Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 99 - Remembering Shep Shepherd
William "Shep" Shepherd, the enthusiastic and outspoken Cleveland native who played lead trombone with Dizzy Gillespie’s revolutionary big band in the late 1940s, died April 29, 2005, at the age of 83.
Shepherd began playing trombone when he was a student at Cleveland’s old Rawlings Junior High School. By the time he got to Central High School, which was famous for its music programs, he had already learned to read music. At Central he joined such other future jazz stand-outs as Bull Moose Jackson, Fats Heard and Freddie Webster in band classes with a teacher named James Lee. Shep recalled, "Mr. Lee got us special passes to go down to the Palace Theatre" to see and hear Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Half a century later, Shepherd was still enthusiastic as he remembered, "I stood there (in the balcony) and looked right over at them, when they had Lionel Hampton and all of them."
While he was in high school, Shepherd joined a band formed by other Central students. With his cousin, Bernard Simms, Shep became a member of the Evelyn Freeman Ensemble, a popular band that played a number of gigs in Cleveland in the late 1930s, including regular Sunday night dances at Oster’s Ballroom and made radio broadcasts from the Circle Ballroom. Other members of that historic band included Ernie Freeman who later arranged for Frank Sinatra, Howard Roberts who later played trumpet with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, and James "Chink" McKinney who later played drums with Dorothy Donegan.
When World War II began, most of the members of Freeman’s band joined the Navy together and played in a service band called the Gobs of Swing. It was the first all-black Navy band in U.S. history.
After the war, Shepherd returned to Cleveland and joined a band led by another former Central High School student named Johnny Powell. During this period, Shep also got to know another former Central student, the older Tadd Dameron who was then arranging for Gillespie. When Dizzy’s band was playing for a dance at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, Dameron suggested that Gillespie hire Shepherd and arranged an audition for the young Cleveland trombonist. Remembering that audition, Shepherd quoted Gillespie saying, "Tadd told me about you. I want to hear you play." Shepherd took a streetcar to his home, got his trombone, returned to Public Auditorium and played for Gillespie. Dizzy listened and said, "You can leave with us now or come tomorrow and meet us in Pittsburgh." He joined the Gillespie band in Pittsburgh. Within a couple of weeks Shep became the band’s lead trombonist.
While he seldom soloed, Shepherd was a key member of the band that was pioneering big band bebop. He toured the country and made a number of records with the band that also included John Lewis and Milt Jackson who later formed the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Shep said he quickly learned that John Birks Gillespie was much more than a happy-to-lucky clown who played trumpet in a different way. Said Shepherd, "Dizzy was the most wonderful person to work with! He was just like a teacher, a brilliant, deep person."
Touring with the band at the time was singer Ella Fitzgerald. Shepherd called her "a beautiful person and a lot of fun." He said, "When we had some time off, Ella would give a little party with food and champagne. That’s the way she was. She would give a nice party for the members of the band." James Moody and other members of the band called Ella "Sis."
Shepherd also played trombone behind such other jazz singers as Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nellie Lutcher and a singer he met under unusual circumstances one night when the Gillespie band was playing in Philadelphia. He said, "This woman came over and sat down right in front of me. She got in the way of my trombone slide and I got kind of peeved. Then, Dizzy looked up and saw her. He came over and said, ‘Shep, this is Billie Holiday!’" Shepherd, who thought Holiday was the "greatest singer in the world," said, "She can sit in front of my trombone slide any time she wants to!"
In 1948, Shepherd and the Gillespie band toured Scandinavia and Europe. They crossed the Atlantic by ship and Shep remembered, "We were in a big storm going over and a lot of the guys got sick and lost weight." In Europe, Shepherd met the Prince of Sweden, an avid jazz fan who traveled with the band to Belgium and Germany and gave each band member a personal gift. Shepherd received a fancy razor which he still had years later.
Shep also performed with Gillespie’s band at Carnegie Hall in New York. They played an ambitious piece called "Soulphony," composed and arranged by Dameron who called it "a cross between bop and symphony." Shep remembered, "Dameron had me start off by playing a high B natural – that high note! I said, ‘Tadd, why are you putting me up so high at Carnegie Hall?’ I was nervous. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Shep, you can do it.’ So, when I played the solo, I hit the note right on the head just as loud and clear. It was beautiful! And then my knees starting shaking."
Late in 1948, two years after Dameron had introduced him to Gillespie, Shepherd decided to leave the band. "I had to come home," he said. "It was time to come home. The road is a learning experience, but you run into a lot of obstacles out there and a lot of things happen." Back in Cleveland, Shepherd continued to play. He recorded with Moody and others. He also worked at Republic Steel, Harshaw Chemical and Addressograph-Multigraph and remembered his days touring with Dizzy Gillespie.
In recent years, he had to give up playing the trombone because of medical problems. After William "Shep" Shepherd died at the Holy Name Home in Parma, there was a graveside service May 10 at the Highland Park Cemetery.
Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook
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