BRATTLEBORO—When jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan was informed that she was the 2012 recipient of the nation’s highest honor in jazz, the National Endowment of the Arts’ Jazz Masters Award, her initial response was, “Are you kidding?”
She really meant it. When the 83-year-old singer answered the phone, she believed the caller was trying to sell her something.
“You know how those guys sound,” she says. “So when he asked if I was Sheila Jordan, I answered, ‘Yeah,’ a little exasperated.”
“When I found out he was from the NEA and I was getting this amazing award, I told him I had been so rude because I thought he was a telemarketer,” she says.
“We both had a big laugh,” says Jordan, who will perform an intimate concert at the Vermont Jazz Center on March 24 with another jazz legend, pianist Steve Kuhn.
Jordan met Kuhn was he was very young in New York City and their friendship has thrived for nearly 50 years. The two have been performing together since 1979, when Jordan joined Kuhn’s quartet and began two years of performing with him and with Bob Moses and Harvie Schwartz, the other two members.
During this two-year chapter of their association, Jordan and Kuhn recorded Playground, toured Europe, and were featured in major clubs and festivals.
After a long hiatus, their professional collaboration resumed in 1996, with Kuhn appearing as pianist on two of Jordan’s more recent albums (Jazz Child, 1998, and Little Song, 2002).
The Steve Kuhn Trio (Kuhn, with Steve Swallow and Joey Baron) will be releasing a new album, Wisteria, next month.
Jordan greatly treasures her musical relationship with Kuhn whom she calls “wonderful,” “a very special musician,” and “my favorite pianist in the world.”
Steve Kuhn has an equally high opinion of Jordan.
“We are like brother and sister,” he says. “She is probably the last in the breed of jazz singers such as Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and Shirley Horne.”
“It is quite amazing that for a singer at her age she is singing better than she ever has in her life,” Kuhn says. “Her voice is stronger and her intonation is better. She has a great emotional rapport with her audience.”
Jordan is proud of the NEA award, as well as the many others she has won, which include the 2008 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz for a lifetime of service, the 2007 IAJE Humanitarian Award, the 2006 MAC Lifetime Achievement Award, and “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” by Downbeat magazine Critic’s Poll 9 times.
But she used to keep all her awards hidden in a closet until her daughter asked, “Where are your awards? You need to put them up on the walls. You earned them; you deserved them.”
Although Jordan did put them up on her wall, she is eager to point out that her career is not about awards; it is about the music itself.
As she often tells her students, her philosophy is: “Don’t give up. Don’t let the music go. Support it until it can support you. And even if it never supports you, support it because you love it.”
And Jordan has had a lot of supporting to do. Jordan has been described by the NEA as “one of the premier singers in jazz” yet could not rely on singing alone to support herself and her daughter until she was 58 years old.
As a single mother, Jordan did not want her child to go through the hardships that she faced growing up in poverty in the coal mining town of Summerhill, Pa., where the next meal was often in doubt.
So, for many years, she worked during the days as a secretary at the prominent ad agency Doyle, Dane & Bernbach, while singing at night in the jazz clubs of New York.
Actually she even did a little singing while at the ad agency.
When agency principal Bill Bernbach wanted a vocal for one of his commercials, he would call on Jordan. She sang the 1956 hit “The Party’s Over” for a Whirlpool refrigerator ad. (“Your party doesn’t have to be over if you had Whirlpool’s new automatic ice maker.”)
Jordan was able to leave the workforce only when Doyle, Dane & Bernbach merged with another advertising agency.
She was given two options: she could work as a floating secretary/typist or, because she had been with the company so long, she could take one year’s severance pay.
“I was very upset,” she says. “I had just lost my job. But then I thought, ‘Wait, this is the break I always wanted — to be able to just sing.’ So I said to myself, ‘Take the money, shut up, and sing.’”
‘Saved my life’
Jordan says that singing has been the central passion of her life. “Singing has saved my life many times over,” she proclaims.
“When I was a kid, it protected me from the unhappiness in my life,” she says, and years later, music saved her “from the grip of alcoholism.”
“Alcoholism runs in my family,” Jordan says. “My mother died from it. Even after I gave up alcohol, I was a dry drunk for many years, taking cocaine.”
“Music pulled me out of both of these addictions,” she says. “Music did that. You have to respect the gift. I have been free from alcohol for 33 years and from cocaine for 26. I celebrate my years of sobriety on my mother’s birthday in honor of her.”
Sheila Jordan has known and worked with many of the greatest jazz musicians, including legends Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Lenny Tristano, and Sonny Rollins, with whom she is still close.
But the primary musical influence in her life “is without doubt Charlie Parker,” she says.
“I never worried about why some singers were making it and I wasn’t,” Jordan said in a January interview with the website Jazzwax. “I just wanted to keep the music alive, especially Bird’s music.”
“I would go and see Parker when I was a kid in Detroit,” she says. “He’d bring me up on stage to play with him on stage. Later, I moved to New York to be near his music.”
“When I met him in Manhattan, I asked if he remembered me from Detroit,” Jordan recalls. “’Sure,’ he said, ‘you’re the kid with the million-dollar ears.’”
Long association with Jazz Center
Vermont Jazz Center is proud to having had brought those “million dollar ears” to Brattleboro.
Eugene Uman, director of VJC, describes Jordan as “a person who has done it all.”
“She has performed all over the world,” he says. “She is one of the best musicians on the planet. The Jazz Center is very grateful that Jordan continues to consider us part of her musical family even now as her career has leaped in the stratosphere.”
Jordan has had a long association with Brattleboro, where she has served on the faculty of the Vermont Jazz Center’s Summer Jazz Workshop every year since 1997.
She first became aware of VTC with her friendship of guitarist Attila Zoller, the center’s founder. But Zoller’s focus was not on jazz singing; Uman, who also knew Jordan from his early days as a student in New York, was the one who encouraged her first vocal workshops.
However, an actual concert from Jordan is a rare event. Making it even more special is that she will be joined by Steve Kuhn, who is appearing in Brattleboro for the first time.
“I may have been there very long ago, but so long ago I can’t remember,” he says.
A concert by two of jazz’s luminary figures performing together in an intimate setting, says Uman, “is their gift to our community.”