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"My Brother, Don Sleet"

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Last week I posted about star-crossed trumpeter Don Sleet [pictured] and his sole leadership album All Members. Within an hour after my post went up, a reader sent along an email suggesting that I alert Don's brother, David Sleet. So I sent along a note to the email address the reader provided. David responded shortly, saying he enjoyed what he had read. Then we updated some of the information in the post to ensure its complete accuracy. Before we parted, I asked David if he would like to write a short personal essay about his late brother. David agreed.

First, a little background on David Sleet. He is a former professor of health education and currently works in public health in Georgia. Inducted into the National Association of Rudimental Drummers at age 13, David was a professional drummer in the 1960s, playing symphonic classical, rock, pop and jazz while attending college and graduate school.

Here are David's recollections of his brother, trumpeter Don Sleet, who died in 1986:

“My brother Don was born in 1938. I was born four years later. From the time Don was in grade school, all he wanted to do was play jazz. By age 15 he was a professional musician. Sadly, Don's promise was cut short as a result of drug use in the 1960s, changing music trends and streaks of misfortune. But Don was always a great, loving brother, and I miss him.

“Don and I grew up in San Diego, where our father was head of the music program at the La Mesa Spring Valley School District. Naturally, Don got lots of music instruction at home. At our parents' house, Don and I shared a bedroom. I played the drums and, by osmosis, I learned everything Don was listening to. We had one of those portable record players that you put the lid down, snap it shut and carry it around with a handle. Don was always looking for a 'perfect' stylus for it. I still have many of the LPs Don purchased, played and rehearsed with.

“We'd listen to all the great jazz records of the 1950s. While Don was listening intently to Clifford Brown, I was doing the same with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Don was particularly fond of trumpeters Raphael Mendez, Harry James, Maynard Ferguson, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Chet Baker and, of course, Miles Davis. I always thought Don sounded most like Blue Mitchell [pictured]. Even though I played the drums, Don and I never played together. He was older, and everyone he knew was playing above my level.

“Don was trained in classical music and learned to read music at an early age. He played second chair in the San Diego Symphony for a while as a teenager, and first chair in the Helix High School Band and Civic Youth Orchestra. But he loved playing jazz so much he was prepared to quit high school to go on the road. But our father wouldn't let him. For a short time, our dad sent him to trumpeter Buddy Childers [pictured] for lessons. Buddy's instruction made a big difference in Don's playing.

“After high school, Don played professionally, taking gigs in San Diego and Los Angeles, teaching himself composition and playing with some of the best jazz talent in San Diego. His quintet rehearsed (and sometimes just jammed) in our living room on the weekends in the mid-1950s.

“The group consisted of John Guerin (drums), Barry Farrar (baritone), Mike Wofford (piano), Gary Lefebre (tenor), and Bob Sarabia (bass). At times Daniel Jackson (tenor) and Jim Plank (drums) would join the sessions. They were all from San Diego. We had a grand piano and plenty of room in the house. John Guerin (who died in 2004) would leave his drums set up over night, and I would practice on them until I got a set of my own. I always wanted a set of those Gretsch drums of John's. [Pictured from left: Bob Sarabia, John Guerin, Mike Wofford, Don Sleet and Barry Farrar; photo courtesy of David Sleet]

“Don's group was too young to enter clubs, but they managed to play in them somehow. They played at the Beacon Inn in Del Mar, CA, for a few years and later at the Lighthouse [pictured] in Hermosa Beach. My sister and I would go everywhere to hear to him play, and sometimes we had to stand outside and listen because we were underage. [Pictured: the San Diego Lighthouse All-Stars with Don Sleet, second from left, and Howard Rumsey, third from left; photo courtesy of David Sleet]

“Don was very good looking, and was a big hit with girls, young and old. He had a quiet, but powerful personality, and people were naturally attracted to him. He played on stage with Chet Baker [pictured] once, when Chet played in San Diego. Chet knew of Don and asked him to sit in. Don said it was most inspiring, and he really took to Chet's playing, but not his singing.

“After high school, Don went on the road, spent some time in the Stan Kenton Orchestra (Kenton had a TV show with June Christy at the time) and traveled to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. He also spent a fair bit of time playing at Snookies and Shelly's Manne Hole in L.A.

“I had planned to become a musician like Don after he left home. But my father discouraged that, insisting I stay in school. Don had demonstrated that playing jazz professionally wasn't an easy life, and my father knew it.

“Don was so committed to jazz that he'd often turned down gigs that were musically inferior. He never compromised and wouldn't play gigs like weddings, even if it paid good money. Don knew his stuff. He not only studied trumpet technique but also composed. He taught himself the piano, and played every day. People were inspired by him. Don would sit down with the score of Stravinsky's The Firebird and follow it while a recording of the piece was playing. He taught me that skill, and it's thrilling if you can do it.

“Sadly, Don fell into bad habits experimenting with drugs in the late 1950s and 1960s. I think his association with the in-group of established players in fast cities like New York and L.A. played a big role in his lifestyle of recreational drug use. Many of the jazz musicians he performed with were experimenting with drugs.

“Don sought help for his addiction at Synanon, and did well in rehabilitation. Eventually he volunteered for a methadone maintenance program and made good progress there. Don got married in the 1970s (but never had children), and he had both good and bad luck playing casual gigs for the next 10 to 15 years. There were times in New York in the early 1970s that he'd have to hock his horn just to survive. Work had dried up, and there was lots of competition. Because there were long stretches where he didn't have his horn, Don lost his chops, and never quite regained his comeback momentum.

“Despite it all, he was never far from what he loved most--jazz--and he continued to thrive on it his whole life. He was so talented, I thought if only somebody would discover him.

“But no matter how much love and support family provides, they cannot control outside influences. I still believe Don's substance use was the result of the friends he kept and the culture he was a part of. It was the conformity to a nightlife culture that he longed to be a part of. Don desperately wanted to express himself through music, and while he was alive, he did. He died in 1986 of cancer of the lymph system at his home in Hollywood. He had been battling the disease for more than three years.

“Don's death was devastating to me. I had always been optimistic that Don would have a resurgence and get back into the mainstream. But too much time had passed. Howard Rumsey, in a letter to my family after Don's death, said of Don's group, 'This group, I'm honored to say, had an international reputation. [They] proved to be as talented as any group that ever appeared this event, and as a matter of fact they all worked at one time as members of the Lighthouse All-stars.'

“Everyone who met Don loved him. Don was great friends with Conte Candoli and Jack Sheldon, who introduced him around to clubs in Los Angeles and mentored him a bit. They even played at Don's funeral in Hollywood.

“I still have the first issue of the All Members LP that Don gave me shortly after the album came out. Don signed the back: “To the greatest brother in the world."

--David Sleet

JazzWax tracks: Don Sleet's sole leadership date, All Members, with Jimmy Heath, Wynton Kelly, Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb, is out of print but you'll find it here on CD from independent sellers.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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