Music has the power to change lives. Just ask legendary jazz singer Sheila Jordan, whose life was forever altered when she heard a Charlie Parker record.
“I was an unhappy kid from a home with alcoholism and poverty, and sang as a way to deal with that,” said Jordan, 89, who’ll perform an intimate duet show Wednesday at Crooners’ Dunsmore Room.
Named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2012, Jordan spent her childhood in a hardscrabble coal-mining town in Pennsylvania until she and her mother moved to Detroit. It was there that she had her jazz epiphany.
Hearing Parker’s “Now’s The Time,” she was hooked. “I never knew about that kind of music,” she said by phone from New York. “I heard the heart of his music immediately. Just the sound and depth of it moved me.”
Still in her teens, she sneaked into nightclubs to hear Parker play, and sing for him, when the saxophonist came to Detroit. She began singing in clubs and hanging out with black musicians, earning disapproval from the white community. Nevertheless, she persisted, as jazz had become her life.
“I wasn’t looking to be a star, but decided that singing jazz was what I wanted to do. I wanted to dedicate my life to that music.”
She moved to New York City in 1951, marrying Parker’s piano player, Duke Jordan, and studying music theory with innovative pianist Lennie Tristano. It was a heady time for jazz, and she drew inspiration from the city’s beboppers: “They were so sincere in their playing, the depth and soul of it.”
But she didn’t record until 1963, when Blue Note Records released “Portrait of Sheila.” By then, her marriage had ended and she had a daughter to care for, so she took a day job as a typist, and didn’t record for a dozen years.
During that time she sang a couple of nights a week at Page Three, a Greenwich Village bar.
“I always performed,” she said. “By the time I paid a babysitter and took a cab home, I made about six dollars, but I only wanted to do what I do. I was doing it to save my soul.”
Renowned for improvising lyrics on the fly, Jordan said that unique ability came naturally. “It just happened. ... I would be talking to an audience and I’d start to sing. I never thought too much about it.”
Bassist Cameron Brown will accompany Jordan at the Dunsmore Room. The two first performed at a concert in Belgium in 1997 that was recorded and later released as an album, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass.” They’ve been playing together ever since.
“He’s a wonderful bass player,” she said of their partnership. “We rehearse at least once a month to keep it fresh.”
It was Jordan who originated the concept of singing with just a bassist back in the 1950s. “I always loved just hearing the bass. Maybe I was a bass player in a previous life.”
Also a celebrated educator, she was an adjunct professor at City College of New York for 28 years, and has taught at other schools and international workshops. “I’m very honest in my teaching, and teach with heart,” she said. “I pass on what I’ve learned, and don’t break spirits.”
She tells students: “You support the music until the music supports you.”
The young girl who sang to escape the poverty and sadness of a chaotic home life ended up with a career spanning 70 years. She’s recorded over 20 albums as a leader, received numerous accolades, and has sung and taught around the world.
“As a child,” she says simply, “I was looking for music that I wanted to sing.” She certainly found it. “I love the music and it keeps me alive.”
Larry Englund is a longtime Twin Cities music writer and DJ.