Mothers in Jazz

Mothers In Jazz (27): Sheila Jordan

“My mum was the best mum in the world,” says Tracey Jordan of her mother, Sheila Jordan. Sheila is a vocalist and one of the most revered and adored voices and figures in jazz. At the age of 94, she is still recording albums and was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2012. Nicky Schrire interviews both Sheila Jordan and Tracey for this special edition in the “Mothers In Jazz” series.

Sheila was raised in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country and by the time she was in her early teens was working semi-professionally in Detroit clubs. A Charlie Parker devotee, she moved to New York in the 1950s, going on to marry Parker’s pianist, Duke Jordan. Her debut album, 1963’s “Portrait of Sheila” on Blue Note Records, saw her pioneer a bebop-inflected approach to singing, often accompanied only by solo bass. Following the release of that album, however, Sheila retreated from the scene to concentrate on raising her daughter, working as a typist for the next two decades and not recording as a leader again for more than a dozen years. Sheila lives in New York, a couple blocks away from her daughter Tracey, who is a Senior Director in Talent and Music Relations at Sirius XM Radio.

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Sheila and Tracey Jordan. Photo courtesy of Tracey Jordan

LondonJazz News: What information or advice about motherhood and jazz work do you wish you’d received but didn’t (and had to learn through trial and error or on-the-go)?

Sheila Jordan: I didn’t receive any advice.

LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:

SJ: I don’t think because we’re a mother and we have a child that we should give up our art, something that we love and believe in. And I don’t think a child would want you to do that. Mine didn’t. Do them both. You find the time. You can find a way.

LJN: Tracey, given that you were raised by an artistic parent who juggled both motherhood and her career, how did this impact you and your life?

Tracey Jordan: My mum was the best mum in the world. Growing up in the environment that I was raised in exposed me to art, music, and a lot of her great artistic friends. It gave me a wealth of knowledge on the arts-how to look at a painting, how to listen to a song, how to listen to lyrics. So I was very fortunate in that way.

I’ll also say that watching my mother and hearing the tales of my father, I knew that I did not want to be an artist. I’d rather be on the other end of the spectrum.

LJN: Tracey, as a music manager, is there specific advice you’d pass on if a musician client asked you for advice on having a family while pursuing a music career?

TJ: Have a close-knit family around you, even if they’re not blood relations. Artists go out on the road and out on tour and they need people that they know and trust to watch out for their kids. It takes a village to raise a child and in the artistic community, that’s so true because it’s a very close knit, family-like environment.

LJN: Best general travel/gigging/tour-with-child advice:

SJ: I traveled with Tracey once in a while. I took her to London with me. I took her to Germany with me. I took her to Italy. All when she was quite young.

Be natural, as if you’re at home. I didn’t keep any sort of routine aside from things like making sure she ate on time and she got enough sleep. Tracey didn’t always go out with me. I also had a babysitter that took care of her.

TJ: A lot of times, as a kid growing up, I would stay with Jackie McLean’s family when my mum went on the road. When Jackie and Dollie went out on the road, Melonae would stay with us. We had many family friends like that-other jazz musicians who we were raised by.

LJN: I think the combination of parenthood and career often results in inevitably feeling torn and therefore guilty. Even if the guilt isn’t warranted nor rational, it rears its head without warning. Did you ever feel guilty for any of the decisions you made surrounding your career and being a mum?

SJ: I never felt guilty for leaving Tracey at home or taking her with me. It was something I had to do. I had to sing but I also knew that I had to raise this child. I didn’t think much about it. It was just part of my life.

LJN: What are your thoughts on becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions?

SJ: When I had my child I knew that I wanted to be a good mother-as good as I could be. Music has been part of my life since I was 14. It’s been jazz, thanks to Charlie Parker. It’s what I live for. I also live for my daughter. You’ll find a way to support both.

Sheila’s latest album “Live At Mezzrow” was recorded at New York’s Mezzrow club with bandmates Alan Broadbent (piano) and Harvie S (bass). It was released on Cellar Live in July 2022.(LINK)

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