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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 95)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
GenresJazz, free jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, singer, songwriter
Instrument(s)Vocals, piano
LabelsBlue Note, SteepleChase, HighNote, ECM, East Wind, Palo Alto, Muse, Justin Time

Sheila Jordan (born Sheila Jeanette Dawson; November 18, 1928)[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] Charlie Parker often introduced Jordan as "the lady with the million dollar ears."[4][5][2]


Early career[edit]

Sheila Jordan was born in Detroit, Michigan. Her childhood was very difficult. Her mother was only 17 when Sheila was born and struggled to raise a child, unfortunately turning to alcohol as a means of coping. Jordan was sent to live with her grandparents in the small coal mining town of Summerhill, Pennsylvania in the Allegheny Mountains. She grew up with nine siblings who were really her aunts and uncles. Life with her grandparents was difficult -- money was tight, there was little warmth or affection from her grandparents, and her grandfather was also an alcoholic. Jordan has said: "We were probably the poorest people in a poor town…we had an outhouse and no water in the house… In the wintertime all of us would sleep in one bedroom without any sheets or pillowcases on the beds; we just had blankets.”[6]

She returned to Detroit, living with her mother, in 1940 or 1942.[1][7] She sang and played piano in jazz clubs in Detroit.[1] She was a member of the trio Skeeter, Mitch, and Jean (Skeeter Spight, Leroi Mitchell, and Jordan, using part of her middle name, was "Jean"), which wrote lyrics to music by Charlie Parker.[1] They went to Parker's performances in Detroit, met him, and he would ask them to sing.[8]

In 1951, Jordan moved to New York City and studied harmony and music theory with Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus,[1] but 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.[9] From 1952–1962, she was married to Duke Jordan, who played piano in Parker's band.[10] Although the marriage was unhappy (Duke Jordan was addicted to heroin),
it produced a daughter, Tracy, of whom Sheila says she finally had someone “that I could truly love and that I was sure would love me back”.[11]

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."[12]


In the early 1960s, Jordan performed at the Page Three Club in Greenwich Village with pianist Herbie Nichols,[13] and at other bars and clubs in
New York City. She withdrew from clubs for much of the '60s to raise her daughter, and sang in church instead. For 20 years, she worked as a typist and legal secretary with little time to concentrate on music until she was 58.[14]

In 1962, she worked with George Russell, with whom she recorded the song, "You Are My Sunshine" on his album The Outer View (Riverside).[15] Later that year she recorded the album Portrait of Sheila released by Blue Note.[2] Her long working relationship with Steve Kuhn began in the early 1960s.[16] She also played with Don Heckman (1967–68), Lee Konitz (1972), and Roswell Rudd (1972–75).[10]

1970s to present[edit]

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.[17] She has taught at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Vermont Jazz Center, Interplay Jazz and Arts, as well as teaching international workshops.[10][18]

On July 12, 1975, she recorded Confirmation.[1] One year later she released 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.[1]

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.[19] Her biography, Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan, written by vocalist and educator Ellen Johnson, was published in 2014.[20]

Awards and honors[edit]


As leader[edit]

  • Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note, 1963) – recorded in 1962
  • Confirmation (East Wind, 1975)
  • Sheila with Johnny Knapp (Grapevine, 1977)
  • Sheila with Arild Andersen (SteepleChase, 1978) – recorded in 1977
  • Playground with Steve Kuhn (ECM, 1980) – recorded in 1979
  • Old Time Feeling with Harvie S (Palo Alto, 1983) – recorded in 1982
  • 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) – recorded in 2004
  • Winter Sunshine (Justin Time, 2008)
  • Live At Mezzrow (Cellar Live, 2022) – live recorded in 2021
  • Comes Love: Lost Session 1960 (Capri Records, 2021)

As featured vocalist[edit]

With Carla Bley

With Cameron Brown

  • Here and How! (OmniTone 1997)
  • I've Grown Accustomed to the Bass (HighNote, 2000)

With Jane Bunnett

  • The Water Is Wide (1993)

With George Gruntz

With Bob Moses

  • When Elephants Dream of Music (Rykodisc, 1982)

With Roswell Rudd

With Steve Swallow


Former students


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. pp. 1324/5. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ "Saturday, March 21st: 10:30 – Focus on Women in Music". KPFA Folio. March 1981. p. 26. Retrieved May 10, 2022.
  5. ^ "Lulu: Last 2 Nights! Sept. 20 & 21, Sheila Jordan & Steve Kuhn: '... million dollar ears!'". The Boston Phoenix. September 23, 1980. Retrieved May 10, 2022.
  6. ^ "Sheila Jordan - Portrait of a Legend - Jazz Views". November 18, 2022.
  7. ^ "Sheila Jordan - Portrait of a Legend - Jazz Views". November 18, 2022.
  8. ^ Vitro, Roseanna (November 29, 2012). "Sheila Jordan: Vocal Shaman". JazzTimes. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  9. ^ "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center". Sheila Jordan. National Public Radio. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  10. ^ a b c "Lifetime Honors". Biography. National Endowment for the Arts. 2012. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  11. ^ "Sheila Jordan - Portrait of a Legend - Jazz Views". November 18, 2022.
  12. ^ Myers, Marc (January 5, 2012). "Interview: Sheila Jordan (Part 2)". JazzWax. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  13. ^ Spellman, A.B. (1985). Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1st Limelight ed.). New York: Limelight Editions. p. 156. ISBN 0-87910-042-7.
  14. ^ Dagan, Ori (January 28, 2009). "Joy and Justice: the Jazz Journey of Sheila Jordan". TheWholeNote. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  15. ^ Witherden, Barry (May 1987). "A Singer in the Mirror". The Wire. p. 16.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "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.
  18. ^ Feather, Leonard (February 23, 1989). "Sheila Jordan's Slow Rise to Recognition". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  19. ^ "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.
  20. ^ Johnson, Ellen (September 2014). Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan. Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 9780810888364.
  21. ^ Vedasto, JP (August 31, 2020). "Perfection and Paralysis: Laura Valle on the Dichotomy of Performance". World Musician Press.

External links[edit]