AMHERST, Mass. – Legendary jazz singer Sheila Jordan, a longtime faculty member at the UMass Jazz in July Summer Music Programs, will be awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree during Undergraduate Commencement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Friday, May 12 at 4:30 p.m. in McGuirk Alumni Stadium.
Conor James O’Kelly, a communication major with an English minor from Ipswich, will give the student commencement address at the ceremony, where 5,500 graduates will receive bachelor’s degrees. After graduation, O’Kelly plans to pursue a career in the entertainment industry with a focus on writing and producing films and television programs. During his four years at UMass Amherst, O’Kelly says he is most proud of serving as a resident assistant and obtaining his commercial driver’s license and becoming a bus driver with UMass Transit Services.
Born Sheila Jeanette Dawson in Detroit in 1928, Jordan continues to perform, write songs and teach at the age of 88. Raised in poverty in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country, Jordan began singing as a child, and by the time she was in her early teens, was working semi-professionally in Detroit clubs. Her first great influence was Charlie Parker. Working chiefly with black musicians, she was met with disapproval from the white community but persisted with her career. She was a member of a vocal trio, Skeeter, Mitch and Jean, who sang versions of Parker’s solos.
After moving to New York in the early 1950s, she married Parker’s pianist, Duke Jordan, and studied with Lennie Tristano, but it was not until the early ’60s that she made her first recordings, one under her own name and “The Outer View” with George Russell, which featured a famous 10-minute version of “You Are My Sunshine.”
In the mid-1960s her work encompassed jazz liturgies sung in churches and extensive club work, but her appeal was narrow even within the confines of jazz. By the late 1970s, jazz audiences had begun to understand her uncompromising style a little more and her popularity increased — as did her appearances on records, which included albums with pianist Steve Kuhn, whose quartet she joined, and the album “Home,” comprising a selection of Robert Creeley’s poems set to music and arranged by Steve Swallow.
“Old Time Feeling,” a 1983 duo set with bassist Harvie S, comprises several of the standards Jordan regularly features in her live repertoire, while her later recording, “Lost And Found,” pays tribute to her bebop roots. Both sets display her unique musical trademarks, such as the frequent and unexpected sweeping changes of pitch, which still tend to confound an uninitiated audience. Her preference to the bass and voice set led to a remarkable collaboration with bassist Cameron Brown, with whom she has been performing all over the world for more than 10 years.
Jordan taught at City College in New York from 1978 to 2005 and was awarded the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Jordan, who has been affiliated with the UMass Jazz in July Summer Music Programs for more than 25 years, has also taught at the Vermont Jazz Center and overseas. She received the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award in 2008, and the National Endowment for the Arts honored her in 2012 with its Jazz Masters Award, which recognizes lifetime achievement.