May 17, 2009
We are continuing our conversation with David Shostac, LACO’s principal flutist and orchestra member for 33+ years:
Bob: How old were you when you first heard jazz music? Do you recall what your response was to it?
David: I remember hearing some jazz music at age 4 and already liking the sound of the tenor sax solo. That was while walking down the street in Douglas, Arizona, one evening. It was coming out of a shop of some sort. That’s how I know how old I was, because my mother and I took a trip there at that age.
As I mentioned, I was exposed to R&B and rock early on, and I was always attracted to the saxophone and guitar solos. I didn’t hear that much jazz in those days, except that the guys I liked were really jazz players. Plas Johnson did a lot of those recordings, and there were players who recorded with Little Richard, Fats Domino, and the Coasters.
Though still a serious flute player, I got my parents to buy me a tenor [sax] when I was 12 or 13, took some lessons, and started playing dance gigs at 13 with Sandy Nelson, who later became famous for his hit “Teen Beat.” By high school, Sam (Sandy) and I were also playing with Bruce Johnston (later with the Beach Boys); I was also in the high school jazz band at the same time and listening to lots of West Coast jazz (Bud Shank, Shorty Rogers, Chico Hamilton with Buddy Collette on sax and flute, Bill Perkins, Paul Desmond, Herbie Mann, etc.) And a trumpet player turned me on to Sonny Stitt as well, though I still hadn’t heard Bird [Charlie Parker] play.
Meanwhile, there were a few extra-curricular adventures worthy of note during this time. One was the Rock & Roll show at University High that nearly got me kicked out of school. (I only did what I had seen Joe Houston do at the Palladium, and the kids loved it—especially the girls—but the school vice-principal did not!) I was banned from ever playing on stage again, but an exception was made when I got to do a calypso flute improvisation in a school production with Nancy Sinatra.
Bob: Now, THAT is a funny story! I’ll bet there are not many LACO members who have heard that one…!
David: Then there was the murder I attended, of John Dolphin, the record producer. He had invited our rough-edged, gritty little blues band to his office to talk deals when he was shot to death by a disgruntled song-writer he had cheated. I got grazed in the leg by a bullet during the struggle, which did not please my mother.
Bob: Well, I’ll be darned! As you may know, I teach jazz history, and I’ve read all about John Dolphin, and Dolphin’s of Hollywood, where they had live broadcasts from their front window, with Charles Trammell. Buddy Collette and Clora Bryant talked about him in the book Central Avenue Sounds (University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1998); Buddy called him a “hard-pay guy” who would never pay anybody. I’ve even read about how he was shot. I never dreamed I’d speak with someone who was there!
David: Yep; I was there… All of this started at the old Western Recorders on Sunset and Gordon, a very historical studio where John Coltrane (among many others) made some recordings. You can hear the sound of the actual room in one of those recordings, made in about 1959.
The songwriter’s name was Percy Ivy, and he warned us ahead of time about John Dolphin. Percy had four kids, and he accused John not only of stiffing him on his fee, but also of sending out some “boys to do me in.” John’s reply was, “I don’t need to send any boys to do you in; I can do it myself.” At which Percy said, “Give me my money, John,” followed by gunfire, wrestling, a knife (John had a long switchblade with a yellow handle), and bullets flying. I hit the floor just in time, having had trouble believing this was actually happening, and not just some kind of show. Everybody else in the band ran out of the place, but I was the only one sitting across the desk from Percy and didn’t seem to be in the line of fire—and then I was! By the time I ran out of the store holding my leg, everyone was up the street, and they thought that I was shot in the stomach!
John was dying while lying on the heater. Bruce Johnston moved him so he wouldn’t be burned and asked him if he was okay; there was no answer. Percy sat at the other desk and waited for the police to arrive. I felt sorry for him and felt that he was a decent guy who got in a bad situation.
In the trial, I tried to help Percy with my testimony, but he still got “Murder 2.” My parents wouldn’t have known that I was shot if I hadn’t been required to get a tetanus shot. But I guess that would have come out anyway, once I had to testify.
By the way, the story was minimized in the paper because the daughter of the dean at UCLA was with us at the time this went down; plus there was a big plane crash which made headlines.
Bob: That is an amazing story, David! It sounds like you were mighty lucky…
David: Yeah, I guess you could say that! The third activity was the big Rock & Roll shows we played; we were the opening act for name entertainers like Duane Eddy. These jobs took place in big barns like the El Monte Legion Stadium, the Cow Palace, Long Beach Arena, etc. I even had an alias, “Saxy Saxton,” and we were part of sleazy Kip Tyler’s group “The Flips.” Very little money, but pretty heady stuff for high school kids… We also were the back-up band for vocal acts like Richie Valenz, the Big Bopper, and stuff like that, even appearing on the Johnny Otis show once.
Bob: One of the courses I’ve put together is called History of Jazz: The Los Angeles Scene. One of the selections I play for the class is “Harlem Nocturne” by the Johnny Otis Orchestra, which is a true classic, from 1945! I also have some remarkable pictures of him and his orchestra from those years. Great stories, David! They’re going to be hard to follow…!
But, I’d also like to know about your music education. Who were the music teachers and performers who had the most influence on you?
David: Okay, now that we are past most of the wild youthful indulgences, let’s get back to a little of the flute background. Doriot Anthony Dwyer was second flute in the L.A. Phil, and I studied with her until she left for the Boston Symphony. Next was Luella Howard, first flute at Fox, who basically brought me up as a flutist and took a real interest in my development. I worked with her through junior and senior high schools, and I continued to go back for brush-ups for many years after. Senior year in high school, I got into a great program which allowed a small number of students to take courses at UCLA. Among the courses offered, lo and behold, was the opportunity to take private flute lessons with George Drexler, principal of the L.A. Phil. This was very beneficial, and next was Occidental College, where I went as a pre-med candidate—but what do you know, the flute teacher there was Roger Stevens, also of the L.A. Phil and professor of flute at USC as well. There seemed to be a kind of destiny in all of this, and eventually there was the throwing of a test tube out the window of a chemistry lab and the decision to be a musician. (Roger was very kind in recommending I not do this unless it was the only career I wanted; once the decision was made, he was behind me a hundred percent.)
After hearing a recording of Julius Baker, I had to go to Juilliard. I got to meet him and hear him live, which cinched the deal. I got a scholarship to play in the orchestra even before being formally admitted to the school. Julie was a great influence on me, with his incredible technical perfection and the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. Meanwhile, summers at Aspen with Albert Tipton and Tanglewood with Doriot, plus private lessons with the great Marcel Moyse pushed the envelope further. And of course Jean-Pierre Rampal, who was just becoming known in this country…(he once went home with MY date after a concert—ah, fame!...) We became friends and played together several times in later years; he was a spectacular person.
On instruments other than the flute, I loved the playing of Jascha Heifetz, Piatigorsky, and many other great classical artists, and learned much from their recordings.
Bob: How about jazz influences? And what opportunities did you have to play and hear jazz during your educational years?
David: While I was at Juilliard, I first heard the playing of John Coltrane and was totally blown away. I was also impressed by Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner (still one of my favorites). I loved to go hear Roland Kirk at the Five Spot.
While advancing in my flute studies, I continued to play gigs in college, sat in at clubs at Aspen and Tanglewood, etc. In college, I first heard Miles Davis and Gil Evans in “Sketches of Spain” and other recordings, and at Tanglewood I met Gunther Schuller and was introduced to “third stream” music.
One of the best experiences I had during my four years as principal flutist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was playing with the fusion group “MATRIX”. This was the original Matrix, and we allowed the better-known group to take the name after we disbanded when I moved back to L.A. We had two members of the symphony (bassist and composer Dave Phillips and myself), and three wonderful outside people (though the original drummer had also been from the orchestra). It was a fascinating group, and if you check under my name on iTunes, you will find our recordings from the ’70s, mixed in with my other recordings. For instance, I know I played tenor sax on a tune called “September 1,” and I’m on baritone sax on another, “Bare Bottom.” Most everything we did was in odd meters, and the compositions were amazing (none by me, unfortunately).
The interview with David Shostac concludes in our next installment.