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Last of the Hepcats

More than 30 years ago, I would come home from school and find my mother watching the “Merv Griffin Show” on the Motorola while she did the ironing. I loved it when Merv would call on the trumpet player in Mort Lindsey’s orchestra, a chubby-faced cut-up named Jack Sheldon, and goof with him the way Johnny Carson later did with Doc Severinsen.

I had no idea the orchestra wise guy was a serious horn player and one of the creators of the so-called West Coast sound, or that he had swung with Art Pepper, Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims and dozens of other jazz greats. Nor did I have any idea, until Merv Griffin told me recently, that Sheldon’s buddy Chet Baker was often in the wings, waiting for the show to wrap so that he and Sheldon could go high-balling across Southern California in Baker’s hot rod, cruising for cool gigs and hot girls.

Most of the jazz giants Sheldon played with, like Baker, are long gone, many having drunk or mainlined themselves to early graves. But Sheldon is still around at 70, living in a funky Hollywood Hills bungalow and often practicing trumpet while he wades in the backyard swimming pool. By night, he plays small clubs around L.A, keeping a time and a sound alive with his crooning, uninhibited comic riffs and a horn that blows pure, sweet memory. The last of the hepcats.

“Jack is definitely one of a kind,” says Clint Eastwood, a Sheldon buddy who has been known to drop in on his shows, only to be gently abused by him between songs. “I took my wife to see him at a club in Toluca Lake, and right away he starts in on me with ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Bridges of Madison County.’ ‘Rowdy Yates is in the room.’ ”

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‘Was it R-rated?’ I asked Eastwood. Sheldon, in Rat Pack lounge tradition, needles guests with exaggerated tales of sexual triumphs and misadventures-theirs and his own. Sometimes it gets uncomfortably blunt, if not raunchy.

“Yes,” Eastwood said, “and my wife is sitting there with me. But she liked Jack right away. Los Angeles has a lot of great players, but I don’t know anyone who can do the comedy, the singing and the playing like Jack. Playing technically well is one thing, but Jack gets a great sound that a lot of players just don’t get.”

I had forgotten all about Sheldon after his “Merv Griffin” days. Then during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, I caught him as featured guest with the Louie Bellson Big Band in a tribute to music in the movies. It was a hot summer night at L.A.'s Ford Amphitheatre, and Sheldon, resembling a polar bear plopped onto a stool, kept mopping his brow between numbers. At one point Sheldon started in on Clinton, building to a typically deadpan line that destroyed the audience. “Anyone who could get a Jewish girl from Brentwood to do that oughta be president.”

Moments later he was playing the soulful Johnny Mandel ballad “Emily” with such feeling that it brought sighs. Sheldon had slid with ease from Jackie Mason to Miles Davis, his rich, transforming tone a romantic summer night meditation.

“It’s a haunting trumpet he plays,” Griffin says. “Henry Mancini once told me, ‘If I’ve got a couple making passionate love on screen and I’m writing the score, it’s Jack Sheldon’s trumpet I want.’ ”

At Sheldon’s home one afternoon, I find truth in something Griffin had told me. Jack doesn’t let many people get too close. Even the sunlight is draped out of his dim little bachelor pad, which is dominated by a grand piano. On the kitchen table is the chlorine-corroded trumpet he plays while practicing in the lap pool, and in the den are photos of Sheldon with Burt Reynolds, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan. Taped to the refrigerator is a fortune cookie promise: Everything will now come your way.

Sheldon sinks into a mushy sofa, trumpet within arm’s reach, and squirms a bit when I ask about family. His daughter was killed in a plane crash in 1979. A decade later, his mother was hit and killed while crossing a street in Hollywood. She and Sheldon had taught swimming at a pool in Hollywood, with Jack helping give lessons to the children of celebrities, who included Paul Newman and Nat King Cole. Sheldon also lost a wife who got tired of his ways and finally walked out on him.

“I was there for my family, but not emotionally,” he says confessionally. “I was always with the music.”

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Griffin recalls consoling Sheldon after his daughter’s death. “I got a call on the show and had to go and tell Jack the bad news,” says Griffin, who believes Sheldon’s losses have influenced both his haunting tone and his onstage joie de vivre.

During my visit to his home, Sheldon’s mood changes instantly when he grunts off the sofa and settles behind his piano to knock out a tune he’s written about Hollywood. He’s performing now, free from everything, as if it’s the best painkiller available. “Me, me, me,” he sings, beaming at his creation as he hammers the keys. “The world revolves around me! I’d like to be humble and good. I wish I could. But who’s kidding whom? Between me and you, it’s gotta be me, me, me.”

Sheldon has played, sung, or acted in more than 70 movies and television shows since 1958, and had his own sitcom, “Run Buddy Run,” in 1966. In the ‘70s, that was Sheldon’s crooning on Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.” Then there are his contributions on roughly 200 albums and CDs. He played with Curtis Counce, Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, Herbie Mann, Mel Torme, George Shearing, Lena Horne, Woody Herman, Diane Schuur, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Shelly Manne, Nina Simone and Anita O’Day. And then there was Chet, or Chettie, as Sheldon calls his late friend Chet Baker, the James Dean of American jazz. Sheldon, born in Florida, moved to Michigan with his mother when his dad ran out, got hooked on music through his school band and then settled in with his mother in California as a teen. He lived near the original El Cholo and Baker lived in Palos Verdes, and they hooked up at different clubs and became pals in their late teens. “Chettie had an old ’32 Ford and a big Cadillac, and he drove real fast. We did crazy things, too, like go climbing the cliffs at Palos Verdes, where we could have killed ourselves. We’d just go riding all over the place, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, any nightclub we could find, and we’d play for no money. We’d just walk in and say, ‘Can we play?’ ”

They were both young, lean, handsome and reckless in a carefree California way. They would both sing and play, and then, to paraphrase Sheldon, avail themselves of the prettiest women in every joint. “I was mostly a drinker and Chet did the drugs, then he moved to New York and got all screwed up,” Sheldon says. “He played opposite Miles [Davis] and that’s where he got started on the heroin.”

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When they could see straight, Sheldon and Baker developed subtle, cool tones, in contrast to the sharper angles and wails of the East Coast scene. It wasn’t for the sake of creating a geographic distinction, says Sheldon. “We just wanted to make the prettiest sound we could, every note a gem.”

“Jack always thought he was second to Chet, but it some ways he was even better,” says deejay Helen Borgers of KLON-FM, a Long Beach jazz station. “Jack’s playing is sweeter and it swings a little more. He wasn’t responsible for changing any musical styles, but he was certainly one of the great proponents of West Coast jazz. I wouldn’t confine him to that alone, though. He can play great bebop and swing, from Kenton’s very experimental stuff to Benny Goodman’s sound.”

Early this year, I started dropping in on Sheldon’s act at Jax in Glendale and Miceli’s in Hollywood. Jax is the place to see him, by the way, because if Sheldon is a throwback, so is the Jax audience. The regulars have as good a time as he does, and are aware that for all the ham and the hepcat tales between numbers, Sheldon is a musician first. He doesn’t sing as well as he plays, but gets Louis Armstrong mileage out of a lyric.

“What a night!” Sheldon exclaims after crooning and blowing through “I Love Paris” with a stepped-up, almost Latin beat laid down by his drummer, bassist and pianist. The exclamation is ironic and self-deprecating. Yes, what a night here in beautiful downtown Glendale.

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But it’s honest, too. Rather than carp and moan about five decades of toil landing him at a burger and beer joint on Brand Boulevard, so far beyond cool that he’s almost hip again, Sheldon is genuinely thrilled to be onstage doing the only thing he’s ever cared to do. In “I Love Paris,” his crooning fades into a stream of French gibberish and a purring come-on to a sultry, Chandleresque blond planted at the end of the bar.

“I love it,” says Sheldon, who beat cancer a few years back and starts his days at AA meetings. He’s a survivor, having overcome his own weaknesses and having endured in a business that reduces so many musicians into wretched compromise or total surrender. Wherever he plays, he tells me, he makes it his Carnegie Hall. What-ifs and might-have-beens are a disease, Sheldon says when I ask if he wonders where his career might be if he’d devoted himself to just singing, comedy, or horn playing. “I wouldn’t want to give up any one thing.”

It’s his trumpet, though, that classes up the act. Sheldon practices for hours every day and still takes lessons, 55 years after first picking up the horn. “You have to stay in shape or you lose it,” says Sheldon.

His teacher is Uan Rasey, who played that unforgettable trumpet in the “Chinatown” theme song. Rasey is a legendary guru who is visited at his hillside Studio City home by a number of great horn players, including Arturo Sandoval. They call on Rasey to work out mechanical kinks or help them find some spiritual breakthrough in their tone or expression. Sheldon and Rasey go all the way back to “The Munsters” TV show, when they stood side by side and recorded live tracks for every episode.

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“We talk about a commitment to a philosophical approach, the religion of the music and the ethics of playing,” says Rasey, who, at 80, has lost the stamina to play but takes pride in helping others maintain it with note-bending workouts and inspirational prodding. “The tone comes from who you are, and Jack is a good-hearted person of great intellect. We talk about how important life is, how important it is that you treat your fellow man with respect, and how to play with a sense of thoughtfulness, compassion and reverence for the act of making music.”

Onstage, Sheldon often disappears into himself while another band member solos. He’ll sit there squinting into a distant world, listening to the chord changes, critiquing his own last solo and imagining the next.

“I keep trying to get good,” Sheldon says, “and I get closer and closer.”

(For Sheldon’s performance schedule, visit https://www.jacksheldon.com.)

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Steve Lopez is a Times columnist. His third novel, “In the Clear,” was published by Harcourt Brace in May.


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