Entertainment & Arts

Penny Peyser, Doug McIntyre toot Jack Sheldon’s horn

DEVOTED: Penny Peyser and Doug McIntyre self-financed their documentary “Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon,” about the accomplished but overlooked trumpeter.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

Talk about marital commitment. It took Doug McIntyre and Penny Peyser almost as long to shoot and edit their self-financed, self-distributed documentary “Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon,” which opens today at the Westwood Crest Theatre, as the couple has been married. “We ate the elephant one bite at a time,” McIntyre joked recently about their maiden filmmaking venture, over tea with Peyser at a Studio City restaurant.

The couple spent more than five of their nearly six wedded years cobbling together this labor of love about Jack Sheldon, the best jazz trumpeter you may have never heard of despite his ubiquitous, over half-century presence on the Los Angeles entertainment scene. One of the pair’s wishes for the film is that it helps Sheldon, now 76, achieve a wider respect and fan base, particularly from those less embracing East Coast jazz critics. “Maybe they’ll drop their West Coast bias for five minutes and just listen to what Jack’s playing,” said McIntyre, 50. “Our city has a lot to be proud of and musicians like Jack Sheldon are part of L.A.'s cultural gift to the world.”

The relative obscurity of the accomplished jazzman did not deter McIntyre and Peyser from putting all their monetary eggs (65,000 of them, to be exact) into Sheldon’s basket, but rather fueled their desire to capture this virtuoso’s legendary talent and tragedy-strewn life on film. “We found so many interesting, renowned people eager to talk about Jack on camera that we knew we had an interesting subject,” said Peyser, a veteran film and TV actress (“The In-Laws,” “Knots Landing”).

Jazz aficionado McIntyre, a screenwriter and producer, who also hosts KABC radio’s “McIntyre in the Morning” talk show, became hooked on Sheldon’s music watching him perform at local clubs such as the Money Tree in Toluca Lake (now Lucy’s 51). In the late 1990s, when McIntyre was co-executive producing the USA Network series “Mike Hammer, Private Eye,” he ended up working with Sheldon when the sometimes actor (TV’s “Run, Buddy, Run”) was cast in a two-part episode of the mystery series. Several years later, the ebullient, world-class musician even played, along with his 17-piece orchestra, at McIntyre and Peyser’s wedding. But it wasn’t until the following month, when the newlyweds saw Sheldon perform at L.A.'s annual Sweet and Hot Music Festival, that lightning struck. “There was something very cinematic about that night and about Jack’s particularly terrific performance,” said McIntyre. “We decided then and there he deserved his own film.”

A few months later, armed with five borrowed and rented video cameras, McIntyre and Peyser shot Sheldon’s birthday bash and concert at the Beverly Hilton hotel (much of which is used to fine effect in the finished documentary), cut together a five-minute trailer to help raise production funds and waited for the money to roll in. A year and a half passed and they were still waiting, so Peyser plunked down $4,500 on a mini-DV camera and McIntyre knew they were in it for the long haul.

Though the filmmakers had easy access to dozens of notable Sheldon fans -- from Clint Eastwood to former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker -- it was the self-admittedly insecure Sheldon who proved most elusive when it came to opening up on camera.

“There came a point where we realized we’d have to trust the audience and ourselves to fill in some blanks in Jack’s life story,” Peyser said.

“Jack doesn’t share the sadness verbally, he expresses his emotions musically,” McIntyre said. “He can break your heart with a ballad.”

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