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Last of the Hepcats

July 28, 2002|STEVE LOPEZ

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.' "

'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."

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."

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