Free jazz remains a rather difficult entity — containing within it improvisation, bebop vocal stylings and technical proficiency, it exists, to most people, as a perplexing thing. Most minds listen to music in an even, comforting cadence that sounds smooth and goes down easy. Anything else tends to sound dissonant or ridiculous by comparison. Then again, no one ever said jazz was supposed to be anything even remotely approaching “easy.” Case in point: Sheila Jordan, a jazz singer who has, for the past 65 years, taken her voice to the outer reaches of challenging musicality.
A breathy, serene contralto falling somewhere between the voices of Billie Holiday and Barbra Streisand, Jordan approaches her seventh decade pursuing the art of jazz singing, with a voice workshop accompanied by Ventura vocalist and educator Ellen Johnson. They collaborated on Johnson’s 2007 album These Days on her own jazz imprint Vocal Visions, and the workshop is a showcase of sorts for her tireless work with jazz musicians — chiefly singers — via her Sound Creativity for Creativity Coaching and Expressive Arts Discovery Workshops, for which Jordan appears and lectures presently. The workshop dovetails nicely into anticipation of Jordan’s forthcoming memoirs of her life and work with such luminaries as bop double bassist Charles Mingus, jazz singer Kurt Elling and saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Jordan’s debut, the 1962 Blue Note album Portrait of Sheila, ranks among singular jazz minds as a prized possession that has aged gracefully as the years wear on. The clarity of tone, the notes pulled from beyond time like the ectoplasm of living nostalgia, the humble diva — if such a thing is at all possible — they’re all there, visiting Ventura from on high in perhaps the most out-there symposium since Ian MacKaye of Fugazi appeared at the E.P. Foster Library in Ventura.
Occasionally, artistic visions visit Ventura — and the city is that much more improved because of them. Yet like moonbows and sundogs, one need become slightly more aware than usual, lest the magic disappear over yonder horizon to parts unknown. Besides, how many people can you say you’ve met who played with Charlie Parker?
They’re a breed so few and far-between these days as to be mythological by their very presence. As for presence, Jordan’s vocal bona fides reach all the way back to her start in the ’50s, singing in Greenwich Village, touring with trombonist Roswell Rudd in the ’70s, and forming the voice-bass duet with jazzer Harvie S. — something that would become the heartbeat to her singing and a dynamic that was emblematic of most of her career.
As if all that wasn’t life enough, just as her star was on the ascent after her Blue Note LP, she withdrew for the better part of a decade to raise a daughter, working as a secretary. This nurturing in turn blossomed into another direction: teaching. Her courses in singing — and all the freedom that that implies — helped found the jazz vocal program at City College of New York, and she pursued other teaching jobs at such diverse places as the University
of Massachusetts, Stanford University and the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Graz, Austria. And even though jazz is not at the top of today’s mainstream hit parade, that doesn’t mean that when you hear that voice — soft and vivid, cutting through the clutter — there isn’t an immediate response, a connection so definitive as to be life-changing. Is this something that can be taught in a few hours at a workshop? It is unclear, but Sheila Jordan will try her damnedest to communicate what is, ironically enough, the essence of that elusive bird known as jazz.
The jazz vocal workshop will be held at a private location in Ventura, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2 p.m. For information and workshop registration, call 272-8125 or visit www.vocalvisions.net.