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Donald Clayborn “Don” Sleet was hailed in the early 1960s by critics and fellow musicians as one of the best jazz trumpeters in the country. However, it is likely that few jazz lovers today have even heard of him. The little-known "All Members" from 1961 is his only album as a leader.
Born in 1938 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Don moved with his family to California, and grew up in San Diego. He started playing trumpet at 13 and his first musical references were Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham. Blue Mitchell also caught his attention and from each of these he assimilated the elements that helped him evolve and shape his own style.
In 1959, he found his own way, as one of the members of the new young group Lenny McBrowne and the Four Souls, and made a name for himself through the group's two albums released in 1960 and 1961. After the group disbanded, prolific producer Orrin Keepnews did not hesitate to ask Don to record an album for his label Jazzland Records.
For the recording, Keepnews took Don to New York and surrounded him with four major artists from the local jazz scene: tenor sax Jimmy Heath, a veteran ofmany of the best bop groups from late '40s; pianist Wynton Kelly, and drummer Jimmy Cobb from the Miles Davis rhythm section, and avant-garde bassist Ron Carter. This one-day session produced an excellent recording of consistently warm hard-bop playing.
On this debut album as a leader, Don Sleet fulfilled all expectations, confirming him as a soloist of restrained hard swing, lyricism, and seductive strength. His tone is light but fullbodied, indicating depth of color and tonal expression.
He was a young trumpeter and seemed destined for success, but his “personal problems” kept him away from mainstream music. Sadly, he enjoyed a very short career and died in obscurity at the age of 47 on the last day of 1986. "All Members" is proof enough that Don Sleet deserved a much higher profile.
"Reissue of impressive sole leader album by former Kenton trumpeter suggests what could have been had personal problems not intervened.
Now and then you see a collector proudly sharing a photo of his rare original copy of 'All Members' on online jazz fora. Small wonder, because trumpeter Don Sleet’s only album as a leader is a top-rate hard bop record. This CD reissue by the acclaimed Spanish label Fresh Sound Records has finally made it available for a larger audience.
Indiana-born Sleet worked with Stan Kenton on the West Coast and was a member of
Lenny McBrowne & The 4 Souls, which recorded two albums for Riverside in 1960/61.
Duly impressed, label owner Orrin Keepnews organized a Sleet session for Riverside’s
subsidiary label Jazzland. Due to “personal problems” –classic jazz euphemism for
addiction to drugs– Sleet disappeared from the scene. He passed away, largely
unnoticed, in 1986 [...]"
Fraçois Van de Linde (February 12, 2023)
★ ★ ★ ★ Jazz Magazine
"Réédition. Encore une preuve du travail exemplaire de Fresh Sound Records. Le modèle en semble immuable: un LP reproduit dans son intégralité, complété par des bonus tracks tirés d’autres séances d’enregistrement. Celles-ci sont parfois antérieures et le personnel différent. Ce CD est consacré pour l’essentiel à l’unique album enregistré en leader par le trompettiste Don Sleet (1938-1986), connu pour son addiction à la drogue et disparu en pleine maturité. Un musicien de la trempe de Kenny Dorham et d’Art Farmer. Pour cette pièce unique, il est entouré de partenaires de premier plan, tour à tour mis en valeur. Ainsi, outre Don Sleet lui-même (But Beautiful), Wynton Kelly auteur d’un solo pétri de swing dans The Hearing de Clifford Jordan, Jimmy Heath (Secret Love) ou Ron Carter et Jimmy Cobb (Fast Company, une composition du leader). Du hard bop flamboyant. Moins attachants, les deux “compléments” issus de l’album “Like Soul!” gravé l’année précédente par un ensemble tout différent. La vedette en est Gloria Smyth, chanteuse que l’on qualifiera d’estimable."
—Jacques Aboucaya (Octobre, 2022)
Ringer of the Week ★★★★★
"I know that I’ve said this before, but just when you think you’ve heard every hard bopping trumpet player, Spain-based Fresh Sound Records digs into the magma to find another undiscovered gem. This time, it’s Don Sleet (1938-1961), and he had a tone like he was weaned on Blue Note Records, with that glorious glow similar to Blue Mitchel, Kenny Dorham and Chet Baker. This 1961 album has him in the heavy company of a rhythm section including Wynton Kelly/p, Ron Carter/b and Jimmy Cobb/dr (what would Miles say?) as well as tenorist Jimmy Heath blowing smoke rings on most of the material.
Sleet is polished like the grill on a 49 Buick on the classy “Brooklyn Bridge” and Bakeresquely lyrical over Cobb’s deft brushes for “Secret Love” while the drummer snaps like balsa wood on the crisp quartet reading of “Fast Company”. Carter does some tricky work with Cobb on the airginish “The Hearing.” Kelly is kind of blue glassy on “But Beautiful” as Heath smolders like a campfire. Who’s been keeping this album from me?
There are also a couple tune with Sleet teaming with a more R&Bish team and vocalist Gloria Smyth on an earthy Afro-Cuban take of “Runnin’ Wild” and a soulful and palpable “Sometimes I’m Happy”. This album makes you beg, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
—George W. Harris (September 22, 2022)
"Last week I posted about star-crossed trumpeter Don Sleet and his sole leadership album All Members. Within an hour after my post went up, a reader sent along an email suggesting that I alert Don's brother, David Sleet. So I sent along a note to the email address the reader provided. David responded shortly, saying he enjoyed what he had read. Then we updated some of the information in the post to ensure its complete accuracy. Before we parted, I asked David if he would like to write a short personal essay about his late brother. David agreed.
First, a little background on David Sleet. He is a former professor of health education and currently works in public health in Georgia. Inducted into the National Association of Rudimental Drummers at age 13, David was a professional drummer in the 1960s, playing symphonic classical, rock, pop and jazz while attending college and graduate school.
Here are David's recollections of his brother, trumpeter Don Sleet, who died in 1986:
“My brother Don was born in 1938. I was born four years later. From the time Don was in grade school, all he wanted to do was play jazz. By age 15 he was a professional musician. Sadly, Don's promise was cut short as a result of drug use in the 1960s, changing music trends and streaks of misfortune. But Don was always a great, loving brother, and I miss him.
"Don and I grew up in San Diego, where our father was head of the music program at the La Mesa Spring Valley School District. Naturally, Don got lots of music instruction at home. At our parents' house, Don and I shared a bedroom. I played the drums and, by osmosis, I learned everything Don was listening to. We had one of those portable record players that you put the lid down, snap it shut and carry it around with a handle. Don was always looking for a 'perfect' stylus for it. I still have many of the LPs Don purchased, played and rehearsed with.
"We'd listen to all the great jazz records of the 1950s. While Don was listening intently to Clifford Brown, I was doing the same with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Don was particularly fond of trumpeters Raphael Mendez, Harry James, Maynard Ferguson, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Chet Baker and, of course, Miles Davis. I always thought Don sounded most like Blue Mitchell. Even though I played the drums, Don and I never played together. He was older, and everyone he knew was playing above my level.
"Don was trained in classical music and learned to read music at an early age. He played second chair in the San Diego Symphony for a while as a teenager, and first chair in the Helix High School Band and Civic Youth Orchestra. But he loved playing jazz so much he was prepared to quit high school to go on the road. But our father wouldn't let him. For a short time, our dad sent him to trumpeter Buddy Childers [pictured] for lessons. Buddy's instruction made a big difference in Don's playing.
"After high school, Don played professionally, taking gigs in San Diego and Los Angeles, teaching himself composition and playing with some of the best jazz talent in San Diego. His quintet rehearsed (and sometimes just jammed) in our living room on the weekends in the mid-1950s.
"The group consisted of John Guerin (drums), Barry Farrar (baritone), Mike Wofford (piano), Gary LefebrePicture 5 (tenor), and Bob Sarabia (bass). At times Daniel Jackson (tenor) and Jim Plank (drums) would join the sessions. They were all from San Diego. We had a grand piano and plenty of room in the house. John Guerin (who died in 2004) would leave his drums set up over night, and I would practice on them until I got a set of my own. I always wanted a set of those Gretsch drums of John's.
"Don's group was too young to enter clubs, but they managed to play in them somehow. They played at the Beacon Inn in Del Mar, CA, for a few years and later at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. My sister and I would go everywhere to hear to him play, and sometimes we had to stand outside and listen because we were underage.
"Don was very good looking, and was a big hit with girls, young and old. He had a quiet, but powerful personality, mega and people were naturally attracted to him. He played on stage with Chet Baker once, when Chet played in San Diego. Chet knew of Don and asked him to sit in. Don said it was most inspiring, and he really took to Chet's playing, but not his singing.
"After high school, Don went on the road, spent some time in the Stan Kenton Orchestra (Kenton had a TV show with June Christy at the time) and traveled to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. He also spent a fair bit of time playing at Snookies and Shelly's Manne Hole in L.A.
"I had planned to become a musician like Don after he left home. But my father discouraged that, insisting I stay in school. Don had demonstrated that playing jazz professionally wasn't an easy life, and my father knew it.
"Don was so committed to jazz that he'd often turned down gigs that were musically inferior. He never compromised and wouldn't play gigs like weddings, even if it paid good money. Don knew his stuff. He not only studied trumpet technique but also composed. He taught himself the piano, and played every day. People were inspired by him. Don would sit down with the score of Stravinsky's The Firebird and follow it while a recording of the piece was playing. He taught me that skill, and it's thrilling if you can do it.
"Sadly, Don fell into bad habits experimenting with drugs in the late 1950s and 1960s. I think his association with the in-group of established players in fast cities like New York and L.A. played a big role in his lifestyle of recreational drug use. Many of the jazz musicians he performed with were experimenting with drugs.
"Don sought help for his addiction at Synanon, and did well in rehabilitation. Eventually he volunteered for a methadone maintenance program and made good progress there. Don got married in the 1970s (but never had children), and he had both good and bad luck playing casual gigs for the next 10 to 15 years. There were times in New York in the early 1970s that he'd have to hock his horn just to survive. Work had dried up, and there was lots of competition. Because there were long stretches where he didn't have his horn, Don lost his chops, and never quite regained his comeback momentum.
"Despite it all, he was never far from what he loved most—jazz—and he continued to thrive on it his whole life. He was so talented, I thought if only somebody would discover him.
"But no matter how much love and support family provides, they cannot control outside influences. I still believe Don's substance use was the result of the friends he kept and the culture he was a part of. It was the conformity to a nightlife culture that he longed to be a part of. Don desperately wanted to express himself through music, and while he was alive, he did. He died in 1986 of cancer of the lymph system at his home in Hollywood. He had been battling the disease for more than three years.
"Don's death was devastating to me. I had always been optimistic that Don would have a resurgence and get back into the mainstream. But too much time had passed. Howard Rumsey, in a letter to my family after Don's death, said of Don's group, 'This group, I'm honored to say, had an international reputation. [They] proved to be as talented as any group that ever appeared this event, and as a matter of fact they all worked at one time as members of the Lighthouse All-stars.'
"Everyone who met Don loved him. Don was great friends with Conte Candoli and Jack Sheldon, who introduced him around to clubs in Los Angeles and mentored him a bit. They even played at Don's funeral in Hollywood.
"I still have the first issue of the All Members LP that Don gave me shortly after the album came out. Don signed the back: "To the greatest brother in the world.”
—David Sleet (on Marc Myers review from Novemer 24, 2009)