Ex-big band crooner, 85, still groovin'

30-Sep-1996 Monday

Herbert Ironton Jeffries

First impressions of Herbert Ironton Jeffries are always correct: He is a
ruggedly handsome man endowed with much energy.

At 85, Jeffries gathers no moss.

He made a name crooning in the big bands of Duke Ellington and Earl "Fatha"
Hines and in movies as Hollywood's first black singing cowboy.

And he remains a free spirit, unconcerned about taking anything with him to
the other side of time.

"I don't want to own anything," he says flatly, in his mellifluous
self-described high tenor. "Owning things gets complicated and the things
slow you down."

Jeffries -- most widely known as Herb Jeffries -- currently lives in
Encinitas with his 52-year-old son, the oldest of five children, including
a teen-ager he fathered at age 70.

His list of former addresses reads like the index of a world atlas.

"My son and I moved into this house maybe three months ago," he notes. "And
I haven't spent a weekend here yet."

Five marriages, four divorces and one current separation enhance the
tip-off that something deep-rooted makes Jeffries run.

"I'm in show business," he declares. "When you're in show business, the
traveling gets in the way of communication in a marriage . . . once the
communication goes, the marriage is dead."

As Jeffries spoke, he prepared for a rush auto trip to L.A.

His trim, 6-foot-3-inch frame moved lithely in between frequent telephone
interruptions drawn out by his own long-windedness.

He didn't miss his ride.

Jeffries has been on the entertainer's route ever since he joined a local
jazz band playing at a dime-a-dance joint in his native Detroit more than
61 years ago.

And he doesn't apologize for what the road and his way of thinking have
made of his life.

"I don't want to do anything but write, direct and produce music and, every
now and then, sing -- just to keep my chops in shape," Jeffries says. "It
keeps me feeling like I'm 52."

But there's a lot more to the man.

His Impac Productions, a company co-founded and run by a longtime friend in
Los Angeles, produces audio books and other material for young adults and
children. Through it, Jeffries plans to reprise some old Duke Ellington
songs in a memorial album to be produced in association with Warner Bros.

He also is working on several educational projects, exploring historical
allegiances between blacks and Indians.

Jeffries recognizes a mission in his work. He revealed that in his
evaluation of a recent rehearsal to which he was invited by producers of
"Play On," the Duke Ellington musical on stage at the Old Globe Theatre
through Oct. 26. He loved what he saw.

The music, the setting, the compatibility of the actors, all reminded him
of another Ellington production -- "Jump for Joy" -- in which Jeffries
played the lead opposite Dorothy Dandridge in 1941.

"Jump" made rousing statements against bigotry. But extreme reactions of
the Ku Klux Klan forced the show to close after 12 weeks. Yet within
Jeffries, the show's spirit never died.

In the hard-core Motor City neighborhood of his youth, his square jaw,
light skin and straight red hair made him a confounding image of blended
Irish and Ethiopian blood.

He fought frequently to establish his humanness, and it steeled his belief
that all people have a common bond.

When "Jump for Joy" closed, Jeffries became more determined to keep the
concept flowing through his work.

"We've got to get rid of this nonsense of discrimination," he says. "And as
long as I can, I want to help."

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