Three days before his 79th birthday on Nov. 30, 2010, Jack Sheldon was his usual sardonic, wickedly whimsical self. Seated amid his Jack Sheldon Orchestra, a round mound of melody and rhythm surrounded by some of Los Angeles’ finest players, he was doing what he’s done for the past five decades: keeping the jazz flame burning bright with his articulate bebop trumpet playing and between-tunes gag lines. “They sang ‘Happy Birthday,'” Sheldon says a couple days after that Catalina Bar & Grill performance. “But they didn’t give me a birthday cake.” Then, allowing a couple of beats to pass for perfect timing, he adds, “But I’m so fat, I don’t need any cake.”
A comparison of his current image with photos of the slender, striking Sheldon of the ’50s argues in favor of the trumpeter’s assessment: He has indeed increased his avoirdupois over the decades. But his trumpet playing is as trim and appealing as it was when he was a boon companion of such West Coast icons as Art Pepper, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan.