Some musicians’ careers are easily pigeonholed. Not so Bob Sheppard’s. For more than four decades, the multi-instrumentalist has played on countless sessions with an astounding crop of A-list jazz giants—among them Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Michael and Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Herbie Hancock, Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves, Lyle Mays, John Beasley and Steps Ahead—and artists within several other genres. He’s also recorded and toured as a leader, contributed to hundreds of movie and TV soundtracks, served as an educator and more.
But what’s most astounding, perhaps, is that Bob Sheppard still has so much more he wants to do. “My career path was a product of taking intertwining roads, never really knowing where they would lead,” he says. “I continue to stay excited about future projects; the notion of slowing down does not appeal to me in the least.”
He’s been at it since he was a child. Music entered Sheppard’s life via his amateur saxophonist father and was nurtured via a culturally aware high school that brought in big band legends like Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton for the enrichment of the students. Although he originally wanted to play the drums, by the fifth grade sax and woodwinds became Sheppard’s calling. He got his first alto saxophone in junior high school. “Practicing became my friend, a place to escape,” he says.
From the start, it was jazz that lured him. “When I was a kid, there was jazz all over TV and radio. The sound of jazz and swing music was still in large part the norm on the radio and TV. I really didn’t need to search jazz out; it was all around me. I really liked the idea of finding melodies and the freedom of exploring sounds on my horn. I was constantly noodling and experimenting. I never waited for my teacher to tell me what to practice. Playing along with all of the music I heard was a huge factor in how I learned to use my ear, identify harmony and develop acute relative pitch, and to play in tune.”
Sheppard began playing professionally while still living in the Philadelphia area, where he grew up. He continued while attending college, working various stage shows and even the circus, and soon found gigs accompanying giants of the business such as Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr. and the 5th Dimension. A steady spot in the orchestra of Chuck Mangione provided vital learning experience.