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Don Sleet: All Members

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There are a number of highly talented jazz musicians from the late 1950s who can't really be called great because they recorded too few albums. In some cases these musicians never had an opportunity to record extensively. Or they came up too late and were trampled by the rock era in the mid-1960s. Or they succumbed to drug addiction and couldn't hold it together long enough to win the trust of record producers. Or they wound up in prison. One such jazz artist who fell into all of these categories was hard-bop trumpeter Don Sleet.

Yesterday I spoke to Howard Rumsey, Jimmy Heath and Ira Gitler about Sleet. I'll share their recollections with you in a moment.

Little is known about Sleet, and sadly he recorded only one album as a leader called All Members. On that superb 1961 date, Sleet was accompanied by Jimmy Heath, Wynton Kelly, Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb. His only other albums were as a sideman. He first appeared on record in 1959 on vocalist Gloria Smyth's Like Soul! (World Pacific Jazz), Lenny McBrowne and the Four Souls (Riverside) and Eastern Lights. In 1964, he was in the trumpet section on Shelly Manne's My Fair Lady With The Un-original Cast (Capitol).

Sleet doesn't appear in the Encyclopedia of Jazz or the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. From what I could piece together from research and his brother David, Don Sleet was born in Fort Wayne, Ind. After his family moved to San Diego, he took piano lessons from his father, who was director of music for the La Mesa Spring Valley School District. Soon Don began playing the trumpet, and by age 18 he was playing in the San Diego Symphony. He also played in vibraphonist Terry Gibbs' group and the San Diego State University Jazz Ensemble.

This collegiate group consisted of Don Sleet (trumpet), Mike Wofford (piano), Gary Lefebre (tenor sax), John Guerin (drums) and Paul Sarabia (bass). They were invited by Howard Runsey to play at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, CA., on Sundays. The group would go on to win first place at the San Diego Jazz Festival and were written up in Down Beat in 1956.

In 1961, with Chet Baker in prison in Lucca, Italy, for drug smuggling and forgery, producer Orrin Keepnews recorded the hungry and vulnerable-looking Sleet on Jazzland Records. Orrin had been recording Baker on Jazzland before the trumpeter's internment. After recording All Members, Sleet returned to the West Coast for an extended stay at Shelly's Manne Hole. Narcotic addition led to several stints in halfway houses and
Synanon. Don Sleet died in Los Angeles in December 1987 of lymphoma, at age 48.

All Members is one of those gems that has slipped through the cracks and is all but forgotten by most jazz listeners. Its success rests on Sleet's cool, angular sound pressed up against Jimmy Heath's powerful, sandpapery texture. The song selections also were superb: In addition to Jimmy's All Members, the group recorded two Clifford Jordan tunes (Brooklyn Bridge and The Hearing), three standards (Secret Love, Softly As in a Morning Sunrise and But Beautiful) and an original blues by Sleet called Fast Company.

To gain insight into Sleet, I called Howard Rumsey, Jimmy Heath and Ira Gitler, who wrote All Members' original liner notes.

Howard Rumsey:

“Don was in a college group in San Diego that played the Lighthouse every Easter. During that holiday week, I'd turn the club over to about 20 local college groups. Sleet was a darn nice trumpet player, and within the group he played in at The Lighthouse, he was perfect. He played like Shorty Rogers. We called them the San Diego Lighthouse All Stars. Don wasn't outspoken, but when he did talk, he was pleasant and enthusiastic. He would have gone a lot further but he got ahead of himself with drugs and wound up hastening his death. I wish he had recorded more. He could have been up there with many of the big-name West Coast players."

Jimmy Heath:

“I wrote All Members on there. It was a quick relationship. I didn't know Don for a long time. He wanted me with him on the date, so I did it. I suspect Orrin got everyone together for that one. Don could play. Sure he could play. I remember he wasn't exceptional but he was a good player. There were a lot of good players then and he was one of them."

Ira Gitler:

“Don played with top musicians when I met him in New York. I remember him being a nice guy, kind of quiet and shy. I had said nice things about him in my liner notes, and he was appreciative. Don had that something. He was authentic."

JazzWax tracks: Don Sleet's All Members with Jimmy Heath, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter has only just been discontinued by Concord Records but it is available on CD here from independent sellers. For a free listen to the album and two tracks from Lenny McBrowne and the Four Souls, go here to a podcast of Off the Beaten Tracks, a Dutch radio show. Just click on the little speaker icon.

Sleet's appearance on Shelly Manne's 1964 recording, My Fair Lady With The Un-original Cast (not to be confused with Shelly Manne and His Friends: Modern Jazz Performances of Songs From My Fair Lady recorded in 1956) can be found here as an import from Japan. Note that the song samples at Amazon are not from this album but mistakenly from the 1956 recording.

JazzWax thanks to Harry Sandick for reminding me of Don Sleet and All Members.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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