Thursday, June 5, 2014

Man of Brass

Larry Minick

Arguably one of the greatest brass instrument repairmen of all time, Larry Minick was also an innovative designer and craftsman, who created specialty and unusual instruments. He designed and built a contrabass French horn for Los Angeles Philharmonic tubist, Roger Bobo, and a valve trombone with a gigantic, French-horn-sized bell for the great Bob Brookmeyer. He had a reputation for being a crusty bastard, or a curmudgeon at best, but he had a soft heart and would go out of his way to help players he respected or who were in need. I was in his shop once, watching him do some work for me, when the light from the door went dim. Larry didn't look up to see who it was; he just said, “What the f*ck do you want? The stranger responded, “What the f*ck's it to you? The result? Instant friendship.

Larry's instruments and mouthpieces have achieved cult status since his untimely death, and are widely sought after and copied. My first encounter with Larry was when I was still living in Hawaii. I had traveled to Los Angeles to look for a new trombone, a commercial horn to use in my increasingly commercial career. I called Charlie Loper on a referral from a friend in Hawaii to get a recommendation, and took my old faithful Conn 8H to Larry at a store called Musicians Supply, also on a recommendation, to have it worked on – slide balancing and lightening up the bell and braces. I watched Larry align the slide – he held it up to the light, eyeballed it, and put it across his leg and bent the hell out of it, scaring me crazy. When he finished it, he put it on his marble leveling block and checked it, and it lined up perfectly. (As an aside, while I was there, George Roberts came in and asked Larry if he could put new corks on his mutes!)

After we moved to L.A., I became a regular at Larry's new shop on Sepulveda Boulevard. He started making custom horns, leadpipes and mouthpieces, and his reputation grew as the word spread about his creativity and prowess in instrument repair and design. He was approached by Conn to design a new commercial trombone for them, a specialty .500 bore instrument that came to be called the 100H. It had a distinctive curved hand grip and curved counter weights on the tuning slide. Larry eventually had a falling out with Conn (he told me that he had designed three different but interchangeable lead pipes and sent the prototypes to the factory in Texas. They lost two of them, or messed them up trying to copy them, and asked him to replace them, and he was bugged at their incompetence and refused to do so), and started making his own line of similar instruments, with an improved hand brace and hand-turned and hand-hammered bells.

I was privileged to have had him make two tenor trombones for me, .500 bore horns with 8-inch bells. They were terrific instruments. At one point, though, I decided I wanted a smaller bell for one, to make it more of a jazz horn and visited Larry's shop—by then he had moved to Cambria, California and had set up shop in an industrial complex. When I told him I wanted him to make me a 7 ½-inch bell, he said he thought he might have something similar already made. He climbed a ladder up to an exposed “attic” area and came down with a bell that measured at about 7 ¼ inches. He replaced the 8-inch bell I already had, and let me keep it for a spare.

Larry had a sense of humor which came to light in interesting ways. I was teaching at home, and propped my foot up on my piano bench and put my trombone on my knee. The bench toppled over, my horn went straight down onto the floor slide-first, and my chin hit the mouthpiece. It gave me quite a whiplash, and bent the slide into a rainbow. I took it to Larry in a bag, and when I took it out, he nearly fell off his stool laughing. When he finally was able to catch a breath and speak, he said, “I can fix it.” And he did.

Larry had other interests and skills, like cars. He had some antique cars that he restored (his wife, Doreen, drove a classic T-Bird that he had restored). We went to see him once at his shop in Cambria, and as we were parking, we heard a terrific metallic banging noise coming from inside. Wondering what-on-earth kind of instrument he was building now, we walked in and found that he had a Model A Ford fender in his vise and was banging dents out. He had found a pickup in a haystack near Morro Bay and bought it. He said it was a mess; besides the usual aging issues, rust and so forth, kids had been plinking at it with their .22s. He restored the body and replaced the engine, drive train and suspension and brakes with parts from a 1955 Chevy, and painted it canary yellow. He and Doreen drove it to San Luis Obispo for a car show there, and as they were walking around admiring all the beautiful restorations, amid unending announcements on the P.A. system, Doreen suddenly elbowed him and told him to go pick up his trophy. He asked “for what,” and she said they has just announced he had won best-in-show. He responded, “But I didn't enter.” They had found his truck in the parking lot and given him the top award.

Larry deserved a top award for many of his creations, and for all the good he did for musicians everywhere. He was an innovator, a top craftsman, and a caring, helping person. He unfortunately died at age 55. His legacy is that of exploration and creativity in brass instrument making. He is sadly missed, and now a legend among brass players world-wide.

Here is a link to an article from the Cambrian, quoted on the website:

Monday, May 26, 2014

R.I.P. Bronze Buckaroo

The Bronze Buckaroo has passed.

Herb Jeffries has moved on after one hundred years on this plane. Herb made a name for himself by creating and starring in (as The Bronze Buckaroo) a genre of cowboy movies with all-black casts, so that young blacks could have role models like the whites did in Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and others. He was the first black “singing cowboy,” and as such, attracted the attention of band leader Edward “Duke” Ellington, who asked Herb to sing with his band. According to Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times (Memorial Day, May 26, 2014), “Jeffries, who began singing with what has been described as a luscious tenor, followed the advice of Ellington's composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn and lowered his range to what music critic Jonny Whiteside later called a 'silken, lusty baritone.'”

I worked with Herb on several occasions, and he always proved to be a consummate gentleman. Most recently, I played in the band at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood for a celebration of his 95th birthday. He announced he had already booked an appearance in Las Vegas for his 100th birthday. He appeared in a wheelchair, but otherwise seemed to have all his faculties intact. One striking and memorable moment occurred when he recited his favorite poem, a rather lengthy tome, from memory.

Of course, he sang his biggest hit, “Flamingo,” which he recorded in the early 1940s with the Ellington band; it sold in the millions. Which brings me to a recording session I was doing with a Dixieland band: at one point Herb's name came up. The trombonist (I was playing tuba) inexplicably had no idea who Herb Jeffries was. We were puzzled, what with Herb's fame and the trombone player's extensive background in jazz; so we were trying to explain to him who Herb was, when the banjo player chimed in with, “You can count all of his hits on one leg.” (Thanks, Jon, for that memory.)

R.I.P. Herb Jeffries, 1913-2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

Look sharp! Feel sharp! B...Natural??

A practical joke is...well, anything but practical, especially to the victim, but the term apparently applies to a gag played on someone that involves something physical, rather than verbal. I've been a victim of a practical joke on occasion, and have been on the sending end as well.

Since my life more or less revolves around the trombone, it seems natural that "the true head of that family of wind instruments" (Berlioz) would be involved somehow in one of my favorites. Somewhere along the line I acquired an antique Conn 5H tenor trombone, a smallish silver-plated instrument with a beautiful sound. I was curious enough to write the C.G. Conn Corporation to inquire about it, and they responded in detail about the horn (this was before they inexplicably destroyed their historical records). It left the factory in 1914 (the exact date escapes me, but I have the letter somewhere, being of the opposite disposition of Conn regarding destroying or getting rid of anything). It was made before "A" was standardized at 440 Hz (or wherever the oboe wants to put itself that day), so it was outfitted with two tuning slides, "high pitch," defined by Conn as A 459, and "low pitch," A 440. The A 459 slide, pushed all the way in, effectively made it "Trombone in B Natural" (in contrast to B Flat, the standard).

There was certainly no practical use for a Trombone in B (it might. of itself, be considered a joke), but it occurred to me that it might be put to use in a practical joke. And lo and behold, an ideal situation presented itself. I was playing in my college marching band, a requirement for instrumental music education majors, and the band director approached me to say he wanted to feature the jazz band on a number in the upcoming half-time performance at Saturday's football game. This was before battery amps made electric basses possible on the field, and he wanted me to play the bass lines on Sousaphone for that one number.

We worked it out with one of the Sousy players who also played trombone, so that as we passed each other on the way to the formation featuring the jazz band, we would swap instruments; he played trombone on the one "big band" number, and I played the bass lines on Sousaphone. We then swapped back on the way to the next formation.

You can guess what happened next: we rehearsed all week and got the instrument swap really down, then on game day I took the Trombone in B on the field and transposed all my parts (I have a pretty good ear for that stuff). After handing off the trombone and taking the Sousaphone, I could hardly keep from cracking up, listening to my friend try to figure out what I had done to him, or probably more to the point, what was wrong with the horn. We subsequently switched back, and I continued to transpose so that my parts sounded normal. I never let on what I had done to him.

The trombone has been the butt of many a musical joke (What do you call ten trombones on the bottom of the ocean? A good start...), but I bet it hasn't been used that much on the other end of a joke. Trombone naysayers beware...

Monday, April 7, 2014


The Chameleon...

I started on piano as a kid, but for some reason it never held the allure for me that it did for others. Evidently my parents had made my sister practice piano (and she became quite an accomplished pianist and teacher), so maybe that's why they didn't have the patience or wherewithal to force me to spend hours of servitude.

But when the trombone came along, the magic hit. I started playing in fifth grade, and by sixth grade had gotten a superior rating at Solo and Ensemble competition. And the game was on. I don't recall being much interested in anything else but music, at least for very long, but I played, and sang in church, glee club, barbershop chorus, and even started my own barbershop quartet. When I asked my high school band director about starting a dance band, because nearby Harriman High School had one, he said he wasn't interested but pointed me toward a file cabinet in his office that had dance band music in it, and said I could start one myself. So I did.

I recruited three trumpeters and another bone player, three saxes and a rhythm section (Alvin Grisham on piano and Doug Henry on drums--there was no bass, and no one to play it if there had been one). The school had no dance-type drum kit, so Doug jury rigged one from what was available in the band room. We rehearsed, and before long had some gigs.

But I digress. My coat started adding many colors when I decided to play clarinet in summer band. I don't remember how that went, but the following summer I played sousaphone (the school had no upright or concert tubas). Then I started at Tennessee Tech as a music education/ trombone major, and somehow one of the other trombone players, Charlie Kirkpatrick, found out I played tuba and asked if I would play in the Dixieland band he was forming. And I was off and running, listening to Dukes Of Dixieland recordings and learning tunes and how to play bass lines. And that first year we won first place in the spring talent show!

Dr. W. J. Julian, the very popular band director at Tech, had left for greener pastures at the University of Tennessee, and most of the upperclassmen followed him. So we 23 music majors endured a disjunct department with an interim Chairperson whom we adored, but who had a commitment for the following year and couldn't stay on. My sophomore year saw the arrival of Dr. James Albert Wattenbarger, a Tech alumnus and graduate of Northwestern University. He had the unenviable task of rebuilding the broken department, and set about doing so by emphasizing performance. He began hiring accomplished players for the vacant faculty positions, including Patrick McGuffey on trumpet. Pat had been in the Army Band and Louisville Symphony and brought a high level of expertise to the department.

Shortly after the beginning of the school year, Mr. McGuffey approached me by my locker and said, and I quote (even after all these many years), "I hear you're the trombone player." And he proceeded to ask me if I was interested in playing trombone in the "faculty" brass quintet he was forming (there were only two brass players on the faculty at the time, Pat and the horn instructor). He planned to augment the group with student instrumentalists. Of course I quickly agreed. Then he asked whom I would recommend for the tuba chair, and after I quickly ran down the list of available players in my mind, I responded, "Well, me," honestly believing I would be the best choice. He said, well then who would you recommend for trombone? I suggested my pal and classmate, Horton Monroe. Kelly Bussell was the best "legit" student trumpeter, and we had our quintet.

The school owned a few tubas, old King recording tubas with front-facing bells, not exactly top pro quality, but miraculously a Mirafone CC and a DuPrins/Walter Sear CC appeared, and they were mine for the duration! Four years of playing with a premier group, rehearsing three days a week and playing for MENC conventions and more, and even a TV series for the Nashville PBS affiliate on the history of brass instruments. When I was ready to graduate, I was prepared to take a local junior high band director job and keep playing with the quintet, but instead I got drafted, joined the USAF band program and went back to being primarily a trombone player. Dr. Wattenbarger hired Winston Morris for tuba faculty, and he has proceeded to create a tuba dynasty at a Tech, with his tuba ensemble having seven Carnegie Hall performances under their belts!

But back to diversity: besides tuba in the quintet, I played tuba or principal trombone in the symphony, depending on which was needed; first trombone in the concert band and jazz "Troubadours;" euphonium in the symphonic wind ensemble, and even drums with a "pop" vocal group.

I have, along the way, delved into strange arenas: E flat cornet, E flat alto flugelhorn, E flat helicon bass, marching trombone and G contrabass bugle with Clare Fischer. E flat valve trombone with the California Gold Rush Band. E flat Alto horn on the soundtrack to the movie Glory. Marching baritone with the Disneyland Band. Alto trombone on the Mozart Requiem. And even trumpet once on a Power Rangers cartoon episode (along with tenor & bass trombone & tuba).

With my partner, Steve, and two friends,
alto valve trombone
Opening Day at Dodger Stadium,
with my E flat helicon

I continue, some fifty-odd years after my little experiments began, to wear many hats. This year alone (2014) I've played first trombone with the Glendale Pops Orchestra, 2nd with the San Fernando Valley Symphony, bass trombone with the New Valley Symphony, and tuba with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic. I've recorded Dixieland trombone for the Disney Company, played euphonium with the Royal Hawaiian Band (America's only full-time municipal band), and I regularly play bass trombone or tuba (or tenor trombone) with the orchestra or brass ensemble at Grace Community Church. I played polka band tuba for a convention in Las Vegas, several Dixie gigs on helicon tuba with the Angel City Dixieland Band, trombone with the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra and a high school production of Cabaret, and bass trombone on American Idol backing Harry Connick, Jr. I've played lead trombone with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra for 19 years, and at age 95, he's still going. Amid all that chaos, I found time to play with various big bands and small groups, and try to keep up with the few "rehearsal" ensembles I play in, and find time to practice in between. And in the interest of further diversity, I've applied for instructor certification training in Body Mapping, a system for musicians based on the Alexander Technique. I'll travel to Flagstaff, Arizona later this month for training.

Besides nurturing my sanity, all this diversity has kept me working, in a time when many musicians are complaining about business being very slow. I guess I always wanted to do it all, rather than stick with one instrument and wish I could have some of the fun I saw others having. I’m not setting the world on fire, but those seeds I planted so long ago have definitely born fruit, of many varieties and colors. And it's still fun and challenging. Winnie the Pooh asked Piglet, "What day is it?" "It's today," squeaked Piglet. "My favorite day," said Pooh.

Monday, March 31, 2014

What It's All About

"You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out...

Not exactly what I'm thinking all about. I'm thinking about my attention, and where I should direct it, namely to alleviate stress. St. Paul, in 1st Corinthians 3:16, said (variously translated, but the meaning isn't lost) Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? To me, I see this as meaning to look inward or inside myself, for God, whatever God is. God, most likely, if there is one, is so far beyond our ability to understand or comprehend that we might as well not look, at least "out there somewhere." Science keeps looking more and more inward, at smaller and smaller things, for "the meaning of life," leading to the discovery of atoms and their components, then  quantum mechanics, quarks, Higgs boson, and wherever all this takes us. But it seems to be taking us to smaller and smaller places, more and more "inward."

Where it takes me is back to my discovery, in a time of need, of Transcendental Meditation. I was feeling very stressed, and finding no solution in exercise, yoga, nature, or other places I looked. I was working in Hilo, Hawaii, and wandered into a bookstore and discovered a small book on TM. I purchased and read it, and decided it was exactly what I needed. So as soon as I got back home to Honolulu, I sought and found the local TM center and signed up. It involved classes so that I would know exactly what I was  getting into and what to expect. Then I was assigned a teacher who sat with me and taught me the actual technique. And I was hooked. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi spoke of a "field of all possibilities," a place where there was at once nothing and the potential for everything, all at the same time. And I went there, an absolutely indescribable place of not quite nothingness, but of infinite peace. It was as if I was all alone in the entire universe. And that is what is hoped for all who learn it, although I found later that not everyone achieves that. But my teacher(s) said that is the magnet for continuing the practice, to keep trying to get back to that place.

Let me regress: I had a lateral lisp for most of my life. All my "S" sounds came out of my side teeth, not my front ones. I had speech therapy as a child, and continued to try to figure out how to get rid of it into adulthood, even going to the U. H. speech therapy center when I was in graduate school at the University of Hawaii. And nothing worked, until about a week after learning TM, I noticed (without thinking about it or trying to do anything about it) that it was GONE. I was speaking normally for the first time, then and forevermore. The only thing that had changed was that I was looking inward twice a day for twenty minutes.

Coincidentally, I once worked with a show conductor who had a similar experience: he stuttered, and his stutter disappeared when he learned TM. When he stopped practicing for a while, it came back, but disappeared again when he returned to meditating. Stress therapy? Looking for God? Shutting out the outside world? Just relaxing by closing one's eyes? Who knows? There is lots of information about research that has been done on the benefits of practicing TM, but I have my own story, and it's a good one. You put your right brain in, and your left brain, and your whole consciousness, and look what happens. And that's what it's all about...

Friday, March 28, 2014


...are rampant. At least, that appears to be the case, in the music world, if not permeating our entire world. Many musicians, for example (and where I'm headed with this observation), are universally praised, frequently when they are nowhere near the elite status they are generally afforded. The question arises whether they are really thought of as being that good, or if their public (frequently other musicians) is simply being polite, or (ahem!) if the listeners really don't know, or are being fooled, or hoodwinked, or are fooling themselves, or are just going along with the crowd. In my experience, many musicians who are lauded in public and private do not deserve to be included in that elite top-tier of the truly great. That leads me to think that the majority of listeners are not sophisticated enough or knowledgeable enough to really know the difference between technical prowess and true artistry.

The creation of music involves many facets, but foremost of these is the ability to communicate with the listener. Some have been well educated, have spent countless hours in the practice room developing and honing their craft, many more hours listening and learning from the ones who came before, and so forth and so on. But sometimes (and perhaps frequently) someone comes along who is lacking in one or more of the elements we think of as being a requirement, such as having a pleasant voice (or sound on an instrument), or a knowledge of theory, or other things, but they have a gift for communicating with an audience, of "clicking" within a certain genre, and they become stars. So all of those elements taken together are not necessarily the answer. Indeed, sometimes the elements have been studied, practiced to perfection, but that one special talent, the ability to communicate, is missing. But too often, to my way of thinking, the listener is not sophisticated or learned enough to know the difference. A friend of mine long ago had business cards made up that read, "If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit." So many listeners (and critics) seem to be baffled, or at least fooled. Maybe they are just trying to be, or seem, sophisticated or knowledgeable. Maybe it's a matter of intelligence; after all, half of us are at or below average intelligence. Maybe IQ has something to do with it; I don't know. I do know that I am sometimes impressed with the technical prowess of someone I hear, but hearing them once is enough. I don't seek out further opportunities to listen to them, live or on recordings. They don't move me. But then someone will come along who says things in the simplest way, but it strikes at my heartstrings, and a bond is formed.

There is an emotional element in true communication between artist and observer, in music and art, in poetry and prose. Of course we all have our own interests, and we tend to pursue the genres that do interest us, but sometimes something from outside our experience will intrude on our consciousness and pique our interest, and we experience, well, expansion. Our world has just gotten larger.