Layers of meaning – Part One

by Steve Brock on April 14, 2011

Sumner at the entrance to Stein on Vine

On the same day in LA where we had a number of small conversations, we also engaged in one that went deeper, a dialogue of substance not measured by the time spent talking, but by all the layers of meaning contained in the moment itself.

Here’s the first part of a rather complex story.

We were down in LA in part to spend time with my wife’s parents. My mother-in-law was to go in for hip replacement surgery the following week, so our “job” there was to help out where we could and to distract my in-laws from concerns about the upcoming operation.

Before we left, my son Sumner came up with the idea of renting a baritone saxophone (which is the instrument he plays in his high school jazz band) while we were in LA so he could perform for his grandparents. Though they love jazz, due to health and other reasons, they had not been able to come up to Seattle to hear him play since he took up the instrument. And for those of you who may not be sax aficionados, a baritone saxophone (or bari sax for short) is just shy of a tuba in size. You could fit a small family into the case. This is not a carry-on instrument for the plane ride to California.

Prior to our departure for LA, we called around various music stores in LA and found one with a bari sax for rent. When we got down there, however, it hadn’t been returned to the store as expected. They gave us the name of another place and we called there but got voicemail. We checked the address, realized it was located on our way back from our trek to downtown LA, and so we decided to swing by.

No luck. The place had moved. But as we were walking back to where we parked, my two sons noted another music store, Stein on Vine, just half a block up Vine Street in Hollywood.

Stepping into the dark interior of Stein on Vine was like walking into a movie set (ironic since two movie studios were only a few blocks away). The photos below tell some of the story, but read this article from the LA Times about the owner, Gary Chen, to get a better sense of this amazing place and Gary’s own fascinating story.

We asked Gary if he rented bari saxes. “Of course,” he replied. That’s what he does. But he mostly rents to professionals for recording sessions. In fact, as we looked around the store, we noticed that the walls were covered with autographed photographs of most of the great jazz players (as well as singers such as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald) over the last half a century. Each was signed with a personal message of thanks to Gary.

This was not your ordinary music store, but a Mecca for musicians, the “go to” place for everyone who was anyone in the jazz world.

When we realized the level of customer Gary deals with, we figured we’d never be able to afford to rent a sax here. However, after hearing Sumner’s tale of wanting to perform for his grandparents, I think Gary was touched by Sumner’s gesture. So he cut us a great deal, disappeared into a side room and moments later emerged with a beautiful bari sax.

As Sumner tried it out, I engaged in a conversation with Gary’s wife, Michelle. Both of them were originally from Taiwan but had “stopped over” in LA thirty years ago and had never left. When I mentioned that I’d studied in Taiwan, Michelle switched into Mandarin Chinese and soon we were immersed in a conversation in Chinese that ranged from travel to family to the weather conditions of LA and the cultural implications of having a tan in LA vs. one in Taiwan.

As all our discussions blended and became intertwined like a jazz improvisation, I began to realize what an amazing moment this was. The convoluted steps it took to find this place defied the odds. And then to be having conversations that connected my son’s passion for jazz with someone who lives at the heart of that world along with associations back to my own travel experiences from half a world away, all this was almost too much to believe.

But such is the nature of meaningful travel, when intentionality (looking for a bari sax to rent) collides with serendipity (finding this store and then meeting Gary and Michelle) to provide layer upon layer of discovery, connections and meaning.

The best part of this day, however, was that this was only the beginning. But you’ll have to wait until next time to find out what happened when we brought the bari sax home. Let’s just say that the day only got better as it went on…

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