Sheila Jordan: A Nickel In The Juke Box

Image Credits: © Melanie Futorian

October 14, 2019

My grandfather called me “Little Song”

I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. I grew up in poverty in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania and it wasn’t easy. The only way I could find peace with myself and feel a little bit of happiness was when I sang, so I was always singing. My grandfather called me “Little Song.”

> From our correspondent in New York, Melanie Futorian with Shelia Jordan

I never really knew my father. He married my mother when she was pregnant with me just to give me a name. He was never in my life and they divorced soon after my birth. He never even gave my mother any support or money. I never received a Christmas or birthday present from him. My mother was much too young and worked in the automobile factory in Detroit so my grandfather ended up raising me up to a certain age.
My grandfather had a serious drinking problem. Unfortunately alcoholism ran in our family. We never had much heat or running water in the house and food was scarce because most of the money my grandfather made as a house painter went for booze. My grandparents had eleven children and eight were still living with them when I came on the scene. They were like my brothers and sisters. I got through those terrible times and survived because I had music.
Photos © Melanie Futorian
I remember singing at the Michigan Theatre in Detroit. I was about three years old. My mother and my aunt took me there to audition for a talent show and I came in second place. I was on quite a few talent shows in my early years. Most of them were kids shows. They didn’t pay us but we got exposure. Sometimes I sang at PTA events at my school. Unfortunately, the other kids made fun of me and would ridicule me big time. I couldn’t take their ridiculing so I stopped singing until my second year of high school. I didn’t realize at the time that the kids in my school were jealous. Mr. Rusher, my piano teacher in High School encouraged me to sing again. I will always be grateful to him for his encouragement. I sang the songs of the day which were written by the great composers, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, etc. and I still sing songs from that period.
When I was about fourteen years old and still living with my grandparents, my mother came to visit and she and my grandfather got into a bitter argument. He told her to take her kid and finish raising her. I was heartbroken. I felt so unwanted but I sang about it and it helped a lot. So my mother took me back to Detroit to live with her and one of her many husbands. She had been married five or six times. Common law marriages were not popular in those days and considered a sin. My mother was a tiny woman and one of her last marriages was to a very brutal man. He would beat her up. He knocked her teeth out and gave her black eyes. Unfortunately, my mother had a very serious drinking problem. In fact, she died from the disease of alcoholism when she was sixty-eight years old. I was just out of High School at the time and still living with my mother and this creep. I remember he came into my room one night and stood at the door looking at me. I knew what he was thinking so I told him, “Don’t even think about it.” The next week I moved out and into a young woman’s residency called The Evangeline Home in downtown Detroit.
As I stated earlier, I always sang but I really didn’t know what kind of music I wanted to sing. One day while I was still in High school I went to the hamburger joint across the street from my school where all the kids hung out. They had a juke box so I played it when I could afford to put a nickel in it. I remember I saw this recording, “Now’s the Time,” by Charlie Parker and his Reboppers. I immediately became interested and put a nickel in the juke box and played Charlie Parker. I heard four notes and knew that this was the music I’d been searching for and I decided at that moment I would devote the rest of my life to this music whether I sang it, taught it or just listened to it.
I started hanging out in Detroit and found that this music existed in the Afro-American neighborhoods. Detroit was very prejudice so it was not easy for a young, White girl to hang out with the young musicians playing Bebop music. I didn’t know color. It was just a word to me. I felt very, very comfortable around Afro-Americans. The young cats growing up at the time were Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell. I also found two guys who sang bebop music, Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell. Since I had a lot of these recordings of Bird and Dizzy, I learned the tunes. These two guys were always sitting in at sessions and I remember at one session I asked them if I could sing with them. They looked at me like I was some crazy little White girl. They were singing “Confirmation” I believe, and I started singing it with them. After that they accepted me and we became Skeeter, Mitch and Jean. (My middle name.)
One time Charlie Parker was playing at The Graystone Ballroom in Detroit. It was a concert hall and since they didn’t sell alcohol, young kids could get in. Off we went…Skeeter, Mitch and Jean. Billy Mitchell, an older bebop saxophone player was there and was talking to Bird. When he saw us he told Bird that we sang all of his tunes. Bird said, “They do?” Bird went back on stage and after he played a couple of tunes he said to the audience, “I have a surprise for you. I understand there are three young people here that sing my music,” and Bird invited us on stage to sing with him. What a thrill that was. We sang a Bird tune and Skeeter and Mitch scatted. To me Skeeter was the greatest scat singer I have every heard. He still is to this day. Afterwards, Bird hugged us and told us how much he enjoyed what we did. He looked at me and said, “Kid, you have million dollar ears.”
The Club Sudan, a club in downtown Detroit was owned by a White couple from Canada. They didn’t sell alcohol so young kids could go there and play or just listen. Skeeter, Mitch and I would go down there and sing with all the other young musicians coming up like Barry, Tommy and Kenny.
One time Bird was playing at a club in Detroit and because they sold alcohol you had to be twenty-one to get in. I just had to hear Bird again so I dressed up and wore a hat with a veil, dyed my hair blonde and forged my mother’s birth certificate so I could get in to hear my hero. The owner took one look at me and said,”Kid, you can’t come in here. Go home and do your homework.” I was determined to hear Bird so I went in the alley behind the club near the back door and sat on the garbage cans. Bird somehow knew I was there and he opened up the door and played for me. I’ll never forget that night.
The racial prejudice in Detroit was terrible. I was always down at the police station being questioned for hanging out with Afro-Americans. I had one cop who stopped me when I was with my Afro-American friends. He took me to the police station for questioning. He said that he had a nine year old daughter at home and if he found her like he found me hanging out with those N…’s he would take his gun and blow her brains out. I freaked out and decided I would move to New York where there was less prejudice and also to be closer to this incredible music. I guess I was “Chasing the Bird.” I was living in a loft on 26th street between 7th and 8th Avenue. It was wonderful and I used to have sessions there. One night during one of my loft sessions I went with two of my artist friends who were Afro-Americans to grab a bite to eat. As we were coming back from the restaurant, four White guys from the corner bar ran out and attacked us. Three of them put my friends up against the wall of my building and the other one threw me down on the sidewalk and started kicking me and punching me. He knocked out one of my teeth. I remember looking up and seeing a man coming toward us. He was all dressed up in a suit and tie and he was pointing a gun in my direction. I thought I was going to die over this racial hatred. It turned out he was a police detective. He asked the guy beating me up if he knew me and the guy said,“No.” He told him to get off of me and to get up against the wall with the other three guys. He came over to me and asked me if I wanted to press charges. I said,”Yes.” He did warn me though that they knew where I lived and they might come back at some point and hurt me if I pressed charges but he would do whatever I wanted, so I said no. Sometimes I wish I had said yes.
You could get into the clubs at eighteen years old in New York so that was great because I was eighteen. I remember going to the jazz club, “Birdland” with my friend to hear Charlie Parker. She knew Bird and after the set finished she and I went backstage to say hello to Bird. He hugged her and gave her a kiss and then looked at me and said, “I know you, you’re the kid from Detroit with the Million Dollar Ears”. I was shocked he remembered me and from then on we became good friends.
Charlie Parker was the sweetest man I ever met in my life. He was a beautiful, giving human being and told all the musicians who were shooting up dope not to do it. He was very much against it telling them, “Look what it’s done to me. Don’t do this, you’ll ruin your life.”
Bird never stole from me and never asked me for money. He’d come over to my loft just to rest or if he had a fight with his wife and couldn’t go home. Bird was like family to me. I thought of him as my big brother. I had these little day beds in my loft and there was one bed I called, Bird’s bed.
I had a parakeet bird that I taught to say, “Hello Bird.” I remember one time Charlie came up to my loft exhausted. I told him to wait in the hallway until I got my parakeet in his cage. He said, “It’s okay,I don’t care if Tory’s out of his cage.” So I let Bird in since I couldn’t get him in his cage. Bird laid down on his bed and of course Tory flew right over to him and said, “Hello Bird”. Charlie jumped up and said, “What are you a ventriloquist?” I said, “No, it was Tory talking.” He looked at me in disbelief and lay back down on his bed again. This time Tory flew right up to his shoulder and put his beak in the side of Bird’s mouth and said, “Hello Bird.” Bird jumped up and said, “Damn, that Bird does talk.”
Bird was battling the cunning, baffling and powerful disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. He and so many musicians in those days were addicted to heroin and booze. It was terrible. Bird died at thirty-four and looked like he was in his late sixties. I never took heroin and I never drank after High School until I was much older. I hated booze in the beginning because I saw what it did to my family. My Aunt Esther was the only one in my mother’s family who didn’t drink. I ended up having a serious drinking problem later on but thank God found help through a great organization.
I remember when I met Max Roach and Charles Mingus. I was looking for a music teacher and Max told me about Lennie Tristano. Lennie was only teaching instrumentalists at the time but he took me on as a student. Lennie had sessions with the instrumentalists and after our lessons there would be a jam season. I was the only singer and I would go to the sessions and even sing sometimes. It was fantastic.
Mingus was up and down personality wise. Sometimes he’d talk to you and other times he’d be angry about something you did or said. I never knew what he was upset about. I remember one time he wanted me to record his beautiful composition, “Eclipse.” He came up to my loft and played and sang it for me. He said it was about interracial relationships. He said I’d be the perfect one to sing it because I had been in this type of relationship and had a bi-racial child. I was all set to record it with him and for some reason, which I’ll never know, he got mad about something and got someone else to record it. Mingus was a very special musician but you never knew when he’d fly off the deep end. He loved Bird though and I doubt he ever flipped out with him. Mingus’ personality was the total opposite of Charlie Parker’s.
I met Duke Jordan through Charlie Parker. Duke asked me out and we started dating and ended up getting married. We had a beautiful daughter Tracey who is doing very, very well today. She’s a music executive and has won many awards. Duke was a heroin addict and left me right after our daughter was born. I never saw him much, after she was born. I could have taken him to court for child support but he had enough problems dealing with his addiction. I raised my daughter by myself by working as a typist in an advertising agency.
I had my typing job to pay my living expenses but I needed a place to sing so I found a club called, “The Page Three.” It was located in Greenwich Village. It only paid six dollars a night and by the time I paid the baby sitter and took a cab home there was nothing left. I didn’t do it for the money though. I did it so I could sing and learn new songs and practice performing them. It was a great place. I only worked there two nights a week but it was wonderful.
It was at this club that I met the great Composer/Teacher/Musician, George Russell. He came in to hear one of his students who was playing piano for all of the acts at the club. HIs student’s name was Jack Reilly. George heard me sing that night and after I was finished singing my two songs he came over to my table and asked me where I came from to sing like that and I said, “I come from Hell.” He said,”Can I visit Hell with you one day?” I said,” Yes, but it’s in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania.” We exchanged phone numbers that night. George called soon after and we made an appointment to drive back to Pennsylvania. My friend took care of my daughter and off George and I went. My grandmother was still alive at the time. My grandfather had passed away a few years earlier. My grandmother was a member of this beer garden, which was mostly occupied by coal miners. All the miners were out of work at this particular time so there was only one miner in the club that night. My grandmother said to him,“This is my granddaughter and her friend. They’re famous people from New York.” I immediately said that I wasn’t famous but that George Russell was. The coal miner looked at me and said, “Well, do you still sing ‘You Are My Sunshine?’ I told him that I didn’t sing that song anymore. The miner said, “Why not?” George also said, “Okay, why not?” and went over to this old, out of tune, upright piano in the corner and started to play it in this beautiful, rather far out way. My grandmother said, “That’s not the way it goes” and she pushed him off the piano bench and sat down and played it and I sang with her. A few weeks after we returned to New York City, George called me up and asked me to come down to his apartment, which was very close to my apartment. After I got there he started to play this incredible introduction for me and then stopped and said, “Okay sing.” I said, “Sing what?” He said, “Sing ‘Your Are My Sunshine’. I asked him if he was going to play it for me to sing and he said, “No, sing, it alone.” “I can’t do that,” I said. His answer was,“You did it when you were a kid, so sing it.” So, I sang it.
George had made this whole arrangement on the tune and we recorded it on Riverside Records. He dedicated it to the out of work coal miners. He wanted to change the title to “A Drinking Song,” but couldn’t get permission. You can hear it on You Tube. Just look for “You Are My Sunshine,” George Russell or Sheila Jordan.
George was very impressed with the way I sang and paid to have a demo tape made. He took the demo to Alfred Lyon at Blue Note Records and also to Quincy Jones, who was the A&R man at Mercury at the time. They both wanted to sign me up. I signed with Blue Note and recorded “Portrait of Sheila.” I got a letter from Quincy Jones later saying he was sorry I didn’t record for him but maybe we could do something sometime in the future. Maybe I should call him now …( smile). The personnel on the Blue Note recording were Barry Galbraith, guitar, Steve Swallow on acoustic bass and Denzil Best, drums. I knew Steve Swallow from “The Page Three.” He was the bass player at the Monday night jam sessions. I loved the bass and wanted to do my three allotted tunes at “The Page Three” with just bass. Of course the piano player got upset. When I got other gigs I’d use Swallow. We’d do duos mostly. After Swallow switched to electric we stopped doing our duo. He got very busy and I needed to have acoustic bass for my bass and voice project.
I met Steve Kuhn and started doing concerts and eventually recorded with his trio for ECM Records. The bass player at the time was Harvie S and the drummer was Bob Moses. I liked Harvie’s playing very much and asked him if he would be interested in doing my bass and voice project. He said, “Let’s do it.” So we got together and worked out ideas i.e. dance medleys and dedications to jazz musicians, etc. I still do my bass and voice project but I do it with Cameron Brown now. Harvie got busy with his own musical projects.
I sometimes incorporate Native chants in my music because my fourth generation grandmother on my mother’s side of the family was Queen Aliquippa. She was the leader of the Seneca Nation. If you look up Queen Aliquippa in Wikipedia, you’ll see her picture. She was a very strong woman. In fact, they named a town in Pennsylvania after her. It’s called Aliquippa, PA. She met George Washington when he was in the army. He was in his early twenties and she wanted to meet him. He visited her on the reservation and brought her a bottle of rum. She had never had alcohol before that visit. I don’t call my ancestors Native American. I refer to them as Native because it was their land before Christopher Columbus came over and stole their land. If the White man hadn’t killed my ancestors and taken their land I’d be royalty today.
I’ve done so many projects that I love. I loved doing George Gruntz’s jazz operas. George was a wonderful pianist and composer from Basel, Switzerland. He composed music to Alan Ginsberg’s poetry and called his first jazz opera, “Cosmopolitan Greetings” using those poems. I performed it with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Mark Murphy.
I was also Queen Guinevere in George’s second jazz opera,“The Holy Grail.” It featured Howard Johnson as King Arthur, Bobby McFerrin as Merlin and Charlie Miklin as Sir Lancelot. Charlie was a great saxophonist and also started the first jazz program at the Musica Hochule Academy in Graz,Austria. He gave me one of my first teaching jobs there. I stayed there for a couple of years and then helped recruit other jazz singers to keep the jazz vocal department happening. I received an incredible award from Graz, Austria a couple of years ago and my name is engraved on their beautiful, marble concert wall. It was a beautiful award show. I also started a jazz vocal workshop, which takes place in Putney, Vermont the second week of August for the Vermont Jazz Center. I also teach two weeks at the Jazz in July program at the University of Mass. in Amherst, MA. It takes place the second and third week of July. I got this position through Max Roach, Dr. Billy Taylor and Dr. Fred Tilis who were the pioneers of this incredible workshop. I recently received a Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree from this University because of my involvement in this summer program and my dedication to Jazz Music. I also started the first jazz vocal workshop at City College in New York City in 1978 thanks to Ed Summerlin and John Lewis’s insistence.
Unfortunately, jazz music is not accepted in the United States the way it should be. I call it the stepchild of American music. It’s the one music we can call our own thanks to the Afro-Americans who are the originators of this music. It started with the slaves being forced to work in the cotton fields for hours on end under a blazing, hot sun with very little to eat and drink. How did they get through those long days of torture? They sang the blues as they picked the cotton. That’s the way I believe it started.
My message to all you wonderful singers … Don’t give up. KEEP SINGING.

Sheila Jordan: A Nickel In The juke Box – Futorian Reportage Jazzespresso Jazz Magazine – copyright 2019

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