Jazz Institute of Chicago

Jack Sheldon

Jack Sheldon (photo by Bruce Burr)

Jack Sheldon
by Jim Brown

One Saturday night in late January found me at Steamer's Jazz Club in Fullerton, California, (a suburb of Los Angeles just south of Disneyland) listening to the Jack Sheldon playing with a decent quartet. It was the highlight of a great weekend.

For those who don't know, Sheldon is really three artists in one—all of them top drawer. First, he's one of the most original, unique, and identifiable players in jazz. His combination of whimsy and lyricism has probably stolen the spotlight from more featured artists he's accompanied than anyone else. Even with the greatness of the Hi-Los, Marty Paich's charts, and the rest of the band, can anyone imagine "The Hi-Lo's and All That Jazz" without Sheldon?

For some years now, I've been making a mental collection of recording sessions where the spotlight has been stolen by an especially wonderful solo by a sideman. The first (historically) is Count Basie's 1938 "Blue and Sentimental," with Lester Young's gorgeous clarinet solo upstaging the featured tenor soloist, Hershell Evans. Next on my list is Clifford Brown's 1956 larceny of Sonny Rollins' "Valse Hot." And there's Sheldon with the Hi-Los, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Julie London, and Lena Horne.

Second, although Jack has sung a little since the '60s, he's been in the woodshed taking vocal lessons for the last decade, and has become a good enough singer to supplement his trumpet playing (and rest his chops). His approach to a song, like his trumpet playing, is serious, unique, respectful of the lyric, and not derivative of anyone I can think of (although Chet Baker is clearly an influence—see more below).

Third, he is a wildly funny man, and has been for well over 40 years. His humor is kinky—well, to the outside, dirty—old, and yet, wildly imaginative. His standup comedy LP from 1963 is one of the classics of recorded comedy, and every time I've heard him over the ensuing decades he's gotten further out. His onstage patter runs to stream of consciousness, with parries and jabs, riffs and flights of fancy. He doesn't seem to have slowed down either.

At the beginning of each set of a recent run, an attentive young (well, sort of young) lady carefully removed Mr. Sheldon's trumpet from its case, placed it on his stool, adjusted his mics, and then retired to stage right where she proceeded to capture every moment of the set with a camcorder. At the end of the evening, the two left together.

Steamer's is a pretty nice little club in a quiet residential suburb that also contains a branch of the University of California and the audience included enough sweet young things to keep Jack's patter rolling. The place is clearly run by a serious jazz fan, and the staff is friendly and considerate (although their lack of attention made it tough to buy a drink).

A typical week there finds a band of local players who are unknown outside LA, interspersed with an occasional evening with better known artists. The crowd was appreciative and sometimes attentive, but most of the 20-somethings in attendance had no idea who Jack was—it was simply their neighborhood hangout. Luckily there were enough of us old farts who did. No matter; at one point, he lit into Groovin' High in a hard swinging bebop groove, sang a couple of choruses of its root composition, "Whispering," and finished with a pretty trumpet solo.

I was there for a technical meeting, and my companion Saturday night was a sound consultant like me who plays tenor in a Minneapolis "kicks" band (Kurt Elling worked with that band before moving to Chicago). We arrived right after the first set started, and heard it from the sidewalk outside—the joint was packed. By the second set, we were inside, and for the last set we were at the lip of the stage. Just in case anyone is wondering, this 68-year old trumpeter still has great chops. In nearly four hours, we not not a single clam. More than once his ballad playing gave us goose pimples, it was so good.

Born November 30, 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida, Sheldon started on trumpet at age 12 in Detroit. After a stint with the Air Force band in the early '50s, he gigged around Los Angeles and toured with the Kenton and Goodman bands. Musically, Sheldon is comfortable with everything from bebop to west coast cool, to the great American songbook. The first recordings which gained him national exposure were with Art Pepper and Zoot Sims. Soon he was a fixture in the LA studio and club scene, as a soloist in the large and small bands of arrangers andleaders Marty Paich, Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers, Johnny Richards, and Stan Kenton.

Along the way, the comedic side of Sheldon was emerging, with the release in 1962 of "Out!" (Capitol T1851), a collection of mostly off-the-wall vocal tracks ("Atomic Bomb," and "What Was Your Name in the States" are a couple of standouts), and in 1963 of "Ooh—But It's Good! (And pretty weird, too.)" a set of standup comedy. Both were produced, and the latter mostly written by, guitarist Jack Marshall.

In 1964, I was finishing an engineering degree in Cincinnati when the local jazz station (WNOP) picked up on "Ooh—" and started plugging it. Before long, Sheldon the comedian was a star in Cincinnati; the station had sold thousands of tee shirts emblazoned with artwork and the punch line from one of his routines; and the station's program director had booked Jack for a week at his popular downtown jazz club. Jack arrived with his trumpet, planning to work all week with the local rhythm section that had been assembled for him. But the crowd came to hear his comedy, and knew his act better than he did.

In 1965, Sheldon's haunting trumpet first immortalized Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile" on the soundtrack of "The Sandpipers," garnering Mandel 1965's Grammy for Song of the Year and an Oscar for Best Musical Score.

A year later, the rest of the country picked up on Sheldon's comedy—he had his own network comedy show, "Run, Buddy, Run," and was featured for 18 years as both trumpet player and resident nut in the band of the Merv Griffen show. During the '80s and '90s he's been featured as in actor in numerous motion pictures and television shows (in addition to Sheldon, "White Men Can't Jump" included an opening title sequence featuring Bill Henderson and Jon Hendricks jamming on a street corner as the camera zooms in on them from high overhead).

Sheldon seems to love to perform, anywhere, anytime. Bob Blumenthal quotes a friend telling a story of seeing "Jack practicing on the beach at Venice, CA (near the LA airport) as passersby tossed change his way." In the course of my semi-annual visits to Los Angeles over the past 25 years, I always try to hear as much music as possible, and I've nearly always found a couple of listings for Jack Sheldon gigs, nearly always in small clubs, and spread out all over the Los Angeles area. The only time I didn't was in the fall of 1996 when he was having a serious bout with colon cancer, from which he appears to have emerged the winner.

There are several minutes of a revealing interview with Sheldon in "Let's Get Lost," Bruce Weber's 1990 documentary and performance film about Chet Baker. The two were friends in the '50s. Jack admired Chet's artistry, and the apparent ease with which he achieved such a beautiful sound, just as he feared his demons. Interestingly, it wasn't until after Baker's death that Jack seems to have taken his own singing more seriously.

Jack has always harbored an interest in the ladies. One of the highlights of the Weber film is Jack's story of Chet taking a girl away from him. In a recent email, British writer Steve Voce related, "I interviewed Jack in 1981 and subsequently did quite a few transatlantic radio programmes with him between LA and England. He told me that when he was with Kenton he didn't really have to play the music because everything was so loud that no one could tell whether he was playing or not. So he just used to sit there and look out at the girls.

"'Stan got a girl away from me one time,' he said mournfully. A really beautiful girl. She wanted a taller man. She had some of those teeth that stick out. What do you call that?'

"A buck tooth?" I suggested.

"'Yeah. I love those,' Jack said. He paused. 'She could eat an apple at arm's length.'"

In my opinion, Jack Sheldon is a national treasure. I hope the folks in LA know how good they've got it, and continue to get out to hear him regularly. And I'm going to keep on lobbying Joe Segal to bring him to Chicago.

Selected discography

Jack Sheldon: The Quartet and Quintet
Pacific Jazz CDP 7243 93160.
Recorded 1954 and 1955 with Zoot Sims, Joe Maini, and Walter Norris.

The Hi-Lo's and All That Jazz
with the Marty Paich Dektette (1958), Columbia LP, CS 8077.
One track is on KOCH CD-7926, but the rest of this classic album remains unissued on CD.

Marty Paich Orchestra/Groups, Discovery, DSCD-962.
Art Pepper Plus Eleven

Mobile Fidelity, MFCD-805.
These classic sets from 1959 feature Art Pepper, Sheldon, Marty Paich's great writing, and one of my favorite drummers, Mel Lewis.

Playing for Change
with Barry Harris, Jerry Dodgion, Rufus Reid, and Ben Riley (1986), Uptown, CD 27.43.
A great straight ahead bop set with a New York quintet; the piano of Barry Harris is a nice bonus.

On My Own
Concord, CCD 4529. A nice vocal and trumpet album with pianist Ross Tompkins (1991).

Live at the Tropicana
Stan Kenton and his Orchestra, Capitol/Blue Note, CDP 4273 8352452.
A relaxed big band date from 1959.

In Concert: Tokyo
Mel Torme, Concord, CCD-4382.

Visit the official Jack Sheldon website. Also, see Butterfly Records.

Jim Brown is a sound engineer at Audio Systems Group, Inc. of Chicago. He is currently working on a website for Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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