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Remembering Jazz Trumpeter, Singer And Actor Jack Sheldon

Sheldon, who died Dec. 27, sang with Benny Goodman and was bandleader and sidekick for Merv Griffin's talk show for many years. Originally broadcast in 1993.




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Other segments from the episode on January 10, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 10, 2020: Obituary for Buck Henry; Obituary for Jack Sheldon; Review of TV series 'The Outsider.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Jazz musician Jack Sheldon died last month at age 88. As a big-band and recording soloist on trumpet, he was featured with Sinatra, Bennett, Goodman, Basie and Gillespie. His bandmates have included Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Zoot Sims. For listeners of a certain age, Jack Sheldon may be even more familiar for singing one of the bounciest and most memorable songs from "Schoolhouse Rock!".


JACK SHELDON: (As Bill, singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it's a long, long journey to the capital city. It's a long, long wait while I'm sitting in committee. But I know I'll be a law someday, at least I hope and pray that I will, but today I am still just a bill.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, Bill. You certainly have a lot of patience and courage.

SHELDON: (As Bill) Well, I got this far. When I started, I wasn't even a bill. I was just an idea. Some folks back home decided they wanted a law passed, so they called their congressmen. And he said, you're right. There ought to be a law. And he sat down and wrote me out...

BIANCULLI: In addition to bringing his hip way of singing to "Schoolhouse Rock!," Jack Sheldon has played on the soundtracks of nearly four dozen films, including "The Pawnbroker," "The Pink Panther" and "White Men Can't Jump." And he recorded the very first rendition of "The Shadow Of Your Smile" for the film "The Sandpiper." For 18 years, Sheldon was resident comedian for the band on "The Merv Griffin Show," then led his own big band in Southern California. He played on such TV themes as "The Munsters" and "Peter Gunn."

Terry Gross spoke with trumpeter Jack Sheldon in 1993 when he had just released an album of duets called "On My Own," featuring Ross Tompkins on piano.


SHELDON: (Singing) This love of mine goes on and on, though life is empty since you have gone. You're always on my mind, though out of sight. It's lonely through the day. But all the night I cry my heart out. It will surely break since nothing matters. Just let it break. I ask the sun and the moon, the stars that shine, what's to become of it, this love of mine?


TERRY GROSS: Jack Sheldon, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SHELDON: Thanks. It's nice to be here.

GROSS: I don't know why I had this image of you, but I always thought of you as somebody who relied a lot on humor in their singing and music. And there's something so emotionally naked about some of the songs on your new record that really surprised me. I really love the singing and the playing on it. Is the choice of material or the kind of singing that you're doing a relatively recent development with you, the kind of...

SHELDON: Well, I've been trying to...

GROSS: ...Ballad that you're doing?

SHELDON: ...I think I'm singing better now. I'm studying singing. And I'm - so I just can do it better. But I've been doing it all my life. It's - yeah, it's more naked, I think, and more - I like that, emotionally naked. That's good. Yeah, I guess I'm just developing into where I can do more personal, you know, stuff and better pitch and just things I've been working on. And studying it, too, helps.

GROSS: Well, that's interesting. Tell me what you're getting from learning how to sing - I mean, taking formal lessons.

SHELDON: Well, just real simple stuff, but, you know, to have a lot of foundation, get a lot of air, and use your diaphragm. And I notice now when I am - if I'm having trouble with a note, it's really because I don't have the foundation there to, you know, get a lot of air in my stomach and my diaphragm and to open my mouth wide. You just learn real simple things that you think you do but you don't really. And then practice the pitch and the articulation.

It's just things like the trumpet with, you know, hitting every note precisely in pitch. And it's good to take lessons and study like that because then you have - you do what you do, and then somebody can criticize you and in a nice way. They're real nice to me, and they're real encouraging.

GROSS: Was there another change that happened to you besides taking lessons? Did something happen emotionally that left you more open to this kind of material?

SHELDON: Well, I got sober eight years ago. And I don't drink or take drugs or do anything like that. And I think that left me teachable. Before that, I thought I was really cool and I knew everything. So - and I didn't want to take lessons. I thought I was better than the teachers, you know? And I really just didn't know what I was doing. And then I - when I got sober, I found out there was a lot of stuff that I didn't know and that people didn't use me - not because they didn't like me or anything - because I couldn't produce what they wanted. Now I'm trying to get to be able to do anything any composer might want.

GROSS: When you were playing in the 1950s, bop was the thing.


GROSS: And very few of the instrumentalists sang. Did you sing back then, and were you self-conscious about singing at all?

SHELDON: Yeah, I was always self-conscious about singing. I wanted to sing, but it's so personal, singing. And I started singing with Benny Goodman's band. And that was about 1958. And I wrote a song, and Benny let me sing. He was the first bandleader that would ever let me sing. Stan Kenton wouldn't let me sing, no, because he always was afraid I would say something too off-color, which I probably would have.

GROSS: Did you have a reputation for doing that?

SHELDON: Yes. I worked with Lenny Bruce, and I was trying to kind of emulate him at the time.

GROSS: What kind of work do you do with Lenny Bruce? You were in the band plan playing at the club or something?

SHELDON: Yeah. In burlesque, I worked with Lenny Bruce. We worked with his wife, Honey, and Jo Maney and Philly Joe Jones and Kenny Drew and Leroy Vinnegar. We had quite a real good band there. And we played burlesque at a place called Duffy's in Los Angeles. And Lenny was the comic, and we did all kind of - he would write stuff, and we'd act out. We did "The Man With The Golden Arm" and...

GROSS: Oh, really? Like your own version of that? (Laughter).

SHELDON: Yeah, a burlesque version.

GROSS: Oh, that must have been interesting.

SHELDON: Yeah, it was funny. I think it ended up where the guy flushed the dope down the toilet, and then Lenny said, there's nothing - there's only one thing to do, is smoke the toilet. It doesn't sound so funny now. You really had to be there, I guess.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: That's Jack Sheldon speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. He died last month at age 88. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1993 interview with jazz trumpeter and singer Jack Sheldon. He died last month at age 88.


GROSS: It's interesting to me. You know, you're taking lessons now in singing and trumpet, and I'm glad for the fact that you're not becoming overly obsessive in your performance on technique. I mean, you still, like, play trumpet solos in which there's kind of clear, ringing notes but also these, like, wonderful, like, smudged arpeggiated kind of figures. You know what I mean? I'd hate for you...

SHELDON: Yeah, I don't think there's much chance...

GROSS: ...To give that up just because you're learning good technique. (Laughter) Yeah.

SHELDON: No, yeah. I'm going to have that smudge for life, I guess. My teacher says that. He says, I don't want to ruin your style or anything. But I don't think there's much chance of that. It just - I would like to get as clean as I can. But the smudge is there. I think it's in my bones.

GROSS: (Laughter). Why don't I play another track from your latest album, "On My Own?" And I thought I'd play some of "I Can't Get Started" 'cause it kind of shows off everything - your trumpet playing, your singing. And it shows both, like, the emotionalism of your singing and also some of the humor in it, too.

SHELDON: OK. Thanks.


SHELDON: (Singing) I've flown around the world in a plane. I've settled revolutions in Spain. The North Pole, I have charted. Still, I can't get started with you. Around the golf course, I'm under par. And Benny Goodman made me a star. I had a house, a showplace, now she got that, and I got no place. And I also couldn't get started with you (laughter). You're so supreme.

GROSS: That's Jack Sheldon on trumpet and vocals from his new album, "On My Own." There's a really interesting documentary about the trumpeter Chet Baker that you were featured in. You were one of the people interviewed about Baker. And I remember you saying that - and I should mention that like you, Chet Baker played trumpet and sang. And you were very funny about him. You talked a little bit about how frustrating it was that he never - you know, you were always in a room rehearsing, you know, practicing. And he never had to practice or anything. He always just had this sound. And he always...

SHELDON: Nope, he never did. I hear Harry James never had to practice, but I have to practice all the time. Doc Severinsen practices all the time. But, you know, I was singing back there with Chetty (ph) when we were little kids, come to think of it. We were both singing, and we'd sing together. And we were - we grew up together. And we would sing. We had a little quartet. We'd go around and play in little bars for $2 or anything we'd get. We just would drive up.

The bass player, Hirsch Hamill (ph), had a Pierce Arrow. And we'd have the bass in there. And, you know, it was a 12-cylinder old car with a place for a chauffeur and everything.

GROSS: How old were you then?

SHELDON: Oh, I was about 14, 15. I was about 15 - or 16, I guess.

GROSS: And how did you...

SHELDON: Yeah, 'cause I was in Florida when I was 14. I was 16, and Chetty was about - I think about 18 or 19.

GROSS: How did you meet?

SHELDON: I think at a place called the Showtime, which was on Sepulveda and Ventura Boulevard. And there was a jam session on Monday nights, and all the guys that were on the road would come in there. I got to play with Art Blakey in there and Stan Kenton and a bunch of people. Maynard Ferguson would come in there. And Chetty and I would always just sit in. To me, it was, you know, the - a glittering night of stars of jazz, and I was just thrilled to be there.

GROSS: Now how did you get to the West Coast from Florida, where you grew up?

SHELDON: Well, my aunt came out here first from Florida, and she was a swimming teacher. Crystal Scarborough was her name. And she taught babies how to swim. And then we moved out here, and my mother started teaching swimming. And I taught swimming, too. And we got a pool on Hollywood Boulevard. My mother taught all the movie stars' kids how to swim - Paul Newman and Lee Remick, every movie star at the time, Nat Cole. I taught Natalie and Kelly Cole how to swim.

GROSS: Really? (Laughter).

SHELDON: And used to have Kelly in the pool with me, and Nat Cole would be walking around the pool smoking cigarettes. He was a chain-smoker. And I'd have Kelly sing (singing) when the blue of the night meets the gold of the day - you know, Bing Crosby's theme song. And Nat would go ha, ha, ha.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHELDON: Slightly humorous. But I taught a lot of kids. I taught all of Paul Newman's kids. In fact, one of his daughters used to bite me on the ankle when I'd be talking to Joanne Woodward.

GROSS: How old were you when you started working professionally and when you started playing with other bands?

SHELDON: I was 12 in Jacksonville, Fla. And I had just started playing the trumpet, and I started working with Jean Brandt's (ph) band at the Washington Hotel there. Everybody was gone in the war, and so I started working. And then I came to California and went to - started college at 16. I started to go to USC, and then I switched over to City College 'cause they had such a good music department.

So I went to college there for a couple of years, then I joined the Air Force. And I got out of the Air Force, and I worked a lot with Mexican bands. I worked the Million Dollar Theater, downtown Los Angeles, all-Mexican shows. And then I went in the - I joined Stan Kenton and went round, went to New York and played at Birdland with Stan Kenton and Chet Baker was already there in New York. And he was already acting real wild. He got - he played opposite Miles Davis. And this threw him off. Before he went to New York, he would just - he would smoke grass sometimes. But then he got all involved in heroin and everything else in New York. And then, you know, he got really messed up then. And he never really was the same after that 'cause he was a great kid, and then he got too wild. But he always was a great genius of a trumpet player.

GROSS: I want to ask you something else about your sound. Do you think that there's a connection between the way you sing and the way you play trumpet?

SHELDON: Oh, I think so, yeah. Just, you know, all the wrong things I do on the trumpet I do with the voice, too. But I'm trying to eliminate that now and get - so I - you know, I want my pitch to be better and preciseness now. That's what I'm getting with my lessons. You know, in jazz, we can hit a note and go (vocalizing) - kind of come up to it. And in classical music, you have to be precisely on the pitch, singing and playing the trumpet. And this is something that I never really watched when I was - I always had pretty good pitch, but I would, you know, come up to notes or go down to them. And in the classical music, my teachers always stopping me and say, no, right on the pitch. Hit the note on the pitch. I think it just helps, if anything. It just makes you more efficient and competent.

GROSS: Jack Sheldon, thank you very much for talking with us.

SHELDON: Well, thank you. I'm so flattered you had me on. It's a thrill. I love your show. And it's a great show. And thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: That was trumpeter and vocalist Jack Sheldon speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. Jack Sheldon died last month. He was 88 years old. Let's hear one more of his great performances from "Schoolhouse Rock!"


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, how's that function?

SHELDON: (Singing) I got three favorite cars that get most of my job done.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's their function?

SHELDON: (Singing) I got and, but and or. They'll get you pretty far.

And - that's an additive, like this and that. But - that's sort of the opposite - not this but that. And then there's or - O-R - when you have a choice like this or that. And, but and or get you pretty far.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up two boxcars and making them run right. Milk and honey, bread and butter, peas and rice.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hey, that's nice.

SHELDON: (Singing) Dirty but happy, diggin' and scratchin', losing your shoe and a button or two. He's poor but honest, sad but true. Boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

BIANCULLI: (Singing) Hooking up two cars to one when you say something like this choice. Either now or later or no choice. Neither now nor ever.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hey, that's clever.

SHELDON: (Singing) Eat this or that to grow thin or fat. Never mind. I wouldn't do that. I'm fat enough now.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up phrases and clauses that balance, like out of the frying pan and into the fire. He cut loose the sandbags, but the balloon wouldn't go any higher. Let's go up to the mountains or down to the seas. You should always say thank you or at least say please.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up words and phrases and clauses and complex sentences like, in the mornings when I'm usually wide awake...

BIANCULLI: That's Jack Sheldon from "Schoolhouse Rock!" If you want to hear interviews and performances with the jazz musicians Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg, who wrote many of the songs for Schoolhouse Rock!" - visit our website and click on the magnifying glass search icon and type in "Schoolhouse Rock!" Or visit the Jazz Legends collection to listen to our interviews with other giants of jazz, such as Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Nancy Wilson and Max Roach. After a break, our critic-at-large, John Powers, reviews the new HBO series "The Outsider," based on a novel by Stephen King. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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