NEA and Jazz, Part 3

It’s important for the National Endowment for the Arts to bestow honors on individuals who spent their lives performing, producing, and promoting jazz. For one thing, the genre is young enough that the lineage from its inception is intact. While most of the first generation of jazz musicians are no longer living, there still is a group of musicians who got to experience that music during its vital times. There are also musicians alive who knew Charlie Parker when bebop was “killing” real jazz. One of them, singer Sheila Jordan, received her Jazz Masters Award at the January 10 ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center. She was introduced by another Parker-inspired singer who revolutionized American music, Jon Hendricks. While instrumentalists, especially trumpeters and saxophonists, are generally considered to be the voice of jazz, it is the vocalists who have been instrumental in disseminating it to the general public through teaching. I was very fortunate to have worked for Mr. Hendricks during the first year after I was done with high school. His regular bass player, the late Bob Maize, and I shared a gig at The Reunion club in San Francisco. He had been working with Jon regularly, but when Hendricks put together a scaled-down version of his show, The Evolution of the Blues, to perform on college campuses in the Bay Area, Bob moved to the front line as part of “Hendricks, Hendricks, Hendricks, Hendricks, and Maize” (the four Hendricks being: Jon, his wife Edith, and his two daughters, Rosa and Michele—sometimes a fifth Hendricks, 10-year old Aria, would also participate). Bob enlisted me to play in the rhythm section with pianist Larry Vukovitch and drummer Benny Barth. It was great on-the-job training, partly because of the high level of music being played and partly because the show was a dramatization of the history of jazz. Jon was teaching in the California university system and figured out a way to spread the lessons to a wider audience.

Sheila Jordan is also a teacher, like many of her protégés (Janet Lawson, Jay Clayton, Mark Murphy, Anne-Marie Moss) and her contemporaries (Hendricks, Betty Carter, Annie Ross, Lodi Carr). Teaching jazz singing highlights the chasm between jazz and “classical” music technique and aesthetics more than jazz instrumental pedagogy, which is steeped in Eurocentric methods, despite its liberal use of extended techniques. Jazz singing is done in a chest, or speaking, voice and not the head voice of opera. It’s a pretty basic difference, much like jazz dance vs. ballet, but goes pretty much ignored when it comes to general discussions about teaching jazz. Instrumental jazz teachers will work on facility, learning solos, and studying harmony while vocal jazz teachers include developing a sound produced in a different part of the body. This might be why jazz is often understood as a genre where the performer can best express his- or herself. After all, what is more easily identifiable than a person’s speaking voice. Louis Armstrong couldn’t have begun to sing in a choir or perform lieder, but he defined jazz singing because of his unique voice, a voice that informed and was informed by his trumpet playing. Jordan takes this one step further and improvises lyrics, literally giving song to what she’s thinking about. Without being self-centered, these improvisations can be biographical, conversational (particularly when jamming with other singers, or when she’s teaching), philosophical, and political.

As I mentioned in the first and second parts of this entry, a common thread of socio-political activism ran through what might become the last open-to-the-public NEA Jazz Masters Award ceremony: Drummer Jack DeJohnette cited the social upheaval surrounding Civil Rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as his early experiences with the Chicago-based AACM, a seminal force in his musical life; Chicago saxophonist Von Freeman was described as growing up in a house that was a haven for musicians, especially Louis Armstrong, who were diaspora from New Orleans in the early 20th century; and Liberation Music Orchestra co-founder and bassist Charlie Haden’s career has been inexorably linked to political activism since the 1950s.

Sheila Jordan (nee: Sheila Janette Dawson) was a teenager in Detroit when she first heard Charlie Parker in the late 1940s. This was a time when white women singers weren’t known for singing bebop. Actually, not many people at all were playing bebop because it was new, yet Sheila found herself pursuing the music of Charlie Parker at full steam. She uses word and song to describe this and other events of her life in an interview on NPR’s Piano Jazz conducted last year. It’s a “must hear” not only because at 82, she’s “still got it,” but because, without intending too, she describes the tradition of jazz education before the current trend of institutional codification which tends to, as one of my jazz history professors put it, study jazz as “a dead art.” Sheila Jordan is not only a consummate artist and virtuoso vocalist, but a link to an important era in the history of 20th-century American music. She describes a time before the Civil Rights movement in Detroit, a city where racial tensions were piano-wire taut. The 1943 riots of Detroit, Harlem, and Los Angeles had no discernible effect on the genocidal tendencies exhibited by certain members of America’s white-male supremacist dominated society. Detroit was a haven for the KKK, Roosevelt’s Fair Employment and Practice Committee had been defunded, and bills to make the practice of lynching a federal crime couldn’t make it to the floor of Congress. It was dangerous to be seen in mixed company, but Sheila Dawson, and two African American singer-songwriters—Leroy Mitchell and William “Skeeter” Speight—formed a singing group, Skeeter, Mitchell and Jean, that wrote and performed vocalise versions of Charlie Parker solos, a decade before Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Jordan’s pioneering spirit (I mean pioneering in the sense of Joanna Stratton’s Pioneer Women: Voices From the Kansas Frontier, which is more about escape from social repression into self-actualized living rather than the “pioneering spirit” that seeks to conquer territory for socio-economic gain) led her to New York City and formal studies with Lennie Tristano and informal ones with the jazz community there. Her “informal” teachers included Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, and George Russell. It was Russell who, in effect, produced her first album as a leader for Blue Note Records, making her one of the first and very few vocalists to appear on the label. It was around this time that she married pianist Duke Jordan, whose discography reads like the Who’s Who of jazz. Their daughter, Tracy, as well as her current bassist, Cameron Brown, attest to Sheila’s passion for creating a world where ethnic diversity is a meeting ground rather than a separation point.

Jordan didn’t gain world-wide acclaim overnight, and she paid heavy dues for her egalitarian temperament. For decades she worked as a legal secretary to raise her daughter and “support the music until it could support me.” This was a time when jazz singing was about singing a melody over a swinging rhythm section and, maybe, including a vocable-based “scat” solo. The most adventurous singers—Jordan, Jay Clayton, Jeannie Lee, Joe Lee Wilson, and Abbey Lincoln—were relegated to “avant garde” status and pretty much ignored by the cultural machine. Betty Carter, Mark Murphy, and Leon Thomas had some commercial success, while singers like Ursula Dudziak and Al Jarreau took to performing more in the commercially acceptable fusion vein. Many artists, like Wilson and Lee, expatriated rather than face second- and third-tier status in the U.S. It was the success of Jarreau and Carter that seemed to make it okay to involve the voice as an instrumental texture that could blend into the group’s overall sound that offered opportunities for singers like Janet Lawson and Sheila Jordan to bring their brand of music-making to a wider audience.

One of Jordan’s re-entry projects began in the 1980s, a duo with bassist Harvie S (nee: Swartz) that piggy-backed on a 1977 Steeplechase recording she made with Arild Anderson that redefined how the Great American Songbook can be interpreted. She wasn’t the first to perform in this setting; vocalist Anne-Marie Moss and bassist Sonny Dallas held down gigs all through the 1960s in New York, and Peggy Lee alluded to the instrumentation with her 1958 hit “Fever.” But Harvey and Sheila’s duo was successful to the point of touring internationally and recording four albums. In 1999, Sheila and Cameron Brown formed another voice/bass duo that will, hopefully, record more in the future. Another association, with pianist Steve Kuhn, continues to this day. Kuhn and Jordan introduced their co-operative group on the 1979 ECM recording Playground. She appeared on four more ECM dates between then and 1983. Sheila Jordan, in her mid-fifties, had finally hit her stride—one that serves as an inspiration to the likes of Judi Silvano, Fay Victor, Roseanna Vitro, J.D. Walter, Melissa Hamilton, Linda Ciofalo, and Vicki Burns.

But she doesn’t rest on her laurels at all and is more active than ever. She has added a new facet to her life story, which is part of her music making. This was revealed during Jon Hendricks’s introduction of Jordan at the Jazz Masters Award ceremony when he confessed that both he and Jordan have Cherokee ancestors. When she took the stage, she greeted Hendricks (“the genius of vocalise”) with a Native American chant that I assume is Cherokee. I have contended since 1976, when I first heard the Tikigaq singers in Alaska, that jazz has a strong, but unrecognized, Native American musical component. So many jazz musicians have Native American ancestry—Max Roach, Jack Teagarden, Don Cherry, Kay Starr, Mildred Bailey, Chief Russell Moore, Kirk Lightsey, and the list goes on and on (Professor Ron Welburn of New Hampshire has been compiling names for a yet-to-be published project)—that a non-existing musical influence is unthinkable. But part of the genocidal tendencies mentioned before is an agenda to erase indigenous North American culture and replace it with an African American historiography. While Hendricks played up his Indian heritage in his introduction, Jordan played it down somewhat. But her approach to her career is one of complete involvement, for her and her audience, and, after thanking the people in her life who she credits with helping her get off the ground, she invited the audience, largely of her peers, to join her in a call-and-response singing of praise to Charlie Parker. The melody that unfolded was strangely non-Western and not African, either. It can be heard here. Scroll to around 85:30.

The next segment of the event was a wonderful tribute to Count Basie, performed beautifully by the JALC orchestra under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. The guests were saxophonists Benny Golson and Frank Wess and pianist Kris Bowers playing Wess’s composition “Magic” (the program listed Frank Foster’s “Who Me?”). At 90, Frank Wess has lost none of the signature lyricism that placed him in Lester Young’s chair in Basie’s “second generation” band of the 1950s. His, thankfully, lengthy solo was followed by another one by the 82-years experienced Golson that was a marvel of improvisational architecture. Rising star Bowers, still a Julliard student, but also a Thelonious Monk Award recipient, delivered a masterful solo that promises great things to come.

Next and last in the NEA and Jazz blog: Jimmy Owens—jazz activist and advocate.

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