Super John John

I met John Shifflett (1953-2017) at Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto in July, 1996 when Medeski Martin and Wood sold clean the room and, on the advice of Charlie Hunter, I booked as support Will Bernard, John Shifflett, Rob Burger and Jason Lewis. I can look that up by finding Will’s “medicine hat” album and see if John Shifflett’s name is in the credits. But in some ways it is immmaterial whether my memory is accurate or apocryphal because John Shifflett might as well have played on that gig, he played with just about everybody in town and was in just about every great show.

I just took notice yesterday, in a remembrance by Ben Goldberg on his site –I’m looking and still looking for Ben’s schedule, to see where he is going to be –because I will likely also be — October 18, and 17 and 19 — that John Shifflett had died of pancreatic cancer in April of 2017. I was a little out of it,for various reasons, that spring which you can verify by searching the archives of Plastic Alto and seeing a large gap — that’s why I’m only noting this now. I lost my mother, Barbara H. Weiss, in July of this year and my father Paul E. Weiss in August, 2015. I will quote below Ben’s words which prove that he and therefore obviously John know or knew worlds of music and language well beyond what I can hear or describe, and I’m grateful for that. Musicians are special people.

I probably met John Shifflett 20 times over the 23 years that I have been a concert promoter and artist manager doing business as Earthwise Productions of Palo Alto. He was very recognizable — for an interloper and part-time like me — his blond hair and square jaw. He was very approachable and generous with his time and cordial. I specifically recall chatting with him about Taylor Eigsti, then a child prodigy at 15 — 2000 — and booking Taylor partly based on that recommendation. I did not trust my own ears about Taylor’s brilliance but I trusted John’s judgement, and was impressed by the specific thing he said, which I’ve repeated and attributed numerous times. (And by the way, last I saw Taylor about two years ago was at Woodside Filoli Mansion and the young bass player — not John but likely influenced by him was named Ostrow or Ostroff — i got his number and met his parents — I think he is at Stanford but I digress).

There’s a rock drummer named Shiflett I always wondered if they were related.

I woke up thinking about the Soul Coughing song “Super Bon Bon” it’s not jazz but I think that’s a double bass line. I said that a couple times while traipsing up and down the stairs on my honeymoon last week in New York at Chelsea Market near the Highline: take the elevator to the mezzanine. Usually it’s step aside and let the man go thru, let the man go thru. sometimes I say let the mango thru. This morning – and by the way the singer is Mike or M Doughty and I have no idea who the bass part is by, likely not John Shifflett but its fun to imagine him doing it — I was saying “he took the elevator to the mezzanine” which is like saying John Shifflett is now in heaven.

I’m wondering about starting my day — it’s 7:36 on a Thursday in fall of my 55th year — by going down to Gunn High School my alma mater and offering to help produce a jazz concert that would honor John Shifflett. The connection is that Jason Lewis’ wife, Mrs. Lewis, has taught jazz there for quite a while and Jason was half the rhythm section with John Shifflett for many years. I know I scouted some band from Seattle at San Jose State nooner in the pit there — the drummer guy from O2 records — and must have seen John Shifflett probably not in the band but organizing the show. Origin Records I mean. I also remember seeing him at CoHo and asking for his number and he said to approach his wife and maybe she wrote it out for me. I used to keep all those numbers and cards and scraps of paper but when I got married to Terry Acebo Davis – who like John Shifflett has an affiliation to San Jose State –heck, my mom has a degree from San Jose State — but when I moved in here a lot of stuff got lost or tossed. My wife calls it feng shui, opening up the possiblity for something new.

There should be an endowed music chair at SJSU named for John Shifflett. I’ll have to spell check before I publish this John Shifflett.

My waking fantasy this a.m. twenty or thirty minutes ago – and I actually sort of drooled — oddly —

(wifey came down to ask me something and I hit publish and decided to leave it cut suddenly, like the Emily Dickinson line)
edit to add: the wife is named Brittany Shifflett from Connecticutt before Iowa and teaches or taught ballroom dance and gymnastics and has a PhD.

there’s a picture of John Shifflett playing, under a photo of Rahsaan Kirk, at Cafe Strich in San Jose on his wiki page:


There’s a lovely obit also by Andrew Gilbert in the Merc.

and7: the OA2 record label in Seattle (not O2 please note) lists seven records in their catalog that John Shifflett played on, all as a sideman. I did ask him once about recording as a leader and he kind of laughed and shugged me off. I did the same thing later when I met JJ Avenel.

John was a wonderful person — funny, generous, humble, an astute observer of life’s details. He was a hell of a musician. Big Sid Catlett said “I can swing seventeen men with one wire brush and a phone book.” You got the feeling John could swing an entire band by just standing still. In a funny way, I didn’t really think of John as a bass player; he was just John Shifflett. Sometimes you needed a bass player and sometimes you needed John Shifflett.

for what its worth this is the fourth time I’ve mentioned John Shifflett in or on Plastic Alto, which itself is an Ornette reference. I called him a “south bay stalwart”. Understatement.

About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player; he also sang in local choir, and fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32
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