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Full Length Bio

David Sherr

April 2009 photo: Ken Lezin

I have lived in Chicago, Baltimore, Tulsa, New York and LA, mostly LA. These days I divide my time between Santa Monica, California, and Lynbrook, New York. I began to play the clarinet and saxophone in high school, took up the flute in 1960 and the oboe (at the instigation of Plas Johnson) in 1966. Composition came later.  

In 1960 I moved to Tulsa and after a brief period with a band that made some pretty funny sounds, I joined the Ernie Fields Orchestra. Ernie's band had existed since the early 1930s, flirted with success briefly in the 1940s, and even won the Pittsburgh Courier poll in 1947 over the Ellington and Basie bands. (The Courier was then the most widely circulated African-American newspaper in the country.) By the late 1950s the band had shrunk to eight pieces and a remarkable singer, Ann Walls. In 1959 a former member of the band, René Hall, arranged a swing era tune, In The Mood, recorded it with Hollywood studio musicians, and released it under Ernie's name. The record became a hit and revitalized the band, if only briefly.

A lot of great musicians had worked for Ernie over the years, including Yusef Lateef, Teddy Edwards, Booker Ervin, Hal Singer, Paul Quinichette, Benny Powell, Earl Bostic, even King Kolax, whose name appears in the biographies of both Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. And there were great musicians in 1960, but only one, Billy Davenport, who later worked with Otis Rush and Paul Butterfield, whose name would be recognized today. Although I learned a lot about music during the time I spent with the band, the real education was in traveling throughout the midwest and southwest in segregated America. Six years after the Supreme Court ordered integration, there were still "white only" signs and towns where we were denied accommodations. I've written about that in the "On The Road At 18" section of this web site.

I returned to LA and after some of the usual dues-paying stuff I began to do studio work as a woodwind player and eventually as a contractor. To read about some of the people I worked with over the years, please see Inside Studio A.

In addition to studio work I played a lot of concerts over the years, primarily as an oboe and English horn player, but occasionally on saxophone, clarinet or flute. I gave premier performances (world, American, LA, west coast, etc.) of works by Gilbert Amy, Luciano Berio, Harrison Birtwistle, Harold Budd, Paul Chihara, Paul-Heinz Dittrich, Ernst Krenek, Alexina Louie, Leonard Rosenman, Gerhard Samuel, Robert Saxon, Iannis Xenakis and others. Not exactly chamber music, I was the oboe soloist on Ray Charles's recording of Eleanor Rigby.

I played solo alto clarinet on a PBS (it was called National Educational Television in those days) videotape recording of Stravinsky's Symphony of Wind Instruments. It was an unusual experience and a revealing one, especially where the conductor, Robert Craft, was concerned. I've written about it in Lazy Dogmas Of Impossibility.

I did jazz gigs, too. I played lead alto on Sonny Criss's album, Sonny's Dream. Sonny had been an idol of mine when I was growing up; we met on a gig with Harry "Sweets" Edison in 1965 and became friends. Needless to say, it was a great thrill to be included in that project. He once even asked me for a lesson on a Handel oboe sonata he was playing (on alto saxophone) for his mother's luncheon club. I spent a lot of time with Sonny, who died in 1977, and I miss him. Plas Johnson was another idol, one of the great tenor players of all time. It was Plas who recommended me to Sweets Edison.

On occasion I was a soloist, as when I played a flute solo on David Benoit's first album. Other jazz gigs were with Oliver Nelson, Nelson Riddle, Buddy Collette, Bobby Bryant, Don Ellis and David Angel. Oliver Nelson's band was the opening attraction (along with the Red Norvo Quintet and Johnny Guarnieri playing solo piano) at a private jazz club in Beverly Hills, The Jazz Suite. We were also the closing attraction (minus Red and Johnny) two or three weeks later. Nelson Riddle's gigs were dances and the band was superb, made up of the people who did his studio work. Buddy Collette helped establish a jazz festival in San Diego and formed a band to play six charts he wrote for the occasion. The arrangements were extraordinary and the band was great. The saxophone section was Bill Green and John Bambridge on alto, Plas Johnson and Jackie Kelso on tenor and I played baritone. Plas shepherded me into the studio business, eventually arranging for me to replace him on the Carol Burnett Show. Bobby Bryant occasionally formed a medium-big band and I played baritone with him. One of my favorite jobs ever was a trio with Bobby and a guitarist, Mike Anthony, on a tv series for Black History Month on NBC around 1974. Somehow Bobby managed to sell management on live music for a show that aired at 6:30 AM. I played alto sax, flute, oboe and clarinet on that one.

I subbed on Don Ellis's band almost from its inception, when he worked at Club Havana in the Silver Lake section of LA. Between the difficulty of the music and the fact that it was copied mostly in soft-lead pencil, it was a pretty tough gig. It was a great band, with two musical geniuses in the saxophone section alone, Tom Scott and Ronny Starr. We played that and other clubs and even did a supermarket opening. The day before Thanksgiving, 1968, Don called and asked me to become a permanent member but I had already been alerted by Plas Johnson not to take any work that would preclude joining the Carol Burnett Show orchestra, so reluctantly I had to turn him down. I kept on subbing but eventually studio work made it impossible.
David Angel's band never released an album, as far as I know.  Anything David knows, and he knows a lot, can wind up in any kind of piece. A string quartet can show the influence of John Coltrane, a jazz piece can incorporate elements of Charles Ives, all of it done masterfully. It was essentially a rehearsal band and among the other saxophone players over time were Pete Christlieb, Art Pepper, Bill Perkins, Allan Beutler, Lew Tabackin, Jim Timlin, Steve Kravitz, Herb Geller, Bud Shank and David Angel himself.

I have referred to myself as a recovering studio musician, but in truth I enjoyed the work (there were exceptions) and I got the chance to sit among some of the greatest musicians in the world (again, there were exceptions). But eventually it became time to do something else.

I had always loved both jazz and classical music and finally I decided to try to figure out a way I could combine the two. In January, 1996, I went to a concert that included Berio's Sequenzas for flute and clarinet. I had played Sequenza VII, for oboe, many times over the years, starting at Monday Evening Concerts in 1974 and ending there in 1990. I thought that if I were to do all three of them and jazz pieces that were somehow related, it might make for an interesting concert. The next day I called a composer friend, Mike Patterson, and told him my idea. He agreed to participate and we organized two concerts for the following January and February, but the demands on his time were such that he was not able to write companion pieces to the Sequenzas. When it came time to record them, I decided to try it myself. You can hear the result on Look Both Ways, the first cd; there are reviews in another part of this site.

Since Look Both Ways my primary focus has been composition, and two other cds have followed. You will find information about them in the Otherworld Music and Davie Code sections. Recently completed is a song cycle based on the poems Schoenberg used in Pierrot Lunaire. More about that and other new compositions on the Music page.