NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan directs the VJC vocal jazz program along with Jay Clayton. Raised in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country, Sheila began singing as a child and by her early teens was sitting in at local jazz clubs. Her first great influence was Charlie Parker and, indeed, most of her influences have been instrumentalists rather than singers. Singing and hanging out chiefly with black musicians, she met with disapproval from the white community but persisted with her career. She was a member of a vocal trio, Skeeter, Mitch and Jean (she was Jean), which sang versions of Parker’s solos in a manner akin to the later Lambert, Hendricks And Ross.
After moving to New York in the early 1950s, Sheila married Parker’s pianist Duke Jordan, and studied with Lennie Tristano, but it was not until the early 1960s that she made her first recordings. One of these was “The Outer View” with George Russell, which featured Sheila on a famous ten-minute version of “You Are My Sunshine.” Her debut as a leader on Blue Note Records in 1963, “A Portrait of Sheila,” has been consistently regarded as one of the finest recordings in all of vocal jazz.
In the mid-1960s Sheila’s career encompassed jazz liturgies sung in churches and extensive club work, but her appeal remained narrow even within the confines of jazz. However, by the late 1970s jazz audiences had begun to understand her uncompromising style a little better and her popularity increased, as did her appearances on record, including albums with pianist Steve Kuhn, whose quartet she joined, and an album, “Home,” comprising a selection of Robert Creeley’s poems set to music and arranged by Steve Swallow.
A 1983 duo set with bassist Harvie Swartz, “Old Time Feeling,” contains several of the standards Sheila regularly features in her live repertoire, while 1990’s “Lost And Found” pays tribute to her bebop roots. Both sets display her unique musical trademarks, such as frequent sweeping changes of pitch, which still tend to confound an uninitiated audience. Her preference for bass and voice led to another remarkable collaboration with bassist Cameron Brown, with whom Sheila has performed as a duo world-wide for more than ten years, released the live albums “I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass” and “Celebration.” Entirely non-derivative, Sheila is one of only a handful of jazz singers who fully deserve the appellation Jazz Master.