In conversation with sheila jordan

By Roanna Forman

Sheila Jordan is one of jazz's great individualistsóa vocalist influenced less by other singers than by the first wave of bebop instrumentalists, in particular the great Charlie Parker. Her uniqueness hasn't made her wealthy, but it has earned her critical praise and a reputation as one of the most intrepid and affecting vocalists in the history of jazz. Last month,'s Roanna Forman spoke with Sheila about her life: her determination to go her own way, artistically and socially; her musical philosophy; the encouragement she gives young musicians; and her love for the great jazz artists who inspired her, especially Parker, whose friendship and music moved her so profoundly. C.K.

                       Sheila Jordan, by Jos L. Knaepen

I know that Charlie Parker was so important to you. Youíve called him your 'musical guru,' so I wonder what were the most important things you learned from Bird, beginning with the time you sat in the alley to hear him because you were too young to get into the club.

I was a singer Ė I always sang from the time I was a little kid. But I didnít know what I wanted to sing, and then I heard Bird and that did it. From that moment on, I was just hooked on Charlie Parker. I heard five notes, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' I think [his band] was called 'Charlie Parker and his Reboppers.'

Was that the first thing you heard on the jukebox?

No, Iíd heard a lot of things on the jukebox, and I saw this thing that said, 'Charlie Parker and his Reboppers,' and I thought, 'Oh, I wonder what that is? That looks interesting.' I put it on, and it was Bird, and it changed my whole life. I said, 'Oh, my God, thatís the music Iíll dedicate my life to.'

And you had never actually heard or sung jazz before that?

Well, no, I'd heard Duke Ellington, and the Ellington Band. But you know, where I grew up in Pennsylvania, we were very poor. We didnít even have a radio. If we did have a radio, we didnít pay our light bill a lot of times and it was cut-off, so we had to go by kerosene lamps. But when Iíd go visit my mother in Detroitómy grandparents raised me until I was 14óbut when Iíd visit my mother ... say, when I was about 12 or 13, this guy across the hall had a Duke Ellington record. I think my mother had some records, and I traded him one of her records for the Duke Ellington record, and went back to Pennsylvania to play it. Just to have it, because we didnít even have a phonograph in Pennsylvania, except one of those wind-up ones.

You really had one of those?

Oh, yeah, because we were very poor. We didnít have hardly anything. I mean, we were lucky we had food half the time! But getting back to Charlie Parker again, I heard Bird, and that was it, and I said, 'Thatís the music that Iíll dedicate my life to, whether I sing it, teach it, or just go listen to it.' I was in Detroit from the time I was 14, thatís when I moved from Pennsylvania to Detroit, and so it was at that time that I heard Bird, and I had to go find out where this music was. Luckily enough, Detroit was a hotbed for this bebop music, this great musicóa lot of young cats coming up. But it was also a hotbed of racial discrimination, which was hard for me as a little white kid.

It was awful, and I never looked into thatóI mean, I never thought about that, I should say. You know, I just love this music, and I wanted to be around the people that made that music, and I wasnít looking whether they were brown or yellow or green. They were just beautiful people that I felt very close to. I thought I could connect with them more so than just regular kids that I went to school with. These were the musicians coming up that I wanted to be around, and these were the people that loved this music that I wanted to be around.

Tell me something. How, if in any way, did that racial tension affect the music that those folks made?

                       Sheila Jordan, by Jos L. Knaepen

Well, I donít think at that time Ö thatís where I got to know Kenny Burrell and Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, and these were the guys that grew up when I was growing up, so I donít think anybody was out there getting ready to go into [racial issues], because Detroit was a terrible place. I mean, we had horrible race riots there. The city was known for that; it was known for its racial prejudice, and I had no clue what all that was about. I just didnít understand it, and believe me, the police were always stopping me when I was with Afro-American kids. The principal of my high school, when I first went to high school in Detroit, she brought me into the office and asked me why I wanted to hang out with 'colored people.' The principal of my high school!

And getting that from a principal of a high school, and getting that from the police who were constantly stopping me. These were people of authority. And I said, 'Wait a minute, somethingís wrong with this picture. It couldnít be me. I donít feel that way; I donít think thatís right for them to feel that way, and I donít think itís any of their business what I do, even though I am way underage.'

How did the musicians feel about it?

They took it in stride. I was with them, and we would get stopped, and they didnít balk. They didnít fight with the cops. They knew if they did, they would be beat up, put in jail, or whatever. They just kept a low profile, but that doesnít mean they stopped being my friends, no way.

So the music was over here, and the relations with whites were over there; that kind of thing.

Well, there werenít that many whites digging this music then, in Detroit, anyway. The few people that did dig it were very special, and they would be musicians themselves. There was one drummer, Art Martigan; he was white. Other than that, I donít know many white musicians who were coming up at that time. Sure, Pepper Adams and couple of other people came up later. But basically when I was on the scene in Detroit, all of the bebop musicians were Afro-American.

Of course, things are very different today.

Yeah, well, the trend has changed today, and I was right all along. Because I knew something was wrong, and I knew they were wrong in questioning me like they did. Listen, the last time I was in Detroit, just before I moved to New York, I had graduated from high school, and I was taken down to the police station. They were in plain clothes when they stopped us. My friend, Jennie King, and I were with Frank Foster, my boyfriend at the timeóvery new, our relationship. Jennie, who was white, was with another guy, who was an Afro-American. They separated Frank and the other guy, and me and Jennie. They took us separately, and these two plainclothesmen took us in this one place and questioned me and her. The guy said, 'Does your mother know that youíre out with these Ö' using the n-word, which I never useóI hate it. And I said, 'I donít know.' And he said, 'Why donít you know?' And I said, 'Because I donít live at home.' I left home when I was about 17 going on 18. That was the last time I was stopped, and I guess I was 18 then [this was 1946]. I said, 'I donít live at home. I go to school, and I work to support myself.' He just looked at me like I was dirt.

Like you had two heads.

Yes, so then he said to me, 'See this gun in my holster? I have a nine-year-old daughter, and if I thought I was going to find her like I found you two tonight with those two Ďnís,í I would take this gun off when I got home and blow her brains out.'

I left Detroit shortly after that because I came to New York. The funny thing is, I came to New York, and I had this loft where I had sessions all the time, especially when I was studying with Lennie Tristano [this was approximately 1953]. But I remember I was having a session at my house, and all the musicians would come over because I had a loft in this building. It was three floors, and the other two floors were artists, painters. And so I went out to get something to eat at a Chinese restaurant with two artists who were Afro-American, and on our way back four white guys Ö jumped out. Three [of them] held the two guys, and the other one threw me down on the ground and kicked me, and knocked my tooth out.

Good God.

And you know my nose was bleeding, and I looked up and I saw this man walking across the street, with a gun. He had his gun pulled out. And I said, 'Oh, my God, Iím gonna die over this. Oh, wow, I know Iím right.' Thatís all I could think. 'Iím gonna die over this, but I know Iím right.' So the guy came, and he said, 'Get your hands off of her. What is she to you?' And it was a plainclothesman who saved my life.

Thatís an amazing story.

Yeah, because the plainclothesman in Detroit, I left because of all that bullshit, and then I come to New York and I get beat up on the street. Yeah, I remember that detective telling me that night, too, in Detroit, 'Oh youíre going to New York where itís so cosmopolitan. And thatís what kept ringing in my head! [Laughs]

I remember one time also, we went to Hamtramck to hear Barry Harris, me and that same friend of mine, and the two guys that I used to sing with, Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell. And we got there and went to the club, and it was in the Polish neighborhood in Hamtramck, Detroit. And we stayed for the set, and then me and Skeeter and Mitch sat-in and sang a tune with Barry. And then the gig was over and we got ready to leave and we were taking the streetcar with Barry, and the two guys that I sang with and Jennie, and maybe another guy or two. These white guys ran out of the bar after us; they chased us. Thank God, though, the Woodward Avenue streetcar was coming. Barry always laughed about that. He tells everybody I almost got him killed.

There seems to have been a lot of danger stalking you, but I think you survived.

Yeah, Iím shocked I did, but I knew that a higher power would take care of me, for some reason.

Okay, so we were talking about Bird and how important he was for you, and how he was an influence from the get-go. Besides Bird, and after him, of course there were other playersóyou know, Miles, Coltrane, many other people. Was there anybody who you got into on as deep a level as you did with Bird, and how did they influence you, those others?

Well, I would listen to the music, of course, and be inspired, but, no, no, God noóby the time I was finished with Bird, I knew exactly where I wanted to go with the music. I had studied his records, because there were no books then, and I had sung with his records, and sort of learned how to phrase through Charlie Parker, the phrasing I do. Bird always taught meóas Lennie didóto be yourself, and to be true to your own sound. And I remember I was singing one time up at the loft when Bird came, and he said that I had million-dollar ears Ö Actually, I guess it was in Detroit, I think. We were sitting in with him, Skeeter and Mitch and I, and Bird told me afterwards, he said, 'You have million-dollar ears, kid.'

So tell me this: when you hear something, do you get it the first time? Like when you copy a solo or something Ö

Well, I donít copy that many solos. I really improvise my own solos, but I always hear the chord changes. What I do is, I always learn the tune first. I learn it exactly as itís written, and then I learn the changes, I listen to the changes, and I get like a guideline going in my head of what the changes are. But I have to learn the melody first. I have to know exactly what that melodyís like, before I do anything.

How do you prepare a song emotionally behind the lyric? What do you do with it?

Nothing. [Laughs.] Itís born right in you. Either you have it or you donít, I think. I donít think emotion is anything you can go to school and learn about.

The University of Emotions Ö

No. Iíve lived a pretty rough life, and the only saving grace for me from the time I was a little tiny kid was music. I always sang, and it always made me feel better. And everything wasnít so bad when I sang. I used it as a crutch. It was a crutch for me.

You sang as a child. Did you sing in contests?

Oh, yeah, I did singing contests. I was on Uncle Nickís Amateur Hour when Iíd visit my mother in the summertime in Detroit. I sang in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania. They always had talent shows, you know.

And then a lot of times my grandmother, when my mother would come back to visit me, theyíd all go out drinking, and take me with them. And there would be a live band, and Iíd get up and sing with the live band. Because my family were very heavy drinkers. They were alcoholics. My mother was an alcoholic and she died from the disease Ö It was something to deal with, and I got through it.

A question about now. Who do you listen to these days?

A person that I really love is Tom Harrell.

How about singers?

Well, I listen to all singers, because I never listened to singers when I was growing up! I mean I listened to them Ö I mean my God, I would hear Billie, and Iíd hear Sarah, and Iíd hear Ella. You know, those were the three singers. But I didnít buy their records because I couldnít afford to buy their records. When I could afford to buy a record, it was to buy Charlie Parker, and so thatís how I learned how to phrase. I would learn what the tune was based on. If it was a tune based on 'I Got Rhythm' or 'Embraceable You' or 'Fine and Dandy'óif somebody had taken a tune like that, if Bird had taken a tune like that and wrote a different line on it, I was able to hear that. It was the original tune on it, but that was just from listening to Bird all those years. But as far as singers, I would listen to them, but I never bought their records because I couldnít afford it. Secondly, I was very conscious of wanting to have my own sound. I didnít want to try to imitate everybody else. And letís face it, whoís gonna have the emotion of Billie Holiday? Whoís gonna have the chops of a Sarah Vaughn, of the most beautiful voice ever in jazz? And then whoís gonna scat like Ella Fitzgerald? So I was smart when I was a kid. God knows, I tried to scat like Ella when I was young, but, you knowÖ I tried to learn her 'Lady Be Good' solo. Forget itÖ

Thereíre a lot of wonderful young singers coming up. And I teach a lot of them, I hear a lot of them. And thatís not to put down these kids that are out there today. I donít put them down because theyíre only going to enhance the music and make it more approachable by non-jazz people. But Iím really more into instrumentalists. Although, donít get me wrong, I do love singers, I love to hear them. You asked me about the jazz people that I listen to today?

Iím just curious who you might be into.

Thereís a wonderful piano player from Scotland named Brian Kellogg. They sent me his CDís and I listen to him. I listen to all the kids that Iíve taught. All of the singers who come to any of my concerts and send me their CD, I always listen to their CD, and thank them for doing the music. I always do that, I always send them a postcard or an email that I got the CD, I heard it, how much I enjoyed it. I want to let them know that Iím in their corner and that they need a little inspiration and somebody to push them as I had when I was a kid, as was done for me.

Is that who 'Sheilaís Girls' are on your site?


That is such an incredibly generous move by you.

Yes, I just want to be there for them. I know how hard it is. So that shows that I really do listen to singers.

Oh, no I have no doubt.

Oh, no, but I mean, am I inspired by singers? No, not the way I was by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Miles, and Dizzy. I loved the way Miles played, you know Ö the spaces he left.

Youíve got a really unconventional improvisational sense. Itís always working, every tune. What were the musical experiences that really pushed you to open up and really go for things, because thatís what youíre always doing on your tunes?

[Laughs] What did that? Charlie Parker!

I thought you were going to say that.

It was Bird that told me that. I wasnít even thinking of studying. I was just thinking of the Bird because I loved him so much, you know, and I got to know him quite well in the endóthe end of his life. I remember the first time I came to New York, and I came here basically to get away from the racial prejudice. Also, to chase Bird, to chase Bird down. To be able to go to all the clubs that he played at, and hear him in person all the time, and all of the bebop musicians in person. That was my desire, thatís why I went to New York.

And you hung out with Bird, I know.

Oh yes, I did. And I remember when I first saw Bird. One time I came for a vacation first, to see if I would be able to manage to live here, and I went to hear Bird. And afterwards he saw me and he said, 'Ah, youíre the kid with the million-dollar ears.'

He remembered you.

And he started singing a song that Skeeter and Mitch and I had sung, and it was an original composition by Mitch, Leroy Mitchell. And I was shocked that Charlie Parker sang that song for me. I mean he remembered it, he started singing it. [She sings the beginning bars.] He did the whole thing, and I was in shock.

He had billion-dollar ears.

No, he had trillion-dollar ears. And he was a genius.

You had lessons with Lennie Tristano.

I think I was one of the first singers he ever taught.

So what were those lessons like?

Well, I remember my first lesson with Lennie was to learn a Bird solo, he said. I think it was on 'Nowís the Time.' I donít remember what tune it was, but whatever tune it was I said, 'Oh, I know that already.' And I wasnít trying to be smart. But he thought I was trying to be smart, so he said, 'So letís hear you sing it then, if you know it.' So I sang it. And he put on Bird and I sang it with Bird. Of course it wasnít perfect. I mean, who can sing like Bird? But it was close enough for jazz. Lennie said, 'Oh, you do know it. Then, how about a Prez?' I said, 'Oh, no, I donít know Prez.' He said, 'Okay, then youíll go and youíll learn a Prez solo.' He did things like that, and then heíd play for me to sing, and heíd get me involved with the emotional partóto let myself relax, just learn the tune and sing what I feel. He was my only teacher who taught me to sing the melody of the tune first, the correct melody of the tune. I learned that from Lennie, because I was jumping all over the place.

I think that new singers do that a lot of times when theyíre first starting out.

Well, if they donít know the melody. They donít know where to go back to. They just donít have that thing happening. Itís the same with scatting. They all want to scat.

I wanted to talk to you about that.

Oh, God.

What does that 'Oh, God' mean, forget it? Okay, we could skip it.

It means I know what to say, Iíll tell you what I have to say.

How important is scat, in your opinion, for singing?

Itís not important at all, thatís the problem that a lot of these young singers coming up today have. They think that in order to sing jazz, they have to be able to scat-sing. And my take on that is, listen: Billie Holiday was the greatest jazz singer of the world to me. She never scatted. But does that mean that she couldnít? Yes, she could. I heard a tape of her at a party where they said, 'Come on, Billie, scat.' She did, and she sounded great. This wasnít her cup of tea, or for whatever reason. Now, the only artist out of that group of people was Ella, who could really scat. Sarah wasnít into that much scatting. Carmen wasnít into that much scatting. And then later on came the Betty Carter, who was definitely a scatter. Then you had Jon Hendricks, whoís a monster. So these were like, the three scat singers to me.

Do you dig vocalese? You know what he would do, he would take a solo, Hendricks, and he would take an instrumental solo and he would put lyrics to it.

Amazing, itís amazing what he does. But getting back to the scat, let me just finish that. Okay, so that scat thing was like, okay Ö like I said, Billie Holliday never scat sang. So I think that thereís too much emphasis put on scatting. You can scat if youíre comfortable and you dig it, like I scat sang, but I never scatted on my first recordings. Itís because I was listening to Bird and there werenít words. So I had to learn a line, I would have to sing a line without lyrics. But the point is, my thing is thisóand you can quote me on thisóthereís a scat virus going around. Iím seriousóa real scat virus. And they donít have an antibiotic for it, but I do have an antibiotic for it. I have the antibiotic for it.

Whatís that, Dr. Jordan?

Itís bebop.

I wanted to ask you about that, Sheila. When you were young, you basically stood on the shoulders of giants, the people who really made this music. You really learned it right from the source, from Billie, from Bird. You were there. Do you think that young musicians now, todayóinstrumentalists and singersóshould be starting with bebop, really getting that stuff, and building on it?

Absolutely. Theyíre missing a lot. Theyíre missing the core of improvisation, as far as Iím concerned. Theyíre missing this whole freedom of swing. I mean, who could ever call Bird old, what do they say, tired, or whatever. That expression that they used when something Öyou donít want to hear it anymore because itís out of date, or whatever. Bird will never go out of date. Try to catch up with Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, for Godís sake. And I think thatís missing. I think they are skipping over a very, very vital music. Thatís why there hasnít been anybody come along like a Charlie Parkerógo all the way back there in the forties. The closest thing to that was Ornette Coleman.

What about Coltrane?

Yeah, but Bird was already established. All Iím saying is, Coltrane listened to Bird.

I see what you mean, someone who was truly taking the music in another direction.

Iím sure he [Coltrane] listened to Bird and Iím sure he listened to Bud and all those cats. You can hear it in his playing, but he took it a step further. Trane died young, but he was no kid. Iím talking about a lot of the young kids coming up today in the schools, and what the schools are teaching them. Theyíre teaching them to be perfect. This music isnít perfect, and it never should be. This is just my opinion, now. Iím not, you know, a connoisseur on this stuff. But my own personal opinion is, in the schools, a lot of the teachers are on power trips, and they donít teach these kids with their hearts. They teach them with a 'you got to be perfect' [attitude]. What these kids do, they go to sessions and sit in, and they play exercises, because theyíre afraid to take chances on creating, improvising on tunes.

Iím not putting these teachers down, donít get me wrong. [But] a lot of teachers are not good teachers because they donít teach with their heart, and theyíre on power trips. Now Iím not talking about the working musicians who teach. But a lot of these teachers who are on power trips, if you look into their music, they donít work. They donít play anywhere. Actually, they never played that many places to begin with. They went to school and learned all the technical shit, you know what I mean, but they donít really know. They teach the technical stuff, and thatís all fine and good. Thatís beautiful. We didnít have that teaching back when I was growing up. We didnít have that. We learned by what we heard, by our ears, and by hearing, by practicing with the Charlie Parker records and with Lester Young records and with Bud Powell and with all those cats. We didnít have schools. So they need to let these kids go out and fall on their faceó'How do we get out of this, how am I going to get out of this?'óand then find out how to get out. Maybe you wonít get out, but thatís okay!

So the bandstandís your best teacher.

One wonderful thing thatís happening today with the jazz world and the young musicians is theyíre not getting strung out on drugs and alcohol. Thatís wonderful, you know, because that was very prevalent when I was coming up.

What was that all about, people got into that?

Well, they wanted to play like Bird, and they thought if they took heroin like he did theyíd be able to play.

How can an artist, even if they have talent, even function to play when theyíre that strung out?

I donít know, but they did it. You know, I think you become more relaxed and you take more chances than you would if you werenít high. Iím assuming that. Iíve had a problem with alcohol for years, and I went for help. I stopped drinking on my own for 8 years, and I got into cocaine, thinking you couldnít get addicted. But I finally woke up. Well, over 30 years I havenít drank, 23 years I havenít done any other drugs. But thatís also hereditary on my part. There were a lot of drugs going around. There were so many musicians that died so young from overdoses of heroin because they didnít know any better.

But I just want to verify what I said about the schools. I think itís wonderful that theyíre giving purpose to these young kids, but I think they also have to be schooled in taking chances. Thereíre no places for these young people to play in.

So whatís the solution to that? Thatís a tough question Ö

You know, thereís nobody really who has the money and power in this country, whoís willing to go to any length to make this music stay alive. And a lot of young people get discouraged. They see whatís happened. Most people canít make a living at this music. You know, you have to do another job. Lord knows, I did, until I was 58.

I know that you raised a daughter, and that was a big part of what you had to do in the middle of everything else. Portrait of Sheila [Blue Note, 1963] was a pivotal record for you, then we see not a lot happening, until the late seventies, in terms of your records. So that was the period where you were raising your child, am I right?

Well, yeah, I was raising my kid, but also I sang. I found places to sing. I sometimes would go on little tours, but I was singing at the Page Three [in Greenwich Village] until I did Portrait of Sheila, and even after that. There was a club in the Village where I was singing two nights a week, and that sort of helped me, because I had a place where I could sing. You know, it wasnít about the money, it was keeping the music alive. I did that.

Hopefully, there are places [today] that will have sessions. But my thing is this: that these young people need to go out there and take chances, and not play their exercises when theyíre up there blowing. You know, theyíre playing the exercises. Play from your heartówhat you are feeling and what you are hearing, even if itís wrong. If itís wrong, make it right. They need to find places where they can do this, [even] if it means finding a place in one of the schools and having a session once every week, or something like that. Go to school all week, and let the music school authoritiesóor whoeverís in charge, the music teachersóopen-up a little place somewhere where they can go and take chances and blow. And the singers, too. Have singersí nights. Itís so important.

Thatís a wonderful thought.

Yeah, wouldnít it be wonderful. If I was a millionaire, Iíd have a place for kids in every school. They donít have a place to do it.

I wonder if I could ask you some specific questions about some of your recordings. For 'You Are My Sunshine,' from George Russell's album, Outer View [Riverside, 1962], my sense is that he just broached the idea that you do it unaccompanied. Am I right?

Thereís a story about it, if you like.

Tell me.

Itís because of George Russell that I ever got recorded. He had me do a demo tape, and he took it to Prestige, and to Blue Note. And at that time, Quincy Jones was the A&R man at Prestige. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who were at Blue Note, heard it, and so did Prestige. I signed with Blue Note first, to do one recording. Quincy wanted me to do a recording for Prestige when I was already signed [with Blue Note]. He sent me a lovely letter, 'well, maybe another time,' you know. I did that recording, and I did that through George Russell. Heís the one that got me that date. He believed in me. He was wonderful; he was very instrumental. I donít know if I would have ever recorded if it hadnít been for George.

But what happened was, George came to hear me at this little club that I worked at. I told you I had two nights a week in the Village, and my daughter was young, and I had a babysitter, and Iíd go down there and sacrifice my day job, because Iíd be exhausted going to work the next day. So I was singing with this piano player. Weíd get a lot of different piano players, and this one piano player studied with George Russell. He told George, so George came up to hear his student, and in so doing he heard me sing. And he approached me and he said, 'Where do you come from to sing like that?' He just made the hair stand up on my arms. And I said, 'Oh, really?' And I told him, I said I came originally from a little town in Pennsylvania. So then he called me up, and we became very close, and he said, 'I would like to go back and see where you grew up.'

So my grandmother was still alive. Nobody else was back there but my grandmotheró everybody else had left or died. We went back, and she loved to drink, and I was drinking at the time. I didnít take my daughter. My daughter stayed here with a friend of mine, and George and I went to Pennsylvania. And she [Sheilaís grandmother] said, 'Oh, come on, letís go out and get something to drink.' So we went up to this bar about a mile away from my home, from where my grandmother lived. It was in a coal mining area, because thatís where I grew up. And so we were in the club, and there was only one old miner sitting at the bar. He was out of work. All the miners were out of work, and so there were not very many people in there that night. So, we had our drinks and my grandmother was bragging about we were famous, especially Georgeówell, he was, in the jazz worldóbut I wasnít and I said, 'Oh, Mom, you know Ö donít do that to him.' So she said, 'Oh, youíre so famous now, do you still sing ĎYou Are My Sunshineí?' And I said, 'Oh, no, I donít sing that anymore.' And he said, 'Why not?' And I said, 'I donít know, I just donít sing it anymore.' And George said, 'Why not? Letís play it and sing it!'

There was an old upright piano, and he started playing 'You Are My Sunshine,' and I started singing it, and my grandmother came over and pushed him off the piano bench. She said, 'Thatís not the way it goes.'

How did George play it?

Well, he played it likeówell, you know the way George plays. But I still could sing it, because I could hear it. And so my grandmother said, 'Thatís not the way it goes.' She pushed him off the bench, and she played. I sang with her 'You Are My Sunshine,' and then George said afterwards, when we came back to New York, 'Your grandmother sounded just like Thelonious Monk.'

A short time after, he called me up on the phone, and he said, 'Come down, I want you to hear something.' I went down and he started playing this unbelievable introduction. It went on for quite a while, and then he stopped. He said, 'Okay, sing.' I said, 'Sing what?' He said, 'Sing ĎYou Are My Sunshine.í' I said, 'Alone?' And he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'What? With no piano, with no accompaniment or anything?' He said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'I donít knowÖ.' He said, 'What do you mean, you donít know? You sang alone as a kid back in Pennsylvania growing up.' I said, 'Yeah, I know, but I was afraid. I used to have to go by the cemetery, and Iíd sing.' But he said, 'So? Pretend youíre still at home.' So I started to sing it, and then he said, 'I want to record this. Itís like a documentary for the coal miners of Pennsylvania.' They were all out of work due to people not using coal anymore, and the mines were closing. So it was a musical documentary. But that song could have been anything. It would have been whatever that miner asked.

You have an incredibly independent ear, I have to say, if youíre holding your own with Eric Dolphy and all those other people on the recording.

Well, thank you, my dear.

You know itís true, Sheila.

No, I donít really know anything anymore. Iíve been a big supporter of myself, I mean Iíll tell youóI love the music, I love to do it, but when I record something I maybe will listen back to it once. And thatís it, and then I never listen again.

Whatís the reason for that?

Oh, because when I hear it back I say, 'Oh I could have done this,' and I hear it differently. But the mindís constantly creating.

You worked with Roswell Rudd. Like, for instance on his album Flexible Flyer [Black Lion, 1974]. Now how did that association come about? How did you get to know Roswell?

Oh, my God, you know, I donít remember. You know itís important to talk about these things. But I donít remember how I first met Roswell. I just learned about him and Ö

Iíve got another question from that album. Itís easier. Who came up with 'Suh Blah Blah Buh Sibi?' Where did that come from? I love that song.

That was Roswellís original tune, and he was inspired to write that when he used to drive a taxi cab. It was probably a combination of the travel, and the cars, and windshield wipers, you know. But that was a Roswell composition. Everything I did on that album except for 'What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?' was Roswellís. That was unusual.

The way you guys started that, with him taking that dissonant line down against what you were singing, and then the way you open it up, when you go into the bridge Ö

Oh, that was all a freak accident. Roswellís a very strong improviser. Heís really the greatest, as far as trombone, and the thing about Roswell is that heís a hell of a Dixieland player and a bebop player. Roswell not only plays out, he can play in and really make it happen.

Iíve actually heard that about him. Somebody I know was turned on to Louis Armstrong by him. Roswell said that when he hears Armstrong play one note, it makes the hair on the back of neck stand right up.

Probably like I am with Bird.

A couple more questions about your singing, some observations on it. For me, personally, with jazz singers, what counts is the emotion of the song and the improvising that they do around it. But you yourself also have really impeccable diction and theatricality. You really put over a song really well. I can hear it right through everything that youíve ever recorded, and Iím wondering if you consciously work at your diction. Itís really clean.


Itís just the way it comes out?

Never worked on it. A lot of singers, I canít understand what theyíre singing sometimes.

You recorded 'Inchworm' on three different albums that I know of, and each one is really different and really beautiful. What drew you to that tune, or was it just that after Coltrane did it, it fell into the jazz repertoire?

Well, to tell you the truth, I actually did it before Trane. I used to do it at the Page Three. There was a maÓtreíd down at this club, who sort of ran the club, who said that I should look at this tune. And I said, 'Yeah, Iím looking for waltzes.' So I was doing that tune at the Page Three and then Coltrane came out with it.

So you scooped him on it.

Well, who knows, he was playing it around the same time I was and never recorded it, but I know that I never recorded it at that time, but I was singing it.

Of course, itís also a childrenís song.

Yes, plus I used to sing that song to my best friend's little girl, and I used to sing it to Jay Claytonís little girl and son.

They were lucky kids.

And they loved that. [Sings the opening line of the tune.] I treated it like a kidís tune, and they used to love that. When they would come to any of my concerts when they were kids, like especially my best friendís daughter, I would have to sing 'Inchworm.'

My favorite version of it was the one you did on Confirmation. That was really a very hip recording.

Well, now I have it with strings, I think, I did it with strings.

You did it with Alan Broadbent.

Alan arranged it. I did those arrangements in November [2008], on my 80th birthday. Yes, at Dizzyís Club Coca-Cola. I was there for three nights. I did the Steve Kuhn Trio with the string quartet. It was wonderfulóand well-attended, too, I might add. And I was happy that it was well-attended.

Of course it was. Youíre a real key person in jazz. You know, at this point, youíre a National Treasure.

Oh, thank you.

You truly are, did you know that? Congress voted you a National Treasure in 1997.

I didnít know that. But I did get the Mary Lou Williams award, and I got the humanitarian award before IAJE went under. The Lil Hardin Armstrong Jazz Award for women in jazz. The MAC awardóthatís the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs Award, they gave me that. So Iíve gotten some really nice awards.

Well-deserved honors, I have to say.

Thank you. I donít really think that way. When I get them, Iím kind of surprised. I always say, 'Why me?' and they say 'Why not?' The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award presentation was broadcast on NPR from WBGO. I donít know if you know about that one. Deedee Bridgewater hosted the show, and she and I go back a long time ago.

Itís like talking to jazz history to chat with you. Youíve said, and quite rightly, you pioneered the voice/bass duo.


Why do you think that few singers choose that form to this day?

Because they donít know the joy of singing off the silence. We create off the silence of not having the drums and piano, and I love the sound of the bass. I just hear that. I love all that space, because it gives me all this room to do what I want to do, and I donít have to worry about whether Iím hanging up the piano player or hanging up the drummer.

I think maybe in another life I was a bass player. I never started to do the bass and voice because I wanted to be different. I guess I was different in sound without even realizing it. I did it because I really love the sound of the bass. I just communicated so much easier with the bass than I did with just piano or drums.

One of reasons that I love doing the bass and voice is that I love the freedom. Iím not removed from the high Iím on with the music. Iím not removed from that or jolted back by a drummer whoís too loud, or a piano thatís playing too many notes. I love the space, and one of the things with doing bass and voice is having that space. We work on arrangements to get in, to get out, and in the middle itís free, itís open. But the point is that when a bass is too busy, I will tell them, even when weíre rehearsing. For example, Iíve been with Cameron [Brown] now for a while, and if heís too busy, which in the beginning he was, Iíd say, 'You donít have to play in all those spaces, man.' Donít play all that. Less is more.

The other thing thatís very important is working off the silence. Bass and voice works off the silence, and in so doing, you canít do this just anywhere. You canít do this in a club thatís not going to have the full undivided attention. You canít do it because you get distracted. You canít do it if thereís a fan running, because immediately my ear will go, or his will, to the fan, which will set the pitch off, so I have to be extremely cautious where we do this.

And the other thing is trusting one anotherótrusting to know that itís fine, you can just undress yourself emotionally and otherwise, and know that itís okay, because you trust whoever youíre playing with. But thatís in any music, or I should say in any combination.

I remember one time I was doing a bass and voice concert in, I think it was Ottawa. It was in a club, but it was during a festival. And we were on the stage and we were doing this concert, and a guy came and stood there by the door, and when we were finished, he yells out, 'Whereís the piano?' You know how sometimes things come out of your mouth and you donít know where they come from? What came out of my mouth was, 'In my head, man.'

It just wasnít his thing.

A lot of times people donít want to take a chance on that, because they feel theyíre getting gypped. Iím going to this concert and itís just the bass and voice, why should I pay $20? Iím sure some of them feel that way. And then they donít always get it on the first tune or two. Usually, with us, by the third tune, theyíre hooked.

Harvie [Swartz] had a good thing. In the beginning I thought, 'Oh, God, stop being a prima Donna with this.' He used to say, 'Please donít play music before we go on.' Becauseóand I understand nowóthe audience gets used to that, hearing the drums and the piano and the horns and the whole thing. Then we come on, and that takes a while to adjust. And he was right, absolutely right. Bass and voice is not everybodyís cup of tea.

In what way?

I donít think that they [the audience] open up their ears enough to take the time to listen, to become involved with what the bass and voice are doing. Secondly, if it is a club somewhere, and theyíre set up for this, theyíre gonna be quiet as far as glass tinkling goes on, but that can throw your pitch off. But sometimes they donít want to be that quiet, because it takes total concentration at first.

Do you think some singers are afraid of the amount of chances you have to take? You have to really command things when itís just those two instruments.

I think a lot of it has to do with not feeling comfortable, and not hearing the bass the way I hear it. Now I notice singers are doing one or two tunes on their recordings with bass and voice.

Any specific singers stand out to you, who do things you find particularly interesting?

Not offhand, which is not to put other singers down? Nancy King, I would say. She had a thing going for a while, and she had it covered.

I know you teach people. Do you teach them ways to open up, to really push themselves to take chances, or do you just work with what youíve got?

I talk about it with them. The ones I feel really want to try ideas, I say, 'Donít look back, twenty years from now, and be sorry that you didnít try it.' If you feel it strong enough, then try it, even if itís not accepted. Lord knows I wasnít accepted, for years. I donít even know if Iím accepted now. It just depends on what is your goal. If your goal is to become a big star, then this is not the way you approach it. If your goal is to just try to create a new way of expressing oneself and the joy from that, as opposed to the joy from the money you might make as a big star, then do it. My goal was never to be a big star. My goal was to be as original as I could be, and sing what I believed, and not force things I didnít feel or didnít hear. Thatís what I get with the bass. Iíve had out-of-body experiences. You donít get a lot of them, but Iíve had them, when Iím performing.

Whatís it like?

You are doing music with somebody, and you are so trusting and so involved that the sound becomes one, especially with bass and voice. And you are communicating with that other instrument, and all of a sudden, itís not even you. You float above it. Itís happening, and youíre not even part of it. These out of body experiences donít happen a lot, but when they do, thatís something money will never buy, that fame will never buy. That communication between musicians is so strong, and you all are so spiritually connected, that you become one. And, man, Iím flying when that happens. And when itís over and I rush back to reality, itís like, what happened? And I donít share it. I never let the audience know. Iíve had about seven in my life; a lot of times it was with bass. I think I had one with Harvey. I had an out-of-body experience with Brian Kellogg. Youíre always waiting for it to happen; to use the old expression, it happens when you least expect it. I think thatís when you let all your armor down.

Do you think it's the natural consequence of being the type of person who takes chances up there?

I donít set out to chances. I learn the tune exactly as itís written, learn the lyrics, learn what theyíre about and really get into the tune, and then I let it happen. Sometimes I sing it exactly as written.

Itís interesting that later in your career, there were more instances where you did things exactly as written.

Yeah, because I have to practice what I preach to the young people coming up. When I first started liking the music as a teenager, I was all over the place, because I thought thatís what it was about. So I know what a lot of these kids are going through. God forbid that Iíd sing anything the way it was written. You can tell when itís forced and when itís natural. It gets back to that landing on the melody againótake-off and land, take-off and land.

As you look back, are there any particular recordings or dates where you said, 'Those were great.'

No, I havenít made it yet, and I probably never will make it. Nothing that Iíve ever done up to this point is anything that I think is great, and Iím serious about this. That doesnít mean Iím going to stop doing the music. I just know the feeling of when Iím doing it in front of a live audience, and then hearing it back, thereís a certain element thatís missing. Iím never satisfied with what Iíve done. I was rather pleased with the Heart Strings [Muse, 1993] with the string quartet. I liked some of that. Some people have lack of self-confidence, or maybe I just set very high standards, and I havenít reached those.

When Iíve had those out of body experiences and I came back into reality, I often thought, 'Thatís the kind of feeling I want to have when I record.' And it hasnít happened.

How do you pick your songs?

I go for melody first. Without even knowing it at the time. Sometimes I get the lyrics and I find out what the lyrics are all about, and if they donít knock me out, I change them around. And most singers are into the lyrics. You know I made this statement at one time, and some critic said that I had no regard for the lyrics whatsoever. Boy, did she get me wrong! That is not what I said. I said I hear a beautiful melody and pray that the lyrics are just as good.

In closing, do you have any other advice for young singers?

Keep your own sound, and donít look for anybody elseís, no matter how many times you might get discouraged. You think you might not find places to do music. You will find it. Donít give up on it, because if you give it up, youíll never get it back again. Years down the line, regardless of who youíre singing with, if you give up this music, and you try to get it back in 20 years or more, either youíll never get it back, or it will be very, very difficult, and youíll have to work harder than you ever thought youíd have to work. Harder than it was in the beginning.

So find places to sing; find musicians to work things out with, and enjoy it. Thatís what itís about. Itís about joy, and life, and love: itís everything.


March 14, 2009 · 2 comments

  • 1 Cynthia // Mar 14, 2009 at 06:13 PM
    Sheila, I was in nyc recently -- couldn't sleep, hotel room -- and so I listened to Portrait of Sheila start-to-finish. It had been about 3 years since I listened to the whole thing that way, absorbing it instead of studying different songs and phrases. It took my breathe away -- again. Thank you.
  • 2 Cynthia // Mar 14, 2009 at 06:24 PM
    P.S. Roanna, very nice interview. Thank YOU too.