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 sang.

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 I asked.

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.
-Karin Plato

Photo of Sheila Jordan by Karin Plato

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 Honorary Award.

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 Lins.

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 done?

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 your home?

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 and Switzerland.

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 with?

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 him again.

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 well.

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