Bel Air Jazz...

Home | Short Bio | Full Length Bio | Inside Studio A | Otherworld Music | The Davie Code | Look Both Ways | Reactions | Music | On The Road At 18 | Lazy Dogmas Of Impossibility | Four Town Pipers | Contest Page | Interview

Zappa

 

There were three encounters with Frank Zappa over about a sixteen-year period.  The first was at Mount St. Mary’s College ca. 1963.  The second was in 1975 when he did a concert and recording at UCLA and I was in the orchestra.  The final one was his guest appearance on Dinah! in 1979.

After high school I attended Los Angeles City College (See On The Road At 18). I followed that with a year at UCLA, which didn’t turn out nearly as well.  For one thing, the music department was almost entirely oriented toward musicology.  There was a concert band conducted by a clown (ok, a famous one, at least in concert band circles) named Clarence Sawhill who, someone once said, couldn’t conduct electricity if he was standing in the Pacific Ocean.  Sawhill was a mean guy who, among other things, made it mandatory to play in the band in order to play in the orchestra.  I found a way around it, although it wasn’t easy.  The very existence of jazz was officially frowned upon.  Eventually jazz found it’s way into the curriculum but finally was relegated to the Ethnomusicology Dept.  That’s wrong on many, many levels and is probably more than just a little racist.
 
The orchestra was a skeleton crew that was fleshed out for the one concert each semester.  The conductor was Lukas Foss, a real sweetheart and a terrific musician.  Lukas was one of the few bright spots in the UCLA experience.  His assistant, Richard Dufallo was another.  (On the other hand there was Roger Wagner, but that’s a different story.)  Toward the end of the year it was pretty obvious that I should be someplace else and as luck would have it I got a call from Manuel Compinsky asking me to audition for a scholarship to Mt. St. Mary’s College.  My flute teacher, George Drexler (principal in the La Phil.), had recommended me, apparently more impressed by my capacity for work than any talent.  Translation: I was a pretty raw beginner.
 
I got to the audition to find Mr. Compinsky, Sister Maura Jean (the outgoing chair of the music department) and a huge guy with a nice smile, Pattee Evanson—Dr. Evanson, although the degree hadn’t yet been completed.  Sister Maura Jean had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg and a classmate of Leonard Stein at UCLA.  She taught electronic music among other subjects.  Evanson took command and had me play a few orchestral excerpts.  It wasn’t going too well when Compinsky stepped in.  He asked me to play a low c “as softly as possible.”  That’s pretty much the only way a beginner can play a low c.  I did it and he said, “fantastic control.”  I never found out if that was some sort of put-on.  Evanson said, “young man, we want to invest in you” and I was offered a scholarship. 

Evanson’s nice smile didn’t last.  The guy was a lunatic who at one time or another had tried to get various other faculty members fired.  He denounced Compinsky as a Communist.  (Compinsky had been called to testify before the HUAC in 1956 and exercised his rights under the Fifth Amendment.)  The school administration ignored him.  He demanded the firing of Paul Salomunovich, a well-known, highly respected choral conductor, recipient of a Papal knighthood, a very nice guy and a terrific teacher, because he didn’t have a degree.  So Mt. St. Mary’s granted him one.  And on and on.  He complained repeatedly about “an undercurrent of deceit” in the music department.  There was, but it was entirely attributable to him.  Evanson was eventually fired (the details are hilarious) as he had been from teaching gigs at Montana St. University, Eastman and San Diego State.  He was probably the worst teacher I have ever had but he did do two things (and only two) right.  One was to bring to our music history class a guest lecturer, one Murray Shapinski, who wove fascinating tales of his long career in music and claimed that Bartok had written a solo sonata for him.  (Others have disputed this claim and there is no mention of it in any document I can find.)  He played his bass for us and actually sounded quite good.  There is very little concerning him on the internet and some of what there is spells his name Shipinsky and involves a recording he made with Dizzy Gillespie and a very young Dexter Gordon, Blue ‘N’ Boogie, recorded February 9, 1945.  It’s one of the first records I ever bought.  Murray had a brief career in the LA studios and then seems to have disappeared. 

Evanson’s only other positive accomplishment was to bring to the same class a clean-cut young man in a checkered blazer and a snappy bow tie (I’m not making this up), name of Frank Zappa.  He introduced him as a composer and turned the class over to him.

Frank had managed to get permission to use the school auditorium for a concert and was trying to recruit musicians.  He described his music and it sounded pretty far-out: flutists playing just the head joint (the top part of the flute, before you get to the keys), other unconventional techniques, random improvisation, etc.  Someone asked him why. 

“Because I think that’s the way music should be,” he said.

“What about Brahms and Schubert?” someone wondered.

“They’re part of the evolution of music.  I’m the culmination,” he answered. 

The combination of the pompous Evanson (“upon whom the shoe fits, let it be worn,” he used to say) and the iconoclastic Zappa was a pretty weird one and I never found out how it came about.  The way he described the concert it sounded as if it might have been fun but I had an exam that night and had already missed a class session because of a gig.  I could hear it faintly while we took the test but it ended around the same time as the class.

In 1975 I got a call to do a concert and recording with Frank at UCLA.  The orchestra (The “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra”) was large and excellent.  Frank was on his best behavior and the gig, a few rehearsals, two concerts at Royce Hall and a post concert recording session to “clean up” a few spots, was easy (except for the music) and fun.  It got a lot of attention but not as much as the capture of Patty Hearst, which took place the day of the last concert. 

During the second-to-last season of Dinah!, Frank released an album called Sheik Yerbouti (I still get a kick out of that title) and was booked on the show to promote it.  In the eight-plus years of the show there had been an occasional guest who made things difficult for Dinah and/or the rest of us but somehow Dinah managed it all with her characteristic equanimity.  Nothing ever seemed to bother her until Zappa appeared on the show.  I’m still not sure what upset her and she certainly seemed to have no trouble holding her own in bantering with Frank, but during a commercial break she walked across the stage to the band and with a peculiar look on her face said, “why do they book him on this show?”

(The segment can be found at various sites on the Internet.) 

Post script, apropos of none of the above.   Dinah was a liberal and had a falling-out with Frank Sinatra when she refused his request to allow Spiro Agnew, a crooked politician Sinatra supported, to stay at her house in Beverly Hills.  Agnew was booked on the show at least twice.  The first time the band was not involved.  The second time I was there and Paul Williams was a co-host.  There isn’t much you can say about a guy like Agnew except that he should have been in jail.  Dinah handled it as usual.  Paul told him what a nice woman his wife was.  My question is “why do they book him on this show?” 

And then there was Dap Sugar Willie.

And Andy Kaufman.

And Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band…






info@belairjazz.org