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Words of Wisdom from Jazz Legend Sheila Jordan

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I attended a wonderful workshop yesterday, featuring jazz legend Sheila Jordan, and organized by TMV member and dedicated jazz singer/teacher Ellen Johnson.

Now in her 80s, Sheila still tours and teaches with sharp mind and musicianship, and a very kind encouraging manner. Although sprinkled with anecdotes about Parker, Miles Davis and Coltrane, it really was a work session emphasizing respect for the music and the importance of doing one's homework: know your song's key, rhythm and beginning and ending before attending a jam. According to Sheila, the difference between a respected jazz singer and a disrespected "chick singer" is whether you know what you're doing and can communicate it easily to the band (Yes, all the participants happened to be women.)

The group warm-up was a 12-bar blues "my name is__and today I feel __" round-robin (improv = brilliant!) The following demonstration and critique time brought useful suggestions for everyone. My weakness (as always) was in setting tempo, but I got through the embarrassment of many false starts on the song Round Midnight and then got to try it in a couple different keys.

Sheila then taught everyone a couple of semi-bop numbers and demonstrated how to keep a simple through-line, of scale or melody, in mind while improvising so you don't get lost.


  • Musical literacy and theory are primarily for communication with others. Do you want to visit a culture and have a really meaningful interaction? Learn the language.
  • Even after counting down a tune, stay on beat or straight time for the first measure, to be sure backup players catch your groove.
  • Sheila: "Long before the music started to support me, I supported the music, because I just loved it. Everyone can do that. You keep supporting the music, keep it alive, until it supports you."

This essay was first published February 28, 2010 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


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