Maestro of Maestros: Jerry Sharell
Jerry Sharell is so amazingly in tune with Frank Sinatra. He spins the legendary singer’s recordings synergistically in the moment like he was Stan Getz playing the tenor saxophone, selecting the perfect song and performance of that song to fit the rasa (mood) of the moment exactly the way Getz would illuminate musically to perfection.
Listening to Sharell’s uncanny radio shows, Weekends with Sinatra and Sharell, one feels that Sinatra has actually come alive, and is still physically amongst us. If you don’t believe me, give it a try. Perhaps you think you've already heard everything Frank Sinatra recorded, but you'd be wrong because Jerry must have some kinda secret vault where previously unknown recordings appear from.
There is a brilliant programming maneuver going on, too. A Saturday night show goes from 10 PM till Midnight, followed by a Sunday morning show from 10 AM till Noon, both on KJazz in Los Angeles. It’s very symmetrical of Jerry to do this. Not sure what to make of it, but who's complaining– its all magical music time! Come to think of it, its like Jerry has carved out the very best hours of the week for his efforts.
Mostly, I hear the Sunday morning show while still in bed, and it’s like Brunch of the Gods – don’t know how else to put it. Occasionally, I get to hear the Saturday night show, and the atmosphere is like a party of parties, stirring pure joyfulness.
Since I’m one of many who sometimes send email to the show, I have been surprised and delighted to hear Jerry dedicate a song to me on occasion. One time I was in Maui when this occurred, listening online, and couldn’t believe it was happening. Then there was the time Jerry even sent an email about how he first discovered jazz, and it was incredibly meaningful for me, and thoughtful of him.
Catching Jerry’s shows is an opportunity to learn not only about the music of Frank Sinatra, but about the material he interpreted; the songs that form the basis of American jazz along with blues forms. Sinatra’s contemporaries are also played on occasion, together with some artists here right now.
Whether you’re a musical genius like Lee Konitz, or a Sinatra novice just beginning to appreciate his artistry, this is the place to go listen. Whatever the level is that’s one thousand times higher than a PHD, that’s the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual level Jerry lives at. You know, we just live in Jerry’s world.
Myself, I have two Frank Sinatra stories. One harkens back to a summer studying with Lee Konitz in Manhattan following my freshman year of college. After one lesson, while packing up, I asked Lee out of curiosity who he listened to for inspiration. Without skipping a beat, the legendary alto saxophonist replied: “Frank Sinatra”. Not Charlie Parker, not Lester Young, not Bill Evans, but Frank Sinatra. I couldn’t believe it at the time. I thought Lee was putting me on because I really knew nothing about Sinatra other than recalling "Strangers In the Night" when I was in junior high.
Now, today, having added piano playing to my life as a composer, whenever I interpret the great jazz standards, Sinatra is my primary model for doing so together with a distillation of jazz and Indian classical music artists also close to my heart, especially because the lyrics are just as important as the music, and knowing those lyrics adds immeasurable meaning and depth. And I credit Jerry for helping grow my understanding and appreciation of Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook, a process that is ongoing and seemingly limitless given his rare ability to entertain and teach simultaneously.
The second story is really Tom White’s story. Tom was the best friend of Bob Longhi from the time they were roommates at Cornell. On Christmas Day in Lahaina some years ago, Tom shared the following story with me.
Tom had owned restaurants in New York, and one evening he took a date to Jilly's Saloon for drinks before dinner where they were greeted by proprietor Jilly Rizzo who was Sinatra's best friend. Tom and his date were relaxing at the bar when Frank Sinatra himself burst in, whereupon Jilly introduced them. After a few drinks, Jilly suggested to Frank that he take Tom and his date along for a night on the town. Sinatra agreed, and the trio proceeded outside where his limousine was waiting. What ensued was a dizzyingly glamorous night of gallivanting around Manhattan to an array of suave nightspots. They ended up at a private club where Sinatra sang at length with solo piano accompaniment for a chosen few. Tom said this was by far the most sublime musical performance of his life. Afterwards, they left to drop Tom and his date off at their respective homes. Stopping by the date's apartment first, she unexpectedly asked Sinatra if he would like to have breakfast. The saloon singer – that’s what he called himself - was delighted by the idea, and she then prepared breakfast for three in her kitchen as dawn broke and the sun began to rise outside. Tom said Sinatra was the warmest, friendliest person he ever met.
Going beyond music, an acquaintance once told me about how Frank Sinatra was an extremely important supporter of Israel, something I had been unaware of. Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean and Founder, had told me previously when we met following a presentation he gave for a new book, how Sinatra was an instrumental force for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is headquartered in Los Angeles.
One regret I have is never having discussed Frank Sinatra and other jazz vocalists with Rollan Masciarelli, as our music talks were primarily about instrumentalists and composers. Would have been fascinating to know his thoughts!
What is so special about Frank Sinatra? He becomes the song more than anyone else. He is the song more than anyone else. There simply is no artifice separating him and the song. It's said that, like the Beatles, Sinatra didn't read music. Sometimes music scores and notation can get in the way. The trick is to have them become second nature when they are necessary to use. Another thing: Sinatra worked harder at his craft than anyone else. Same thing with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Bob Dylan. There's something to be said for combining a gift with developing that gift.
Treat yourself to one of the things that exemplify the name, City of Angels, check out Jerry’s shows, and don’t forget that his comments about the music and his own personal anecdotes are worth the price of admission alone. Honestly, I’ve rarely if ever heard such brilliant and engaging thoughts about music, and Leonard Bernstein was one of my teachers. No wonder Sharell has enjoyed such an illustrious and multifaceted career in music alone together with his stellar by starlight and sunlight radio shows.
- Michael Robinson, August 2018, Los Angeles
© 2018 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).