Sheila Jordan: INTERVIEW


“I feel like I’m a messenger of the music and my place here on earth is to encourage and give love and support to any singers who want to sing this wonderful music. “

Sheila Jordan – Biography

Sheila Jordan

Sheila Jordan

Sheila Jordan was raised in poverty in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country, Jordan began singing as a child and by the time she was in her early teens was working semi-professionally in Detroit clubs. Her first great influence was Charlie Parker and, indeed, most of her influences have been instrumentalists rather than singers. Parker became acquainted with them and would ask them to sing when he came to Detroit.

In 1951, Jordan moved to New York City and studied harmony and music theory, taught by Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus. She was married to Parker’s pianist, Duke Jordan.

In the early 1960s, Jordan had gigs and sessions in Greenwich Village and performed in other clubs and bars in New York. For much of the 1960s, Jordan withdrew from club performing to raise her daughter. She supported herself by working as a typist and legal secretary for twenty years and was not able to concentrate on music full time until she was 58 years old (1986).

In 1962, she recorded “You Are My Sunshine” with George Russell on his recording “The Outer View” (Riverside).  George Russell got her a record date at Blue Note … She was the first singer to record for Blue Note at that time….That recording was “Portrait of Sheila.” Jordan’s long working relationship with Steve Kuhn also began in the early 1960s.

In 1974, Jordan was “Artist in residence” at the City College and she started one of the first jazz vocal workshops in 1978 at City College in New York City at the suggestion of John Lewis (from the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Ed Summerlin who was the head of the jazz department at that time. She teaches at the summer program called “Jazz in July” at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the first two weeks of July. She also started the vocal jazz workshop which takes place one week in August at Putney, Vermont, as well as teaching international workshops. She also started the vocal jazz dept, in Graz, Austria in the mid 80’s.

On July 12, 1975, she recorded “Confirmation”. One year later she did the duet album Sheila, with Arild Andersen (bass) for SteepleChase. In 1979, she founded a quartet with Kuhn, Harvie S and Bob Moses. During the 1980s, she worked with Harvie S as a duo and played on several records with him.

Jordan is also a songwriter and is able to work in both bebop and free jazz. In addition to the musicians previously mentioned, she has recorded with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (TCB, ECM), MA Recordings, Cameron Brown, Carla Bley (Escalator over the Hill) and Steve Swallow (Home). In addition to Blue Note, she has led recordings issued by Eastwind, Grapevine, SteepleChase, ECM, Palo Alto, Blackhawk and Muse. In the UK she appeared with former John Dankworth Band vocal legend Frank Holder scatting virtuoso Be-bop heads in unison.

She has received many of awards over the years in Jazz music like The Mary Lou Williams Award, The Nitelife Award, and In 2012, she received the highest honor in jazz music, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award.

Her biography, Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan, written by vocalist and educator Ellen Johnson came out in 2014, in time for Jordan’s 86th birthday.

Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan (Studies in Jazz)



Sheila Jordan – Interview


  • Hello Sheila! Thank you for coming to Japan for a long time. What brought you to start singing in Japan and what do you like about it?

I love to sing in Japan.  I first came here years ago with Harvie S on a bass and voice tour.

Todd Garfinkle set up a tour for us and we even recorded an album there for his label.

I come to Japan every year with Peter Michelich.  It’s the most beautiful city to me and I love the people and the culture.


  • What part of singing Jazz you love the best? And what is your strong point as a jazz singer?


Everything I sing is the best for me.

I don’t sing songs I don’t feel or believe in.

Melodies are very important to me.  If the lyrics are not good I can change them.

I need good strong melodies first tho.  I sing about my life and how I feel.  I am very honest when I sing.

I think I probably like to sing ballads the best but I love it all.


  • If it is possible for you, please share us whatever you have learned with Mr. Charlier Parker, his quotes for you or your favorite experiences with him.


It’s because of Bird that I sing.

I always sang as a little kid but never knew what kind of music I wanted to sing until I heard Bird.

Four notes and I knew that was the music I would dedicate my life too.

Jazz….Charlie Parker.

I will be eternally grateful to him.


  • What do you care most as a jazz singer in your music?


The thing I care about most in my music is to be honest and have musicians.

I’m making music with feel the same way as I do about the music.



  • How about the recording? Could you share your experience about CD making? What did you like about them? 


It is very hard for me to record in a studio.

I don’t like being shut up in a booth away from the instrumentalists.  That’s why I prefer live recordings.

I really don’t like to record in studios.  You hear every little breath you take when your shut up in the booth and that bothers me.

I have a recording I did in 1991 with Alan Broadbent and Harvie S and it was live from Kimball’s in San Francisco.

It’s called “Better than Anything”.

Better Than Anything: Live
  • What brought you to start teaching in Japan and what do you like about it?


I was asked to teach workshops and most of these workshops started with singers from Japan finding out I was coming over to do concerts and wanted me to do workshops.

The workshops are all made possible because of the wonderful singers from Japan.

There great to work with because they really take the music very seriously.

I find the thing they have to work the most on tho is their english.  I think that’s the hardest part for them.


  • And what do you care most as a teacher?


I teach because I want to see jazz music continue and stay alive.

I want to give love and encouragement to singers.

I feel it’s my calling to help them and give them hope.

I am not on an ego trip with the students.  I am not on a power trip.

It I were on either of these things I wouldn’t teach.


  • Please let us know about how to keep yourself so creative and keep giving a lot to people around you.


I feel like I’m a messenger of the music and my place here on earth is to encourage and give love and support to any singers who want to sing this wonderful music.

It’s truly a dedication for me to sing and teach what I know and feel.

My musical creatively comes from living as honestly as I can and keeping my heart and soul open for new feelings and new ideas without forcing them.


  • For the closing of this interview, what do you love about jazz? Could you give any messages for singers in Japan? Do you feel welcome if one of a singer say that she/he would love to visit you someday? If you have anything to say, please let us know!!


I love the freedom that jazz music gives me.

I love the process of learning a song exactly the way it’s written. Memorize the lyrics and know what they mean, hear the chord changes and let it happen. I love the element of surprise in this music and that only comes to me when I really hear and know what the song I’m singing is about and what was there in the first place.

I never force when I sing. I just let it happen and trust it.

I have had several out of body experiences singing this music. This is the most incredible feeling in the word. Your singing and you totally leave your body. It’s like your floating and the music is coming from you and yet your not aware of it …it’s just happening. It’s incredible when it happens.

The message I would give to singers in Japan is to learn the songs exactly as written before trying to improvise and change them.

Also, never force a change. Sometimes, the original melody is better then something your forcefully trying to change.

The other thing that is very very very important to singers in Japan is learning english.

Learn how to pronounce each word of the song. It’s so important.

And above all don’t get discouraged…

Keep Singing. Don’t give up.


  • Thank you very much!!


  • message from interviewer: Yuki Hidaka

The first time I met Sheila was December 2010, when she came to Kyoto to perform and stayed at the hotel where I was working as a front desk clerk.

When I said to Sheila that I love jazz and studying, in spite that she never heard my singing, she gave me her new CD, ”Little Song” on which written the message by herself, “Keep singing “. I was moved into tears when I listened to her voice after I went home. The CD begins and ends with acapella of the song of native American’s, which is one of her roots.

I remember that when we talked with me before, Sheila said, “ I love to see the beautiful friendship growing up through workshop among singers.”,
Exactly as stated, singers become good friends each other ―though sometimes they are nervous at the first time;―through her workshop; introducing oneself with blues, hearing other singer’s song and learning from each other, and be made laugh by her.

Sheila always makes somebody laugh, even while just talking―rhyming like singing a song, making parodies.

Sometimes I feel that singing jazz is a little bit special and unusual thing for me, probably because I was born and have grown up in Japan, and never heard jazz until I entered University.

I learned from Sheila, the importance of being relax and enjoy singing jazz , same as just talking and laughing with friends.


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