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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Caught Up in an Era, He Never Stopped Swinging

Pianist Ray Sherman grew up surrounded by the big-band sounds of the Dorseys and Benny Goodman. Their melodies shaped his musical style.

June 13, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The swing era was booming when Ray Sherman came of age in Chicago. As a preteen, he listened to the radio every day to hear his favorite artists. The Dorsey Brothers. Earl Hines. Benny Goodman.

"I used to sing along with the solos," Sherman says. "I loved the way that music felt. It was so melodic."

It was those melodic soloists, like Tommy Dorsey and pianist Teddy Wilson, who influenced Sherman and helped him form his style.

"A guy like Teddy composed a new melody in a solo, based on the chord changes of a tune," says Sherman, 73, who lives in Palmdale. "Unlike a guy like Fats Waller, who played what in classical music is called figures--using broken chords or arpeggios, or scales--Teddy played something that people could hum."

Sherman also came under the spell of clarinetists and trumpeters like Goodman and Bobby Hackett. "They were so lyrical, and they played more like a piano, with that big range," says Sherman. "They were difficult to copy, because of their tone, but I still try to emulate their lyricism on the piano."

Sherman, whose father was a successful bandleader in Chicago, was born a bit late to take part in the heart of the swing era, from the mid-'30s to early '40s. But after World War II, he played in Los Angeles with bands led by such swing notables as Bob Crosby, Jan Savatt and Jerry Wald. In the late '50s, he was the pianist for a 14-volume series from Time-Life Recordings that re-created--in fine detail--the big-band music of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, the Dorseys and others.

"The late Billy May took most of the tunes off records, and the producers wanted us to play the solos exactly," says Sherman, who plays Friday with Betty O'Hara's band at Chadney's in Burbank. "That was the hardest part--and the most fun. It was such an educational experience. I got the music and the records ahead of time and the object was to phrase just like the originals."

*

At Chadney's, Sherman pairs up with trombonist and baritone horn player O'Hara, who also sings. Sherman figures he and O'Hara first played together about 20 years ago--though this is their first time at the Burbank club. He recalls first being impressed with her singing, but soon he realized she was much more than a first-class vocalist who also plays horn. "Betty's a sensitive and expressive musician who has good time and really can swing," he says.

Sherman says the band will offer "evergreens," the classic standards from the '30s and '40s. They'll also do swing-era tunes like "Little Rock Getaway" and "Honky Tonk Train"--songs that pianist Joe Sullivan made famous and that Sherman played with Bob Crosby's band. The drive of numbers like these keeps Sherman coming back to the piano.

"There's something in the rhythm of swing music that has a happy feel. It's my music," he says. "But I might play some be-bop phrases, too. I loved be-bop, and especially Charlie Parker. He was a genius."

These days, Sherman works occasionally, taking part in club dates as with O'Hara and guesting at traditional jazz events, like Labor Day's Sweet and Hot event at the LAX Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles. But 30 years ago, Sherman was thriving in the studios, playing piano on many famous films, among them "West Side Story," "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Pete Kelly's Blues."

The musician has one album out, "Ray Sherman at the Keyboards," a self-produced, one-man-band recording available from Arbors Records (at [800] 299-1930, $17 postage paid). He made the album in his home-based studio, using a sampler to emulate the sounds of a bass and guitar. "It's hard to get other guys to feel the way you do on a record date if you haven't been playing together," he says. "The sound of a band is collaborative."

* Ray Sherman appears with Betty O'Hara's band, 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday at Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank. No cover, one-drink minimum per show. (818) 843-5333.

Short Take: Trumpeter Jeff Bunnell has been a busy fella, working with the likes of Ray Charles, Horace Silver, Dick Berk and Harry James in his 15-plus-year career. The horn man, whose playing is always centered by compelling lyricism and rhythmic savvy, leads a small band at 8 tonight at Common Grounds, 9250 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; no cover, $2.50 minimum purchase; (818) 882-3666.

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