Thursday, May 7, 2015

Jack Sheldon - The Early Years

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Jack Sheldon’s puckish, vibrato-less, mid-range sound on trumpet has always been a favorite of mine dating back to the first time I heard him on the Contemporary Records he made with bassist Curtis Counce’s quintet in the 1950’s.

Jack was also a favorite of composer-arranger Marty Paich who used him on his [too few] big band recordings and paired him with alto saxophonist Art Pepper on the classic Art Pepper Plus Eleven Contemporary LP.

For a while, it seemed that Jack was everywhere on the West Coast Jazz scene including stints with bassist Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse Cafe All-Stars, Stan Kenton’s orchestra and Dave Pell’s octet.

In addition to the recordings he made with Curtis Counce and Art Pepper, Jack also made small group recordings with the Jimmy Giuffre Quartet, the Mel Lewis Sextet and the John Grass Nonet.

Ironically, for as much as I enjoyed Jack’s trumpet playing and held it in the highest esteem over the years, I never owned any of the recordings that he made under his own name for the Pacific Jazz and Jazz West labels.

That is, until these were collected and reissued on part of the limited West Coast Classics series release on a CD entitled - Jack Sheldon: The Quartet and Quintet [Pacific Jazz/Capitol CDP-93160].

Recorded on three separate occasions in 1954 and 1955, the 19 tracks on the CD feature Jack in a quintet with Joe Maini on alto sax, Kenny Drew on piano, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Lawrence Marable on drums, in a quartet with Walter Norris on piano, Ralph Pena on bass and Gene Gamage on drums and in a quintet with Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Norris on piano, Bob Whitlock on bass and Marable on drums.

While relistening to the CD recently, I thought that Bob Gordon’s insert notes and some comments about Jack from Ted Gioia’s seminal West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945 - 1960 might form a interesting blog feature about Sheldon’s earliest years in the music.

Ted’s book is available in a hard bound version from Oxford University Press and in paperback from the University of California Press. Unfortunately, Bob Gordon’s excellent book Jazz West Coast is no longer available but you can locate a complete posting of it to the JazzProfiles blog using the link at the end of this piece.

Ted and Bob’s books along with Alain Tercinet’s West Coast Jazz, which, unfortunately, has not been translated into English, constitute a published troika of seminal and definitive information about the style of Jazz that flourished in post World War II California from approximately 1945-1965.

Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945 - 1960, [pp. 322-323]

“... For most of his musical career, [Jack] Sheldon has been best known as an exceptional exponent of the cooler West Coast trumpet sound. … The influence of Chet Baker and Shorty Rogers is apparent at such moments. The [three recordings he made with bassist Curtis] Counce’s band, in contrast, gradually brought out a different side of Sheldon's playing. A more forceful, Clifford Brown-inflected style, perhaps reinforced by the presence of former Brown bandmate Harold Land, emerged during his tenure with the group. … flashes of this new approach are apparent on the band"s earliest work, it is with Sheldon's composition "Pink Lady," released on the Carl's Blues album, that the trumpeter makes his strongest statement in the new idiom. His sinewy melody line and assertive solo are the work of a dedicated hard-bopper.

Sheldon was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on November 30, 1931. Much of his childhood was spent in Detroit, where he began playing trumpet at age twelve, as part of a local school program. He came to California in 1947, and at age sixteen he enrolled at USC. Disenchanted with the music program, he transferred to Los Angeles City College, where Jack Montrose and Lennie Niehaus were also students.

After a stint in the air force, Sheldon began working and jamming in Southern California clubs. "I got started playing on Main Street in Los Angeles in real dives and playing in little trios—piano, bass, and trumpet. We played for two, three, five bucks a night." Soon Sheldon was working with Wardell Gray and Earl Bostic and sitting in with older musicians like Shorty Rogers and Art Pepper. Sheldon talks with some reluctance about his early experiences in the Counce band: "That was a good band. I was a little intimidated, though. I was the only white guy and I was very young. I didn't think I played as good as them. I didn't have the self-esteem, but I sort of held my own. But now I think I could do much better with that band."

Sheldon's stay in the Counce band ended when he joined the Kenton orchestra. In this setting — as in his later leader dates — Sheldon's playing often returned to the cooler West Coast orientation of his earliest work. For example, an excellent March 6, 1959, date as a leader finds him contributing several thoughtful and tasty solos in the company of an impressive line-up of West Coasters—among others, Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Harold Land, Mel Lewis, and Paul Moer. …”

Bob Gordon, Jack Sheldon: The Quartet and Quintet [Pacific Jazz/Capitol CDP-93160]. [Original paragraphing modified.]

“These performances represent a crucial juncture in Jack Sheldon's career. They were the first recordings to be made under his own leadership and, not coincidentally, offer a fascinating glimpse of a jazz musician finding his own voice.

Born November 30, 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida, Sheldon displayed a bent for music early on. Taking up the trumpet at age twelve, he proved to be a quick study and was playing his first professional gigs a year later with the bands of Gene Brandt and Tiny Moore. Sheldon moved to Los Angeles in 1947 and studied at L.A. City College for two years, then joined the Air Force at age nineteen, playing with Air Force bands in Texas and California. Upon his discharge in 1952, he played a couple of months with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars and then moved on to freelance work around the Los Angeles area.

During this period he recorded for the first time under the leadership of Jimmy Giuffre, a fellow alumnus of the Lighthouse crew. Following two Giuffre recording sessions for Capitol Records early in 1954, Jack was invited to record on his own for the Jazz West label, a subsidiary of Aladdin Records, in the summer of 1954. The eight resulting tracks were released later in the year on a ten-inch LP, the first offering of the Jazz West catalog. These performances appear here for the first time on CD.

The results of Jack's first record date are, admittedly, a bit schizophrenic. Jack is caught in the process of finding his own voice, and although the instantly recognizable style that he perfected in later years is sometimes evident, especially on the faster tunes, at times he sounds much like his potential crosstown rival, Chet Baker. This would hardly be surprising; Chet was at the time the focus of international acclaim.

Moreover, there is the obvious correspondence of instrumentation-trumpet plus rhythm-with pianist Walter Norris providing a function in Sheldon's quartet analogous to Russ Freeman's in the Chet Baker group. That is, Norris complemented Sheldon's lyrical trumpet lines with a hard, percussive attack and contributed compositions to the group's book that featured both highly original lines and unexpected chord progressions. The two remaining musicians of the quartet, bassist Ralph Pena and drummer Gene Gammage, provide solid support throughout these selections.

The second session for Jazz West was recorded about a year later, sometime in the Spring of 1955. (As was the case with many of the small independent labels of the day, there was a dearth of adequate record-keeping at the Jazz West offices.) Zoot Sims, always a welcome addition to a recording session, was happily added to the roster, which included Norris, bassist Bob Whitlock, and the fine drummer Larance Marable. (That is Marable's preferred spelling, by the way.)

By now Jack had pretty much found his own voice; the Chet Baker mannerisms are few and far between, and there is increasing evidence of Sheldon's own developing style.

The three sides cut for Pacific Jazz were the last on this CD to be recorded. These three selections have been reissued before, by the way, on Kenny Drew's Blue Note album, Talkin' & Walkin'. At this late date, it's impossible to determine why Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz initially recorded the group, then failed to follow up with enough additional sides to fill an album, although an obvious guess would be that quintet's hard-bop orientation didn't quite fit with the main focus of the Pacific Jazz catalog.

In any event, the three tunes were released singly on various Pacific Jazz anthologies. Sheldon is definitely his own man by this time, and Joe Maini's pungent alto provides a marvelous foil for the trumpeter. The rhythm section of Kenny Drew, Leroy Vinnegar, and Larance Marable is as strong as could be desired. These are very satisfying performances and it is gratifying to find them together once again.

Shortly after these selections were recorded, Sheldon joined Harold Land in the front line of the talent-laden Curtis Counce Group, one of the great working bands of the 1950s (of whatever coast). He went on to become a mainstay of the Los Angeles jazz scene, heard on many of the recordings-from small group to big band-that practically define the West Coast sound of the day.”

Bob Gordon’s Jazz West Coast link.
Ted Gioia's paperback edition of West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945 - 1960 link.

The following video features Jack on bassist Bob Whitlock’s Beach-wise with Zoot Sims on tenor saxophone, Walter Norris on piano and Larance Marable on drums.

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