Jack Sheldon loves to play the trumpet, and while he sounds terrific, it doesn't come easily.
"I have to practice all the time," he said while savoring a plate of liver and onions at a Studio City delicatessen. "But I don't feel bad because Doc Severinsen has to do the same thing, and he's a great trumpet player. I've known guys like Harry James--he could just pick up the trumpet after a month layoff and just play great. But I have to play all day, every day."
The results of Sheldon's efforts are heard first and foremost in his robust, ringing sound, which goes hand-in-hand with his buoyant mainstream jazz feel. His appealing style has been spotlighted with dozens of select jazzmen throughout his 40-year career. Among these have been saxophonists Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, clarinetist Benny Goodman, and leaders Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich. He also appeared in a band backing Lenny Bruce--along with altoist Joe Maini, drummer Philly Joe Jones and pianist Kenny Drew--and for 16 years was on "The Merv Griffin Show," where his horn, voice and wit were consistently featured.
Work remains plentiful. Sheldon, who appears tonight with his quintet at Birdland West, with Ross Tompkins' trio Sunday at Alfonse's, and Tuesday noon at the Westin Bonaventure, likes to stay busy, and, fate agreeing, will continue to be. "I love to work," he said. "If I don't have a job, I'll get on the phone, call some clubs and get one. I don't stay out of work."
Sheldon's current act is a mixture of singing, jokes and often hilarious off-the-cuff remarks, and horn playing. "I like the music to swing," he said, "and I like to make people feel it, feel happy and sad, everything. If the music makes me smile and happy, then maybe the people will feel it, too."
The 55-year-old musician, who occasionally travels to such locales as Toronto, Ont., and Orlando, Fla., for engagements, prefers to play close to home. "Traveling is real hard for me," he said. "I don't like having to run to catch planes, and lug all my stuff around. Here I have everything, and I know everybody. And besides, on the road I have to sit in a hotel room and practice all day, and then go to the gig. Here, I have my own schedule, my house."
Still, traveling to some places is better than to others. "I like going to New York," he admitted, "but not like L.A. I loved L.A. as soon as I got here."
Sheldon grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and started trumpet at 12, while he was attending the prestigious Cranbrook School for Boys in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He started a professional career when he moved to Los Angeles at 16, where he played with many of the best jazzmen around: Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Monty Budwig, Gray and Parker.
Of be-bop genius Parker, Sheldon said, "He could really play. He had so much fire. I used to play piano, too, then. And one time, when we were waiting for (pianist) Russ Freeman, I played piano on a blues and when we got through, he said, 'Jack, let's wait until Russ gets here.' "
Though Sheldon always wanted to sing--"Before I had my first horn, at age 9 or 10, I built a little trumpet out of Tinker Toys and would sing as if it were a trumpet"--it was Goodman who gave him his first professional experience. "At first I felt shy," he recalled. "It's very difficult to sing. It's the most personal form of music, with your voice as the instrument."
The entertainer developed his comedic delivery during off-and-on stints backing singer Julie London and her husband, pianist/singer Bobby Troup. "During her show, she'd take a break and we'd talk back and forth and I'd get laughs (on stage)," he said. "Comedy made me feel good, just like drinking. It's like love. The laughs are people liking you."
Acting has been an oft-returned-to adjunct of Sheldon's musical career. In the '60s, he did such shows at "The Nuthouse," "The Carol Williams Show," "The Steve Allen Show" and had his own one-season series, "Run, Buddy, Run." Until the recent strike against animation houses, his acting has been mainly as a voice-over in cartoons. "I'm Louie the Lightning Bug on 'Alabama Water and Power,' a kid's show about electricity (not shown locally)," he said, "and I've also done 'Scholastic Rock,' with Dave Frishberg, Blossom Dearie, Grady Tate and Bob Dorough--a lot of good singers."
Two years ago, Sheldon made a major change in his life: he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, ending a four-decade period of chemical dependence. "Alcoholism wrecked so many musicians' lives," he said. "You think that in your case, it's different, you'll beat it, but that's the insanity of the disease. I feel so lucky that I have quit drinking, and I just hope I can keep going. This way, I have a chance to do anything I want to do."