Sheila Jordan and Steve Kuhn
(photo by Steven Sussman)
Vermont Jazz Center director Eugene Uman told an SRO house a month ago that Sheila Jordan had often asked him to book her with Steve Kuhn. But once Sheila took the stage, the VJO perennial clarified that what she’d actually said was, “Book Steve Kuhn! Solo, Duo, Trio, whatever. You’ve got to bring him in.” As it happened, it was the duo of Jordan and Kuhn that finally brought the great pianist to Brattleboro, and the date gave cause for double celebration as March 24 was Kuhn’s 74th birthday.
The 83-year-old Jordan has a gift for establishing an intimate rapport with musicians, which is not surprising for a singer whom Charlie Parker hailed for having “million-dollar ears.” The intensely personal style she brings to standards and her own tunes is often enhanced by the duo setting she’s specialized in with bass players Steve Swallow, Harvie Swartz, Arild Anderson, and Cameron Brown. But she also shares a substantial legacy with Kuhn, and the VJC concert underscored once again that he’s her ideal collaborator. (You can see for yourself tomorrow night at the Artists Collective in Hartford where Jordan and Kuhn, along with bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Billy Drummond, will be in concert.)
(Steve Kuhn, Eugene Uman, Sheila Jordan/Photos by Steven Sussman)
Jordan and Kuhn’s association goes back to the early '60’s when they played occasionally around New York. At the time, Jordan worked as a secretary at a Madison Avenue ad agency while raising her daughter Traci, who was born to Sheila and her husband Duke Jordan in 1955. She was an insider on the jazz scene in her native Detroit and New York before she established a wider reputation as a singer, but that began to change a half-century ago with two landmark recordings, Portrait of Sheila, her 1962 debut and the first session that Blue Note Records ever produced on a singer, and pianist George Russell’s The Outer View, where she sang “You Are My Sunshine" like no one before or since. At the VJC, Jordan recalled traveling with Russell and Ornette Coleman in George’s green VW Beetle to the wedding of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach before she sang Abbey’s original, “Bird Alone.”
Sheila makes no secret of her youthful adoration of Parker, going so far as to say that she married Duke Jordan just to get closer to Bird, and it’s Parker and Billie Holiday who are at the core of her art. She says, “tongue-in-cheek,” that Parker composed “Chasin’ the Bird” for her, but the title applies equally to a world of obsessive ornithologists. When Jordan sang his great original, “Confirmation,” at the VJC, her scatted choruses of familiar bebop phrases rang like a Litany of the Saints; Sts. Bud and Bird, Diz and Monk, Miles and Sonny Rollins, that is.
What sets Jordan apart from most singers, and makes her an endangered species, is that she’s got a story to tell, and she’s found a way to frame her narrative in the context of the jazz tradition itself. Jordan was raised in poverty, and she’s been through the ringer of alcoholism: her own, her mother’s, and her maternal grandparents who raised her in Pennsylvania coal mining country. She paid dues as a teen hanging out and "growing up" with Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell and other black musicians in Detroit; as a white woman in an interracial marriage; and as the mother of a bi-racial daughter. Jordan tells the story of encountering a woman on a New York City bus who wondered, “Where did you get your baby?” Jordan tartly replied, “The same place you got yours!”
Sheila’s not kidding when says that jazz “saved her life.” It gave her a sense of direction, a voice, and a set of values to live by, but alcoholism began to take these away until she had a “spiritual awakening” that came in the form of a voice saying, “I gave you a gift. If you don’t use it well, I’m going to take it from you and give it to someone else.” Jordan got sober, and for the last 26 years she’s honored the gift both with her singing and the personable way she has of greeting listeners with a knowing sense that someone else’s life may be saved by the music too.
(photo by Steven Sussman)
Steve Kuhn’s got his own story to tell, and you can hear an hour of it in this expansive interview that I conducted with him in 2004. At the VJC, he played two solo pieces in the opening set, hammering out a surprisingly bluesy take on “Emily,” and an expansive rendition of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” the movie theme associated in jazz with John Coltrane. Kuhn was a charter member of Coltrane’s first quartet in 1960, and in our conversation he recalls phoning Coltrane out of the blue when he heard the saxophonist had left Miles Davis. They got together to play a couple of times, then Trane stunned Kuhn with a return call that began, “Would $135 a week be OK to start?” Kuhn says, “I’ll never forget that. ‘Oh my God,’ I said. I went nuts. I couldn’t believe it.”
As it happened, Coltrane had already made arrangements for McCoy Tyner to join the quartet once his contract with The Jazztet expired, so Kuhn was essentially an unsuspecting “sort of stop-gap.” Still, he allows that while the two months he spent with Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery “[were] incredible, I was not happy with my own playing, ‘cause I was still looking for a voice and I didn’t quite know what to do behind him.” He asked Trane for direction, but was told, “I can’t tell you how to play, I respect you as a musician, and I won’t tell you how to play.” Once Tyner joined the group Kuhn understood that what Trane wanted was “more of a carpet off which to spring,” whereas Kuhn had tried to “get out there with him and challenge him, and that’s not what he wanted from a pianist.”
One of the vivid memories Kuhn carries from the Jazz Gallery engagement was the fervor that Coltrane’s playing inspired in the audience. “It was electric,” he says, “almost like a revival meeting. People would be getting up on their chairs in the middle of his solos. Unforgettable!” In Brattleboro, Kuhn’s performance of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” recalled Coltrane with its incantatory feeling and its swift transitions between chordal and modal harmony.
After Coltrane, Kuhn went on to play with an illustrious succession of combos led by Kenny Dorham, Stan Getz, and Art Farmer. Following a period in which he lived in Stockholm in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, he returned to the States and formed the Steve Kuhn Quartet. Kuhn had begun composing lyrics to some of his pieces and invited Sheila to join him, but not in a conventional singer-piano trio format. “She didn’t want that, and I didn’t want that either,” Kuhn explains. Instead, Jordan functioned more as an instrumental voice in the quartet, honing her skills at both scat singing and in working with forms outside the standard 32 and 12 bar formats. I fondly remember seeing the group on a few occasions, and the uncanny knack that Sheila had for conjuring Miles Davis by dramatically arching her back and holding the mike in a pose that recalled an iconic image of the trumpeter as she sang his bebop classic, “Little Willie Leaps.” When I spoke with Jordan this afternoon, she said that “Miles must have been in the room.”
(photo by Steven Sussman)
Kuhn has just released a new CD on ECM entitled Wisteria, which is named for an Art Farmer ballad he plays here with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joey Baron. Kuhn and Swallow worked with Farmer in the mid-'60's, but "Wisteria" comes from the 1953 Early Art session with Horace Silver and wasn't in the trumpeter's mid-60's repertoire, so it appears here as a kind of defacto tribute to their former employer. Kuhn has enjoyed long associations with Swallow and Baron, but this is the first time they’ve worked together as a trio, and they'll be at Birdland for a few nights beginning May 8. Wisteria features a half-dozen Kuhn originals, and three by Swallow, who Steve says has “written some great songs, in my view.” When I spoke with Kuhn today, he said that Swallow has been “like the brother I never had, although we hardly see each other.” Still, he’s been there at crucial times.
“In 1969, we were in Paris doing a trio recording with Aldo Romano called Childhood Is Forever, which was the last record on which Steve played acoustic bass,” he says. When Kuhn expressed frustration about having played “everything in the repertoire,” he said, “Swallow got on my case big time about writing. ‘You gotta write, you gotta write, you gotta write,’ he kept saying. So, when I returned to Stockholm, I started to write, and I wrote a group of about twelve or thirteen songs in a couple of months, which for me was really unheard of, and some of those songs had words. Well, in any case, he’s been a very positive influence for me, and I love him dearly.”
Kuhn says the same about Jordan, who’s “like my big sister.” He says the singer has “nothing to prove. When we first worked together she was a little insecure, but over the years she’s gotten stronger and stronger. Nothing’s pretentious, nothing’s forced. And at her age, to me she’s singing better that I’ve ever heard her…She's like a freak of nature. I really can’t believe it. But it’s really nice to share the stage with her, and to watch her hold court.”
(NEA Jazz Masters Jack DeJohnette, Sheila Jordan, Jimmy Owens)
Jordan was recently named an NEA Jazz Master, an honor long-deserved, and as rumors persist that the NEA will soon abandon this custom, it’s a recognition that came not a moment too soon. Feel free to congratulate Sheila when you see her and Steve tomorrow night in the house that Jackie and Dolly McLean built in Hartford’s North End. Sheila says that in the lead-up to the concert and tomorrow afternoon’s master class at the Artists Collective, “I’ve never been treated so well, so respectfully, so royally. It’s as though nothing’s too good.” Leave it to the family of her late “kiddo” friend Jackie McLean to know how to treat a peer.