Bebop and West Coast jazz great Jack Sheldon has died at age 88. The news was first reported via a Facebook post by his biographer and documentarian, Doug McIntyre, in which he shared an announcement from Cynthia Jimenez (the sister of Sheldon’s longtime manager, Dianne Jimenez) stating that the trumpeter, singer, and actor had passed away of undisclosed causes on Dec. 27. Dianne confirmed the news to The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday morning.
While the charismatic and hilarious Sheldon boasted an impressive résumé that included serving as the music director and sidekick on The Merv Griffin Show for 18 years; releasing 23 albums as a bandleader between 1955 and 2007; heading his own 17-piece orchestra; working with everyone from Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra to the Monkees and Tom Waits; and acting in various movies and TV shows, he is also lovingly remembered as the affable, lackadaisical crooner from the Schoolhouse Rock! cartoons of the 1970s, including "Conjunction Junction" and "I'm Just a Bill.”
Born on Nov. 20, 1931, Sheldon was seemingly destined to go into show business: His mother was Jen Loven, a drama teacher who founded a famous Los Angeles swimming school attended by the children of many Old Hollywood celebrities. He began playing music professionally at age 13, performed in military bands during his time in the Air Force in the late ‘40s, and eventually became a key player in the West Coast jazz scene in the 1950s.
During his lifetime, the longtime L.A. resident also racked up more than 70 screen credits, ranging from playing trumpet on the theme songs for Peter Gunn and The Munsters and on Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile” from The Sandpiper, to acting in Freaky Friday, Gilligan's Island, Dragnet, Marcus Welby M.D., Petticoat Junction, Adam 12, Police Woman, The Cara Williams Show, and even his own ‘60s sitcom, Run, Buddy, Run.
In November 1973, Sheldon joined the second season of Schoolhouse Rock! — ABC’s educational cartoon series masterminded by advertising executives David McCall and George Newall and led by renowned jazz pianist Bob Dorough — with "Conjunction Junction.” He went on to voice iconic characters in more than a dozen of the Emmy-nominated series’ animated shorts, including “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla,” “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” and "I'm Just a Bill.” The latter became such a signature song for Sheldon that he revisited his “Bill” role for parodies on both Family Guy and The Simpsons; he also recorded an R-rated “Conjunction” spoof for Family Guy. Sheldon and Dorough (who died in 2018) embarked on a club tour with a Schoolhouse Rock! revue in mid-‘90s.
“Jack is definitely one of a kind. …Los Angeles has a lot of great players, but I don’t know anyone who can do the comedy, the singing, and the playing like Jack,” Sheldon’s friend, jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood, said of the triple-threat entertainer in a 2002 Los Angeles Times Sheldon profile. “Playing technically well is one thing, but Jack gets a great sound that a lot of players just don’t get.”
“It’s a haunting trumpet he plays,” Merv Griffin stated in the same Times article. “Henry Mancini once told me, ‘If I’ve got a couple making passionate love onscreen and I’m writing the score, it’s Jack Sheldon’s trumpet I want.’”
In 2008, Sheldon was the subject of Doug McIntyre and Penny Peyser’s documentary, Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon, which featured interviews with Eastwood, Griffin, Mandel, Billy Crystal, Chris Botti, Dave Frishberg, and many others. The film won Jury Prizes at the 2008 Kansas City Film Makers Jubilee and Newport Beach Film Festival, as well as Audience Prizes at Newport Beach and the Indianapolis International Film Festival.
Sheldon successfully battled both alcoholism and cancer and remained professionally active well into his old age, taking lessons from fellow trumpet great Uan Rasey to maintain his chops and gigging regularly around Los Angeles. In 2011, he suffered a debilitating stroke that robbed him of the use of his right arm and hand. Though erroneous reports of his death circulated at that time (“I’m only slightly dead,” he reportedly joked), he recovered, relearned to play left-handed, and returned to the stage in 2013, at L.A.’s world-famous Catalina Jazz Club, for a two-night stint that coincided with his 82nd birthday.
Cynthia Jimenez’s Facebook announcement says a memorial service will be held for Sheldon in Cypress, Calif., on Jan. 10.
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