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Sheila Jordan on Teaching the Jazz Vocal Workshop at City College for 27 Years

Esteemed jazz vocalist and teacher Sheila Jordan taught the weekly Jazz Vocal Workshop at CCNY from 1978-2006, guiding and inspiring many singers throughout the years, some of whom have gone on to have successful careers. I had the chance to talk with Sheila about how the class got started, her teaching philosophy and how teaching this class gave her the confidence to teach workshops worldwide.

Suzanne Pittson: Can you tell me how you got started teaching the Jazz Vocal Workshop at CCNY?

Sheila Jordan: In 1977 or 1978, Ed Summerlin, the founder of the jazz program at City, invited me to do a concert at the University with my trio, with Johnny Knapp on piano. Eddie was a dear friend, and was always in my corner. At that time, John Lewis was also on the faculty and Janet Steele and Constantine “Dino” Cassolas were the classical voice professors.

SP: So you were friends with Ed and he knew your work?

SJ: Yes, I was very good friends with Ed, and John, of course I knew for years….from the Bird days. I still had an office job, but was singing a couple of nights a week in the Village. So I did this concert and was just going to say thank you and goodbye, and talk to Eddie for a minute. But then after everyone had left, Janet, John, Ed, and Dino came over, and Janet said “we need somebody like you up here to do a jazz vocal class. Have you ever thought about teaching a class on vocal jazz?” and Ed and John both said “that would be fantastic.”

So when Janet said this to me, I said “I don’t have a degree in music; are you kidding me? I don’t know how to teach.” I thought to myself, I would never make a good teacher, because I don’t have the credentials, and I would feel like a phony. First of all, I don’t play piano, and I’m not a great reader, and I had all these other reasons why I couldn’t do it. And Ed and John said almost simultaneously, “teach what you do. Teach how you sing, how you approach your singing.” And I said “really,” and Janet said “yes, we need somebody like you up here.” I felt very insecure about this, but I agreed to try it. I didn’t know if it would be successful, but I told them that if it wasn’t, then you fire me. I kind of made a joke out of it.

So the Jazz Vocal Workshop class started in 1978, and it was, in all probability the first, or one of the first jazz vocal classes to take place in a University. I always said from that point on, that they were the ones that got me into teaching. So I taught what I knew: I taught repertoire, how to count off a tune, intros and endings, arpeggios, to think about how to do the tunes. Back then I said you don’t have to be a scat singer to be a jazz singer and the prime example of that is Billie Holiday. And I talked about the scat virus and suggested that the antibiotic or the medicine for that is to learn bebop heads and solos, and listen to Bird. Because if you sing along with Bird tunes and solos and learn those lines, then there’s no room for shoo-bee-doo-bee-doo’s!!! The singers were very open, but I knew that it was important that they feel secure. I remember my own time before I really got out there and started working all over the world, and how important lead sheets were. I’m not talking arrangements, I’m talking good lead sheets with melody, lyrics and chords. I told them that with good lead sheets in their keys, they can perform all over the world. That is basically what I taught. I also taught them that it’s very important to learn the original melody of a tune and not to learn a tune from a singer who has recorded it because then you’re going to learn it the way they did it, and in all probability will never learn the original melody. And please don’t learn it from me, or you’ll really be stuck!! So I taught these sort of things. But to tell you the truth, I learned as I went along. I learned to teach from teaching, and I never in my life thought it would be successful. I thought, if this lasts for one semester it will be amazing. I think I taught one afternoon a week, and before I knew it, it worked up to two afternoons which was great, because at that time this was the only class for the jazz singers who were not yet part of the jazz program.

Then the school began letting me invite visiting artists and I remember having Johnny Hartman one time. Various jazz singers of the time would come up and do a masterclass.

Johnny Knapp was my original accompanist, and when he moved, I began using Reggie Moore. While Ray Gallon was in the last year of the BFA Jazz Performance degree, he asked if he could do some accompanying. So he would sit and watch Reggie then play occasionally. This was helpful as Ray would often work with some singers in another room, getting keys, etc., while I listened to the other singers perform. Ray then earned an MA in jazz performance and became faculty, while also serving as the accompanist for the jazz vocal workshop for 20 years, until I left in 2006. This is why Ray has become such a wonderful accompanist.

At one point during those years, there was a student who had a beautiful voice but was very uncomfortable about her appearance. She came to me a few days before the student concert and said she couldn’t perform because of this insecurity. And I said, let me tell you something…you have to get over that and get out there and sing. If you turn your back on this right now, then you’ll never do it. I want you to really think about it. And she did sing at the concert, and came up to me several years later, and the physical problem had all cleared up. And she thanked me for pushing her that day because it started her on a whole new path. This was beautiful. So it was things like that that I taught. I’m not saying this to brag – but what I couldn’t teach technically, I taught them in these kinds of life experiences. Vocalist Theo Bleckman graduated from the BFA Jazz Vocal Program at CCNY, and he was once asked how I teach and he said “Sheila teaches from her heart.” I always remember him saying that and thought that was so sweet.

SP: People need encouragement. At the crucial moment that fear comes up, and they really need someone to say “you can do it.”

SJ: Yes. The way I taught was about things that I had problems with. In other words, if I went somewhere and I didn’t have a lead sheet or know what key I sang in, then I would suffer. Then I would find out that I had to learn what key I sang in, to find a comfortable key, and don’t make it too weird!!

I also worked on performance skills. Just naturally, nothing staged. These are all things that I learned, and I taught what I knew. I learned it the hard way, and I shared my experiences with the students.

One thing I would discuss is how important it is to learn the original melody and that the melody notes are the stepping stones to improvisation; that was an expression that I made up a long time ago. I learned that the hard way. I’d get out there and thought I knew the tune and I didn’t, and had to go back to the drawing board. When you’re improvising, and then you think “how did I get here” and suddenly you’re knocked out of this reverie you’ve got going on and you’re high from it, and then if the melody comes back, you can’t get lost. That’s what I would always try to tell them.

SP: So you impressed upon them that it’s important to have the melody as an anchor.

SJ: Yes, these are all things that I learned through teaching. They’re not in books, it’s just from experience.

SP: You taught this class from 1978 until 2006. How did it evolve during those 27 years?

SJ: As I mentioned, it started as one afternoon a week and eventually became two afternoons, and then suddenly it was clear that something was going on here. Janet Steele worked with all the singers on vocal technique, and in the beginning, most of the singers did not have experience singing jazz. Eventually, the BFA jazz vocal program was created and they learned to write lead sheets and transcribe music. But in the early years, they were definitely on the side and this was their only jazz class.

Occasionally I had to take off because of touring. In those times I got Jay Clayton, Mark Murphy, Marion Cowings and others to sub for me.

Sometimes I had students that weren’t really into it, and I helped them get into it by showing them the correct path to be on if this is what they really wanted to do. I would tell them that “you might have to support this music until it supports you. And it might never support you. As long as you don’t lose your dedication to it.” I always worked a day job, and only started singing full-time at the age of 58. And that only happened because I got laid off from my job after 21 years. I was initially distraught over losing my job, but then this little voice inside me said “you’ve been complaining about not being able to sing full-time for a long time, so they’re giving you a year’s severence so take the money and run – go sing and shut up.” These are the kinds of things that I talk about with the students, from my own experience, as John Lewis, Ed Summerlin had told me at the beginning – teach what you know. They empowered me from the start and gave me the courage to do this. I thought initially that they must think that I have a degree in music, and if I don’t tell them up front then they’ll find out. That was the fear that I had. So I wanted to be very honest about this, in case there was a misunderstanding. But they encouraged me to teach what I know, teach what I do.

SP: That was good advice. Did you ever run into John Lewis at school?

SJ: Oh yes. I was close to John, because he worked with Bird. I wrote some lyrics to “Afternoon in Paris” and I sang them for him after a concert one time – and he said “I don’t like your lyrics but I like your singing, your feeling, your sound.” That was probably in the early ’50s, some 25 years before I came to City.

SP: Did Ron Carter ever attend your Jazz Vocal Workshop performances during the 18 years he was a Distinguished Professor at City?

SJ: He came to hear one of the student concerts, probably to evaluate the class. He came over to me afterwards and said something like “are you teaching them how to talk down a tune?” and of course I said that this is what I teach them to do. Whatever he said was very constructive.

SP: Clearly Ed Summerlin and the CCNY faculty had a vision, which is to be commended. Not only did Ed start the BFA Jazz Program, but he, Janet Steele and John Lewis envisioned a jazz vocal workshop with you as its teacher.

SJ: In all probability, this was the first jazz vocal workshop. They were the beginners. They saw the vision of this taking off: a school that featured a vocal jazz department.
CCNY allowed me to do something very rare at the time. Everyone was in my corner. They all looked out for me.

SP: The City College of New York continues to have a huge vision for the future. And by teaching the Jazz Vocal Workshop, despite your initial trepidation, you developed skill, compassion and experience that has postively impacted the lives of hundreds of students worldwide.

SJ: I believe that I was selected to received the NEA award in 2012 because of my many years of teaching, not just my singing. That’s why I thank City College.