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Friday, 27 May 2016 13:17

The trumpet maker to jazz great Miles Davis

Written by  Margaret Plevak
Musician and instrument designer Larry Ramirez plays a trumpet in his Elkhorn home. Ramirez, a former chief design technician for the Holton company in Elkhorn, designed a custom trumpet for jazz great Miles Davis. Musician and instrument designer Larry Ramirez plays a trumpet in his Elkhorn home. Ramirez, a former chief design technician for the Holton company in Elkhorn, designed a custom trumpet for jazz great Miles Davis. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- In “Miles Ahead,” a new movie about Miles Davis, Don Cheadle portrays the legendary trumpeter in a dark place during the 1970s as he was spiraling downward in drug addiction, hiding out in his home, avoiding music.

That wasn’t the man Larry Ramirez knew.

Ramirez, 77, is a former instrument designer for what once was the Holton company, and later Leblanc, in Elkhorn, where he lives. He crafted trumpets for Davis and other noted musicians like jazz great Maynard Ferguson and symphonic horn master Phil Farkas.

Davis, as temperamental as he was talented, was looking for a red, white and blue horn and contacted Holton.

“Miles, he was something else,” Ramirez said. “When he called up, he’d hang up on everybody because they didn’t know what he was talking about.”

But Ramirez did, and he phoned Davis, promising him the trumpet and explaining how the metal for the horn could be dyed. Davis first asked if Ramirez was related to Ram Ramirez, a Puerto Rican jazz pianist and composer. He wasn’t, but both he and Davis shared an affection for Ram Ramirez’s song “Lover Man.” After talking a bit more, Davis agreed to let Ramirez design the horn, and the two planned to meet in Chicago, where Davis had an upcoming concert.

“Keep in mind Miles had not been seen or heard of for five years,” Ramirez said. “He had lost everything. He had gotten so low in life on drugs, he was literally out on the streets pimping. He saw his friends dying and he thought, ‘I’m too young for this.’ So he went home ... and he kicked the habit on his own.”

In Chicago, Ramirez took measurements of Davis’ horn and then stayed for the concert.

“The minute he played, the whole audience just roared,” Ramirez recalled. “I think he was a little bit shyer and the horn came out a little bit shy, but after a few more bars, you could hear the confidence coming back. He played fairly well -- not as good as in his prime, but at least he was back.”

When the new trumpet was finished -- Davis had decided on an all-black horn instead -- Ramirez brought the horn to a Denver hotel room where the musician was preparing for another concert.

Ramirez brought the horn from its case, watching Davis’ eyes grow bigger.

“He said, ‘Yeah, man,’ and he reached in his pocket for his mouthpiece. He said to me, ‘Stay right where you are.’ I was standing right in front of him and he started playing the horn ... “ Ramirez remembered. “I thought, ‘Here’s my idol, only one inch away from me, playing this horn for the first time.’ And he played some really neat stuff. He was more confident when he was alone. Then he looked up and said, ‘You play, don’t you?’”

At one time Ramirez was playing almost 10 hours a day, testing the instrument he’d fallen in love with at the age of 5. Growing up in a crowded house with nearly a dozen relatives in Denver, he coveted his teenage uncle’s trumpet.

“I loved to watch my uncle play,” he said. “Every once in a while, he’d put it down and I’d go to touch it and he’d slap my hand, saying, ‘Never touch my trumpet.’ So I waited until everybody was out of the house -- except Grandma, she’d always be there cooking -- and I went upstairs, got the case out from under the bed, wrapped the horn in a towel and sneaked into our fruit cellar outside -- far enough away so nobody could hear me, so I thought.”

His first attempts set the family’s three dogs barking. He ended up practicing on just the mouthpiece.

Eventually, his mother bought him a trumpet, but the horn was in bad shape. He begged her for another horn, but she told him the family couldn’t afford it. Hoping to earn the money, he got a job as a paper boy in one of Denver’s roughest neighborhoods, full of jazz and strip clubs.

Passing a pawn shop early one morning, he saw a light gleaming off a trumpet in the window. The shop’s owner told him the instrument was $35. That amount was beyond his reach, but it didn’t stop him from looking for the trumpet in the window every day.

Early one morning a woman on the street wanting a newspaper asked him what he was staring at.

“That trumpet there,” Ramirez told her. “That horn is going to be mine.” 

She paid for the paper and gave him a tip of four 50-cent pieces. Soon other women were asking for papers and giving him big tips. He discovered the women were prostitutes. They not only helped him buy the horn, but found him a trumpet teacher.  

The teacher pushed him hard. She also got him a few 10-minute lessons from her friend, trumpet virtuoso Rafael Mendez.

At 12, Ramirez formed a band with his buddies. When a call came from the owner of the biggest theater in Denver, asking if the band knew any Glenn Miller songs they could play at the premiere of “The Glenn Miller Story,” he lied and told the manager yes. Then he and the band members ended up learning as many Glenn Miller numbers as they could in two days.

Ramirez snagged more gigs, getting a part as a bugler in a local opera’s production of “Carmen,” and, at 15, playing in area nightclubs with a local band.

As the years passed, his musician friends left Denver for New York or California. Ramirez, now married with five children, headed for the Midwest and found a second-shift job at the Fisher Body plant in Janesville. Workers in the pit were given one minute to work on each vehicle as it came down the line, but Ramirez honed his timing to finish the job in 20 seconds, leaving 40 seconds to play his mouthpiece.

“It gave me good chops, but the work was numbing,” he said.

Ramirez continued to play at nightclubs like Isabella’s Lounge in Janesville on weekends. His constant trumpet playing split his lip, and he was forced to play the trombone while his mouth healed -- a talent that he said helped him get the job as tester at Holton, which he’d heard about through a friend of his wife, Gloria. 

Though the job entailed a pay cut, Gloria insisted he take it. Over the years, he worked in various departments at Holton, including quality control, repair and assembly. Recognizing his talents, the company sent him to night school. He became designer, then chief design technician.

When Ramirez learned to play the trombone, he liked its ability to bend notes but didn’t like the slide’s slower speed versus a trumpet’s quick fingering valves. At Holton, experimenting with discarded parts and a lot of electrical tape, he created a hybrid trombone with both a seven-position slide and three valves.

His youngest son, Anthony, then a grade-schooler, recalled seeing the horn on a stand in the home.

“I’d always look at that thing and joke that it looked like something a mad scientist would put together, a Frankenstein horn,” Anthony Ramirez said.

The horn, called a super valve slide combination trombone -- dubbed the Superbone -- became one of several patents Ramirez developed. Jazz legend Ferguson played it and publicly credited its creator.

Ramirez remembers trying to impress his wife when they were dating in high school by asking her if she knew who Ferguson and Davis were. Of course, she said.

“I told her, ‘I know them, too. Someday I’ll introduce you to them,’” he said. “Little did we know. It’s almost like a Hollywood movie how all this happened.”

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