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: