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Jack Sheldon Interview

Jack Sheldon (1931–2019) had a hell of a life. He was an all-time great jazz trumpet player and first-call session musician. (Buy the documentary!)

Here he is on flugelhorn for the love theme from Klute by Michael Small (1971):

He was also an actor and stand-up comic...

And a unique-sounding vocalist...

If you’re a Gen-Xer like me, his voice probably sounds familiar from childhood:

And, for you folks who only pay attention if it’s Star Trek (hi, Neil!), he was the Holodeck piano player who kids Riker, “Don’t quite your day job,” on the classic TNG first-season episode, “11001001” (although not the session keyboardist who played the track):

In film, his defining trumpet performance is probably for Johnny Mandel on The Sandpiper, which we released on a 3CD Mandel set also including The Americanization of Emily and Drums of Africa:

My all-time favorite scoring session anecdote comes from this project. Conductor Robert Armbruster (also M-G-M’s head of music) was giving Sheldon lengthy musical instruction, using the formal Italian terms. Sheldon replied, “Hey man, this is just a hobby for me.”

For our CD project in 2008 (still available at SAE!), liner note author Deniz Cordell did a new interview with Sheldon—and I found the entire transcript when organizing my files last week.

I reached out to Deniz to get his approval, which he kindly gave, and added:

“I remember Sheldon being gregarious, funny and smart on the phone, and I have this vague recollection that when we were talking he was either watching Jeopardy! or that I had to call him before Jeopardy! was on. The man had his priorities.”

R.I.P. to one of the legends. Here’s the transcript:


(his style of playing at the time of The Sandpiper) I just tried to play as good as I can.

(collaboration with Mandel on coming up with the right sound) I don’t think much at all… he had the music, it was written out, and I just came in and played it.

(on Robert Armbruster) We just tried to stay together (laughs)… I went in a couple of times, when, just the orchestra, we had them recorded, and I played along with that. It’s a beautiful score, Johnny Mandel is just a genius.

You know, I always just try to play as well as I can, you know, as good as I can, and—he [Mandel] likes it his way. Mostly we just came in and did it. I came in one day and did it all by myself one day, and then I did it along with the orchestra. Uan Rasey was the other trumpet player—well there were a few other trumpet players—but, Uan Rasey, he was my teacher, too. So, it was great to work with him, and he’s a great trumpet player.

(on other influences) “Sweets” [Harry “Sweets” Edison] was always popular, and he had such a style—I knew “Sweets” well, and I knew Miles [Davis] real well, so both of them were great influences on me. “Sweets” had a style that was quite, you could tell him real good, so… He was doing all kinds of stuff, and he always had certain little things that he would do in records. He did a lot with Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, and he had little things that he would do, and he always influenced me a lot, so… I love Harry Edison.

(on stories about the sessions) I remember I stayed over one day to do a lot of stuff, and then I went up to San Francisco after that and played in a club up there with my little band. Everybody knew each other then, it was a great bunch of guys. Howard Roberts was there on the guitar, there was a great flute player that always worked with us, and my teacher, Uan Rasey, was playing first trumpet. And he was always… he showed me how to play, really. And Johnny Mandel, of course, is such a great composer, when he writes, he gets his sound. He’s one of the greatest of all.

(on Howard Roberts and Joe Mondragon) Joe Mondragon was a close friend of mine, we were all real close friends, really… No, they were the top guys, if anything, they brought me on [to the picture], because they were working much more than I was. Joe Mondragon did every day, then Howard Roberts did every day, then I was just… they let me come in. But we played a lot together after that, at nighttime, and before that, too, I guess, we were playing together in clubs and everything. We played together a lot in San Francisco. And Johnny Mandel played with us too, he was sort of a bass trumpet player, and he would play with us also.

(the role of his soli in the picture) Well [I brought], just, you know, my sound, and my soul, and my heart, you know, and everything, the whole thing that I got, you know. To me, I was very important to it—I don’t know how Johnny Mandel felt about it. He’s one of the greatest composers of all time, so I was just honored—it was a thrill to work with him, and to have that whole orchestra, it’s really a thrill, when you’re there—you know, playing a solo with them—it’s a thrill that you can’t really describe, there’s nothing like it—you’re the solo over it. It’s just a great thing.

(other thoughts on the score) All of it—the solo trumpet part was great throughout the whole score. Oh, I think it’s one of the greatest [scores] of all time. It still holds up, it’s still thrilling, it’s still a great score; and it really describes the ocean, and in that Monterey sort of sound. And he went up there and wrote it right there, I think—he went up, and watched them film it, and was very close to the whole operation. It was Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who I never met, but you know…

(on the West Coast Jazz Sound) Well, there certainly is that—we had kind of a movement, back with Shorty Rogers and Zoot Sims and people that played… but I don’t think there’s much difference between the West Coast and the East Coast, except the East Coast is a little harder, maybe, because there’s more traffic there, and it’s harder to get to the date. But then, I went back and played on the East Coast, and everybody was back-and-forth—bi-coastal, you might say. I went back and played with Benny Goodman—went all over the world with him, and Stan Kenton and different bands, and mostly with Benny Goodman. But, you know, there’s not that much difference, you just try and hit the notes on either coast—whatever coast you’re on. Of course, there’s more traffic on the East Coast, so it’s a little harder to get to the job, so when you’re on the West Coast, everything’s relaxed, and you just go park your car right in the front, but on the East Coast, you know, it’s hell to get to the job—so you have a little different mood. (Pause) That make any sense at all?

It’s a whole different thing there—here we just walk around, and it’s like the beach weather and everything—and there it’s… you go up east to get out of the city. Whenever I was down there, I would stay in the city. I went there and played with Benny Goodman a lot, and I would go up to his place, up out in the country, but I would usually stay in the city, so it’s a whole different feeling.

(More on Mandel) He did great work, and he’s got his own sound. Completely his own sound, like an instrumentalist does when you play, you know, you’ve got your own sound—and Johnny Mandel did that with the writing. He’s a real genius. He’s one of my favorite composers of all time, and I work with him every chance I get.

(on performing The Sandpiper since the recording session) I’ve been playing it, since we did it, so it’s really a big part of my act. (on the change in interpretation since 1964) Well, I hope I’m better now, but I mean, who knows? I mean, I keep practicing all these years so, I hope I’m a little better than I was then. I was pretty good then, but you know, you keep trying to get better and better.

(on the FSM box set) I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Thanks for including me.


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