Sheila Jordan Portrait of Sheila

Sheila Jordan’s ‘Portrait of Sheila’ at 60

The DNA of jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan’s Portrait of Sheila can be heard in so much popular music of the intimate, dreamlike, and nocturnal kind across genres.

Portrait of Sheila LP (Blue Note 75th Anniversary Reissue Series)
Sheila Jordan
Blue Note
17 November 2023
Portrait of Sheila
Sheila Jordan
Blue Note
January 1963

Blue Note Records, for the dedication of its founders, the stylishness of its photography and album artwork, and, first and foremost, its incredible roster of players, is the iconic jazz imprint. The sleek, geometric logo that adorned record labels and album sleeves achieved a reputation on par with the musical innovators whose mercurial talents wrote the history of jazz music, a symbol of quality assurance since 1939. The corporations who would later own the rights to Blue Note recordings found ways to repackage its legacy to appeal to future generations of music fans, who found the sound of jazz alluring but found much of its iconography to be distant and unapproachable. 

Yet one of the more curious stories in the history of this storied label unfolded in late 1962 when Blue Note recorded vocal jazz for the first time. Blue Note wouldn’t just record one vocal record that autumn, but two, both to be released in January 1963. Dodo Greene and Sheila Jordan performed at different ends of the jazz spectrum, yet both apparently confounded many aficionados of the time. Greene had a rich, bluesy voice reminiscent of Dinah Washington, and on My Hour of Need, would sing soulful standards at odds with the cutting edge of modern jazz. Sheila Jordan emerged from the bebop tradition and modeled her singing on instrumental jazz, giving Portrait of Sheila a highly distinctive sound. These two records would be the first and only entries in the Blue Note 9000 series. 

It remains somewhat of a mystery why Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s venerable founder, decided to record vocal jazz in the first place or why he would never choose to record any again. Blue Note had bucked a trend before, recording soul jazz as early as the 1950s, a style that would never win favor with critics. Looking outwards at some of the leading vocalists of the day, Etta James and Aretha Franklin had both debuted in 1961. While James had a powerful voice, the string arrangements that accompanied her befit pop, not jazz, while Franklin’s initial presentation as a jazz singer did not bring her commercial success. Abbey Lincoln, whose handful of recordings for Blue Note’s New York rival Riverside Records had suggested the shape of vocal jazz to come, had already withdrawn from the spotlight and would not resurface again until the 1970s.

Whatever the reason for the abrupt ending to Blue Note’s dalliance with vocal jazz, it casts no enduring shadow on the quality of its two recordings. Later, in 1963, the coming of the Beatles would change popular music, and the jazz world was not immune. Recording jazz was hardly profitable at the best of times, and rock music would further erode its market. In 1965, Blue Note was bought out by Fantasy Records, a corporate label, and two years after that, Alfred Lion would retire from his involvement with Blue Note altogether, bringing to a close an important chapter in jazz history.

Meanwhile, the stories of My Hour of Need and Portrait of Sheila can be traced back a decade prior to recording. Dodo Greene and Sheila Jordan were born four years apart in cities in the industrial Midwest of America. Greene sang in clubs in Buffalo, New York, before making her way across the state, and light years away, to New York City in 1959. Greene had previously been invited to join a big band but refused, and before her recording debut, she performed in Germany and the UK. Very little else is known about her biography.

Sheila Jordan was raised in Pennsylvania but would return to her birthplace of Detroit to be part of its vibrant jazz community, which included the likes of trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. This collective of young and eager musicians worshipped at the altar of Bird, Charlie Parker, the saxophonist, bebop pioneer, and rock star of his day. Jordan developed her singing technique by listening to Parker’s records and writing words to Parker’s melodies. He described her as having “million-dollar ears” when he heard them. While in Detroit, Jordan performed in a vocalese trio at about the same time as Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, America’s most popular vocalese group.

As a white woman who mixed with Black jazz musicians, Jordan was ultimately compelled to move away from Detroit by its racism and would arrive in New York City in 1952, where she hoped to find a more tolerant society. During the 1950s, Jordan was living the fabled jazz lifestyle. She was singing in clubs deep into the twilight hours. She rented a loft apartment where she would host gatherings of musicians, artists, and assorted bohemians. She would be further mentored by iconoclastic jazz musicians such as George Russell, who would publish his own jazz-based music theory. Jordan had several romances with musicians in the New York City jazz community, eventually marrying Charlie Parker’s pianist, Duke Jordan.

From the album Portrait of Sheila, the song “When the World Was Young” features a sophisticated harmony with a European feel. Throughout the body of the track, Jordan duets with guitar, with bass and drum interludes that anticipate the resumption of the duet. Jordan described how she approached the song, that she “was kind of play-acting with myself, imagining what it would be like to be the belle of the ball, a party girl. I knew I’m not, and yet it’s fun to fantasize.” Despite the lyrical references to Paris, the song evokes the vibes of the 1950s New York jazz scene.

With Duke Jordan, Sheila had a daughter, who would go on to work in the music business. But Duke Jordan was a drug casualty who did not play any part in their family life. As was the case for the labels recording it, for the musicians, playing jazz didn’t pay well. The most prolific musicians could make enough to support themselves, but Sheila Jordan was supporting a family. It’s another aspect of the story that was overlooked by some jazz critics, who assumed that the lack of interest in Portrait of Sheila had deterred Sheila Jordan from recording again for over a decade. The fact was that life got in the way.

The fondness of Jordan’s relationship with her daughter is reflected in several songs in Portrait of Sheila, distinguishing them from other contemporaneous interpretations. “Dat Dere” is the album’s lone pure bass and voice duet. It features lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr, which were also sung with unusual sass by several mainstream pop singers. However, Jordan makes the song her own by bringing out the playfulness that would have been smothered by a big-band arrangement. This playfulness is achieved with Swallow playing a bouncy bass and Jordan’s affinity for hip jazz lingo. 

“Laugh, Clown, Laugh”, the title song of a film, had been sung by Abbey Lincoln, in which Lincoln’s approach emphasized the cynical, somewhat sadistic tone of the lyrics. Jordan interprets the song with more tenderness and sympathy. The song is even structured to have a happy ending, which jolts from a sparse duet to a full-band arrangement.

Jordan worked a day job for an advertising agency to support her family. It was a very suitable position for a creative spirit. The advertising agency was one of the storied Madison Avenue agencies that would provide the setting for the prestige TV drama Mad Men. Jordan liked the company because it seemed modern and had the best ads. Its executives would have lunchtime meetings with the likes of Miles Davis. Although it was not a part of her main job at the company, Jordan’s impeccable voice would grace four television commercials, selling high-end, space-age consumer goods.

“If You Could See Me Now” features the bass and guitar alternating between harmonies and counter melodies. Holding a cool, detached tone in the first verse, Jordan sings the second refrain with a heat that breaks the glass, and the sincerity shines throughout until the song concludes. The line “The way I feel for you I know I never could disguise” has a melody like the singer is tumbling downstairs.

In the pre-rock era, the song was the most important unit of musical currency, not the performance. Mainstream popular singers and jazz musicians alike would frequently perform standards from the Great American Songbook. By the late 1950s, the songwriting teams at the Atlantic, Chess, and Motown record labels were starting to update the songbook with songs that future generations of traditionalists would return to. Where instrumental jazz differed from mainstream pop was that jazz musicians would take the core melody of a popular standard as a starting point, soon to diverge into multitudinous instrumental solos that might share nothing more in common with the song than the key. 

Vocal jazz straddled the two worlds. A vocal jazz artist might typically sing a song straight, adhering to the verses, choruses, and basic structure, but with the jazz rhythms and textures making them hipper than their mawkish mainstream counterparts. It was typical for a jazz vocalist to sing in a big band or combo setting, with the instrumentalists taking their solos in the usual jazz style. Vocalese was a style that flipped vocal jazz upside down, adopting jazz instrumentals as standards, singing the melodies of a horn or a guitar, mimicking their instrumental phrasing while adding original lyrics rather than scatting.

Standards were like the memes of their day. Dozens of different singers could interpret a song and sound different each time. This was true of the tracks featured in My Hour of Need and Portrait of Sheila. While Sheila Jordan had been adding her own words to the melodies of Charlie Parker back in her Detroit club days, for her recording debut, she chose an entire selection of standards, including jazz and show tunes. Comparing these interpretations to another performer’s would be a fantastic but exhausting exercise. Put simply, Portrait of Sheila stands out as a prime example of torch singing, the performance of slow-burning, romantic ballads sung with a jazzy inflection.

Portrait of Sheila contains four quintessential torch songs. “Willow Weep for Me”, “I’m a Fool to Want You”, and “Am I Blue” were all jazz standards that had been subject to many interpretations. For “I’m a Fool to Want You”, a composition with original lyrics by Frank Sinatra, Sheila Jordan’s arrangement is very close to the original, with the guitar adapting the dreamlike quality of Sinatra’s string accompaniment. “Who Can I Turn to Now” is a pure voice and guitar duet, which is unique to Jordan, with very few other interpretations.

In the clubs, Jordan worked with Steve Swallow, the bassist who would accompany her on Portrait of Sheila, and they developed a rapport to the extent that Jordan was comfortable singing duets between bass and voice. In this, she was regarded as somewhat of a pioneer. Pairing any lead instrument only with bass left a performer exposed and vulnerable. Swallow, who went on to work with vibraphonist Gary Burton was a highly sympathetic foil, and his warm bass tone matched the lushness of both the human voice and the vibraphone exquisitely. As a result, the duet delivered the musical essentials of melody, harmony, and rhythm with a masterful balance of expressiveness and energy.

When Blue Note agreed to record Jordan, on the strength of a demo put together by George Russell, Alfred Lion didn’t take to the idea of a record featuring solely bass and voice duets, so the record also features Barry Galbraith on guitar and Denzil Best on drums. It was still a bold line-up- vocals, guitar, bass and drums. How very rock and roll! Yet in practice, Galbraith’s tasteful chords and arpeggios, delivered with a sweet, clean tone, work as an extension of Swallow’s upright bass. Best plays with equal taste, forgoing accents throughout the record and focusing only on the most delicate brushwork. 

Portrait of Sheila‘s opening track, “Falling in Love with Love”, is perhaps the most straightforward tune on the record. Swallow plays a persistent walking bassline at a constant tempo while Galbraith enters in the second verse. The renowned jazz singer Anita O’Day recorded an interpretation of this song, which used a big-band arrangement to buoy up the vibe, matching Anita’s phrasing accent for accent. Jordan and her combo achieve a similar energy level with comparatively less.

On the other hand, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is the record’s oddity, a bizarre punk-jazz track delivered at breakneck pace at just over one minute long. Galbraith’s guitar almost plays power chords, while Best’s brushes continue to hold their own.

I first heard a sample of Jordan’s work on a compilation called Sweet Sisters Swing Songs of Sorrow and Sadness, one of an extended series of various artists sets issued by Capitol Records, who by then owned the rights to Blue Note recordings, to cash in on the UK acid jazz scene. The set featured Sheila Jordan and Dodo Greene, alongside most of the biggest names in vocal jazz who had recorded for labels that had since come under Capitol’s umbrella – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, et al – but all marketed with the Blue Note logo. Even amongst all these distinguished singers, Sheila Jordan stood out for the timelessness of her style. 

She even stood on par with Peggy Lee singing “Fever”, perhaps the most famous example of vocal jazz with leading bass accompaniment. The track “Hum Drum Blues” is almost a carbon copy of “Fever”, a swinging, up-tempo number with voice, bass and drums, and some gorgeous blue notes in the melody.

“Baltimore Oriole”, written by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, was a versatile and popular song across genres, covered by several folk acts and even by George Harrison. In 1963, the jazz singer Lorez Alexandria performed a Latin jazz interpretation. In Portrait of Sheila, it is performed as essentially a duet between voice and bass, with brushed snares steadying the ship, and it is perhaps the most timeless performance on the record. While Galbraith’s clean-toned guitar harmonies added a lush depth to many songs, they also dated the record to a period before processed guitars or modulated synthesizers came to dominate popular music. Jordan’s voice and Swallow’s bass hold a steady rhythm whilst continuously rising and falling in counterstep with one another and covering the full spectrum of sound without the need for any further ornamentation.

Alfred Lion wasn’t the only Blue Note stalwart new to vocal jazz. The label’s renowned team of artwork designers and audio engineers would continue to be a crucial part of the package. Blue Note’s famous album artwork was already changing its tone in the early 1960s. The stark monochromatic photographs of label co-founder Francis Wolff, which had graced many late 1950s albums, were toned down as Blue Note sought to showcase its new generation of modern jazz with a more muted palette and bold abstract designs. Lead designer Reid Miles now had the challenge of representing Sheila Jordan’s voice in pictures. Yet Portrait of Sheila has perhaps the starkest cover Blue Note ever issued, a profile portrait of the singer, cast in deep shadow, hued only in blacks, whites, and greys.

Every Blue Note cover told a story of how the music had been made. The depth of shadow could have represented the sparseness of the instrumentation, or perhaps the lack of color was chosen to reflect the purity of Jordan’s voice. She has a voice like glass- clear, cool, round, and smooth. At times, it could even be fragile. The one most striking weakness is that she could be slightly off-pitch in her highest melodies. Her diction could be glacial for verses at a time, with coy moments of warmth that may pass the listener by. The slightest hint of blue or purple may have been a better choice for the album cover.

Rudy Van Gelder, the renowned engineer so closely associated with Blue Note, had recorded another vocalist, Barbara Lea, for Prestige Records on a big-band occasion. On Portrait of Sheila, Van Gelder’s famed techniques for recording instrumental jazz really rise to the occasion. The balance of sound is remarkable. On a typical vocal record, even in jazz, the vocal would stand in front of the instrumentation or float above it, but in showcasing the rich harmonic interplay on Portrait of Sheila, Van Gelder has Jordan’s voice occupying the same plane as Hollow’s bass and Galbraith’s guitar. This is more apparent than on Jordan’s later records from the 1970s, where she would fulfill her wish of an album comprised solely of voice and bass duets.

By blending torch singing and vocalese, bebop, and cool jazz into one delicately accompanied, lushly produced whole, Portrait of Sheila was a one-of-a-kind record that stood amongst the most inspired jazz recordings of the 1960s, alongside the new school and the avant-garde. Arriving at the beginning of 1963, it also bookended an era when the finely detailed songs of the Great American Songbook provided a sophisticated foundation for the explorations of many talented interpreters. From then on, the model for popular music would emphasize original material as being integral to a performer’s craft. 

The strange circumstances surrounding its release meant that Portrait of Sheila was subsequently out of print for many decades. For this reason, it would be reaching to make any definitive claims about its influence on later generations of singers. Its hip bass grooves weren’t to be sampled in any hip-hop or electronica. Yet its DNA can be heard in so popular much music of the intimate, dreamlike, and nocturnal kind, whether it be a singer-songwriter singing forlorn songs with only an acoustic guitar for company, a lush dream-pop trio creating soothing soundscapes or a bass-heavy trip hop track playing in the chill-out room.

Works Cited

Johnson, E. (2014) “Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan”. Scarecrow Press