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Sheila Jordan: A Masterful Performance at the Green Mill!

by Patrick Romanowski

Photo by Jeremy Damato

Sheila Jordan took to the stage on Friday night to a packed room at the Green Mill, accompanied by pianist Alan Broadbent and bassist Harvey S. The trio delivered an impeccable night of outstandingly joyful music and searing, merciless wit.

At 95, Jordan is a sharp, radiant candlelight at play. She is anchored by a divine humor, improvisational excellence and an immortal pithy hipness. Her strength and toughness of spirit are a marvel to behold and her presence on stage is as prophetic as it is a blessing.

Jordan sized up the room at the Mill and bolted it down.

“Hey, listen man, at my age it's a miracle I can even walk on stage!”

The audience laughed and smiled with a deep appreciation and reverence.

“You know I’ve been doing this music since I was 14 years old. I’ve been singing since I was 3.”

Jordan’s illustrious career boasts the better part of nearly a century and her story is interwoven with many of the heavy weights of jazz. Her 1963 Blue Note debut, Portrait of Sheila, marked her entrance as a major jazz voice on the scene, and as one of the first singers to record a vocal jazz album for Blue Note. Her early years as a singer also led to meeting and sitting in with Charlie Parker --a dear friendship that continues to be a deeply abiding and lifetime inspiration in her approach to the music.

“Anyway, we’re glad to be here. We’re from New York all of us--I mean all of us on stage.” She added nonchalantly with a laugh.

Photo by Jeremy Damato

Leaning on a post near the stage, she closed her eyes and felt the pulse of the tempo. The audience sat silent. They dipped into her classic rendition of Oscar Brown Jr's, “Hum Drum Blues,” a slick and sauntering cut from Portrait of Sheila. A water color vision of Greenwich Village in its heyday haunts the lyric like a gaunt, staggering portrait.

“Stumblin’ along with the hum-drum blues.”

Jordan sang between the lines as she reordered the melodies with dexterity and sheer delight. All the while smiling like champagne and giving a light chuckle.

Jordan is a high priestess of hip, a stylist of cool, and a flagship of the era. She is the epitome of a living legend. The genius of her poetics and the simple imagery of her improvisations are displays of total mastery. The prosody distilled down to fundamentals, she takes flight in melody and swings the head of the tune with her distinct mark of originality and stunning vibrancy.

Photo by Jeremy Damato

The crowd was as ranging and eclectic as it often is on any given night at the Mill. Young and old fixated on the stage. She called a meditative and dream-like take on Cole Porter's “I Concentrate On You,” It was hypnotic.

They did an excellent rendition of the Irving Berlin songbook standard, “How Deep Is The Ocean?” She introduced it with an improvised lyrical riff, a rhyming satire retelling her fear of swimming, the result of some early terror. The lines were perfectly stark and inflected with a strong dose of fantastically hip stoicism. One imagines it would have had Dorothy Parker kicking the floor after a few martinis.

“If I learn how to swim at my age, I’ll come back to the Green Mill and let you know.” She said laughing.

A sacred moment of the set was as a deep version of the Kenny Dorham composition, “Fair Weather.”

“I try to keep Kenny Dorham’s name alive, or K.D. as I call him.” She announced as they took up the ballad.

Photo by Jeremy Damato

“Peace on earth and good will to all who make it divine, and so real. Plant seeds of good deeds, like the trees, and of course some love will grow,” She sang.

Broadbent and Harvey S. took over as a duet for a few tunes as Jordan took five to sit and glance over some pieces of sheet music. Her eyes gleamed in the booth. She is at home snug in a nightclub nearest the stage, at ease and natural as with any other familiar place in the world.

As she returned to the stage, they jumped in on “Workshop Blues.” Although the room was enforcing the “Jordan Rules,” meaning absolutely no talking whatsoever during the performance, a Friday night at the mill still lends itself to a real atmosphere, as in sometimes anything can happen and people are bound for idiocy. A goon in the crowd hollered out something flippant across the room. Jordan caught it and quipped back in tune, “Hey, take care of this guy. Why did you come to hear the music? What were you expecting? If it's the kind of music you dig, you pig!” The audience roared and it landed on the guys head like a bowl of cherries. The band clipped right along with "Workshop Blues," not missing a beat and closing out the set on a high.

Photo by Jeremy Damato

In the open air of a nightclub Jordan spares no barb or dagger of her razor sharp wit. The whole scene was an awesome and shattering blast of improvisation.

It is an honor and a gift to witness Jordan work her craft. To experience a note from a voice that stretches as far back as the origin of the lyric itself is a kind of transport of time travel. It is a vehicle of a time and beauty all drawn in unison to the present moment, ageless and magnificently powerful. May we all hope and strive to be so youthful upon arriving at such a distance and still be able to sing so truly.

“We're not here forever,” She smiled, facing the room. That’s a truth as eternal as a note itself.

ABOUT Patrick Romanowski

Patrick Romanowski is a writer living in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to the Evanston Roundtable. He works 9-5 at a hip record shop in Wicker Park and on Sundays he tends bar at a joint in Uptown. In his spare time he enjoys coffee, riding the CTA, and roaming around the city.


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