down if you have a minute. I have something I want to play for you.” I said, “Yeah, okay.” So I made arrangements and I went down to his apartment, and he started playing this [singing] and I said, “Oh my God, that’s so nice.” Then he stopped and he said, “Sing.” I said, “Sing what?” And he said, “Sing ‘You Are My Sunshine.’” I said, “What?” “Sing ‘You My Sunshine.’” I said, “Well, are you going to play it for me?” “No, no, no. Just sing it.” I said, “Oh, I can’t sing it alone.” He said, “Yeah you can. You did it when you were a kid. So sing that now.” That’s how it started. Originally we wanted to call it a drinking song, because the miners drank a lot. On the weekends they’d go to this club in particular, and they would drink for the weekend, and then they’d go back to work into the mines again. So we wanted to call it a drinking song. It was actually a musical documentary on the coal miners of South Fork, Pennsylvania. It was very unusual. I guess I didn’t think that at the time, but it was.
FJO: It’s extraordinary. And another thing that’s so interesting about it is that it’s the only vocal track on any of those George Russell sextet recordings for Riverside.
SJ: Yes, he never recorded singers.
FJO: And there were amazing sidemen in that group. Don Ellis is playing trumpet on there.
SJ: Yes. He was incredible.
FJO: And Steve Swallow. On some of the other sextet records Eric Dolphy was part of the group. He wasn’t part of “You Are My Sunshine,” unfortunately. I wish he would have been. It would have been even more mind blowing.
SJ: Oh my. Whoa!
FJO: But anyway, as soon as I heard it, I wanted to hear more, but it was the only recording you were on that I could find. Then I learned about the Blue Note record, which was out of print at the time. It took me years to track it down, but it was another life changer!
SJ: That happened not too long after. That was George Russell’s doing. He heard me at the Page Three and thought enough of what I did that I could be part of something which turned out to be “Sunshine.” But then he paid for a tape of me and took it around to record companies. Blue Note picked it up right away, and they had never recorded a singer before. I think once they did a recording of a blues singer, but aside from that they never recorded singers—it was always instrumentalists—but they recorded me. The other person that George took it to was Quincy Jones, who was the A&R man for Mercury at the time. And he wanted to record me, but I had already signed with Blue Note.
FJO: You couldn’t do two records?
SJ: No, I couldn’t.
FJO: You signed an exclusive contract?
SJ: Yes, exactly. It was too bad. But anyway, Quincy wrote me a beautiful letter, and he said, “I’m so sorry that you can’t do the recording; maybe another time.” But I wasn’t the kind of person that would have got in touch with him and said, “Okay, how about now?” I just never pushed myself. Otherwise, I’m sure I could have done a record with him. I just never tried. I had a lot going on. I was working a day job, singing at the Page Three, taking care of my daughter, and it just didn’t cross my mind.
FJO: That Blue Note record, Portrait of Sheila, is unlike anything else recorded back then.
SJ: Everybody loves it. I can’t hear it. I can’t hear any of my stuff. I felt when I did it that it was very important to me. But I never listen back. I’m too critical.
FJO: But it amazes me that people didn’t follow up with you considering how unique that record was, how spare, no piano—
SJ: That was George’s idea. And Steve Swallow was on acoustic bass because he worked at the Page Three on Monday nights. But it was George’s idea for guitar. I said, “Why can’t we use piano?” And he said, “No, we’re using guitar; this is the way it’s going down.” It was Barry Galbraith, who was very sweet and a wonderful player, another underrated musician. George has done so many things for people. Did you have ever hear his New York, N.Y. ? That’s the first rap, with Jon Hendricks. Genius! The first rap record I ever heard. You talk about rap, these guys rapping today? Jon Hendricks did that. What he did for New York, N.Y., that was rapping.
FJO: Getting back to your own recordings, Portrait of Sheila is now an iconic record. But 13 years went by before you recorded your second album, Confirmation. That’s a very long time.
SJ: It was a long time. I have to be pushed. I don’t like to record. I don’t think about it. I just go out and sing the music. I should record again now, but I don’t.
FJO: I was hoping that one of your nights at Birdland last week got recorded, because I heard some amazing stuff from you on Thursday night.
SJ: Really? Oohhh, well. I don’t know.
FJO: One thing that you did in between those years that I find so interesting is that you participated in Escalator Over the Hill.
SJ: With Carla Bley.
FJO: That’s really wacky stuff. How did that come about?
SJ: I don’t remember actually. I guess Carla knew about me and she wanted me to be a part of it, me and Jeanne Lee.
FJO: And Linda Ronstadt, too!
SJ: Was Linda Ronstadt on it?
SJ: I don’t even remember. I don’t remember that record.
FJO: Even Carla’s daughter Karen Mantler, who was only a few years old at the time, was on it. You can hear her crying. It’s incredible.
SJ: Yeah, well Carla’s very creative. She’s something else. I was very happy to be part of that. But then I see the word “fuck” in the music. And I said, “Wait a minute. We’ll get arrested for this.” And she just laughed. I had to sing that on the record. It might have been the very first time it was ever recorded, that word. I believe so.
FJO: I think there were a couple of rock records in the late ‘60s that had “fuck” on them, but it was still pretty early.
SJ: Yeah, but it was pretty early. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
FJO: And you were the one assigned to sing it.
SJ: Well yeah, but I said to her at the time, “Are you sure?” And she said, “Yes.” So I said, “Okay. I’ll do it.”
FJO: What’s wonderful is that, after that came out, starting in the 1970s, even though you didn’t push yourself and you didn’t like to record, you did start to appear on recordings more and more. Your second record, Confirmation, is full of treasures starting with the title track, which is a Charlie Parker tune.
SJ: Those are the lyrics of those two guys from Detroit [Skeeter and Mitch].
FJO: There are other tracks on that album that were very unusual repertoire choices, I think. I’m particularly thrilled that you did the Dr. Seuss-Frederick Hollander song “Just Because We’re Kids” from the movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. I’ve never heard anyone else do that.
SJ: I don’t know if anybody else has done it.
FJO: But it made me wonder, what makes you choose repertoire? What makes you decide this is something you’re going to sing?
SJ: Well, first of all, I do a whole little children’s thing, sometimes with bass and voice. “Because We’re Kids” was just part of a whole children’s thing, like “Dat Dere.” I also do a beautiful ballad by Oscar Brown, Jr. called “Brother Where Are You?” It’s an incredible tune. But I don’t remember why I started doing the children’s thing, to tell you the truth. I think I did it in the Page Three years ago. And I think I did it because the audience sometimes can be kind of rude, you know. So I think it was sort of a take-off on, you know, if they listened.
FJO: It’s a shame that Confirmation was originally released only in Japan, but thankfully it has been re-issued and is available everywhere now. And, even more importantly, after you made that record, things gradually started to really take off. You then recorded your very first voice and bass duo album with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen.
SJ: That’s right.
FJO: When I visited Oslo a few years back, I picked up Arild Andersen’s earliest recordings and I was amazed to discover that before he ever recorded that album with you, he recorded a track whose name is your address.
SJ: Yeah, he wrote that tune because they stayed here. I would let them stay here when they came, so they wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel. They wanted to come and check out New York City. I used to do that with a lot of the Europeans, and my daughter would say, “Mom, you’re taking in all these Europeans. You don’t know if they’re cool. What makes you think they’re better than Americans?” And I said, “Tracey, I know they’re okay. I wouldn’t take ‘em in if they weren’t.” Arild she knew real well, so that was different. But sometimes, I’d let people stay here for a week or so whom she didn’t know that well, or who didn’t know me very well at all. Then I sort of stopped, I guess. But ones like Jan Gabarek stayed here. Jan, Arild, Bobo Stenson—I used to take them all in, because they were beautiful players and they needed to check out New York. So Arild wrote that song at my address. He was grateful.
FJO: So in a way this apartment became a continuation of the jazz loft you had when you first moved to New York City.
SJ: Yes, it did. Yeah, except that I didn’t play music as much as I did then because of the surroundings. But I miss that. I would love to have a loft again where I could just have sessions and people would come by and play music and try out different ideas musically. It would be great.
FJO: We should talk a bit about the group you co-led with Steve Kuhn in the late ‘70s. You’re still performing with him; he was with you at Birdland last week. So that’s a relationship that goes back almost half a century.
SJ: That’s right.
FJO: What I find so interesting about that group you led together is that the voice functions as a member of the quartet rather than being a singer and a back-up group. It’s an integrated union.
SJ: That’s what we decided. Kuhn said, “I don’t want it to be a singer with a trio. I want it to be all of us together. You as part of it. I filled in. It was originally a saxophone player, Steve Slagle, but after Steve couldn’t do it I guess the guy that was booking Kuhn at the time said, “I think you should get a singer.” And Steve said, “The singer that I’d want would be Sheila Jordan.”
So we talked about it. He said, “I don’t want this to be you leading with the trio.” That’s how that started. And that’s why, even today, I never have them play a tune [in the beginning] and then come [in singing]. You know what I mean? A lot of times, they play a beautiful tune in the front and then the singer comes out. I didn’t want it to be like that. I want the audience’s full attention. If I go up there first, they’ll have full attention. It’s not just background music until the singer comes on. Boom. This is it. But then I feature them in the middle, and then you’ve got the audience. Then the audience will listen to the trio. That’s the reason I do that.
FJO: I’d like to talk with you a bit more about the whole voice and bass idea. It sounds totally natural, yet it was completely revolutionary at the time and some people didn’t accept it initially.
SJ: If you get them through the first tune, they’re hooked, the first two tunes. I remember I was up in Ottawa doing a festival with Harvie S at the time when he was still doing the bass part. The place was packed. And a guy came in the door and said, “Where’s the piano? Where’s the drums?” He was screaming after the tune was over; the whole audience heard him. So all of a sudden I said, “In my head, man.” The rhythm section is in my head—the piano and the drums. But he was like “What!?” and then he walked out.
FJO: His loss.
SJ: Yeah, well, it’s getting more popular. I just finished a tour with Cameron Brown. We were in Portland, Vancouver, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Arcata, California, and it was very, very successful. I’ve worked out, like, stories in the bass and voice. These are little things with little stories like a dance medley of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. There are a whole bunch of different things. And I keep working on it.
FJO: One reason I think that having just a bass accompany the voice is so effective is the voice can sing any note and a fretless bass can play any note. It’s not a like a piano which is locked into 12-tone equal temperament. Both the bass and the voice can slide and can get all these microtonal gradations, so they’re ideal partners.
SJ: I heard it for years. The first time I ever sang in public with [just] the bass was with Charles Mingus in Toledo, Ohio. I went there to visit family and I asked a family member if they wanted to go and hear some jazz, because I found out Charlie Mingus was playing at this jazz club. And she said yes. So we went. I’d known Mingus from when he took me to Lennie’s and we did a couple of gigs later. But anyway, he saw me come in and he said, “Come on up and sing something with me.” I said, “What? You’re not a piano or guitar.” He said, “That doesn’t bother you when you’re at Lennie’s.” Because I would try out bass and voice things at Lennie’s. That’s what was so great about Lennie’s. And I said, “No, I can’t.” He said, “Yeah, you can. Come on.” So he played “Yesterdays” and I sang it. And it felt good. Mingus played beautifully, of course. And so I knew eventually I would try to get this off the ground, which I did. I’ve been working on the bass and voice for years.
FJO: Another thing you’ve worked on for many years is teaching other singers. You’ve been a pioneer in the teaching of jazz singing and you’ve been a mentor to generations of musicians.
SJ: Well, I try to just carry the message and give it back. You know, in order to keep it, you have to give it away. That’s what they say, and it’s true.
FJO: One of the really extraordinary vocalists you’ve mentored is Theo Bleckmann, and there’s a wonderful album of the two of you singing together.
SJ: Oh, Jazz Child. I brought him over here years ago. I met him in Graz. He used to sing like me for a while. He wrote me a thing one time, or he called me, saying, “Well, I’m not singing like you anymore.” I said, “Oh, that’s good. But I’m glad you were, I’m honored that you even dug what I did.” He’s a very beautiful, talented young man. I’m very close with him. He’s like a son.
FJO: I’d like to know more about your own original material.
SJ: Well, I don’t write that much, though, Frank.
FJO: Your song “The Crossing” is extremely moving.
SJ: Oh, thank you. I didn’t do “The Crossing” at Birdland, except on one night. I sang it a capella. This woman wanted to hear it. It was on the opening night. And I said, “I don’t have it in the set.” I felt that maybe musically it wasn’t challenging enough for the rhythm or for Steve to play. I don’t know; that was my own feeling. But I usually close a concert with it. I’ve never sung it in a club too much. Anyway, I did sing it without accompaniment. But I never think too much about it. That was for my recovery. I wrote “The Crossing” for my recovery. A guy that I used to go with gave me a sculpture of his one time, and he called it “The Crossing.” It was made out of wine corks from all the bottles of wine that I had drunk in a certain period of time when I was still drinking. And there was a break in it. There were all these corks, and then there’s a break, and then there’s a little small cork. That encouraged me. I was inspired by that to write “The Crossing,” that and the fact that I was in recovery. I won’t go into detail about what the name of the group is, but I am a loyal member of this organization and it is incredible. There’s no reason that anybody has to be out there and suffer with alcohol or drug addiction. You don’t have to. There is help for you if you want it. You just have to know where to go.
FJO: You have a few other originals, too, like the song in which you tell the story of hearing Charlie Parker from outside the club.
SJ: Oh, “Sheila’s Blues.”
FJO: I love how you’ve turned your life into this song. There’s now a wonderful biography of you, but in a way I already knew a lot of that story from hearing you sing “Sheila’s Blues.”
SJ: Right. I just wrote another tune a few years ago called “Workshop Blues.” That’s for the singers that I teach. It’s a minor blues. I like to write. I think I could write a lot of things. I found some lyrics that I wrote. Obviously, they were just to somebody [else]’s tune, but I don’t remember whose tunes because at that time I was drinking. But I happened to find these and I said, “What the heck is this?” I’m reading this and it’s heavy. Then vaguely in the back of my mind, I remembered it being something to do with somebody who gave me music and wanted me to write lyrics to their music. I think if I had more time, I’d really put more thought into it. I don’t know if you ever heard the words I wrote to Don Cherry’s “Art Deco.” Have you ever heard the words I wrote to “Remembrance,” which is about Native Americans? That’s quite nice.
FJO: Tell me more about the “Workshop Blues.” I’m curious about how you feel hearing other singers sing your tune.
SJ: I’ve never heard anybody sing anything that I wrote. I hear them sing the “Workshop Blues” because in a workshop situation they’re singing it, but to go out to a club and hear a singer sing—I’ve never heard anybody sing my blues or any of my tunes.
FJO: What would that feel like, do you think?
SJ: I think I’d be very honored. I’m sure I would feel wonderful. But I don’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet.
FJO: Now you’re about to go to Europe.
SJ: I’m going to Germany next Monday.
FJO: Is this also with Steve Kuhn?
SJ: No, I’m there with Jochen Pfister; it’s a trio I’ve worked with before. These guys are wonderful. They get me tours. That’s how I work. I’ll be with him and then from there, I got to Graz for the 50th anniversary of their university. I started a workshop over there in the ‘80s, and they want me to come and be a part of it. And I’ll do also some touring and some teaching while I’m there. So I’ll be gone for about a month. Then I’ll come back home. Then I have a little time off. But then I’m going to Italy. Then I’ll be going to Jazz in July, that I started at Amherst, Mass, thanks to Billy Taylor and Max Roach and Dr. [Frederick] Tillis. They brought me up there. I’ll do that for two weeks. That’s a two-week workshop. I love teaching. Then I’ll come back. I’m just booked up.
FJO: You don’t need a babysitter anymore, but I hope it doesn’t just cover babysitter and cab fare.
SJ: No! It’s a little bit better than that. But, you know, they’ll always say, “What’s your budget?” I never charge too much. I say, “What’s your budget?” And they tell me and I say, “Okay, so what can you afford to pay me?” Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to make. I don’t know what I’m making in Germany. I haven’t asked. I do know what I’m making in Graz because I’m doing a big thing there. So they’re going to send the money to the bank. I’ll go to Japan again in December. I get all these gigs through musicians, most of them. I love to work with young musicians. They go out there and they set up a tour. They ask me if I will do a tour with them and I say yes. You have to be able to read music and you have to be able to swing. That’s all I ask. If you have those things covered, we have no problem. I love to sing with them.
FJO: It’s ironic. You initially avoided success, but you’ve become an incredible success. And your success still continues to grow.
SJ: It’s amazing what happened to me. All these awards! I was like, “Are you sure?” Especially when I got the [NEA] Jazz Masters Award—that threw me for a loop.
FJO: Why were you shocked? Maybe because you don’t listen back, so you don’t know how amazing your recordings are!
SJ: No, no, no. I don’t really feel they’re amazing. I always feel like I could do so much better. And there are all these great people out there! You’ve got Steve Swallow, who’s never gotten it. Carla Bley’s finally getting it this year. So I said, “Are you sure it’s me? Are you sure they want me to get this award?” And the guy said, “Yes, of course. That’s why I’m calling you.” So I said, “Oh, okay. Thank you.” But I was in shock—same thing with the Mary Lou Williams Award. They gave me that. But there’s also a little voice within me that says, “Well, come on, don’t you know that you were out there supporting this music for so long? Just enjoy it.” Then I tell it to shut up. I don’t want to hear it.
FJO: I’m staring at the copies of your biography on your side table. Your life is now a book. How does that feel?
SJ: Ellen Johnson did a wonderful job. She worked hard and long on writing this. And I’m very grateful to her. I never thought I’d have a book written about me, and she encouraged me. If it gives hope to people, especially those out there struggling with addiction or with music, a lot of it is in there. I’m living proof that if you stick to something that you believe in, no matter how difficult it can become, no matter how many times you get knocked down, just get up. And don’t give up. Get up and don’t give up. Keep doing it. It’ll come around. I want the book to be a book of hope. It hasn’t always been easy, but it can be wonderful. And it’s wonderful today for me. It’s wonderful. I cannot believe what’s happened to me.
More details about our focus on three generations of jazz vocalists this month can be found here.