By Barbara Wilkins
December 22, 1975 12:00 PM

Among aficionados of jazz, Roberta Flack, Ella Fitzgerald and Cleo Laine have been surprisingly supplanted the last couple of years. In four different rankings of female jazz singers, including the prestigious down beat readers’ poll, 33-year-old Brazilian Flora Purim wound up No. 1. What made it even more surprising was that since August 1974, Flora has also borne another number—2775—at Terminal Island, a bleak federal prison south of L.A. where she was sentenced to three years for possession of cocaine. This week, however, Flora is scheduled to walk beyond the cheerless green, barbed-wire-topped walls for the last time—free on special probation which will allow her to resume her career.

Flora’s release will be echoed next month by the issuance of a new LP, tentatively—and fittingly—titled Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly. During her term, Flora was not allowed to record, though some material for the new LP was composed by her in her tiny cell, adorned only by a bed, a mirror on the wall, and a closet covered by a curtain. “Pain serves to make you strong,” she philosophizes now. “This experience in jail was good for me. My singing is ten times stronger because I suffered so much.”

For awhile the guards leaned on her—”Our celebrity,” one would snap sardonically, “is now going to wash the bathrooms.” But since June, Flora’s incarceration has been comparatively cushy. She has been free to leave the grounds after sunrise and be driven, in an air-conditioned, tape-equipped Mercury provided by her record label, to study music at nearby California State College at Long Beach. Flora has also been allowed overnight visits with her husband, Airto Moreira, himself down beat’s No. 1 percussionist for the past two years, and their daughter, Diana, 3. Earlier in Purim’s term, Airto and Diana relocated to a nearby hotel, and then to a seaside, three-bedroom house in Long Beach.

Flora was busted in Manhattan in 1971 when she was picking up a guitar lent to a friend. He had eight ounces of “coke,” she had only one, but the narcs “saw me, the Brazilian, and thought I was his connection.” Flora still insists that it was a rotten rap, though she admits, “I was using cocaine, marijuana, mescaline and all kinds of acids and pills. The drug scene was really happening, and I took LSD with very highly intelligent people who experimented with it with doctors.”

Released days later on $25,000 bail, Flora quickly decided that was that for drugs. At the time, she was with the popular Return to Forever jazz-rock band of Chick Corea, and he invited her to his self-help Scientology group. “At a meeting they told me I could get high on my own creative sources. But they said I had to get off everything to clean out my system. The first two weeks were horrible nightmares because I was used to living on speed. But by the third week I started to feel better.”

Her legal defense dragged on for nearly three years—and $11,000. Shortly after she and Airto had formed their own group, Fingers, and her remarkable second solo LP, Stories to Tell, was released, she gave up and entered the slammer. Four months later she won her first major poll. “I didn’t believe it. I thought I was dreaming,” she recalls, tears in her eyes from the humiliations suffered en route. Fans sent 10,000 letters, and she was eventually allowed to have her guitar with her. Last March on her birthday, joined by Airto and the late Cannonball Adderley, she became the first inmate ever to perform at Terminal Island in two moving concerts.

Unlike other U.S. jazz artists, privation was new to Flora, whose Jewish father emigrated to Brazil from Rumania and ran two furniture stores in Rio. Raised to the Ipanema sweet life among Rio’s upper-middle class, Flora was, by her teens, an accomplished guitarist and singer. Though a recording and TV star in the native idiom, she was influenced in her mentholated, smokey sound by Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, and so she and Airto decided to try to make it in America in 1967. (They had long lived together but didn’t marry until 1972, when Flora was six months pregnant with Diana. A child from a previous marriage lives in Brazil.)

“I decided I wanted to come here and sing jazz,” Purim says, knowing it was a crazy ambition, because she was foreign and Caucasian. Also, she realized, “My voice is a contralto to soprano which doesn’t go with the blues.” For the first four or five months, they didn’t have work permits, and, she says, nearly starved. Then came triumph—and disaster. “I lost so much time,” Flora observes, “and I’m feeling a lot of pressure. People are expecting a lot from me. But I’m not afraid because now I know where it’s at.”