Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sheila Jordan: Staying Alive Through Jazz

Sheila Jordan at Healdsburg Jazz Festival Master Class, June 9, 2012

©Andrea Canter
“If it wasn’t for jazz music, I wouldn’t be alive today,” sang Sheila Jordan. The 83-year-old vocal jazz icon started off her Master Class at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival with “Sheila’s Blues in F”—her own biography set (spontaneously, it seemed) to a blues form, backed by piano and bass. The festival brochure noted that Sheila believes in “teaching from the heart, offering encouragement to build confidence.” I am not a singer myself, I was registered as an “observer.” But I know teaching from the heart when I see and hear it, and this was the real thing. No tough love here.  Sheila noted several times that her goal was to move her students forward, not bring anyone down. No matter how down you might feel, I think three hours with Sheila Jordan would be an antidote for whatever ails you.

The workshop was filled with some basic recommendations for vocalists at any point in their development:
·         Don’t expect to make a lot of money. But Sheila also noted, “I supported my music until it could support me.”

·         Even if jazz is not where you want to be in music, it will enhance whatever direction you go.

·         Don’t imitate other singers—“don’t learn from me!” (Be yourself!)

·         Learn the melody first, exactly as written in its original form.

·         Write out lead sheets, including introductions and endings, know your keys, and be able to “talk down” the tune with the band.

·         Know how to count time
Sheila demonstrated with bass and drums

Further, Sheila noted there are three ingredients for jazz singing—the ear (listening), the heart (emotion) and the feet (rhythm and timing). Sheila’s long-time bassist Cameron Brown echoed this advice as well. “Rhythm is job one,” he said. It’s more challenging to teach rhythm so teachers tend to emphasize harmony. “I listened to Milestones and Kind of Blue over and over to internalize the rhythms—which are from Africa and the drums.”  For non-Americans, Sheila also noted there is the fourth ingredient—English!

Known for her original approach to interpreting songs, Sheila also talked about what she calls the Scat Virus –the misperception that to be a jazz singer, one must scat. Billie Holiday did not scat at all, she reminded the sixteen “students.” But “if you want to scat, I have the antibiotic—bebop!” Sing along with Charlie Parker recordings, she advised, “the original melodies, the original recordings…I was swept into jazz by Charlie Parker—I loved him so much I married his piano player! [Duke Jordan].”
Throughout the session, Sheila would return again and again to the theme of “be yourself”—don’t worry about being labeled pop or jazz, “just sing and let it happen… put your heart and soul into it.” She had similar advice when asked about the importance of learning scales and modes in improvisation—“just hear it,” she said. “Be who you feel you can be.”

But this was all a preliminary framework for the real work of the session—singing. Using the model of her opening bio-blues, Sheila invited each of the participating singers to invent their own story and sing it with the band, on the same “blues in F.” Everyone was able to convey some personal story, including the two teeanagers who were as bold as anyone in the group. And then it was time for the heart of any master class—individual performance and critique. Although with Sheila, a critique is more of a discussion of enhancements—how to make that intro more effective, reconsidering key choices, experimenting with endings, directing the band.  Each student came with a song to perform, and each had to talk down the tune with bass and piano. Sometimes that went smoothly, sometimes key information was not clarified and resulted in some false starts and confusion. Lesson learned! Sheila reacted positively to each singer, then offered suggestions—move the key up or down a step, try a different ending, find a way to signal the band that the you want to go out of time, go back and listen to the original recording of the song.
Sheila advised the youngest student
Time was up but everyone was willing to hang out another half hour to experience a group song. Sheila had distributed charts for “Barbados” (Charlie Parker) and “Song for My Father (Horace Silver). “Listen first to how Charlie Parker altered the chords,” Sheila told the group as she and the band did a straight run at “Barbados” before launching into the improv as Parker recorded it. “You have to learn the original melody first,” reminded Sheila. “Then start out slow, get a line going in your head and build on it.” Each in turn, the singers tried out various scatting options—avoiding the “s” sound as per Sheila’s advice! (“Listen to Charlie Parker—there’s no room for the ‘s shit!’”)  The group then ran through “Song for My Father”, the song not over until everyone had taken an interpretive turn at least twice.

“I loved you all! You all sounded so good,” said Sheila, inviting everyone to stay in touch via email. And she really seemed to mean it.
Sheila had been at the head of the class for three and a half hours, singing, scatting, joking, laughing, supporting every student. Everyone left a little tired, laughing, smiling, supported by one of the greatest jazz vocalists in the history of the music. And if she has anything to say about it, her beacon, her voice, will not be the last.

All photos by Andrea Canter at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, June 9, 2012