When she was 14, Sheila Jordan heard a song by jazz saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker on a juke box in the basement of her Detroit high school. She could scarcely believe her ears.
"I was in heaven! I was transported out of my body when I heard him," Jordan said in an interview this week. "I said, 'That's the music I will dedicate my life to.' "
Sixty-two years after that musical epiphany, Jordan has kept her promise, devoting her vocal career to the bebop music pioneered by Parker and other jazz visionaries.
Tonight, Jordan will perform in Toledo for the first time in 50 years with a concert at Murphy's Place.
Now 76 and living in New York City, Jordan is a native of Detroit who was reared in rural Pennsylvania and moved back to Motown as a young teen.
It was in Detroit that she first began hanging out at jazz clubs and singing, invited onto the stage as a guest of such Detroit jazz greats as Kenny Burrell and Tommy Flanagan. But racial prejudice was rampant in the city in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she said, and she was constantly being harassed and threatened for hanging out with African-Americans.
"That's why I moved to New York," Jordan said.
Arriving in Manhattan in 1951, the jazz scene on 52nd Street "was not to be believed!," she said. "There was music in every club. The city was just alive with the music. It was so thrilling."
Jordan became friends with her hero, Parker, a musical genius but a troubled soul who died of a drug overdose in 1955 at age 34.
" 'Bird' helped me so much, even for believing in myself," Jordan said. "He used to tell me I had million-dollar ears. I had no self-esteem. I grew up in poverty in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. As messed up as Charlie Parker was, he was always like a great big brother to me. As a helper and a brother, I learned so much from him. I owe everything to him. Every note I sing, everything I teach, I owe to Charlie Parker. He changed my life."
Jordan was so devoted to bebop that she refused to sing any other style of music even if it meant having to work other jobs. "I decided I would support the music until it could support me," she said, "so I had an office job until I was 58 years old. I still sang, but I used all my vacations and free time when I needed to go out of town."
When she was 58, the advertising agency for which she worked was bought out and Jordan took a severance package. She said she would give herself one year to try to make a living with music alone.
"I prayed!" she said. "I started praying, 'Please, Holy Spirit, please let me sing more.' And you know what they say: Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it. I've never looked back."
In addition to performing and recording regularly, Jordan has been teaching jazz vocal at City College of New York since 1978 and also has taught workshops in Vermont, Massachusetts, Canada, Austria, and Scotland.
Sheila Jordan will be in concert, accompanied by the Murphys Trio, tonight at 9 and 11 at Murphy's Place, 151 Water St. Admission is $8, $10, and $15. Information: 419-241-7732.
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