JJ 01/81: It don’t mean a thing…

Forty years ago, on a jazz pilgrimage to California, Steve Voce observed that the demands of the Hollywood studios meant there were no mediocre musicians on the West Coast. First published in Jazz Journal January 1981

Jack Sheldon on the trumpet. Photo © JJ Archive

Be Alert
We need more lerts, read the California bumper sticker. “That bland climate destroys a musician’s fire,” Jimmy Knepper told us on our return from two weeks in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Jimmy, himself a native of LA, finds the bite of a New York winter or the atmosphere of Harlem much more inspiring. I couldn’t agree with him: all the jazz I heard in LA was played with great fire and outstanding skill. The skills are demanded by the studios, where the musicians have to be able to play anything (Frankie Capp spends two mornings a week recording for cartoons – he’s the drummer on any Hanna-Barbera cartoon you ever saw). This means that there aren’t any mediocre musicians.

On the night Jenny and I heard Juggernaut at Carmelo’s in the San Fernando Valley the entire trumpet section was made up of deps. They were all brilliant, and the only one we’d ever heard of was Pete Candoli (not a bad name for a dep!). Bill Berry’s LA Band at the same club had a dep trombonist who nobody had ever heard of – Dave Rubenstein – and he blew his ass off, to use the vernacular.

Pete Candoli, like all the people we met out there, was a very likeable and popular character, as well as being a fine player, and apparently much-married, including Betty Hutton and Edie Adams as his former wives. “I make a living,” Jack Sheldon told us later, “just playing at Pete’s weddings.”

The hospitality was overwhelming, particularly from Bill Berry, Nat Pierce, Frankie Capp and Nancy Frey, so that we found the time flew by and we managed to do few of the many things we had planned. How’s this for a dilemma? Bob Cooper had suggested we come to a Bill Holman Big Band rehearsal at the Hollywood AFM, but Shorty Rogers had invited us out to his house that same morning.

In the event we went to Shorty’s, where we met more great hospitality and recorded a long interview which will appear in a subsequent edition of this magazine. We also recorded a hilarious and informative couple of hours with Frankie Capp, full of anecdotes. Frankie Capp is perhaps the least-known major jazz musician around to-day, with a jazz career going back 30 years. “How did I come to join Stan Kenton? He phoned me up and asked if I had fourteen-inch cymbals. I said yes, he said you’re hired!”

Save A Tree
Eat a beaver, said the bumper sticker. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon works on the daily Merv Griffin Show with Plas Johnson, Ray Brown, Nick Ceroli and others. He has an answer-phone with a recorded message from him on it. If he’s home he lets the machine answer and listens, and if he wants the call he speaks ‘live’. We were favoured and arranged to meet him at the theatre on Vine Street (about a hundred yards from Hollywood and Vine). My impression of Jack will stay with me forever, although he raised my contemporary spectre. “You think I’m weird. You should interview Gene Roland!

‘Stan got a girl away from me in New York one time. She wanted a taller man. Lovely girl, she had one of those teeth that stick out, what you call it? Buck tooth, that’s it. I love those. She could eat an apple at arm’s length’

“Kenton? Oh yeah, I had fun with that band. There were five trumpets, so you really didn’t have to play the music or anything because it was so loud you couldn’t tell whether you were playing along with them or not. So I would just play anything and look out and watch everybody, and Stan would stand out front shouting ‘Louder! Louder! Higher!’. I think some of the guys played the music though.”

“Stan got a girl away from me in New York one time. She wanted a taller man. Lovely girl, she had one of those teeth that stick out, what you call it? Buck tooth, that’s it. I love those. She could eat an apple at arm’s length.”

I asked Jack about his work on the Merv Griffin Show. “We accompany every act known to mankind. Mess Of Mutts; Cremo, The Swedish Juggling Act; The Australian Boomerang Act; Bertha, The Drumming Elephant.”

The finest jazz we heard during our stay was on an album Frankie Capp played for us. It was by Lena Horne and, in addition to Frankie, featured the trumpet of Jack Sheldon. He was on such form that he matched the best of anything Buck or Bobby Hackett have done. I think the album was called ‘Lovely And Alive – Lena Horne’ on RCA, and I’d give a lot of green men for a copy. But, since an early foray when he worked with Julie London, Jack has had a reputation as a brilliant, inspired and original comic. He plays this role as well as trumpet with Bill Berry’s LA Big Band.

“It’s a wonderful band. I used to play with the section till the section took a vote, and now I just do my act.” I asked Jack about Bill Berry’s manner of introducing him to audiences: “All the big bands had a glamorous girl singer, and we’d like you to meet ours, Jack Sheldon.”

“Yeah well. I only wear the gown because it’s easier for me to sing and freer for me to breathe. It’s no reflection of the way I feel about anything. It’s just a basic black gown. It ain’t fancy at all. Some Swiss running and jumping shoes, a purple sash, that’s all.”

Back in the sixties Jack had his own television show, ‘Run, Buddy, Run,’ a serial about a man on the run from gangsters. “Did you ever see it in England? They didn’t show it over there? Only in Fresno. Shown only in Fresno, and only one family watched it. An old wino and his dog. And the dog walked out.”

Get Really Stoned
Drink wet cement, the sticker instructed. No space for much more about the people, the music. The Californians on the West Coast have got it right, and I understood and would dearly like to emulate the British jazz writers who’ve made their homes there. Just a few musical highlights.

The full-bodied acoustic guitar of Ray Pohlman, producing a mellow sound which still cuts through the massed horns of Juggernaut. The drumming of Capp, instinctive and perfect in every setting. Seeing all the things we’ve always said about Nat Pierce confirmed before our eyes – a master jazz musician! Bill Berry playing cornet on his own arrangement of Stardust. The greatest tenor pack in the world for my money – Bob Cooper and Red Holloway (Juggernaut) and Pete Christlieb and Jackie Kelso (Bill Berry band). Kelso subsequently played some of the best lead alto I’ve ever heard with Juggernaut. Corla Bryant, girl trumpeter with Berry and a fantastic Louis imitator. Berry’s small group, introduced as The Bobcats and playing Groovin’ High – Conte Candoli, Med Flory, Pierce, Monte Bud wig, Capp. Bob Efford blowing and his wife Joan singing with the Berry band. And on and on.

Amongst the people we met were the Candolis, Lou Levy, Bob Cooper, Med Flory, Monte Budwig, Audree Coke and Bill Henderson. I was buying a drink at the bar when the man next to me insisted on paying. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Jake Hanna.” Jake was just back from a festival in Midland, Texas, where he’d played with Billy Butterfield, Carl Fontana and Urbie Green. You mean there are musicians in Texas, as well?