Jack Sheldon: Still Going Strong


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For Jack Sheldon, a beacon for some sixty years on the West Coast jazz scene, 2008 is turning out to be a very good year. At 76, the celebrated trumpet player, vocalist, bandleader and TV personality, is the subject of a new documentary film, while his jazz career continues to accelerate.

He was there when the so-called West Coast Jazz—a cooled-down version of hard bop—was born. He calls himself a "survivor" from the period. "Only a few of us are left. Bud Shank is another," he says. Sheldon and alto saxophonist Shank played together in the early fifties at the Lighthouse, the incubator for the West Coast sound. Along with Sheldon and Shank, the line-up at the time was pianist Claude Williamson, bassist Howard Rumsey and drummer Stan Levey.

Rumsey, now ninety and retired in Orange County, California, started the Lighthouse All-Stars in 1950. Recalling those early days, he says about Sheldon: "Although he was good back then, Jack is playing better today than he ever has." By the way, Rumsey defines the West Coast style "as jazz without vibrato."

Adding emphases to this opinion is the documentary, Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon, produced by Doug McIntyre and Penny Peyser. Released in early 2008, it will play the Newport Beach Film Festival, April 29, 2008. The film stresses Sheldon's dedication to his music.

Two special upcoming appearances will showcase his talent. His quartet, California Cool, will perform at the Orange County Performing Artscenter, April 25-26, 2008, and at the L.A. Jazz Institute's "The Stage Door Swings" event, May 22-25, 2008, featuring classic jazz interpretations of Broadway musicals. Sheldon's participation in Shelly Manne's big band LP, My Fair Lady with the Un-Original Cast (Capitol, 1964), offering jazz takes on music from My Fair Lady, will be recreated. Sheldon and Irene Krall sang on the original; here, Tierney Smith will take the Krall part. The Institute's four-day event will be held at the Four Points Sheraton at LAX airport.

The 76-year-old Sheldon grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and started playing trumpet when he was twelve. He took to the instrument immediately and became proficient enough to play with Gene Brandt's band back in the early forties. Sheldon says, "It was war time, and many musicians had gone off to fight. So Gene gave me a chance when I was thirteen." Soon after the war, Jack went to Southern California. While attending Los Angeles City College, Sheldon played various small clubs. Soon he became part of the Lighthouse group.

Sheldon's biggest influence was Dizzy Gillespie. "After I first came to Los Angeles, Dizzy's band was playing at the Million Dollar Theater," he says. "I waited around the back, and Dizzy used to let me in to hear. He finally gave me a chance to sit in. Which was a big thrill."

His first recording came in 1955 on Jimmy Giuffre's Tangents In Jazz (Capitol), a bold, highly praised LP. Here, Giuffre put together a quartet with himself on tenor sax, Sheldon on trumpet, Ralph Pena on bass and Al Acton on drums. The concept was to play without an overt beat, with bass and drums interplaying with the others as in a classical setting. "It was way ahead of its time," Sheldon says. "Giuffre was a true genius." Listening to the album today, the tracks still sound fresh and, despite "no beat," it certainly swings. It has been reissued on CD by MSI Music Imports.

In 1958-59, Sheldon played with the bands of Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton. "Benny was my mentor. I really respected him. In fact, he even let me sing," he says. "Stan would never do that. He was leery of my ad-libbing before the audience." The big band experience made him decide that traveling on the road was not for him. Sheldon returned to California and hasn't left since.

Sheldon's irrepressible jokester personality made him a natural for TV. In the early sixties, he started with appearances on Steve Allen's nightly show, which featured lots of jazz. Here, Sheldon's comedic personality was recognized, and he was given his own TV show, Run Buddy, Run in 1966. Most memorable was his following 18-year stint with the Merv Griffin Show, trading quips with the host and acting as musical director.

During this busy period, Sheldon never stopped playing jazz at local clubs, making a long list of recordings under his own name and in collaboration with other jazz greats. Sometimes overlooked as a vocalist, he has an inimitable voice; casual, with impeccable jazz phrasing and an irresistible way of bending notes. Some compare his style to Frank Sinatra. Indeed, Sheldon has played for 'Ol Blue Eyes and has a few humorous anecdotes about the time.

Sinatra was one of the few who could suppress the irrepressible Sheldon. "Frank wasn't easy to get to know," Sheldon says. "He surrounded himself with friends and bodyguards. But I remember I was "allowed" to sit at his table one time at a party for Natalie Wood at the old Romanoff Club. I didn't contribute much to the conversation, though, with Frank's steely eyes on me." Permission to speak was not granted.

It seems that Southern California cool is in nowadays. A critically acclaimed art exhibit, Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury, is currently touring the country after opening in Southern California at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. As well as the art, furniture and architecture on display, there is a section dedicated to jazz memorabilia which includes photos by William Claxton, with one featuring a handsome young Sheldon.

At his April appearance in Orange County, he will perform with his California Cool Quartet, a group he started in 1998 with his current lineup of pianist Joe Bagg, bassist Jennifer Leitham and drummer Dick Weller. Besides the jazz, there will be lots of laughs. And, as always, Sheldon is sure to sing a couple of songs.

An average day for Sheldon at his home near Universal City has him spending three or four hours practicing his horn and vocals. Then, most evenings, he gets ready to play with the quartet at one of his several regular gigs—Charlie O's in Van Nuys, Jax in Glendale, Cafe 322 in Sierra Madre and the Westin LAX hotel. "I'm having a great time," he says. "Just learning and playing."

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