Jazz by the Numbers: Neil Sheldon’s Equation for Great Music

It’s a little past 5 O’clock in the morning when I am startled out of a deep slumber by the clamor of the phone ringing. I fumble for the receiver in the darkness and mutter a half-hearted hello. A friend from the east coast is calling, clearly oblivious to the three hour time difference in San Francisco. “You’re not going to believe what I just heard!” he shouted. At this hour, I’m surmising everything from news of a stock market crash to the Spanish re-invading Cuba, since the Cubs had already won the World Series. Finally. “I was on the internet and I just heard this jazz show hosted by a fellow out of England and he really knows his stuff. He played incredible music! By the way, I didn’t wake you, did I?”

That was my first introduction to jazz music presenter Neil Sheldon. And my friend was right- even at 5 O’clock in the morning, Neil Sheldon really knows his ‘stuff’. In fact, he knows more ‘stuff’ than many of us. A recently retired teacher of mathematics, statistics and philosophy, Sheldon was raised in Liverpool, the birthplace of the Beatles. He is eldest of four children. Growing up in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Neil was drawn to pop artists of the era such as Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, and blues musicians John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Mississippi’s Howlin’ Wolf.

“I have loved music for as long as I can remember”, explains Sheldon. “In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was some great music being made in the USA… then the UK took the lead with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. You had to favour one or the other and I became a Rolling Stones fan. I saw them live at the legendary Hyde Park concert just after Brian Jones died.”

As a boy, Neil demonstrated a knack for numbers, and after graduating from high school he went on to study mathematics at Oxford University, where he also majored in philosophy. When Sheldon began his teaching career, statistics and computing were just being introduced as school subjects, and he got involved in teaching both, soon adding a couple more degrees to his professional qualifications. Over time, statistics became the main area of Neil’s work and since retiring from teaching he has served as Vice President of the Royal Statistical Society of Great Britain.

While his academic career and interests in mathematics, philosophy, statistics and computing suggest a strong ‘serious’ side of Sheldon, his love of jazz music (which has a reputation for being rebellious and ‘free-spirited’), might to the casual observer seem at odds with his ‘academic’ side. “I think my parents would say I was a rebel from an early age. The ‘60s were a rebellious time for teenagers. And I think it is possible to be a rebel – or at least a free-thinker – in an academic area like philosophy. Even in an area like mathematics, where you can’t dispute the answer, you can investigate unconventional ways of getting there”, says Neil.

Although Neil Sheldon retired after some 40 years teaching statistics in the classroom, he hasn’t stopped teaching- he simply changed subjects and now instructs a much larger ‘radio’ classroom. “In the ‘60s there was a traditional jazz revival in the UK: Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and Chris Barber… this was jazz with tunes and rhythm; I found it irresistible. Some years later I began to discover the originals.” Sheldon describes himself as “a long-time devotee of traditional Jazz and Swing from the ‘20s and ‘30s.”

Asked about his interest in radio, Neil explained: “I have wanted to have my own radio show ever since listening to the pirate stations back in the 1960s. One day while listening to a small local radio station, they put out a call for listeners to come in and present their own programme. I offered to do an hour of ‘20s and ‘30s jazz music, they said yes, and after I had done the show, I was hooked!”.

Sheldon’s passion for early jazz is contagious to anyone who listens to his show. “For me it’s very simple. I like tunes I can whistle and rhythms to tap my feet to- so I don’t care for ‘free jazz’ or bebop! And the lives of early jazz musicians were so often fascinating… overcoming poverty, oppression and prejudice with hard work, talent and even genius. I find that inspirational”, says Neil.

When pressed to name some favorite jazz artists, Sheldon presses back. “That’s a hard question as there are so many brilliant artists to choose from. If I really had to narrow it down to one- so difficult! I think it would have to be Bix (Beiderbecke). His tone, his lyricism, his compositional skills and his early death all contribute. He was the archetypal tragic genius.” As to female artist, Neil responds, “That one is a bit easier, though I suspect my answer may surprise some. It’s a contemporary young piano player named Stephanie Trick. I find her recreation of ‘20s and ‘30s boogie-woogie and stride piano playing utterly brilliant.”

Demonstrating an assiduity seldom paralleled in mathematical as well as musical ‘numbers’, Sheldon points to names like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman along with Fats Waller, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and Dave Brubeck as some of the artists most responsible for advancing the popularity and impact of jazz. Reflecting on the jazz music and artists that he showcases on his weekly radio program, Sheldon says, “I remember a radio presenter once introducing a piece of classical music by saying, “If you don’t like this you don’t like classical music”. I think you can do the same with jazz. I could suggest several such pieces: Bix Beiderbecke’s ‘Rhythm King’; King Oliver’s ‘New Orleans Shout’; Luis Russell’s ‘Sweet Mumtaz’ and Bob Crosby’s ‘March of the Bobcats’.”

Knowing that every teacher worth their weight in gold always assigns homework, I asked Neil Sheldon about the one song he would recommend to the person just beginning to explore jazz- what, in his opinion, best represents the genre? “For my money, the single greatest jazz recording of all time is Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall version of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Twelve minutes of genius and raw excitement. If that doesn’t give you goosebumps, nothing will!”.

In many ways, the same can be said of Sheldon’s weekly radio program. Sixty minutes of genius and raw excitement guaranteed to give you goosebumps. One listen and I think you will agree, Neil Sheldon does indeed ‘know his stuff’.

“The Roaring Twenties with Neil Sheldon” can heard Saturdays at 2PM Pacific and Tuesdays at 5PM Pacific on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Guglielmo Marconi’s butler.