Sheila Jordan Biography

Sheila Jeanette Dawson, 18 November 1928, Detroit, Michigan, USA. Raised in poverty in Summerhil 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. Working 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), who sang versions of Parker’s solos in a manner akin to that of the later Lambert, Hendricks And Ross. After moving to New York in the early 50s, she married Parker’s pianist, Duke Jordan (they have since divorced), and studied with Charles Mingus and Lennie Tristano, but it was not until the early 60s that she made her first recordings. These included a superb Blue Note Records set under her own name, and guest vocals on ‘Yesterdays’ from Peter Ind’s Looking Out, and the famous 10-minute version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ from George Russell’s The Outer View.

In the mid-60s Jordan’s work encompassed jazz liturgies sung in churches and extensive club work, but her appeal was narrow even within the confines of jazz and she continued to hold down a day job as a typist in an advertising agency. She continued to make guest appearances on such acclaimed recordings as Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill and Roswell Rudd’s Flexible Flyer and Blown Bone, and resumed solo recording work in the 70s. By the end of that decade jazz audiences had begun to understand her uncompromising style a little more and her popularity increased - as did her appearances on record, which included albums with bass player Arild Andersen, 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 bass player Harvie Swartz, Old Time Feeling, included several of the standards Jordan regularly features in her live repertoire.

Jordan has subsequently worked regularly with Swartz in what is now a full-time jazz career. Her recordings display her unique musical trademarks, such as the frequent and unexpected sweeping changes of pitch which still tend to confound an uninitiated audience. Entirely non-derivative, Jordan is one of only a tiny handful of jazz singers who fully deserve the appellation and for whom no other term will do.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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