Sheila Jordan

Green Mill, November 18 and 19

Whatever your image of a jazz singer, chances are Sheila Jordan doesn’t fit it. She’s not willowy, she’s not sultry, and she’s not black. She’s short and square, with pale skin and a wide toothy grin. Walking down Michigan Avenue at lunchtime, she could easily be mistaken for a typist at an ad agency–which is what she was for more than 20 years, until being laid off in the late 80s. Admired by Charlie Parker for what he called her “million dollar ears,” she’s one of the greatest jazz singers alive. And if you haven’t heard of her, that says less about you than about the overriding concerns of the jazz business today–image, race, and marketing.

Performing with an excellent trio (longtime accompanist Harvie Swartz on bass, and Chicagoans Brad Williams and Greg Sergo on, respectively, piano and drums), Jordan demonstrated why she’s a preeminent jazz singer and why hearing such a singer can be an experience like no other. In celebration of her birthday on Friday she sang, early in her first set, “It feels real, real good to be 66 years old and still singing.” For Jordan, to sing is to live and to live is to sing. As she sang during an improvised blues number on Saturday, “If it wasn’t for jazz music, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Jordan makes her musical home in the spaces between the notes–the ones most singers and instrumentalists rush by on their way from one note to another. They’re the spaces Thelonious Monk explored when hitting two adjacent keys on the piano simultaneously, the spaces Otis Rush explores when squeezing a string on his guitar. They’re the twilight spaces: the spaces that make you shiver.

She approaches her material not as a singer but as a musician, taking every advantage of the fact that her instrument–the voice–is the most flexible, nuanced, and moving of all. Much of her material is conventional enough (including such standards as “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “Hello Young Lovers”), but her approach is anything but conventional. Every song is re-created in her hands, but every re-creation seems so utterly natural as to appear inevitable.

She usually sings the first verse in a fairly straightforward fashion. Then, step by step, she takes the song–and the listener–off the path and into the woods. Often she hovers in the spaces between the notes, not just once or twice–as a blues guitarist might before resolving the tension–but over and over again. Moving from one spot to another to another, she gives her singing an off-center, dreamy, floating quality. Sometimes she hurries or slows time: crowding six words together, then lingering over a single syllable for what feels like forever. When she scats she’s not just marking time with tired hepcat mannerisms; at her best she pushes the song with all the drive and inventiveness of a saxophonist.

All this musical adventurousness, though, is always at the service of the honest heartfelt emotion at the core of her music. She never condescends to her material, never holds it ironically at a distance, but commits herself to it wholeheartedly. And if her emotional commitment happens to be deeper than the material itself, she resolves the problem by deepening the material through sheer musical invention. My only reservation about her music is that sometimes I’m left wishing she would push a song even further “outside” the normal harmonic–and emotional–conventions.

Why isn’t Jordan more widely known? Why does she record for a small jazz label (Muse) rather than a major? Three likely reasons come to mind: race, age, and musical daring.

Race is a hot-button issue in jazz these days. The Sunday Tribune’s Arts section recently devoted a cover story to it, and a new book by jazz critic Gene Lees, Cats of Any Color, addresses it at length. In his liner notes to Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989 (hat Art), African American saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton, among the most iconoclastic voices in jazz (and a longtime associate of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), recalls how he fell in love with the music of certain white jazz musicians long before finding out he wasn’t supposed to. When he was introduced at the age of 14 to the music of Lennie Tristano, a brilliant composer, arranger, pianist, and teacher (with whom Jordan studied briefly), Braxton didn’t realize “the social/racial complexities related to this attraction”; he “was only interested in music.” Only much later, when “critics began to write about ‘Braxton and his white heroes,'” did he find himself “put on the defensive for appreciating ‘non-sanctioned’ instrumentalists.” At issue here is the tendency of some jazz musicians and critics to regard the music as the property of blacks, thus relegating white musicians to the role of trespassers, as well as the related tendency of many jazz critics and consumers to equate being light-skinned with being lightweight.

Age is another factor that works against Jordan. Major labels generally prefer two types of jazz artists: the young and the dead. Young artists can be marketed as the next big thing (Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Joshua Redman, et al). Dead artists can be recycled, with little additional capital investment, in elaborate boxed sets (this season’s flavor being bop piano giant Bud Powell), which are marketed as classic material that no self-respecting jazz fan can possibly do without. Like other artists of her generation, Jordan–neither young nor dead–simply doesn’t fit the major labels’ agenda.

Finally, there’s the issue of musical daring. If Jordan weren’t such a challenging artist, she could be marketed as smooth mood music–the type of thing one might put on before sitting down to a romantic dinner. But this isn’t some toothless old woman; her music has bite. When Jordan sings–head tilted slightly forward, eyes closed–she is entirely about music. Unfortunately, that’s often the last thing the music business is about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen A. Peters.