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Jack Sheldon: Keeping His Chops Up

Don Heckman catches up with trumpeter, vocalist and bon vivant

Jack Sheldon

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.

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