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Jack Sheldon: Connecting With Many Camps

Jazz: From Generation X to national honchos, trumpeter's blend of songs and wisecracks appeals to diverse groups.

July 31, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jack Sheldon is on the phone from his home in Hollywood Hills, fresh from a weekend gig entertaining the politicians, financiers and bigwig corporate types who gathered for this year's Bohemian Grove conclave.

The trumpeter-vocalist-actor has played the exclusive, male-only gathering of America's most powerful people in the redwoods of Northern California a number of times with his old buddy Merv Griffin.

"It's like doing a USO show out in the woods. There's no women. Everybody stays in tents in different camps. I usually stay in Wolf Camp--that's the best--but I was in Pig and Whistle Camp this year. I think they all go out there just to get away from the telephone.

"This year, we had [former Secretary of Defense] Dick Cheney in the audience, [former Secretaries of State] George Schultz and James Baker. Meeting them makes you a little more considerate of how they've run the country. Us regular people always say they're not doing it right, that we could do it better. But when you see them as fellow human beings and really bright guys, you know they've done the best they can do."

There may not be many VIPs in the audience tonight when Sheldon brings his California Cool Quartet to Spaghettini's in Seal Beach. But it's a safe bet that Sheldon will be every bit as entertaining, given his menu of songs, lyrics and wisecracks.

Sheldon--who also leads a big band, occasionally appears solo and has had a second career for decades as a character actor--said he recently dubbed his working combo "California Cool" because of the Golden State's golden weather.

"It's one of the reasons I love California," said Sheldon, a Florida native who grew up in Detroit. "It can be so hot during the day but cool and comfortable at night. It's the only place in the country like that."

"Cool" also suggests the bebop-inspired sound that developed in California in the '50s, spurred by such musicians as Shorty Rogers, Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre and others, including Sheldon. It's the trumpeter's connection to this vibrant period in West Coast jazz that surfaces when he plays today.

One member of the CCQ lineup bridges the gap between today and what Sheldon refers to as that "golden age" of music. Sheldon became familiar with Milcho Leviev, the Cool Quartet's pianist, when both worked with the legendary saxophonist Pepper. It was while Sheldon was trumpeter in the house band for Griffin's daily talk-variety show in the '70s that he and Leviev met.

Sheldon met Pepper, whom he lists as one of the great alto players of all time, in the mid-'50s.

"He was one of the first guys I met when I was with the [Stan] Kenton band. I remember he was appearing with the Dave Pell Octet at Jazz City on the corner of Hollywood and Western, and I was playing across the street with [bassist] Curtis Counce at Peacock Alley and I would run over there to see him. We recorded that album 'The Return of Art Pepper' with [drummer] Shelley Manne." That album has been reissued on Blue Note as "The Complete Art Pepper Aladdin Recordings, Vol. I."

Pepper's career was interrupted by long prison stints for drug possession. "It really messed him up," Sheldon said. "I used him in my band when we played a place in Monterey, and he used to just stay in the motel room. He'd only come out to do the job. He was so used to being cooped up he didn't know any other way to live."

While Sheldon is treasured by a group of fans for his stories of the glory days with Pepper, Counce and others, he's also developed a large contingent of Generation X devotees who have come to his music through an unlikely source. His is the voice singing "Conjunction Junction" on the long-running ABC-TV children's show "Scholastic Rock."

Sheldon has recorded "Conjunction Junction" for an upcoming album and will appear at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in August with vocalist-composer Bob Dorough to do music from the show.

"When people find out I did 'Conjunction Junction,' they love it," he said. "So now I have this different following who really doesn't know anything about me. Even Clint Eastwood's new wife drags him in to see me because she knows that music."

Then, in typical Sheldon style, he cracks: "She must be all of 14 years old . . . but she has the body of a 9-year-old."

Sheldon maintains a busy schedule with appearances and occasional film work. He portrays a down-on-his-luck trumpeter (natch) in the upcoming film "Dear God," directed by Garry Marshall.

His latest album, "Jack Is Back!" (Butterfly) is a big-band date, directed by Orange County resident Tom Kubis, which includes Griffin doing a vocal turn. A duet recording with Ross Tompkins is due later this year.

But Sheldon is generally at his best in front of a small audience, playing with lightness and agility, singing with gusto and cutting up between tunes.

He's been known to reminisce about his early days in music from the bandstand as well as direct some good-natured teasing at both the crowd and himself. At his last Spaghettini gig, Sheldon lamented, "Yes, I'm fat. I don't know how it happened. I just woke up this way. It was something right out of Kafka."

* The Jack Sheldon California Cool Quartet, with pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Nick Martinis, plays tonight at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. 7:30-11:30 p.m. No cover. (310) 596-2199.

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