July 9, 2015


Book: They Call Me Stein on Vine by Gary Chen

As a teenager getting hooked on jazz in the 1970's and living in northern New Jersey, the Los Angeles jazz world seemed an amazing place.  Although there was certainly a thriving jazz scene in the NY metropolitan area, because so many LA-based jazzmen not only were featured on the jazz albums I was buying, but were paying their bills working pop and rock recording sessions and playing on film and TV soundtracks, the names and sounds of guys like Conte and Pete Candoli, Pete Christlieb (ATJ #26), Don Menza, Ernie Watts, Lou Levy,  Dick and Ted Nash (the father and uncle of the Ted Nash in ATJ #4),  Jack Sheldon, Frank Rosolino, Buddy Collette, and Plas Johnson became familiar to me even though the farthest west I had ever travelled was Gettysburg.   

For many decades, the Stein on Vine music store (conveniently located across the street from the Musician's Local office in Hollywood) was a gathering place for top LA musicians...especially jazz musicians.  The store was started by Maury Stein, a Chicago-born reed player who, in the late 40's, took a 16-year old Stan Getz under his wing when both were in the sax section of Jack Teagarden's band.  When the days of big bands came to an end, Stein found his way out west and opened the store.  He quickly became a larger than life character on the LA music scene, running his shop not as an efficient, money-making business, but as a place where musicians could swap stories and drinks, share a joint, hold informal jam sessions and, if down on their luck, borrow a horn or get one on a generous layaway plan.    

In the late 70's or early '80's (the book is a little hazy on dates), Gary Chen, a Taiwanese guitar player who had come to the States to study jazz at the Berklee school in Boston, decided to pass through LA on his way home and visit friends for a few weeks.  Needing some money and hoping to find a part-time job at a music store, he opened the Yellow Pages and called the number of the first ad he saw, not knowing it was the famous Stein on Vine or that he was about to embark on the adventure of his life.  

They Call Me Stein on Vine is Chen's memoir about his years working at (and, after Maury's death, eventually owning) Stein on Vine.  The book starts with a chronological retelling of Gary's life story and how he ended up at the store.  He then gives short (ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages) reminiscences of dozens of the musicians who have walked through his door.  

I can't remember the last book I enjoyed as much as They Call Me Stein on Vine.  Sure it's politically incorrect, with its references to Jews and Chinamen, gamblers and philanderers, and drug and alcohol use (and occasional abuse), but at its heart is the story of many of the great jazz men of the mid to late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the Taiwanese immigrant who was lucky enough to become their friend, confidant and supporter. Even if you've never set foot in Gary's store...or aren't even a jazz fan...you will be by turns amused, touched and delighted by these stories.  (Just one example: the legendary Benny Goodman, a notorious, Jack Benny-level cheapskate, comes into the store to get some reeds.  He opens box after box, trying and rejecting reed after reed...thus making them unsellable.  He's not even really properly testing them; instead of affixing the reeds to his mouthpiece with the ligature, he's just holding them in place with his thumb, tooting a note or two and tossing them on the floor.  He finally declares one to be acceptable, and Maury asks Benny to at least pay for that one.  Benny responds by saying that was the reed he came in with in the first place.)  

I appreciated Gary's inside looks at famous musicians such as Stan Getz, Ray Brown, Wayne Shorter and Benny Carter...but really loved the stories about guys I knew less about such as the Candoli brothers, Al McKibbon and Lou Levy...especially Lou Levy...he deserves his own full-length biography.

When I lived in Los Angeles in the 80's and 90's, Stein on Vine is where I went to buy reeds and other supplies, have my sax adjusted, try out used horns or just stare at the autographed head-shots that covered the walls of all the great musicians who had frequented the store...and who I had admired from afar as a teenager.  I knew Gary as the guy who was always behind the counter, but never imagined the stories he could have told if I had ever struck up a conversation.  After reading his book, I am now kicking myself.

Posted by at July 9, 2015 7:33 AM

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