Sheila Jordan frequently tells the story of how listening to Charlie Parker’s 1945 recording of “Now’s The Time” changed her life; hearing it made her devote her life to jazz. She still remembers putting her nickel in that jukebox in vivid detail.
I have a similar memory, but the life-changing recording for me was George Russell’s “You Are My Sunshine” featuring Sheila Jordan. At the time I did not know that it was her first major recording (and actually only the second time she ever appeared on a record). I also knew almost nothing about jazz. To remedy that, I was taking a jazz appreciation class during my freshman year at Columbia University. I now treasure almost everything I heard in that class, but at the time jazz was still not clicking for me. Then one day, toward the end of the semester, my professor launched into a tirade about “what went wrong with jazz.” He talked about how jazz started losing its connection to popular culture and began to emulate avant-garde contemporary classical music—my ears suddenly perked up; he was finally speaking what I believed was my language. Then he played an example of something he felt was the beginning of this tendency, the point at which jazz took that wrong fork in the road. What he played was George Russell’s recording of “You Are My Sunshine.”
In the very beginning of the arrangement, this famous tune is not recognizable at all; instead there are angular figurations in the horns that sound like something out of Edgard Varèse. Eventually, Russell bangs out the melody on the piano, accompanying it with a torrent of tone clusters. Then, at about ten minutes in, everyone stops playing and, after a moment of silence, an unaccompanied female voice enters singing a highly embellished version of the melody. It is vulnerable and, paradoxically, also extremely powerful. As amazed as I was by what Russell had done to this song, I was even more amazed by that voice. Eventually, the horns return with their figurations and gradually the whole ensemble enters in and ultimately drowns out the singer and it comes to an end.
To this day, it remains one of the most exrtaordinary things I have ever heard in my life. But at that instant, I finally understood how interpretation becomes a form of composition in jazz. Everything I heard after that, I heard in a new way. That wrong fork in the road is what changed my life. First I tracked down all of Russell’s Riverside recordings, then I moved on to all of the sidemen—Eric Dolphy (who was on many of these sessions but unfortunately not on “You Are My Sunshine”) became an obsession and Don Ellis (who went on to form a polystylistic big band) became the subject of one of my first published articles about music.
And then there was Sheila Jordan. At first I couldn’t find anything else. After years of scouring the bins, I finally tracked down her mesmerizing debut LP on Blue Note which, to this day, is my favorite jazz vocal album. Little by little, I tracked down everything else, and I tried to hear her live whenever she sang in New York City as well. By this time, I had become an avid jazz record collector, devouring every alternative take I could get my hands on. That was the fork in the road I went down, which I owe to “You Are My Sunshine.” To finally hear Sheila Jordan describe how this unique recording came about has been equally transformative.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan