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Jazz Trumpeter Jack Sheldon Dies At 88

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Jack Sheldon died last Friday at age 88. His list of accomplishments was long. And while his name may not be well-known, his voice certainly is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST A BILL")

JACK SHELDON: (As Bill, singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it's a...

KELLY: "Schoolhouse Rock!" - but there was a lot more to Jack Sheldon's career than that. Here's NPR's Danny Hensel with more.

DANNY HENSEL, BYLINE: As a performer, Jack Sheldon was hard to pin down. He played trumpet in several jazz bands. He had an arresting singing voice. He was a fixture on TV, and he had something of a comedy career.

Sheldon was born in Jacksonville, Fla. He told the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College in 1999 that he became fascinated by the trumpet when he saw bandleader Harry James appear in movies. His family couldn't afford an instrument, so he made one out of Tinkertoys. Sheldon finally started playing professionally - on a real trumpet - around age 12. Dressed in a blue suit, he was frequently mistaken for an adult.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELDON: Where I could go up to the bar - I remember I got a whiskey sour. And it was much harder to play. After, I kept seeing a lot of different clusters of notes.

HENSEL: He later joined the Air Force but continued to play the trumpet. When he left the service, Sheldon became a part of the Los Angeles jazz scene in the '50s...

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK SHELDON'S "GROOVUS MENTUS")

HENSEL: ...Playing with a who's who of jazz greats, among them Benny Goodman. Sheldon told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1993 that their collaboration was a turning point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHELDON: I wrote a song, and Benny let me sing. He was the first bandleader that would ever let me sing. Stan Kenton wouldn't let me sing, though, 'cause he always was afraid I would say something too off-color - which I probably would have.

TERRY GROSS: Did you have a reputation for doing that?

SHELDON: Yes. I worked with Lenny Bruce, and I was trying to kind of emulate him at the time.

HENSEL: Sheldon and Bruce - yes, that Lenny Bruce - got a band together and staged a burlesque in Los Angeles. He also teamed up with jazzman Jack Marshall, and the two released a comedy album together called "Freaky Friday: The Jazz Opera." Sheldon even starred in a short-lived series on CBS - "Run, Buddy, Run."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUN, BUDDY, RUN")

TED KNIGHT: (As Narrator) This is Buddy Overstreet. He's wanted by the head of the most powerful crime syndicate in the country.

HENSEL: And if that wasn't enough, Sheldon also served as the resident funnyman in the "Merv Griffin Show" band. On that stage, he sang with Ethel Merman and danced with Ann Miller. He told the Fillius Jazz Archive that he was comfortable in front of the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELDON: I feel better on the stage than I do anywhere else, really - more at home and more relaxed. And - just I - it's such fun for me. It really is fun. And the cameras being on makes it better.

HENSEL: In the mid-'60s, he also played trumpet on "The Shadow Of Your Smile" from the movie "The Sandpiper."

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK SHELDON PERFORMANCE OF JOHNNY MANDEL'S "THE SHADOW OF YOUR SMILE")

HENSEL: It was one of several soundtracks he contributed to, and it's one of his most enduring performances. Still, Jack Sheldon may be best remembered for the work he did with an educational video company in the '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONJUNCTION JUNCTION")

TERRY MOREL AND MARY SUE BERRY: (Singing) Conjunction Junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.

HENSEL: "Conjunction Junction" and "I'm Just A Bill" are two of several collaborations between Sheldon and the creators of "Schoolhouse Rock!" Sheldon continued to play jazz late into his life, leading a big band in Southern California and jam sessions at his home well into his 80s.

Danny Hensel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONJUNCTION JUNCTION")

MOREL AND BERRY: (Singing) Conjunction Junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up two boxcars and making 'em run right - milk and honey, bread and butter... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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