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LYNN NEARY, host:

And from a nonagenarian, we turn to an octogenarian who is still signing her heart out. Sheila Jordan has one of the most distinctive voices in jazz. Her way of bringing out the meaning of a lyric through unexpected phrasing and timing, and her dynamic scatting earned her a spot as one of the few vocalists to be signed to the storied Blue Note label. Sheila Jordan has a new album out and Lara Pellegrinelli has this profile.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Sheila Jordan loves nothing better than singing for her fans.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Happy birthday to you…

PELLEGRINELLI: But on an evening late last year, it was their turn to sing for her.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Happy birthday, dear Sheila…

Ms. SHEILA JORDAN (Singer): Oh my god.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

Ms. JORDAN: Are you kidding?

(Soundbite of applause)

PELLEGRINELLI: The party took place in the middle of one of Jordan's frequent gigs. Well-wishers like singer Carol Fredette crowded around the octogenarian.

Ms. CAROL FREDETTE (Singer): You've never sounded better. It's amazing to me - better every time. The older you get the better you sound.

PELLEGRINELLI: Jordan is modest in the face of such compliments - some as sugary as the frosting on the cake they wield out. She knows her voice has changed over the years.

Ms. JORDAN: My upper range is not as flexible as it used to be. A lot of reviewers that have reviewed stuff, that's the first thing they say that I don't have the voice that I used to have. And I have to laugh because I never thought I had a voice to begin with. But do I feel what I sing? Absolutely man, it's part of my life.

(Soundbite of song, "Lucky To Be Me")

Ms. JORDAN: (Singing) What a day, fortune smiled and came my way. Bringing joy I never thought I'd see. Oh, I'm lucky to be me.

PELLEGRINELLI: Like so many legendary jazz singers, from Billie Holiday to Betty Carter, Jordan's voice has always been unique. It caught the ear of noted composer and bandleader George Russell at a club in a village in the early 1960s.

Ms. JORDAN: He introduced himself to me and he said, where do you come from to sing like that? And I said I grew up in the coal mining area near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a little town called Scoopy Town. And he said, could you take me back there? And I said, yeah.

PELLEGRINELLI: She took Russell to meet her grandmother, who'd raised her in a house with no heat, no hot water and electricity only on the rare occasion they could afford it. The three went out to a local beer hall and one of the coal miners asked if Jordan and Russell would perform "You Are My Sunshine."

(Soundbite of song, "You Are My Sunshine")

Ms. JORDAN: (Singing) You are my sunshine…

PELLEGRINELLI: It was the kind of song she sang as a kid at local talent shows, back when they knew her as little Jeannie Dawson.

Ms. JORDAN: So I started singing it, and he was playing and my grandmother said, that's not the way it goes. So she pushed him off the bench, and she sat down, and she played it and I continued to sing it. And two weeks later, George said to me, boy, your grandmother sounded like Thelonious Monk when she played.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PELLEGRINELLI: When they got back to New York, Russell wanted to raise awareness about the plight of the impoverished miners. He recorded an arrangement of the song dedicated to them, featuring Jordan.

(Soundbite of song, "You Are My Sunshine")

Ms. JORDAN: (Singing) The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamed you held me in your arms.

PELLEGRINELLI: Sheila Jordan wanted to sing jazz from the moment she heard Charlie Parker on a jukebox in high school. She'd gone to live with her mother in Detroit and met the bebop legend in the alley behind a club, where under-aged fans were exiled. She later married Parker's pianist, Duke Jordan. And they had a daughter, Traci. But the pianist was addicted to heroin and abandoned his family. Sheila Jordan got a job as a secretary and struggled to keep music in her life.

Ms. JORDAN: You find a way because the music is very important. That's how I survived, knowing that once or twice a week I'd get a sitter for Traci, and I'd go and sing in this club, and then I'd get up the next morning and go do my day gig.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JORDAN: (Singing) Send $20 to me so that I can be free to sing. How birds eat their fruit from the tree…

PELLEGRINELLI: Jordan had to face her own addictions to alcohol and cocaine. But she's the kind of person who attracts a community of supporters.

Mr. STEVE KUHN (Pianist): She's my big sister, the sister I never had. We're very, very close. And I'm glad she's in my life.

PELLEGRINELLI: Pianist Steve Kuhn was still in his 20s when he began performing with Jordan nearly 50 years ago. He's worked in ensembles ranging from duos to string quartets to full orchestras. But she's just about the only singer he's played with — for a reason.

Mr. KUHN: The main thing is the feeling, and that comes across no matter what she does. In terms of instruments, maybe her instrument — her voice — is not as great as some. It doesn't really matter. She opens, she sings one note and you know it's Sheila. Unfortunately there are very, very, very few singers left now who are really unique. And she's one of the last ones.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JORDAN: Oh, my darlings, I'm so happy you're here. I'm happy I'm here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JORDAN: Happy I'm still alive. You never know. (Scatting)

PELLEGRINELLI: Even at 80, Sheila Jordan's touring calendar keeps her on the road over 100 days a year, despite a heart ailment. And she's quick to answer when asked if she ever plans to retire.

Ms. JORDAN: Yeah, when I die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JORDAN: No, I couldn't. What would I do?

PELLEGRINELLI: Play golf.

Ms. JORDAN: Yeah, right. No, I don't want to do any of that. I just want to keep singing and teaching as long as I can.

PELLEGRINELLI: Lucky for her fans and the hundreds of students she's taught, there's only one kind of club Sheila Jordan will be swinging.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms: JORDAN: (Singing) I've had a love of my own. I've had a love of my own (unintelligible). I've had to love a lot. Oh, maybe…

NEARY: You can hear music by Sheila Jordan and a five-hour stream of Pete Seeger songs at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen is back next week. I'm Lynn Neary.

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