Trying To Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon

Randall Robinson By

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This is a must-see for all jazz aficionados as well as those who never understood the deep meaning of this music, opening a portal into the world of the West Coast jazz scene.
This article was originally published at All About Jazz on June 5, 2008.

Finding Validation

Trying To Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon is a film that tells the story of trumpeter-vocalist-actor-comedian Jack Sheldon's remarkable life and career. Beginning with his impoverished childhood in segregated Florida and proceeding to his formative Hollywood teenage years with the legendary Chet Baker, the film follows Sheldon's career as he swings through the Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman bands, creating a signature sound which still captivates audiences and fellow musicians to this day. With sidebar trips into the comedy world of Lenny Bruce and his own CBS sitcom, Run Buddy, Run, Jack Sheldon's story is the tale of a serious artist with a decidedly non-serious persona.

A personal story with an infectious and swinging musical score, archival footage of early Sheldon performances, and original scenes of Jack's electrifying 17-piece "Jack Sheldon Orchestra," Trying To Get Good takes the audience into the head of a highly complex man whose brushes with tragedy often derailed but could not extinguish his inspiring commitment to his art.

Sheldon's story is told in his own words and through on-camera interviews with friends and musical associates, including: Clint Eastwood, Billy Crystal, Merv Griffin (in his final on-camera appearance), trumpeter Chris Botti, jazz vocalist/Grammy nominee Tierney Sutton, vibes great/big-band leader Terry Gibbs, three-time Academy Award winning songwriter Alan Bergman, songwriter/jazz pianist Dave Frishberg, Academy Award winning film composer/arranger Johnny Mandel (Indiana Jones, The Bourne Identity, The Sandpiper for "The Shadow of Your Smile"), producer Frank Marshall and many, many more.

On Wednesday, March 5th the film debuted for an invited audience of 500 at the Crest Theater in Los Angeles, California. Since then, it has played at several film festivals and received screenings at Newport Beach, Mendocino, Florida and Indianapolis. For its second distribution phase, the film opens Friday, May 30th at the Crest in Westwood, California for an exclusive two week engagement.

Screening the picture, you are immediately drawn into the film by the classic, vintage footage of early Hollywood and greater Los Angeles—during an era when life was simpler and easier, the city seeming almost lazy as crowds of young and crazy surfers hit the beaches. The Swing Era had ended, but it was replaced by the cool and refreshing refrains of West Coast jazz, which served as a soundtrack for the new generation beginning as early as the late 1940s and extending into the 1960s.

Sheldon was a major player in that scene, his horn an unmistakable presence on all the leading soundtracks to viewers with sensitive ears—from The Sandpiper, which introduced Mandell's "The Shadow of Your Smile" as played by Sheldon's trumpet, into the 1980s, when the same distinctive sound can be heard throughout Francis Coppola's One From The Heart. And he could be heard, as ensemble player and soloist, on the major recordings of the big stars—Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Sammy Davis Jr., Rosemary Clooney, the Hi Lo's, Tom Waits and even The Monkees.

The documentary was written, produced and directed by actress Penny Peyser and Doug McIntyre, screenwriter and producer, well-known talk radio host of McIntyre In The Morning on KABC in Los Angeles. Made on a shoe-string budget over a course of several years, the project amounted to a genuine labor of love. As Penny Peyser reflects, "We learned a lot along the way about raising money for films—that basically, you don't raise money for films. We did this mostly out of pocket."


When asked how the pair became interested in the project, Doug McIntyre explained, "I was executive producer on the Mike Hammer, Private Eye television series starring Stacy Keach. The show was low-budget and we shot up the coast in Ventura trying to make it look like New York, so I was shooting every brick wall I could find. I came up with this idea for an episode of a night club-jazz murder that we called "Song Bird." Jack seemed right for the part, so we had him come up, and it was easy for him because he had been in so many films already."

McIntyre credits the episode with giving him greater insight into Jack Sheldon as a musical giant who has rarely received his due: "The main thing that caught our interest was, one he's funny, and that he hasn't received the recognition of other trumpet players, like Chet Baker, who have become jazz icons. But when you talk to musicians, we haven't found one who doesn't think that Jack is every bit [as good as] if not a better trumpet player than Baker. Afterwards, on the drive home, Penny and I were talking about how all these great jazz players were dying off one by one. We discussed making a documentary on them while we still could. Next thing I knew Penny went out and bought a camera. So then, well I thought, we're committed now!"

The camera—a Canon XL2, mini DVD

The cinematography has remarkable quality coming from such small format. "The Crest theater has a wonderful digital projection system," says McIntyre. Indeed, the image up on the big screen was rich and warm with detail. I was able to spot only one moment of digital glitch (loss of digital information), which passed in a split second.

You may at first be taken aback with the square image up on the screen (1:33 x 1). McIntyre professes to being a big fan of the wide screen—1:85 x 1, even 2:35. But here square was really the best choice since archival footage was so plentifully used, coming from a time when everything was square (unless you were into bebop), before the advent of the wide screen. This aspect ratio also took advantage of every drop of pixel the Canon had to offer.

Clearly, a documentary like this would have been cost-prohibitive to make on film. The rental company, according to Peyser, asked how they could help: "When an interview would finally be arranged, they would pull a crew together for us and supply equipment. They were really great." McIntyre, who was frequently tied up doing his morning radio show, added: "Penny would arrange interviews, then fly back to Florida to direct the shooting."

The look of the interviews indeed does have a rich warm tone with some nice art direction. One in particular that was shot at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, using two large paintings as background, keeps the jazz genre in its modern art milieu. The fine cinematography was provided by John Gannon, with the Jack Sheldon performance photography by John Axelson.


The interviewed musicians, whose faces spectators may not immediately recognize, are warmly expressive in their recollections and praise of Sheldon. When their names appear on screen, most close followers of the music scene will recognize them as jazz legends themselves—artists like Wayne Bergeron, Ray Brinker, Chris Botti, Terry Gibbs, Uan Rasey and Johnny Mandell.

Many of the friends of Sheldon have memorable comical moments. Clint Eastwood, especially, seems to be enjoying himself as the Hollywood icon, the tall and lanky high plains drifter known for his love of jazz and for tickling the ivories himself, straddles up to the microphone to prove his musical worth, singing scat alongside Jack. In addition, Billy Crystal shares many funny sides of Sheldon, as does Dom Deluise, always a delight, but nearly upstaged by the pet parrot he keeps on his hand during his segments. But there's no stealing the show from Jack.

All have great stories to tell about the jazz artist—and stories they couldn't tell without making the film X-rated. McIntyre laughs, "Ha! That goes to the heart of Sheldon's reputation—whose racy or tasteless comedy, depending on who you talk to, has often overshadowed his extraordinary playing." "Merv used to love the fact he went too far," Peyser contributes. "Griffin would have to take the flak from the network for Sheldon's pushing the envelope. Part of Jack's offbeat charm is if you draw a line, he's going to it."

As Sheldon kept playing, "trying to get good" became his mantra over the years, as he collaborated and played with a Who's-Who of greats—Dizzy Gillespie, Curtis Counce, Harold Land, Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Rosemary Clooney, Diane Schuur and more.

McIntyre, an historian, noted: "What I found amazing was Sheldon's almost "Zelig-like connection" with cultural history. He was playing at the Ambassador Hotel the night Bobby Kennedy was killed. Yasser Arafat used to hang around backstage when Jack was playing with Benny Goodman in Paris in the early 1960s. He played private parties for Marilyn Monroe when Jack Kennedy was here in the '60s, and he opened for Lenny Bruce for six years. Billy Crystal, whose father ran a famed New York City jazz club, notes in the film that Sheldon is "the last cat standing" from the bebop generation. "So it's amazing to see that he's still performing. What he gives you on the stage is very much who he is. He's more alive on stage than anywhere else. He'll tell you that."

That drive comes through over and over again in the documentary which, after the film festival circuit, will head for DVD and possibly an airing on television. These interviews are a real window into show business, revealing where the performers are coming from, and how they live for the music. Chris Botti takes us through the minute body-and-head physicality needed just to play the trumpet, and Sheldon's trumpet teacher, Uan Rasey, talks about how he taught a young Jack to play the scale.

Sheldon was raised virtually underwater. His mother kept his trike and swing set on the bottom of the pool. When she'd say why don't you go outside and play, it was six feet under. Literally! His mother became a renowned swim teacher for babies and small children. Easy to see how Sheldon's lungs were trained at an early age, a tool well under control in his music.

As McIntyre would attest, the urgency felt by the filmmaker is frequently at odds with the painfully slow filmmaking process. Just setting up the interviews took years. Filming began in 2003 and they shot the last interview in August. Given the age of the performers, many were dying off as they were shooting. Maynard Ferguson died before they could film his interview. Pianist Ross Tompkins died shortly afterwards, and the wonderful candid conversation with Merv Griffin is his last camera appearance before his death. Jack Sheldon's oldest son died from cancer while they were shooting.

Peyser recalls Sheldon's cooperation as being limited. "We got together with Sheldon five times. Basically, Jack would show up for the interviews. That's about all we got in cooperation from Jack." They first shot the interview in his home. "He seemed uncomfortable, so the second one we shot at the club. I asked where he felt most comfortable, and he said there in the club. He is that private; he feels he's rightfully in his place only when he's on stage."



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