It’s a rare opportunity to be able to sit in the presence of the master of a craft, and to learn from that master. Yet that is just what a small group of Calgary singers did Wednesday evening.
Sitting in an Eau Claire apartment, about a dozen musicians participated in a jazz vocals workshop with Sheila Jordan, a singer who pioneered the singer and upright bass performance style that would become the hallmark of her career.
The singers came with a variety of professional polish and experience, a group that included backup singers, music teachers and even bankers.
For those singers, working with Jordan was like a brown belt karate student sitting at the feet of a real-life Mr. Miyagi, complete with the nerves.
Calgary singer Varnia Henry had some concerns about the song selection she was going to share, with Jordan sitting front and centre.
“I was a little bit nervous about the key, and then, yeah, I was nervous about what she would say,” Henry says.
“I was actually expecting more critique because you know, you’re thinking, ‘Wow, it’s Sheila!,’ and, ‘Let me just do a half-decent job.’ So, a little nervous.”
Nerves were evident early in the night, right from the warm-up exercise that had the singers improvise over a blues round played on baby grand piano by accompanist Andrew Glover. Some warbled a little off-key, some deflected attention with self-deprecating jokes, some blushed with embarrassment, and some singers with obvious vocal power struggled to rein in the force of their pipes.
“We’re doing one of the worst things: singing in front of a bunch of singers,” Jordan said during the evening as she was doling out some criticism for one of the singers.
Jordan had each of the singers perform a jazz song with piano accompaniment, and instructed them how to communicate with Glover to set up the performance.
As each selection was sung, the jazz great whose career has spanned nearly 80 years, offered advice tailored to each performer. For some, it was to learn the original material better. For others, it was to rearrange the instrumentation and rework parts of the song. And for many, it was to adjust the key to better fit the singer’s vocal range and to fit the feeling of the song.
For the two songs selected by Louis Riel music teacher and jazz singer Glennis Houston, Jordan suggested a pitch a step down. That didn’t come as a surprise to Houston.
“We play around with keys a lot. Sometimes, when we’re doing that on our own in our own studios, it depends on any given day.”
All of this advice was offered by Jordan on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
“Take whatever you want from me. And if you don’t like it, give it back and I’ll give it to someone else,” Jordan said to laughter.
“When I teach, I have a feeling that if I can give any of the young singers encouragement to keep doing the music (jazz), it will stay alive.”
“I’ve got a lot of great satisfaction from teaching,” Jordan said before the workshop. “I get the same kind of thrill teaching.”
The musicians that Jordan has connected with, starting in the 1950s in New York City, reads like a first-ballot list for the Mount Rushmore of jazz: Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus, Billie Holliday and more.
“I’m very grateful. I’ll be 90 in November. I started doing this music when I was 14. Not professionally, don’t get me wrong, but I was turned on to it when I was a kid,” Jordan said of her roots in song.
“I sang out of the need to sing. Not because I wanted to be anything, except I was growing up in very hard times: poverty-stricken, a lot of alcoholism in my family, a lot of unhappiness, and the only way I felt free from all of that was singing.”
Wednesday night was the third time Jordan had been in Calgary since 2005. As the evening wore on, the participants got much more comfortable in their performances in front of Jordan and each other, with more raucous laughter and applause after each song.
“I also had my friends here,” Henry says, “so I was probably way more comfortable than if it was just me and her one-on-one, just because I have my friends for support.”
Organizer and blues/jazz singer Elsie Osborne has been developing a friendship with Jordan since the late 1990s, and credits that friendship for Jordan’s continued support and tutelage of the small group of Calgary singers.
“She came because her friends asked her to. We can’t pay her what she’s worth,” Osborne said after the workshop. “Her dedication to supporting other singers and supporting the music is much stronger for her than the money.”
At the start of the evening, Jordan encouraged every singer to work at their craft, saying, “Don’t give up. As I said, you might have to support the music until it can support you.”
Osborne says working with enthusiastic students reassures her of the future of the century-plus-old art form.
Sheila Jordan plays the Lantern Church, 1401 10th Ave S.E. on Thursday night, with Andrew Glover on piano. Jordan will also be playing at the Edmonton Jazz Festival June 28 with bass player Cameron Brown.