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Off the Beaten Path

This is the first, and most likely the last time that I will present an ezine about myself. It is an excerpt from an interview of me conducted by Bill Payne. You can also find a video on Daniel Kepl’s site with my page here.

Many of you have been reading these broadcasts and don’t know who I am, or what I have done in the music business. Since these "Musings" are always about the music “business” and the difficulties that surround the actual playing of music, I thought that some information on myself might be helpful.

To those of you who do know me, you may find out something you don’t know, or care to know, but I hope you will at least find the following interview interesting.

My next broadcast will be back to the business of music and the life of music makers.

If there is a subject you would like me to discuss, please contact me and I will try to accommodate you.

A Woodwind Player for All Seasons -- Mike Vaccaro!


Woodwind player Mike Vaccaro has had a career in the music business that many musicians just dream about. This interview will touch on a few highlights. His 50 year pursuit has taken him on an adventure that has included most styles of classical, jazz and popular music. Above and beyond his music career, he has made improvements on the design of the clarinet, and has his own (popular) brand, AV Clarinets. He also makes custom made clarinet, bass clarinet, and sax mouthpieces. Check this out !!!

1. What was your young life like growing up in California? Are there any other musicians or artists in your extended family?
I grew up in rural Los Angeles. Even though it was only 15 minutes from downtown, it was called Rivera when I moved there in about 1953, and it annexed with the neighboring city to become Pico Rivera in the 60's sometime.

When I moved there it was 3 rows of houses in miles and miles of orange groves. The 5 Freeway didn't go past our house yet, and it was finally completed to Harbor Boulevard when Disneyland opened. Until then, the major highway was Telegraph Road. Despite this rural beginning, the orange trees were quickly cut down over just a few years (ruining our playpen) and what was rural became the suburbs.

The public school system was good, and our band director, who visited once a week was outstanding. Leon Guide was patient, and understood his job and was a professional musician playing casuals on the weekend. In Junior High he saw us daily.

High School was another good experience with Robert Strecker, a professional musician who we scared away his first year of teaching. Then John Jacobs, who had a long career in High School and Junior College teaching, took over. Through most of that time I studied privately with Stan Seckler, who played with the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, and taught a lot of half hour private lessons at Pico Music.


2. What attracted you to the idea of becoming a woodwind player? What horn did you start on, and who were the artists that caught your ear first?
I took up the clarinet when I was in the 4th grade when we all started music in the district. My parents bought me recordings of Benny Goodman and Sol Yaged when I rented the clarinet. Then tenor sax was added in the 8th grade. As a senior in High School I added the flute. By the time I left college to go on the road, I was messing with the oboe, but not seriously. It was not a conscious thought to add the instruments, I just was always interested in learning something new. In about 9th grade I heard Count Basie's band at Disneyland and sitting in the front row I decided that's what I wanted to do for a living. I wanted to be a professional musician. It was a very early age to know what I wanted to do.

3. Were you interested in any music specifically (Pop, Jazz, Classical) or did the enjoyment of all music pique your eagerness?
I really knew nothing about the enormity of music. During my formative years, I was interested in everything I heard. At the time, my only playing interests were concert band and stage band, as those were my only opportunities to perform. My home life was mainly limited to Perry Como recordings and the like, played on a 78 rpm record player. Cerritos Junior College was a great place to hear music and be associated with professional musicians. The Collegiate Neophonic, co-sponsored by Stan Kenton and Conn Instruments, put the best musicians from all the local colleges together. At Cal State Long Beach I played in the band and orchestra. About 16 of us started a clandestine jazz band, which eventually became the beginnings of one of the first commercial music programs in the country, despite the disgust of many of the old time professors.

4. Early gigs...Did you have your own band or did you work for other leaders?
Larry Walters, my trumpet playing friend and I, had a band in elementary school. We played the theme from Zorro, got a dollar apiece and a free dinner. In High School I played in the "Silvertones" a band led by Terry Purrington, and we won the battle of the bands at the Hollywood Bowl. I also played in the Pico Rivera Stage Band headed by my private teacher, Stan Seckler. At CSULB I played in the clandestine stage band previously mentioned, and also with a small group that Richard and Karen Carpenter put together that went around to various schools and performed the Marquis de Sade, a popular record album at the time. At CSULB I also performed the Scaramouche by Darius Milhaud, for Alto Sax and Orchestra, which was the West Coast premiere, with the composer present. The concert was sponsored by the French Embassy and I was honored to be selected as the soloist by Henri Temianka, the school Orchestra director, and world famous string quartet performer.

5. When was the decision made that you were going to concentrate on becoming a doubler? How did that come about? Was it just an evolving necessity from what leaders needed from you or was it the plan from the beginning once you saw yourself as a complete working professional?
I was just always into learning more, and studying woodwinds seemed the way to do it. I played with the Collegiate Neophonic which required all kinds of doubles, it was partially funded by Stan Kenton, with Jack Wheaton and Don Erjavek running the semi-weekly rehearsals. It was a good contact as Bill Fritz coached us, and when he quit the Kenton Band he recommended me. So off on the road I went in my junior year of college with a mostly classical background, never to go back to formal schooling.

6. Who were your teachers? What advice did you receive from your mentors that still holds true even now...
The early teachers I have already discussed, but in college I hooked up with Ralph Gari. My father had just died after I graduated from High School and Ralph became not only my mentor, but a substitute father figure as well. He was to help greatly later on in my career. We had a wonderful sax quartet 20 years after I studied with him, and did an LP entitled Saxes 4. I think that it can still be found in rare record shops on the internet. The best teacher for teaching me music (not technique) was Luella Howard. She was first flute in the LA Philharmonic for many years, becoming first flute at 20th Century Fox for the remainder of her career.

Looking back to my elementary school teacher Leon Guide, I remember standing next to his car one day and asking him what I should do if I became a musician. He said "Be good at a lot of things." I think this helped guide me in my musical and business interests (I started to listen to all types of music). I always had a little music-related side business. I even quit playing for 8 years to become a full-fledged production company working with large corporations at their yearly meetings with entertainment and all that goes with it. When I went back to playing full time, that business turned into a music contracting business, and I've been the Music Contractor at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts since it opened 25 years ago. I have also contracted live and recorded music of all types.


7. I know that you were on the road with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. How did you get those gigs? Talk for a second about playing Bass Saxophone with Stan Kenton.
As I previously indicated, Bill Fritz got me the Kenton job.I had to borrow a baritone saxophone from the Conn Company that Stan arranged for, as I didn't own the instrument. As the Conn rep said. You are the Conn artist and I am the Conn man. The bass sax was provided by the band. By the time I got on the Kenton Band, the Bass Sax was only being used on 4 or 5 arrangements, and after about three months I talked Stan out of using it. It was transposable on the baritone anyway. Don Rader, another coach with the Neophonic, recommended me to Woody's band. During that period I also played in the Paul Horn Flute Ensemble (4 flutes and rhythm section) sponsored by the Conn Music Company.

8. In the world of big band music Stan Kenton was a striking presence. How was he as a person? I understand that he traveled with the band on the infamous band bus. Is there an amusing story that you could relate to us that happened on the road?
Stan was the Great White Father, and for me, another father substitute. I was on the band during the period of the Dee Barton recording "Stan Kenton Conducts the Music of Dee Barton." A great band and great arrangements. I also did a tour of military bases that was not much fun at all despite the good arrangements of standards. The comradery on the various Kenton band busses was always great. You must understand that in those times, there were no specialized touring busses as there are now. We were basically in a Greyhound bus. Sometimes for 12 to 16 hours a day, and even worse, sometimes for 6 or 7 days in a row. There was always a band member vendor who would buy lots of beer, and keep it cold, and when we ran out of booze, he would overcharge us to get beer. Smart marketing for musicians who weren't thinking that far ahead.

Stan ALWAYS wore a suit. After a long overnight ride,when we rolled up to a hotel, he would comb his hair, and be the first one out of the bus to help get the luggage out of the bins. There is a Stan Kenton Appreciation Group on Facebook that I urge fans to sign up on. Many stories are chronicled there.

9. How did you end up in Las Vegas?

We did a 2 week stint with the Woody Herman Band, and Ralph Gari, my college teacher, was working up there again (he spent most of his career there). I would hang out with him and when a chair opened up at the Follies at the Tropicana, I took over the position. It was a great opportunity (despite playing the same music 2 times a night for a year). Ralph got me in the Las Vegas Symphony and Las Vegas Chamber Players as well. I regularly played in a "kix" band at the union until 5AM several nights a week. I left Vegas for a year and then came back for 2 years at the Sands, playing with some great celebrities and singers. Again I joined the symphony and chamber players. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and yes it was wild and crazy!

10. Please talk about your chamber trio "MUSIQUE," one of my favorite groups. Your playing on "Caprice for C Clarinet" was over the top. How did you meet the composer Jack Reidling and the singer Judith Dunlore?
When I finally left Las Vegas for good Judith Dunlore, my wife, and I went to Germany. I had a job offer and she wanted to take opera auditions. With no planning, ahead we went, and it turns out it was the wrong season for opera auditions, and I didn't like the band I was with and they really didn't like me. So after four months of traveling around Europe we came back and landed in Long Beach, CA. It took me a couple of years to regain my musical contacts and in the meantime we met Jack Reidling at the union building. He wanted to play the woodwind and vocal literature and we were delighted to find a musical partner. We practiced 6 hours a day 3 days a week for a year before putting on our first concert and doing our first recording. Jack wrote a lot of music for us. It was a fabulous experience and now, whether I am playing classical music or jazz music, the chamber music setting is what I prefer. Music that you can see through and is meant to be listened to without being in the distraction of a club or bar.

11. Your classical career has been really varied over the years, could you mention some highlights? Any favorite music that you played with the Long Beach Opera?
My classical career was, and is, mostly chamber music. My 10 years with the Long Beach Opera were great. I started on 3rd oboe for the classics and as the group started doing more modern pieces under its new leader, I switched to 1st clarinet. Two of the highlights were doing The Ring with a cut-down orchestra. It almost killed all of us, as we performed it with no subs on a Saturday and Sunday, all four operas. The other favorite was for chamber orchestra, and was the story of Anne Frank. Just one singer and about 12 musicians. Great music and wonderful performances.

12. Do you have a preferred horn to play? I understand that you have concentrated on the oboe family, does the oboe require more attention (practice) than the other horns?
The oboe is a full time job. Reeds are a constant thing to deal with, because the reeeds actually serve as both sides of a mouthpiece. Working on oboe reeds taught me a lot about how clarinet and sax mouthpieces work. The reeds change with the weather, so we are always working on reeds. It is part of the oboe experience.

Flute is the first instrument I usually practice every day. The nice thing about the flute is it has no reed…. and the hard thing about the flute is that it has no reed. It's the only modern woodwind instrument we don’t put in our mouth. We balance it under our lower lip. The embouchure and breath control are everything. But on the days that I am "on" it is a beautiful thing. I started on the clarinet, and many people think of me as a clarinet player. It's all about the tone on the clarinet (as it is with all instruments) and the technique like the flute must be kept on top of. The clarinet is tuned in 12th's instead of octave's which makes it difficult in it its own way. My advantage was that I started on clarinet. I did most of my movie calls on 1st clarinet and Dan Wallin, the recording engineer, loved my sound. I am very proud to say that when Dan retired I bought the set of speakers that he mixed many movies with. Tim Simonec is a brilliant composer and orchestrator and I did much of my movie work with him. Then there is the sax with its flexibility and sweetness. I love them all. The easiest one for me to give up would be the oboe. It is a lot of work to keep all the instruments ready all the time, and as I age I seem to concentrate on whatever someone writes for me. The true joy of my life is that all the literature written for me, especially chamber music, has increased the literature available for future woodwind players. You can hear that in my CD's which has music largely written for me.


13. Is there a favorite sound track for a movie that you played on? Do you have a favorite studio gig that you could mention?

Ratatouille is the favorite sound track that I have played on. So many mouse chase scenes, really virtuoso playing. Bobby Shulgold on flute was perfect on every take. Also there was the first date that I played with the Kenton band playing Dee Barton's music. That was my first time in a studio, with a professional band, playing at Capitol Records, with its history of great artists. Every time I work there, it is like looking at the history of pop music in the 20th century.


14. How do you deal with the pressure involved with playing in the studios? Having to have all your horns (flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboes) ready to play must take a tremendous amount of work. Have you ever gotten to the studio and seen a part and wondered "How in the hell am I going to do this" and then when the instant came to play, it came off flawlessly?
I never worried much about pressure in the studio. Even though a take can cost a lot of money with a big orchestra, the money is not the problem, so multiple takes are generally accepted. My concern is always during live playing, where many times we only get one shot at it. The business here in LA rarely lets us do multiple performances, unless we are in a pit situation. For concert work, especially chamber music, we get one chance to make it perfect or perhaps two or three chances if we are lucky. Every audience expects perfection from listening to so many perfect recordings. They don't realize that live playing is not quite like that. But live or recorded, when it is perfect musically there is nothing like it.

15. Where did you meet your business partner, Rheuben Allen?
I have known Rheuben since he had The Sax Shop in Hollywood 40 years ago. Beside being the number one repair shop at the time, at one point he was the busiest Yamaha dealer in the U.S. He is still active in design and repair of instruments. Most recently he created the Kenny G soprano that is doing great in the marketplace. He also has a line of sax necks that are really good. He seems to be working on something new every time I see him.

16. How did you come about re-designing Clarinet barrels and bells?
I could never find the feel, sound, or intonation I wanted on the clarinet, so Bill Stevens, the lathe master and I, just start trying new designs based on what was around at the time and then altering the specs on our own products until we found what we were looking for. Trial and error with some great epiphanies along the way, that became very obvious as we figured them out.

17. What were stock bells and barrels lacking when you were using standard equipment on your horns? Was that the sole reason that made you decide to go out there and explore the possibilities?
Most stock barrels were just a straight hole from one end of the barrel to the other end. Then some variations came along, mostly with the reverse taper but none of those fit what I wanted to feel or hear. Bill and I did a lot of adjustment to the inside of the barrel. Plus, after they are made we play and tune them 3 times until I like the feel and the sound. As far as bells they are like a stereo speaker, with every speaker sounding different based on the design. Most of the bell makers were just making the same or similar tapers. We changed that radically, as well as changing the weight of the bell.

18. How did you go about designing The AV Clarinet? How many prototypes did you receive before you were satisfied with the results?

Our contacts in many Asian countries sent us clarinets, and we would send them information back on how we would like them altered. We are now very satisfied with the bore and keywork on the instruments we are getting. And I must say, the barrels on the AV clarinet are made to our specs and play very well too.

19. Is designing an on-going process that continues with you today?
Our design is set, though the Asian makers tend to listen to everyone and make changes as they go. We have to remind them that what we want is not to be changed by suggestions from others.

20. What are your future plans?

Record as much as I can, with classical and jazz CD’s on the front burner. I am rehearsing with a great sax quartet that will most likely do some local concerts, and hopefully a recording of a saxophone quartet written by John Scott, who is another fine composer that I have a long term relationship with in the film business. I am also rehearsing with a clarinet quartet that Rheuben Allen has run for many years, and that has a CD finished, waiting to be issued.

John Scott has written a clarinet quintet (with string quartet) and a saxophone quintet (also with string quartet) for me that I hope we get recorded in the next year or so. I have just finished recording a double CD of pop music that should be available no later than September, 2018.

I already have three unaccompanied pieces for the classical CD recorded, and am looking forward to including John's pieces...

I would also enjoy finding a few dedicated students...and, of course, I love making clarinet and sax mouthpieces….Life is very busy.

Here are some great examples of Mike's Studio Work from the movies Ratatoille and UP:




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