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Sheila Jordan

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Sheila Jordan
Background information
Birth nameSheila Jeanette Dawson
Born (1928-11-18) November 18, 1928 (age 92)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
GenresJazz, free jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, singer, songwriter
InstrumentsVocals, piano
LabelsBlue Note, SteepleChase, HighNote, ECM, East Wind, Palo Alto, Muse, Justin Time
Associated actsSteve Kuhn, George Gruntz, Harvie S, Cameron Brown, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow

Sheila Jordan (born Sheila Jeanette Dawson; November 18, 1928) is an American jazz singer and songwriter. She has recorded as a session musician with an array of critically acclaimed artists in addition to recording her own albums. Jordan pioneered a bebop and scat jazz singing style with an upright bass as the only accompaniment.[1] Jordan's music has earned praise from many critics, particularly for her ability to improvise lyrics; Scott Yanow describes her as "one of the most consistently creative of all jazz singers."[2] Charlie Parker often introduced Jordan as "the singer with the million dollar ears."[1]


Early career

Sheila Jordan grew up in Summerhill, Pennsylvania, before returning to her birthplace of Detroit, Michigan, in 1940. She sang and played piano in jazz clubs in Detroit. She was a member of the trio Skeeter, Mitch, and Jean (Skeeter Spight, Leroi Mitchell, and Jordan was "Jean"), which wrote lyrics to music by Charlie Parker. They went to Parker's performances in Detroit, met him, and he would ask them to sing.[3]

In 1951, Jordan moved to New York City and studied harmony and music theory with Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus, but she concentrated on the music of Charlie Parker. Jordan and Parker became friends before his death in 1955. She refers to him as one of her teachers.[4] From 1952–1962, she was married to Duke Jordan, who played piano in Parker's band.[5]

In a 2012 interview with JazzWax, when asked why she moved to New York, Jordan said, "I guess I was chasin' the Bird [Parker]." When asked if the song "Chasin' the Bird" was written for her, she replied, "No. I don't know how that rumor got started."[6]


In the early 1960s, Jordan performed at the Page Three Club in Greenwich Village with pianist Herbie Nichols,[7] and at other bars and clubs in New York City. For much of the 1960s, she withdrew from clubs to raise her daughter, and she sang in church instead. She was a typist and legal secretary for twenty years with little time to concentrate on music until the age of 58.[8]

In 1962, she worked with George Russell, with whom she recorded the song, "You Are My Sunshine" on his album The Outer View (Riverside).[9] Later that year she recorded the album Portrait of Sheila which was released by Blue Note Records.[1] Her long working relationship with Steve Kuhn began in the early 1960s.[10] She also played with Don Heckman (1967–68), Lee Konitz (1972), and Roswell Rudd (1972–75).[5]

1970s to present

Sheila Jordan in 1985
Sheila Jordan in 1985

In 1974, Jordan was Artist in Residence at City College of New York and taught there from 1978–2005. In 2006, she was presented the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (MAC) Lifetime Achievement Award and celebrated 28 years as an Adjunct Professor of Music.[11] She has taught at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Vermont Jazz Center, InterplayJazz and Arts, as well as teaching international workshops.[5][12]

On July 12, 1975, she recorded Confirmation. One year later she did the duet album Sheila, with Arild Andersen for SteepleChase. In 1979, she founded a quartet with Steve Kuhn, Harvie S, and Bob Moses. During the 1980s, she worked with Harvie S as a duo and played on several records with him. Until 1987 she worked in an advertising agency and recorded Lost and Found in 1989.

Jordan is a songwriter who works in bebop and free jazz. In addition to the aforementioned musicians, she has recorded with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, Cameron Brown, Carla Bley, and Steve Swallow. In the UK she appeared with former John Dankworth Band vocalist Frank Holder. She has led recordings for Blue Note, Blackhawk, East Wind, ECM, Grapevine, Muse, Palo Alto, and SteepleChase

In 2012, she received the NEA Jazz Masters Award.[13] Her biography, Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan, written by vocalist and educator Ellen Johnson, was published in 2014.[14]

Awards and honors


As leader

  • Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note, 1962)
  • Confirmation (East Wind, 1975)
  • Sheila with Johnny Knapp (Grapevine, 1977)
  • Sheila with Arild Andersen (SteepleChase, 1978)
  • Blown Bone with Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd (Philips, 1979)
  • Playground with Steve Kuhn (ECM, 1980)
  • Old Time Feeling with Harvie Swartz (Palo Alto, 1983)
  • The Crossing (BlackHawk, 1984)
  • Body and Soul (CBS/Sony, 1987)
  • Lost and Found (Muse, 1990)
  • Songs from Within with Harvie Swartz (MA, 1993)
  • One for Junior with Mark Murphy (Muse, 1993)
  • Heart Strings (Muse, 1994)
  • Jazz Child with Steve Kuhn (HighNote, 1999)
  • Sheila's Back in Town (Splasc(h), 1999)
  • The Very Thought of Two with Harvie Swartz (MA, 2000)
  • Little Song with Steve Kuhn (HighNote, 2003)
  • Celebration with Cameron Brown (HighNote, 2005)
  • Straight Ahead (Splasc(h), 2005)
  • Winter Sunshine (Justin Time, 2008)

As featured vocalist

With Carla Bley

With Cameron Brown

  • Here and How! (OmniTone 1997)

With Jane Bunnett

  • The Water Is Wide (1993)

With George Gruntz

With Bob Moses

  • When Elephants Dream of Music (Rykodisc 1982)

With Roswell Rudd

  • Flexible Flyer (Arista/Freedom 1974)

With Steve Swallow


Former students


  1. ^ a b c Latimer, Charles L. "Bebop and Beyond: Sheila Jordan Speaks". Detroit Music History. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  2. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Sheila Jordan". Artist Biography. AllMusic. Retrieved August 3, 2013. One of the most consistently creative of all jazz singers, Sheila Jordan has a relatively small voice, but has done the maximum with her instrument.
  3. ^ Vitro, Roseanna (November 29, 2012). "Sheila Jordan: Vocal Shaman". JazzTimes. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  4. ^ "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center". Sheila Jordan. National Public Radio. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  5. ^ a b c "Lifetime Honors". Biography. National Endowment for the Arts. 2012. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  6. ^ Myers, Marc (January 5, 2012). "Interview: Sheila Jordan (Part 2)". JazzWax. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  7. ^ Spellman, A.B. (1985). Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1st Limelight ed.). New York: Limelight Editions. p. 156. ISBN 0-87910-042-7.
  8. ^ Dagan, Ori (January 28, 2009). "Joy and Justice: the Jazz Journey of Sheila Jordan". TheWholeNote. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  9. ^ Witherden, Barry (May 1987). "A Singer in the Mirror". The Wire. p. 16.
  10. ^ Reney, Tom (April 27, 2012). "Sheila Jordan and Steve Kuhn". New England Public Radio. Archived from the original on August 6, 2012. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  11. ^ "Jazz Great & Ccny Music Professor Sheila Jordan Wins MAC Lifetime Achievement Award". Tribeca Performing Arts Center: The City College of New York. April 10, 2006. Archived from the original on May 13, 2006. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  12. ^ Feather, Leonard (February 23, 1989). "Sheila Jordan's Slow Rise to Recognition". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  13. ^ "Lifetime Honors". National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. National Endowment for the Arts. 2012. Archived from the original on July 4, 2010. Retrieved August 2, 2013.
  14. ^ Johnson, Ellen (September 2014). "ISBN 978-)-8108-8836-4". Rowman and Littlefield. Retrieved September 1, 2019.
  15. ^ Vedasto, JP (August 31, 2020). "Perfection and Paralysis: Laura Valle on the Dichotomy of Performance". World Musician Press.
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