Saluting a loyal friend and teacher
On June 1, the Vermont Jazz Center presents NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan and Friends, a celebration and appreciation of Jordan’s 90th year and her two-decade relationship with the Jazz Center.

Saluting a loyal friend and teacher

VJC celebrates Sheila Jordan’s 90th birthday, and her 20th year of mentoring new vocalists, with a gala concert

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Jazz Center is delighted to present an evening of music with NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan.

On Saturday, June 1, at 8 p.m., Jordan will perform the first set with me on piano, bassist Genevieve Rose, and drummer Billy Drummond. The second set will feature Jordan singing with several surprise-guest performers and the rhythm section.

This concert is one of many festive occasions throughout the world celebrating Jordan's 90th birthday, which took place on Nov. 18, 2018.

Sheila Jordan is a matriarch of the Vermont Jazz Center family. She joined the faculty in 1997, when I, as the VJC's new director, asked her to run a vocal workshop as part of the Center's newly revised summer workshop.

She offered a small group of singers a three-day program that has blossomed into a weeklong workshop with instructor Jay Clayton, 20 vocalists, and two rhythm sections.

Jordan's teaching style is based on reverence for tradition, openness to spirit, and dedication to quality.

In her workshops, Jordan's visceral connection with the music and her love for the students envelops their experience, creating a safe environment that gently pushes them to exceed what they had imagined was their potential.

Deep influence

Jordan has inspired several generations of vocalists, from amateur to world-famous, most of whom are quick to acknowledge that her coaching has profoundly and positively shaped their professional and personal lives.

A few of the awards that have been bestowed upon Jordan include the Lil Armstrong Hardin Jazz Heritage Award (2004), Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), International Association of Jazz Education Humanitarian Award (2007), Mary Lou Williams' Women in Jazz for Lifetime of Service Award (2008), New York Nightlife Outstanding Jazz Vocalist Award (2010), National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award (2012), a University of Massachusetts Honorary Degree, Doctor of Fine Arts (2017), Bistro Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Art of Jazz (2018), and the Columbia Center for Jazz Studies Satchmo (Louis Armstong) Award (2018).

Jordan had a close relationship with one of jazz's greatest giants, the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Bird, along with Jordan's other friends Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Thelonious Monk, birthed the revolution of bebop music, the improvisational language of which forms the foundation of modern jazz.

She often tells the story of the first time she heard Bird's music coming from a jukebox: It was around 1945 and the song was “Now's the Time” by Charlie Parker and the Reboppers. Her experience was nothing short of revelatory: upon hearing the sound of Parker's horn, she knew instantly that bebop music was “the music I'll dedicate my life to.”

Jordan sings about that shining moment in “Sheila's Blues,” an autobiographical narrative where she illustrates how bebop gave her life meaning and focus. She boldly claims that “if it wasn't for jazz music I wouldn't be alive today.”

She reminisces how, at age 14, she tried to enter a jazz club where Charlie Parker was performing in Detroit. Dressed in high-heeled shoes and a pill-box hat with a veil (and smoking Lucky Strikes), she was turned away by the bouncer and told to “go home and do your school work.”

Jordan found an open door at the back of the club where she could sit in the alley and listen. Sensing her there, Bird turned and played his horn for her, thus kindling a life-long friendship.

'Million dollar ears'

Bird became Jordan's mentor: he heard her perform with her vocal trio (Skeeter, Mitch and Jean) and told her she had “million dollar ears.”

The city of Detroit, where Jordan was born, was burgeoning with jazz music while she was in her teens. She grew up singing with luminaries-to-be like Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, the Jones brothers (Elvin, Hank, Thad), Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, and others.

She educated herself in bebop by singing along with Charlie Parker's records and memorizing his complex tunes and improvised solos. She continues to pass this tradition along. Now, 70 years later, Jordan has shared this approach with thousands of acolytes from around the world.

By singing Bird's music, her students become aware of Parker's bluesy, formidable repertoire and, after much practice, they begin to internalize the essential elements of bebop's phrasing and note choices.

Jordan's accompanist of more than 30 years, pianist Ray Gallon, states “Sheila has taught me so much: how to teach with love and humor while remaining firm how to arrange songs in an interesting, creative way; how to organize set lists, making every note count, playing every note as if it's your last, the importance of finding just the right tempo and mood for every song ... Above all she always teaches by example the importance of artistic honesty and integrity.”

The June concert here at the VJC is usually an opportunity for me to present the Convergence Project, an ensemble I started to perform original compositions that mix jazz with funk and Colombian influences.

This year, however, I am happy instead to accompany Jordan and relive the joy of a five-city tour we took to Colombia in 1998 with bassist Genevieve Rose and drummer Matt Wilson.

Energy and love

That tour was one of the highlights of my professional life - the exhilaration of playing and traveling with Sheila gave me a new appreciation of what it meant to strive for excellence and connect with audiences.

Experiencing the deep communication she transmitted nightly from the stage was a turning point in my life: it demonstrated how music and spirit could be used to transform a large room of people into an environment charged with energy and love.

It was not unusual for people to come up to Sheila at the end of a concert in tears, giving praise not only for the music, but for her ability to help them transcend their daily lives into something divine.

As she did in Colombia, Genevieve Rose will once again provide our ensemble with her buoyant, swinging, propulsive beat and superb note choices.

She is a first-call bassist of the Pioneer Valley who performs frequently throughout New England. She has appeared at the Kennedy Center as part of their Women in Jazz series, directs the jazz ensemble at Smith College, and teaches instrumental music at Orchard Hill School in South Windsor, Conn.

Rose has been a faculty member of UMass's Jazz in July Summer Music Programs since 1997. She holds masters degrees from Western New England College and American International College.

Drummer Billy Drummond has been called “one of the hippest band leaders now at work” by Downbeat magazine. He was a touring and recording member of Horace Silver, J.J. Johnson, and Sonny Rollins' working groups, and many of the world's greatest jazz artists have called upon him to tour and/or record with them.

There are numerous reasons Sheila Jordan is a living legend: her classic recordings, her swinging, clear sense of tempo, her stunning ability to scat sing and create spontaneous lyrics, her empathic communication with the audience, her embodiment of the essence of jazz, her willingness to embrace creative opportunities, her expansive repertoire ... the list goes on and each reason beckons us to seize the day, to experience her gift live whenever possible.

To quote Charlie Parker: “Now's the Time.” Now is the time to hear Jordan's gift for an entire evening at the Vermont Jazz Center.

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