Tucked away in a basement bar in San Francisco, a crowd watches Aspen Jordan, silent and still, perched on a barstool on a stage near enough to the audience that they can touch its edge. Then the swish of a cymbal and the plunk of an upright bass vibrate through the room. Jordan adds her voice to the mix, and the crowd becomes transfixed. Her tones are effortlessly silky, classically entrancing, as she sings “The Masquerade Is Over.” The song, written in 1938, was made popular by jazz greats like Etta James and Nancy Wilson. Now Jordan, in her early 30s, is putting her own mark on it.
By day, Jordan worked an office job in San Francisco to pay the bills. By night, she was living her career as a jazz singer and songwriter. Job and career, she explains, are two different things.
Musical “mentors”: Etta James, Princess Jasmine, and Betty Rizzo
Before she starts work in the morning, Jordan makes coffee and slips on her headphones. She has to get this listening time in before she goes to the office. “I can’t listen to music in the background [at work],” she says. “I get too distracted. I always listen too intently to the lyrics. Lyrics are the thing that makes music important to me. There is so much thought and care that goes into the precision of lyrics in jazz music that isn’t necessarily there in other genres.”
What’s on the playlist? Etta James, Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington … they’ve shaped the history of jazz; they’re Jordan’s musical “mentors;” and they all reach out to her through the headphones.
But her earliest inspirations were animated singers, like Princess Jasmine from “Aladdin” and Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog.” “I know every Disney princess song by heart,” Jordan says. “My mom was a singer, and we were always singing together.” A favorite memory: mother-daughter singalongs while driving around her hometown of Seattle.
From those childhood days, Jordan knew she wanted to be a singer, but she didn’t start with jazz right away. She began her vocal career by performing in musical theater productions with Broadway Bound, a children’s theater in Seattle. Some of her favorite roles were Betty Rizzo in “Grease” and Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls.”
But jazz had a growing appeal to Jordan as she got older — and lived through more gray and rainy Seattle days. She was drawn to the aesthetic, the look, the feel, and the emotion of it, along with the history and the other female musicians that paved the way. She first sang jazz at age 13 with her middle school jazz band, and she went on to join her high school jazz choir at Garfield High School, where heads started to turn as she sang. Thoughts of being the next Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, or any other pop music diva disappeared — she was stuck on jazz. “When people have an emotional response to your music,” she says, “it makes it hard to stop.”