Word spread quickly among his devoted fans. Jack Sheldon was back!
At least for two nights, Friday, Nov. 29th, and Saturday, Nov. 30th, which happened to be the great jazz master’s 82nd birthday.
Two years after suffering a debilitating stroke that robbed him of the use of his right arm and hand, the hand that played all those amazing flattened fifth notes and made Sheldon one of the world’s pre-eminent bebop brass players, Jack was back on stage before a packed house at Catalina Jazz Club in the heart of Hollywood.
In the interest of full disclosure, together with Penny Peyser, I produced a feature documentary on the life of Sheldon called, “Trying to Get Good: the Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon.” As his biographer, I thought I had seen it all.
Literally, all he had to give. After his stroke, I thought that was it.
Never again would the world hear the unique sound that comes from his trumpet and his trumpet alone. Never again would audiences hear that distinctive raspy voice that rocked the schoolhouse, teaching two generations how a bill becomes a law or how a conjunction functions.
And all those laughs! Gone forever with his speech reduced to an incomprehensible garble.
The man who had performed everywhere was now nowhere to be seen.
After 60 years on stage Sheldon vanished behind the gates of his Hollywood Hills home. Rumors of Jack sightings occasionally circulated though the jazz world, with the “Jazz Times” magazine erroneously reporting Sheldon’s death in 2012.
“I’m only slightly dead,” Sheldon said when told of his demise.
And then slowly, with great determination, the man who has spent his entire life “trying to get good” determined to get better.
With the devoted attention of his longtime manager Diane Jimenez and the invaluable assistance of physical therapist Cynthia Bomaster, Sheldon began the long journey back to the stage.
The challenge was enormous.
After 75 years playing the trumpet right-handed, Jack would have to relearn his instrument playing left-handed.
He would have to reconstruct his embouchure, the critical shape of the trumpeter’s mouth that creates the wind column that makes his instrument come to life.
He would have to learn to speak again.
He would have to learn to sing again.
And so began the daily grind.
I mean every day, Christmas and New Year’s; there would be no vacations, no days of rest. For Jack Sheldon, it was play or die.
Last May the first signs of recovery arrived. Longtime Sheldon pianist Joe Bagg, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Dave Tull got the call: Jack was ready to play.
But he wasn’t ready to be heard.
A series of practice sessions were held in his living room. A lucky few were invited. I was one of the fortunate.
“I need a year,” he said. “Give me a year.”
But Catalina Popescu, the mistress of Catalina Jazz Club, had other ideas. She gave Jack a deadline, his birthday weekend, and Sheldon said yes.
The club was packed both nights, the crowd nervous yet giddy to be part of local history. The man who had literally grown up on Hollywood Boulevard — his mother ran the famous Jen Loven Swim School at Hollywood & Western — had to be helped on stage before settling into his chair at the head of the 17-piece Jack Sheldon Orchestra. His always-expressive face couldn’t hide the impact of the moment as a thunderous ovation welcomed him back into the spotlight.
With his good left hand, Jack counted off the band, and the orchestra launched into the evening’s first song. Jack sang tentatively at first, then with gusto.
“Just in time, I found you just in time. Before you came, my time was running low… No more doubt or fears, I’ve found my way…”
The notes may not have been as smooth as they once were, the horn might have gone flat when he meant for it to be sharp, but for Jack Sheldon fans this was a weekend to treasure, a weekend we didn’t think possible.
But Hollywood is place where the impossible is possible.
Now, after having nearly lost this local treasure, maybe it’s just possible the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce will finally do the right thing and award Jack Sheldon a star on the Walk of Fame.
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sunday & Wednesday. He can be reached at: Doug@KABC.com