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Ken Peplowski Remembers Jack Sheldon

The clarinetist pays tribute to the trumpeter, Schoolhouse Rock! vocalist, and Merv Griffin Show regular (11/30/31 – 12/27/19)

Jack Sheldon
Jack Sheldon at the Palo Alto Jazz Festival, September 1987 (photo: Brian McMillen)

It was the late 1980s or early ’90s when I got a phone call out of the blue from Jack Sheldon. I’d played with him on and off over the years on my trips to L.A., and also on the road and in the studio with Mel Tormé and Marty Paich. “I’m going to be in Atlantic City for a month with Merv Griffin and I need a place to play on my Monday nights off,” Jack said. I’d been playing quite frequently at a club on 97th and Broadway called J’s and I suggested that I could talk to them about Jack doing four Mondays in a row. I explained to him that the gig only paid $100 per musician and they wouldn’t cover transportation or hotel costs. Jack eagerly took the gig with no further negotiations, asked to play with me and my rhythm section, and duly drove the three hours there and back for four Monday nights in a row, wowed the packed club for a month, and vanished off into the distance when it was done.

This was not at all atypical of Jack Sheldon, a man whom musicians will know as an incredibly gifted trumpet player with a warm, burnished tone and an endless flow of surprising and lyrical improvisations. To most non-musicians, he was Merv Griffin’s comic foil on TV and an occasional actor (and one of the voices of Schoolhouse Rock!). The Jack I knew was all of these things. He was a natural comedian with some very risqué humor; on one of my first gigs with him, he opened with five minutes of shocking material, resulting in boos and hisses from the audience along with some walkouts, and that’s before we played a note!

But many people couldn’t seem to reconcile the fact that the comic Jack could be the same person as the master balladeer, the virtuoso trumpet player, and the vocalist who found meanings in songs that one never knew existed. He was both a serious musician and a very funny guy, a restless soul who was at times almost painfully shy when the comic facade came down. On the tour of Japan with Mel, we could hear him practicing almost nonstop in his room, on the bus, in the dressing room—always on a quest to achieve a level that only he deemed ultimately unachievable.

I fear that Jack could never quite understand how much he moved people with his music. His self-effacement was, although comic, definitely not an act, and I always felt his humor was almost a form of therapy just to get himself up on stage to a place where he could then open up his heart and soul and give us some incredibly honest and deep music. To me, he seemed to live to make music, and our lives are that much more enriched by his generous gifts.


Oh, and Johnny Mandel wrote “The Shadow of Your Smile” with him in mind.