Anyone who has lived in Houston long enough and visited some of our city’s finest restaurants is sure to have to have heard Harry Sheppard playing his unique “magic xylophone” at some point.
The 92-year-old Sheppard is mostly known for his vibraphone playing and contributions to jazz. Most recently he could be seen around town playing his MalletKAT, a fascinating rubber instrument which converts mechanical energy into electrical signals.
Sheppard, originally from Massachusetts, moved to New York City in the 1950s and was a popular choice for the big bands of the time. “New York was so great because there was so much jazz back in the ‘50s, every other club was a jazz club.”
As a younger man Sheppard played vibraphone with the likes of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Sol Yaged, Benny Goodman and Cozy Cole. He describes with great joy evenings where he played in the Big Apple with Sammy Davis Jr. on nights that would go on till daybreak and at a time when jazz was highly sought after and respected.
“It was the pop music of the day,” says Sheppard. “You could make a living in New York playing jazz. There were so many universities and college jazz parties, there was no rock and roll then.”
When asked how those improvised jam sessions stack up to his solo shows nowadays, Sheppard knows right away which grainy footage on YouTube was being referenced, “You’re talking about the jazz party thing in '58. That was unbelievable,” he says beaming.
“They would start to play and sometimes they wouldn't tell me the name of the song and we were off and running. What an education, oh my God. I could never understand why they wanted me; I think it was just my attack you know. My enthusiasm, honestly that's about it, I wasn't that great. I wish they could hear me now but they're all dead.”
“I was coming up at the end of an era so I never really got the fame that a lot of these other people got but that’s okay. I’m very grateful to wake up in the morning believe me. Very grateful that I could do what I do.”
Sheppard relocated to Houston in 1985 to care for his daughter who was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, she died only eleven months after he moved here but Sheppard never moved away.
“People said to me back in New York, ‘How come you're still in Houston? Get back here!’ I'd tell them, ‘You don't understand, Houston is New York without the stress,’ it’s true.” Sheppard gives his trademark smile while describing the many joys Houston has given him, including his own cancer treatment almost eight years ago.
Throughout his long career, Sheppard has not only seen the shift in musical trends and general falling out of love with jazz music by society as a whole, but he’s also been on the forefront of exploring the technological possibilities of his main instrument.
As guitars began to get louder and push out the more mellow jazzy sounds, Sheppard tapped a neighbor for ideas on how to get a more powerful sound with the vibraphone. His neighbor, an engineer, suggested Sheppard try one of the gauges used to detect cracks in metal bridges on his instrument and low and behold it worked.
“I plugged it into the amp and we went, oh wow! He says, ‘It’s going to be a lot of work to do all of these,’ but he helped me and I went and convinced one of the engineers at the vibraphone company Deagan so they made it and nobody liked it except me,” says Sheppard.
Not only did Sheppard come up with the concept with the help of his neighbor, but he went to the factory in Chicago and showed the people at Deagan how to do it. He says it took the company about a year to create it and Sheppard never received any credit, monetary or otherwise.
“I loved it! I did it for years but nobody liked it because they wouldn't get the sound they wanted.” He laughs now how three years later the company called asking if they could use his picture in the catalogue as the only musician they knew of who was using the instrument and in true Sheppard form he says he told them to go ahead.
For decades now Sheppard has played in Houston’s jazz clubs and restaurants, many of which are no longer in operation. Though playing restaurants has provided Sheppard with steady income, he knows most people are not there to see him play but he takes it in stride and with good humor.
“The only comment I ever get is, ‘Too loud.’ and I know what they mean. They don’t mean play softer, they mean don't play. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m all electronic. I’m a one-man band. I don't have to worry about anybody not obeying the ‘rules’ cause I set up the rules myself.”
Sheppard describes one night where he played for a packed house at a restaurant that he had been playing at for 15 years and he could barely hear himself over the crowd. He went to his car and got his headphones so he could get a better grasp on the sound only to realize an hour and a half later that the sound was only going to his headphones.
He laughs saying he learned then and there that people generally don’t care in restaurants but he enjoyed himself immensely regardless, and continues to do so. “People they just walk by without even looking, not even out of curiosity.”
“I keep doing it and when I make the connection, it’s very gratifying. When somebody will walk by and say, ‘Hey man, woo I love it!’ it means they were listening,” he says with a smile.
As the COVID era began, Sheppard took six months off initially as everything was shut down admitting it was the longest he had gone without performing in his life. His wife, clarinetist and founder of the Ziggy Band, Pam Sheppard, filmed him playing last year at home at the beginning of the pandemic and his joy behind the mallets leaps through the screen.
When asked if he felt strange taking time off or returning to busy restaurants during a pandemic Sheppard quickly says, “Never felt weird. I don't know if I have ever felt weird in my life, I really don't. I don't know why. I’m very fortunate, I had wonderful parents, wonderful family. They just brought me up right.”
Sheppard has stayed busy and connected to Houston’s jazz scene playing with flutist Bob Chadwick frequently including every first Friday of the month at the Rainbow Lodge. “When we get up to play we say what key we are going to play that's all. We never know what's going to happen. It’s very, very loose, very creative and it's a lot of fun.”
He performs every Sunday afternoon from 2 to 4 at Cafe Brasil in the heart of Montrose, a gig Sheppard says he enjoys tremendously.
He has also appeared on all of the albums by the Free Radicals whose music Sheppard says puts him “in the clouds.” Nick Cooper of the band describes playing with Sheppard, “On stage with Free Radicals, back when he was in his seventies, and now in his nineties, he always has more energy than any of the younger players.”
Adding: “Watching him solo, he's not just playing fast — he's jumping up and down while he's playing! He gives us energy, and we've been honored to have him on all eight of our albums.”
When discussing what has made him stay with jazz Sheppard quickly responds, “I’ve been doing it since I was four years old honey. I was banging on pots and pans and my mother said, ‘Daddy, get him some drums he's ruining my pots!’ I was only four and I was always into it, all of it.”
“I used to listen to the early records, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, never thought I'd be playing with these people, never thought. I just wanted to play, period. I’m very fortunate, I really am to have been able to do it and still do it.”
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.