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A 30-year layover in L.A.

Gary Chen walked into Stein on Vine looking for a job in 1980 and found a lifetime gig.

December 29, 2010|Steve Lopez

Gary Chen was writing the final pages of his book when I walked into Stein on Vine. When I asked what the book was about, Chen said it was the story of a kid from Taiwan who walked in the door of a legendary Hollywood music shop 30 years ago and never left.

An autobiography, in other words.

In Taiwan, Chen was a natural the minute he picked up a guitar. He played by ear, had a band in his teens and lots of money in his early 20s. But none of that brought happiness, so he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and studied composition for three years before heading for home in 1980.

"I laid over in L.A., and some friends said, 'Are you in a hurry to get back to Taiwan? If not, why don't you hang with us?' So I did."

Los Angeles felt right, and Chen considered staying. But he knew too many great starving musicians in California to bank on a career in music here. So he started looking for a music store where he could work. When he opened the Yellow Pages, the first listing he saw was for Stein on Vine.

"Hey, I was wondering if you needed any help," Chen said in a phone call to owner Maury Stein.

"Why don't you come on over and let me take a look at you?" Stein said.

When he got there, a clerk told Chen that Stein was in a back room and would be out momentarily. While waiting, Chen noticed photos of "lots of naked women" plastered on the walls and wondered what kind of shop he had stumbled upon. It turned out that Stein was a big-band sax player who had gotten a gig at a nudist colony in San Bernardino County.

"The deal was that the band had to be nude too," Chen said.

Chen couldn't believe it when Stein finally emerged in the company of several jazz giants. There was trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bass men Ray Brown and John Heard, and pianist Lou Levy, who had played with Sinatra.

"I don't know what's going on," recalled Chen. "Maury says, 'Come back tomorrow at 10. He didn't say anything else. Nothing about money. Nothing. So I came back the next day and I've been here ever since."

The pay was lousy, but the parade of legends was a nice perk. Stein, whose brother Jule wrote some of the biggest pop hits of the 20th century along with Sammy Cahn, was a father figure to countless musicians. And he got visits from Nelson Riddle, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Mandel, Wayne Shorter, Ray Charles, Horace Silver and Shelly Manne.

The shop sold, repaired and rented instruments and supplies, but it was more of a clubhouse than a store, with a back-room studio that hosted some of the greatest live music never recorded.

Chen's layover of a few days stretched into a few months and then a few years. When Stein put Chen in charge of the books, Chen found the store was a money loser. Stein ran a loose shop, and he partied day and night.

Chen always counted on getting back to his own music career, but he grew to love Stein and the cool, crazy vibe in the store. He was tinkering with an upright bass one day when Ray Brown came up and showed him a few moves. Chen became obsessed with the bass and practiced for hours in his down time, unless he was out with Stein and other musicians who had become his friends.

"He was the father I never had, and I was the son he always wanted," Chen said.

On Jan. 10, 1987, Chen was dining with Stein and Stein's girlfriend. Stein's hard living was catching up with him, and the girlfriend suggested that Stein ought to get something down on paper about who would run the store when he was gone.

Chen could see where that was headed.

"It's not for me," said Chen, who wanted to get on with his music career.

Later that night, Stein dropped dead of a massive heart attack.

"Maury," thought Chen, "you got me. You got me good."

Chen knew he had to keep Stein on Vine alive. He couldn't let down the musicians who counted on the connections they made at the shop, where friendships flourished, job connections were made and new music was tested in the back room. It's the kind of place where a broke musician will come by, borrow a bass for a $100 gig and bring it back the next day with $35 for Chen.

After Stein died, Chen and Wayne Shorter spent a day hanging out at Stan Getz's Malibu pad, and when it was over, Chen had an epiphany on PCH.

"I was always angry about never having gotten a chance to play because I was always working, but I had a realization. I'd just been hanging with two of the greatest musicians who ever lived. They love me because of who I am and what I do, and this is my gig. The store is my gig in this lifetime."

Not a bad gig, either. I can't wait for the book.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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