Toledo OH, 25 March 2005
Sheila Jordan came to visit Toledo, Ohio for Easter weekend. Like a quirky, eccentric aunt, she arrived draped in a black gown and a glittering beret. And much to delight of family and friends, most of them new, she sang, bringing us all up to date on her world, and the state of art of jazz singing. Sheila Jordan’s appearance at Murphy’s Place was something of a surprise—announced a few days before with a paragraph in a Toledo paper, sending at least this jazz lover into paroxysms of delight that bemused his co-workers.
Murphy’s Place is a cozy joint near the river in Toledo’s downtown presided over with down-home amiability by Joan Russell and bassist Clifford Murphy. It’s the kind of place were you best check your hipster affectations at the door. Parents—and even grandparents—bring youngsters here to initiate them into the joy of jazz; Jordan seemed right at home.
Her musical hosts for the evening were club regulars Murphy on bass and Clifford Black on piano, with first-call local jazz drummer Scott Kretzer. That they shared the audience’s anticipation was evident from the opening “Hit the Road Jack”, which Black morphed into “16 Tons”. The trio then roared through “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”. Black plays what seems to me to be characteristic Detroit-style piano, rooted in the blues, fueled by bebop, and headed for rhapsody. And before the singer even hit the stage, he’d brought the audience a good way there.
Black sweetened the atmosphere with his own ballad “Luminescence”, the title foreshadowing the performance to come. After that Black and Murphy stopped to confer about what would happen next. A voice from over by the bar called out, “I’ll just come on up.” Jordan strode to the stage, introduced herself to the drummer—“Hi, Scott, I’m Sheila”—and strode into “The Ho Drum Blues”. Nothing humdrum or ho-hum or, for that matter, forced about it.
The singer, mike in her right hand with her left hand stretched out grasping the mike stand, let “Everything Happens to Me” flow. She delivered the words with the ease of conversation, her enthusiasm for the company expressed in ripples of melisma. She made it clear that she does not consider herself “a diva”. Rather she sees herself as a messenger for this music, “a jazz messenger like Art Blakey”. And yet standing there on stage she had the bearing of royalty, and we were all her subjects... and friends.
In all her many years singing, well over 50 now, she told the audience she had never sung in Toledo, but once. Many years ago she sat in at a club; she’d gone out with her half-sister. She has family here, she announced, maybe some of them were in the house. Then a voice piped up from a front table, saying yes family was in the house. “And who are you?” Jordan asked. “I’m sister Rosie,” the woman said. “When I last saw you were...” and Jordan measured to her leg. Quick, family reunion introductions followed. “Now you’ll know what your crazy big sister does.”
And the line between performance and life disappeared as Jordan launched into “I Concentrate on You”. These songs resonate beyond their romantic trappings when Jordan sings them. In the context of the Toledo show, Cole Porter’s words spoke to the “enduring ties that sustain us through hard times.” Jordan makes clear she’s had a few, but because of this music she survived. She gives credit to jazz, specifically her idol Charlie Parker, for sustaining her. Jordan lives on the stage, her performance inseparable from her life.
That seamlessness came through in the banter between the singer and the musicians who were, until this night, strangers. Sidling up to the bass, she conversed with Murphy, asking him about a watercolor portrait of him that hangs over the bandstand and complimenting his fat, woody tone. A real bass sound, she said. On “Barbados”, she played the role of mentor, inviting two young singers from the audience to join her.
Throughout she used songs to tell stories. “If I Had You” served as the frame for a story about Leonard Feather. During her first appearance in Los Angeles, he sat right down in front, she said, where the critics always do (and where indeed I was sitting) and taking lots of notes (I jotted surreptitiously). The next day he wrote a generally positive review, praising Jordan’s swing, but saying he wished she’d stuck closer to the melody. Jordan then demonstrated for the Murphy’s crowd what she imagined Feather would have liked—a decidedly square, not unpleasant, but comic reading of the tune.
Jordan closed with “Sheila’s Blues”. Strange that she would close with this... it would seem that, given it tells the story of her life, she would use it as an introduction, and yet it seemed right. She told us this story now over the familiar cadences of the blues, better that we could carry it home with us. She delivered an incandescent reading of the song. The confessional style belied the craft of her performance. She played coy in the opening lines about the date of her birth, and yet in the end as she testified that it was the music that saved her, she announced that’s why she’s still singing for us at 76.
And when she sang of being 14 and sitting in the alley behind the Sudan Club in Detroit, rapt as Charlie Parker played to her and her buddies through an open back door, I suddenly felt not just what it was to be a kid discovering this great music, not only what it was to feel the warmth of a great musician, but what it is like to suddenly be connected to the vast and powerful and enduring spirit of the music. That’s exactly what happened this March night at Murphy’s Place in Toledo when Sheila Jordan came to call.