Spinning 78

Next week, the closest the now-septuagenarian singer will get to the Hashemite Kingdom will be her Thursday evening gig at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine.

sheila jordan 88 (photo credit: )
sheila jordan 88
(photo credit: )
Around 20 years ago, jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan delighted audiences at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat by saying how thrilled she was to be performing so close to a country with her name. Next week, the closest the now-septuagenarian singer will get to the Hashemite Kingdom will be her Thursday evening gig at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine - in addition to shows in Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Haifa. Nonetheless, Jordan was still looking forward to her forthcoming Middle East sojourn. "It's wonderful to be coming back to Israel," she said in a telephone interview from her upstate New York home. "I have special feelings for the country and for the whole region." Today, Jordan is one of the foremost proponents of the straight-ahead bebop jazz style. Considering her "vintage," that comes as no surprise. "You can talk about my age," said Jordan candidly. "I'm very proud to be 78 years old and still around and singing jazz." Jordan, who has been "doing the business" for more than half a century, was around to jam with the musicians who initiated modern jazz. "I met [legendary saxophonist and bebop founding father] Charlie ["Bird"] Parker in Detroit in 1949. There were guys like [drummer] Roy Haynes around then, too. I sat in with Bird many times. He used to call me 'the kid with the million-dollar ears.'" In fact, as a young child Jordan first heard the infectious swing rhythms of the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. But, when Parker and his fellow bebop founders - including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Bud Powell - began to spin out more cerebral beats and licks, the Detroit-born youngster found herself beguiled by the captivating energies and sound. "I heard bebop, I heard Bird and that was it. I was hooked," she recalls. "I said, 'That's the music I'll dedicate my life to.'" Jordan has followed that inspiration for over 50 years, taking part in close to 100 recordings and performing all over the globe. Her forthcoming Israeli tour is the precursor to working visits to Italy, Canada, Scotland, Russia and the States in the next few months. Not bad for a 78-year-old. And she hasn't taken the easy route, either. Performing and recording with the likes of Parker and pianists Thelonious Monk and Lenny Tristano meant she wasn't exactly following the big-bucks mainstream path. "I identified with the more adventurous part of the music," Jordan explains. "I felt a part of it, and that it was a part of me." There were also some difficult sociopolitical logistics to be handled in her earlier days. "The police weren't always very happy about a white girl going to jam and sing with black musicians. I used to get into trouble the whole time. One time a plainclothes policeman threatened me with violence if I didn't quit singing with African-Americans." Eventually the situation got so bad that Jordan relocated to New York, which had a far livelier jazz scene than Detroit and, Jordan hoped, where she'd be able to collaborate with her black colleagues without inviting trouble. But that wasn't to be. "One day I was just walking in the street after singing with a bunch of African-American jazz musicians, and four guys stopped me and threatened to beat me up. In the end, a police officer came to my rescue." In fact, Jordan has some ethnic blood in her, too. "I am one quarter Native American," she declares. "I grew up with a lot of prejudices, so I sort of identified with the Afro-Americans and their plight, although I could pass because I had white skin." Her preference for the more challenging side of jazz notwithstanding, Jordan has also addressed many other areas of music, including ethnic and more commercial material. The repertoire for her Israeli tour will include a medley of a Native American tune called "Little Song," which segues into the Beatles's "Blackbird." "I was doing a Native American improv one night somewhere and I just started singing 'Blackbird.' The next day there was an interview in the Boston Globe with Paul McCartney, and he was talking about that song and how he'd written it about the plight of African American women during the Civil Rights movement. I knew nothing about the background to the song. I was improvising about the plight of Native Americans and then started singing 'Blackbird.' There are no coincidences in life." Jordan's forthcoming tour here is certainly no coincidence, and she will be teaming up with three local musicians - pianist Itai Rosenbaum, guitarist Atcha Bar and saxophonist Yaron Mohar. Sheila Jordan will appear at the Camelot Club in Herzliya on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m; Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine on Thursday at 9:30 p.m; the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Music Center on Friday at 10 p.m; and at Abba Hushi House in Haifa on Saturday at 9 p.m. Jordan will also give master classes at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Music Center on Wednesday at 4 p.m. and Yellow Submarine on Thursday at 6 p.m., and a workshop for jazz singers at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Music Center on Friday.