When Sheila Jordan answered the telephone call from the National Endowment for the Arts informing her that she had just been named a 2012 NEA Jazz Master — one of the most prestigious of all jazz awards — she first thought that the stranger's voice on the other end of the line was "a telemarketing guy" and just another one of those annoying, time-wasting calls.
"When the phone rang, I put my bag down, ran across the room, picked up the phone and answered the caller's greeting and opening question with, 'Yes, I'm Sheila Jordan, and what do you want!', Jordan says.
"I was in total shock. I couldn't believe it. There are so many great musicians out there, why are they giving it to me? Why me?", Jordan asks by phone from her rural retreat in upstate New York, after another successful tour of Japan.
You can see and hear the obvious answer to Jordan's "Why me?" question when the 83-year-old craftswoman and uncompromising, original vocal stylist performs Saturday at 8 p.m. with the Steve Kuhn Trio at Hartford's Artists Collective.
Although wide recognition has moved at a snail's pace for Jordan over the decades — she was still working full-time at a day job in an ad agency when she was 58 — she just kept plugging away, singing anywhere she could, even early on for $6 a night at an obscure Greenwich Village club.
Inspired as a teenager by the legendary bebop alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, she made her first critically acclaimed splash in 1962 when she sang a wildly inventive version of "You Are My Sunshine" on arranger George Russell's album, "The Outer View" (Riverside). This now canonized rendition was followed up not long after when she became the first singer to record on Blue Note Records with her album, "Portrait of Sheila."
Over the years, Jordan's reputation among critics and connoisseurs has escalated exponentially while her recognition among the general public has never risen proportionately. All of which makes her recent coronation by the NEA a most fitting award.
The crown is a perfect fit for Jordan who has long set the gold standard for bold, inventive vocal improvisation while creating a distinguished discography, splendid showcases for her freewheeling, hornlike improvisations.
Music has always been Jordan's way of expressing her innermost feelings, right from the time the Detroit native was a little kid raised in a dirt-poor coal mining town in Pennsylvania.
"I grew up in a home with two alcoholic grandparents, no indoor toilet, no running water, and electricity was a rare luxury," she recalls of her Dickensian childhood.
At 14, Jordan reunited with her alcoholic, single-parent Mom in Detroit and fell in love with jazz, especially with the revolutionary music of Bird and bebop.
At a time when racism raged in Motown, this jazz-intoxicated, white girl from a blue-collar background egan hanging out with and singing with African-American musicians.
Socializing with blacks led not to just being ostracized by bigoted whites, but to brutal, bloody beatings by white racists on the streets of Detroit, and later, all over again, when she moved to New York City to sing jazz and be near the music of Bird.
Racist nastiness escalated in 1952 when she married the black bebop pianist, Duke Jordan, and the couple threw interracial jazz parties at their loft. It didn't get better after she divorced Duke in 1962, leaving her to struggle as a single-parent raising their bi-racial daughter, Tracey.
Besides fighting racism, Jordan coped with alcohol and drug abuse, eventually defeating these personal demons and staying clean for 28 years now.
Asked how she likes her iconic status as an NEA-endorsed jazz diva, Jordan immediately objects: "I am not a diva, oh, my god, no! That's the last thing in the world I am or would want to be, or would ever call myself.
"I'm just a messenger of the music."
SHEILA JORDAN and the Steve Kuhn Trio perform Saturday, April 28, 8 p.m. at the Artists Collective, 1200 Albany Ave., Hartford. Tickets: $23 advance Collective members, students, seniors and GHAC Let's GO members; $27 advance general; $35 at the door. Jordan conducts a master workshop Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at the Collective. Information: 860-527-3205 and artistscollective.org.