Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Passing of Yet Another Great

Jack Sheldon died this past week.  He was a trumpeter extraordinaire who worked with such legends as Art Pepper, Jerry Mulligan and Chet Baker.  He did music for Schoolhouse Rock, which was mixed in with my Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid.  A couple of his tunes included, “Conjunction Junction (What’s Your Function),” and “I’m Just a Bill (Yes I’m Only A Bill).”  Jack was also the trumpeter and bandleader for the Merv Griffin Show.

To see Jack live was a special treat, and I must say that I’m lucky to have had the chance ten or fifteen times.  He would sit with his guys, usually a quartet (piano, bass and drums) and he’d make the audience laugh, poke fun at them, be a little irreverent and keep everyone on their toes.  He told spicy jokes and shaggy dog stories, and yet he always knew where to pull back just before stepping over any lines.

And then he’d count….and one and two and three and…..then the quartet would get going with some hot acoustic jazz numbers with Jack singing, and then taking on a solo or two during each tune.  And brother, he could play.  He could get the most amazing tonality out of his horn and make it wiggle and waggle.  He embodied virtuosity.

It was always a good night with Jack Sheldon.  I saw him at Jax, in Glendale, at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, and at Chadney’s in Burbank, back in the day when the Chadney’s would absorb all of the after-hours musicians from NBC’s Tonight Show across the street; talented guys who wanted to blow, strum or drum off a little steam after work on the myriad of TV shows being recorded late afternoons in Burbank.  How many other places in the world could one sit down and see that many fantastic jazz musicians most nights of the week?

And I can’t think of Jack Sheldon without thinking of Ross Tompkins.  Ross was a virtuoso Jazz piano player who worked with Wes Montgomery, Benny Goodman and Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band for Johnny Carson.  Remember when they’d finish the tonight show theme each night and Ed McMahon would say, “Heeeee’s Johnny!” and you’d hear the piano player sprinkle some thirteenth notes in as the theme ended?  That was Ross Tompkins; impeccable timing, and he could play anything.

I mention Ross because he also played most of the same Jazz houses around town mentioned above as the network of jazz players always seemed connected with one another.  It’s the nature of the business.  A couple of these guys play with those guys on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then with others on Fridays and Saturdays.

My long time friend John and I stumbled into the Money Tree in Toluca Lake one night, probably around 1996 or so, and we sat down at a row of bar stools along a low counter, which was a unique built in feature lining the perimeter of the piano.  The club was intimate; dark inside with a subculture of jazz aficionados mixed with friendly east Valley locals.  There was a more formal bar on the right, and small tables throughout leaving just enough room around the piano for three or four musicians.

John and I sat down and ordered our drinks.  We saw that a duo was in that night and was just finishing setting up.  It was Jack Sheldon and Ross Tompkins.  John and I knew who they were of course, but to have them right in front of our table was something else.

Jack and Ross played a line of tunes that were some of the most wonderful I’ve ever experienced.  Some fast, some soaring, and all with the utmost skill and love.  With both of them such seasoned musicians, the audience was putty in their hands.  John and I would occasionally exchange, “This is just not of this earth” looks with one-another, and then we’d continue to enjoy this magic.

The last tune Jack and Ross played was Louis Armstrong’s, “What a Wonderful World” (written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss).  It would have been fully inappropriate for two men to be crying, but we almost were. Jack and Ross had closed this night with a performance that had entranced everyone in that room.  When John and I went outside after the show ended with that song, our hair was standing up on our heads.  I remember John slapping at a leaf on a nearby bush as we exited the club, in a way, emoting disbelief of what we had just witnessed. Neither of us had much else to say as it was an evening that couldn’t be topped. We were so lucky to have been there.

And so, I will close with this.  I met Jack Sheldon many times after this night, and I hired Ross Tompkins to play piano on an alternate version of my tune, “How I Loved You,” on my CD titled, “Watercolors over the Sea.”  I’ve yet to put that alternate take onto iTunes with the rest of the songs; I will soon.  How someone like me could hire a musician like Ross Tompkins proves that our universe does indeed have some seams. 

But these two men were not only fine, seasoned, legendary musicians, but they were such authentic people.  Such nice guys to sit and talk with.  I was in Jax in Glendale one night about six years ago watching Jack Sheldon’s quartet perform when Ross Tompkins walked in and sat next to me.  In between the numbers, Jack, Ross and I talked a bit, and I felt like I had known them for years.  I guess I had.

Note:  When you get the chance, grab a copy of the film “Trying To Get Good; the Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon,” which is an excellent documentary about Jack Sheldon’s life and music.

  Jack and I after his big band show at Catalina Bar & Grill

Ross and I after he laid down the piano tracks for my tune.