Karin Plato talks to Sheila Jordan
September 12, 2004
I interviewed jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan the evening after
her concert at the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver. She performed
there with a trio led by Vancouver pianist Tony Foster and with
the string quartet Babayaga. The concert was fantastic and the audience
was captivated and showed their adoration with every tune that Sheila
The evening following the concert there was a small gathering
of friends and fans of Sheila at the home of Norah and Wil Johnston.
We dined and we conversed about many things and we thoroughly enjoyed
being in Sheila's company. Following our dinner I asked my more
specific questions of Sheila as we all sat in rapt attention awaiting
her answers. There was much more that was spoken about that evening
but these are Sheila's answers to the particular questions that
For those who do not know Sheila is a 75 year old jazz vocalist
from New York. She is hailed the queen of be-bop and is a disciple
of the Charlie Parker "school of music". She sang with
Charlie Parker when she was a mere teenager. She raised a daughter
as a single mom, worked an office job by day and sang jazz by night.
She is a warm and delightful human being. She has had tragedy in
her life and it has never kept her down. She laughs easily and shares
her love and knowledge freely with anyone who cares to learn. Besides
being a wonderful performer in the jazz idiom she is also a remarkable
teacher, able to guide potential jazz musicians with her no nonsense
approach to the music. She cares and she lets you know that. She
loves the music and continues to share that love and to share her
talent as she performs and teaches around the world. I think that
most people would never guess that she is 75 years of age. She has
youthful exuberance and in a word she is "hip". Sheila
Jordan is one of a kind.
|Photo of Sheila Jordan by Karin
What are 3 of the great joys that you have experienced in the
past 5-10 years? (not necessarily musical events)
All the wonderful singers that I have met. The fact that my daughter
recovered after being diagnosed with cancer. That I am more accepted
now in the professional music world in the last 8-10 years with
people believing in what I do. Being awarded the 2004 Lil Hardin
Armstrong Jazz Heritage Award and the Jazz Vocal Coalition Special
Other than jazz music are there other types of music that you
enjoy listening to?
I like listening to classical music. I like the music of Bach.
I listen to a radio station on NPR that plays lots of classical
music. I also love Brasilian music, particularly the music of Ivan
Do you have any words of wisdom to give to people who have decided
that they are going to dedicate their lives to jazz as you have
I think the school of bebop is essential for any jazz musician.
For vocalists I think there is a "scat virus" going on.
You don't necessarily have to scat to be a jazz singer. You don't
necessarily have to scat on every tune or you might not even have
scatting be a part of your jazz singing. There's a lot of that going
on right now in the jazz world. Study of Bebop though is essential
to study for everyone if you want to be a jazz musician.
What are some of the best things about calling New York City
The connection to Charlie Parker from the beginning. Charlie Parker
and bebop gave me my life. There are other things about the city
that I can't explain but it is there, it is home. It's hard to put
in words. All the clubs, up to Harlem, the after hours clubs, Minton's
Playhouse. Charlie Parker and many other musicians coming to hang
out at my loft in New York. There were always people hanging out
at my place.
[ Karin's note: Here Sheila takes a short aside telling a little
story about Charlie Parker and of Sheila's pet bird who was named
Tori and whom she taught to say "Hello Bird". Once when
Charlie Parker visited Sheila in her loft and became tired he lay
down on the couch to have a rest while Sheila busied herself in
the kitchen. Tori the bird landed on Charlie Parker's chest and
proceeded with the greeting "Hello Bird!" much to his
surprise and possibly shock as he was awakened from his sleep. At
first he thought it was Sheila playing tricks on him since he had
not yet witnessed the bird doing this but the second time it happened
he realized that in fact it was Tori the bird saying hello to the
Bird Charlie Parker.]
Are there significant differences between North American and
European jazz audiences?
Yes there are differences. I am definitely more accepted in Europe
than in North America, which is why I work there so often. The audiences
in Canada and USA may be smaller but when people there are your
fans they are completely devoted to you. There is great support
for the music especially in countries such as Spain, France, Germany
Do you prefer singing concerts in big theatres or in intimate
jazz clubs around the world?
I do prefer clubs but in recent years I have found a way to make
the theater experience feel more like a club atmosphere. I do like
them both. I like the intimacy of the club performance and try to
have that happen in each performance now. I used to be very serious
as a performer. I am still serious about the music but I try to
make each performance fun for the musicians and for the audience.
If you could have anyone that you chose, who would be some musicians
that you would include in your dream band of players?
Tom Harrell, Dave Holland or Buster Williams, Max Roach,
I don't know if these guys would get along [giggles]
Tommy Flanagan, Barry Galbraith. And of course if it were possible,
Charlie Parker. But then it wouldn't be my band anymore. [laughs]
Are there any current musicians around the world working today
that you would really like the opportunity to perform or record
Yes a young Scottish pianist named Brian Kellock. He won a prestigious
jazz award in 2003 in Great Britain. I did work with him once and
was very impressed. He is one of the only people that ever made
me cry when he played a solo. I really want to do something with
When you are not on tour and not busy working on music yourself
do you still go out and hear music being performed by other people?
I like going out and supporting the young upcoming talent. There
are some clubs like Sweet Rhythm, Smalls, Vandyke, and of course
Birdland. If one of my singing friends such as Mark Murphy is gigging
I will go and hang out. I like going to some open mic nights as
What instrument would you like to play if you had the opportunity
to learn a new instrument?
The bass. I have always loved the bass. I was the first singer
to record with just bass and voice alone. No one else was doing
it at that time in the 50's. The first time I ever performed in
this way was when I playing with bassist Peter Ind. Once Mingus
invited me to sit in and sing a tune with his trio at some club.
His trio included Lee Konitz on horn and I can't remember the drummer.
No piano player. I do remember that I sang 'Yesterdays' in G minor.
Are there thoughts that you might have regarding the status
of jazz music in 2004? Is jazz still alive and well in your opinion?
Jazz will never die. We have to remember where it came from and
help keep it alive. I am not a jazz star or diva. I am a messenger
of the music. You have to have dedication to keep it going. Jazz
gave me my life. Jazz will never die.
Karin Plato web site
Sheila Jordan web site