FOR HER 76th-birthday celebration at the Triad, a second-story black box of a cabaret on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Sheila Jordan did her acclaimed high-wire act: she sang all night with only a bass. “I did this for the first time in the early ‘50s, and everybody thought I was crazy!” she announced with girlish glee, self-effacing as ever. It’s risky to sing two-dozen songs with no drummer to keep time, no pianist to dictate the chords. And at first hearing, Sheila’s breathy, translucent voice, which flutters like a leaf on the breeze, may seem a bit fragile for the job.

But then you hear her authentic bebop vocabulary, the bluesy wail in her tone, her emotional bravery, and the occasional burst of Native American melisma – she’s got Cherokee blood – and you feel her strength. Her bassist Cameron Brown has his own, having worked with everybody from the far-out (Don Cherry, Archie Shepp) to the most lyrical (Chet Baker). He and Sheila listened intently to each other, swapping the ball with complete unpredictability. Wearing a red flower in her brown pageboy, Sheila glided through bop intervals she learned at the feet of Charlie Parker, took liberties with pitch, sang between-song comments she might have spoken.

Brown, she says, is “so sensitive to what I do.” He responded to everything, building countermelodies and riffs behind her and keeping the time as elastic as taffy. It was so playful, and ultimately so joyous, no matter how deeply she went into her sadness – and Sheila is one of the rare jazz singers whose improvisations grow from the words.” And vice-versa. The success of the whole format, she explains, relies on “trust. No egos. Really thinking in terms of making two musicians into one sound, I think.”

The first time she tried this in public, the bassist was Charlie Mingus. He beckoned her onstage in Toledo, Ohio to do a song with him, “Yesterdays.”
Saxophonist Lee Konitz and the drummer stayed silent.

“I loved the sparseness of it,” she says. “I create better when there’s less going on around me. I think that might have to do with me as a kid singing alone, without anybody.”

All her in-the-moment urgency may have come from living a life so perilous that the stage was her only haven. Sheila’s story was explored in Cade Bursell’s moving documentary,
In the Voice of a Woman (1995). It traces her Depression-era childhood on welfare amid the coal mines of Summerhill, Pennsylvania; the father who vanished when she was born; the family alcoholism. Her epiphany came around 1945. Having moved back to Detroit, her birthplace, she discovered Charlie Parker and a strange new music, bebop. She heard the manic exhilaration of musicians who flew above their troubles, doing seemingly impossible feats, and she knew she’d found her salvation. “I went to bed with the music, I woke up with the music; nothing else seemed to matter to me.”

The avant-garde composer Lennie Tristano, she says, helped her accept the fact that vocally she was “a little quirky, maybe an acquired taste.” Indeed it took years for her to penetrate even the underground, and she had more trials in store: a marriage to one of Bird’s pianists, Duke Jordan, who deserted her shortly after she bore their daughter, Traci; longtime addiction problems; a twenty-one year survival job as a secretary. Today she might well feel bitter. Instead she just shrugs: “I keep it as an upbeat, ‘cause to me that’s life. Shit happens!”

It certainly gave her a lot to sing about, as you’ll hear on this or any of her other CDs. We’ve reached an age when jazz artists don’t have to suffer as their elders did for the right to play this music; jazz has come out of the cellars and into the light of day. But unfortunately, most of it now sounds like an academic exercise, not an outpouring of the soul. And there are many pretenders to the throne in today’s jazz vocal scene, a well that has run dry of almost anything but tricks, imitation, and a self-conscious straining to seem clever and hip.

Meanwhile we’re still playing Bird’s records, and Sheila’s, and those of Miles Davis, another of her heroes, whose early years she revisits in a sprawling medley. Saluting another rhythmic master, Fred Astaire, she and Brown flit from song to song as airily as Astaire danced across the screen.

They hit darker ground in Abbey Lincoln & Mal Waldron’s “Straight Ahead.” Lincoln recorded it on a 1961 album that stands as one of the most searing musical documents of the civil rights struggle. Years earlier, she had introduced, on record, the songs of Oscar Brown, Jr., the poet, singer, and songwriter from Chicago who transformed the black urban experience into a universal statement about life as an outsider. (He died on May 29, 2005, just before this album’s release.) Sheila revisits “Hum Drum Blues,” the Brown song she sang in 1962 on
Portrait of Sheila, her debut LP on Blue Note. “It’s a very serious song,” says Sheila, singing its key line – “Oh honey, when you ain’t got money, then you can’t do as you choose” – to illustrate. “But in a way it’s saying, you live, you go on.”

“Brother, Where Are You” is Brown’s elegy for all who are shunted aside for reasons of race, class, or plain ignorance. To Sheila it’s about “young people being out there and lost. I just identified with what it’s saying: can you help me? Is there anybody there looking out for me?” Her haunting wordless intro tells much of the story.

Her night at the Triad ended, as does this CD, with a hymn of perseverance, “The Crossing.” It has the mournful, rootsy quality of the laments she had heard coalminers sing in Pennsylvania. But it’s Sheila’s song, and it dates from the early ‘80s. “I wrote it for my recovery from drugs and alcohol,” she explains. The title came from a cork sculpture of the same name, made for her by an artist friend, George DiVine. “The corks were from all the wine I drank with him – in a short period of time, I might add. Somebody told me that if I didn’t take care of this gift that I was given, it would be taken away from me. That song and ‘Straight Ahead,’ they have to do with accepting life on life’s terms. It’s been bumpy for me, but that’s OK.”

Speaking of which, Sheila had a last-minute thought. Anyone who knows her even slightly wouldn’t be surprised at how laughingly she delivered it. “Are you gonna say anything about me having an operation the day after the show? It’s a funny story! My cardiologist took a test and said, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you. You’ve got one artery that’s 99.1% clogged, and another two that don’t look so hot.’ I said, ‘Am I gonna die?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not God.’ He told me I had to go into the hospital tomorrow.’ I said, ‘I can’t! I’m recording my 76th
birthday album!’ He said, ‘OK. But you’re going in the day after.’ And at about 5:30 the next morning I was in Columbia Presbyterian.”

Now she’s fine. “I didn’t know whether I was gonna live or die,” she admits, laughing some more. “I took a chance on my life. The music was so important for me.” At this writing, she’s busier than ever. “I don’t feel young, I don’t feel old,” she says. “I just feel the music that I need to do.”