Larry Abel—A Musical Mensch!

Larry Abel

On December 27, 2016, the music industry lost one its great artists and most ardent supporters, Larry Abel. Larry was 83 when he passed and is survived by his wife Shelley, sons Curtis & Steven, grandchildren Hudson and Chloe-Kate, and sister Sally. Larry was more than just my friend: he was a symbol of what was good about the music industry and humanity. From the first moment that I met him, I felt that I had met a friend and found someone who cared about music as much as anyone I had ever encountered and demanded that every job be treated with great respect and dignity.

I met Larry Abel in 1995 during the early stages of the Broadway production of Victor Victoria. I had been hired by a well-known Broadway contractor for the first time and was to play the lead reed book. Since this was the first time in many years that big Hollywood money was being invested in a Broadway show and because Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews were directly involved in the production, everyone was quite nervous. There were several additional important industry people involved with the production including Henry Mancini, Leslie Bricusse, Frank Wildhorn, Ian Fraser, Rob Marshall and the great Billy Byers. I was understandably nervous and wanted to prepare as best I could for the initial rehearsals. I therefore contacted Larry, who was the copyist for the show. I had never met him before but when I went to his office in the Ed Sullivan building, he treated me like an old friend and gave me all of the Reed I charts that he had at that time. He xeroxed each chart on the finest music manuscript paper and circled every solo that I would have. He explained the rhythmic feeling of each number and pointed out where players of that book had encountered problems in out-of-town performances and what fingerings might work best in some of the more demanding solos. (Larry could do this because he himself had been a top-notch lead alto man who also played clarinet and flute very well and had studied them seriously.) Larry’s help proved invaluable and I succeeded well enough in that show to earn the respect of the musical’s overseers and gain work from that contractor over the next 15 years. That was typical of how Larry treated EVERYONE he encountered.

In the 21 years that I knew Larry, I learned how he grew up in Baltimore studying the clarinet and then saxophone, turned on to music by the great sounds of Benny Goodman. How he traveled every week to NYC by train as a teenager to study with Joe Allard. How he enlisted in the Air Force and played in the Air Force Band during the Korean War. How he toured the country in the 1950s playing with the Les Elgart and Ray McKinley Bands and then settled in NYC to enjoy the life of a freelance woodwind player–performing in hotel show bands, club dates, dance bands, Broadway shows, recording dates, etc. However, by 1966 Larry realized that his future in the industry might be more secure and lucrative if he invested himself in the music preparation business. Together with his friend, John Knapp, they began a music preparation business and soon found that they were busier then they could have imagined while copying Broadway musicals, radio and TV jingles, orchestral works for virtually every major U.S. Symphony orchestra, single engagement concerts, Miss America Pageants, and Radio City Christmas Shows.

When John Knapp retired, Larry carried on with the business. He employed numerous copyists during the 45 years that he ran Music Preparation International, Inc. Larry Spivack, a longtime employee and friend of Larry Abel, provided the following description of a typical day at MPI during the busy years:

In the golden days of music copying, an office hired ten copyists a day. The orchestrator would show up at 9 a.m. with a 300-measure arrangement for a Broadway show. Larry would make a blue copy, routine the phrases with red marker, and hand it out. The first copyist would copy bars 1-30 for all of the parts; the second would copy 31-60; the third 61-90, and so on. The work was finished and proofread by 3:00 so it could be printed and bound and read at an orchestra rehearsal at 6:30 to be played at a show that night.

His list of accomplishments in this area of the industry is staggering. He handled arrangements for noted orchestrators such as Abe Osser, Walt Levinsky, Torrie Zito, Marion Evans, Don Sebesky, Pat Williams, Johnny Mandel, Bob Freedman, John LaBarbera, Bob Mann, Glen Daum, Michael Starobin, Larry Hochman and Bill Brohn. Larry also worked for numerous composers including Cy Coleman, John Kander, Marvin Hamlisch, Jerry Herman, Bernie Hoffer, Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap, Billy Joel, Art Garfunkel, Dick Hyman and Stanley Silverman. Conductors such as Don Pippin, Lee Musiker, Leonard Bernstein (Larry copied his music for Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place) and Lorin Maazel frequently sought his expertise. He prepared music for well over 50 Broadway musicals (the numbers are almost impossible to calculate accurately) including the original productions of A Chorus Line, City of Angels, Sweet Smell of Success, Will Rogers Follies, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Curtains and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, among many others. He made the charts for singers from Tony Bennett to Liza Minnelli to Natalie Cole to Lady Gaga to Barry Manilow to Frank Sinatra a joy to play.

Larry also served as a mentor to numerous musicians who needed advice. Here’s harpist Laura Sherman’s remembrance of her encounters with Larry:

Larry Abel was a legend in the music preparation business. I had heard his name for years while working as a harpist on Broadway and was deeply touched when he offered to be my mentor when I decided to start Gotham Harp Publishing in 2012. Knowing absolutely nothing about music publishing, he generously, and often humorously, guided me through every step, from how to set up the company to what size to make the note-heads in my six inaugural Bach Lute Suite editions for harp. I’ll never forget the many visits to his office, Music Preparation International on 8th Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets, where we discussed how to clearly and intuitively put music on a page. He was an artist with music preparation, a master who had a solution for every issue.

Larry was an old school copyist with a beautiful hand that gave every measure of music a sense of class and all of HIS copyists exuded that style as well. There was never a bad page turn, even when he was forced to switch over to Finale in order to keep up with industry practices. As Walt Levinsky said in his autobiography, “Larry knew how to take care of business.”

An AFM member for 57 years, Larry was a proud unionist. HE ALWAYS PAID HIS EMPLOYEES UNION SCALE AND FILED UNION CONTRACTS FOR EVERY JOB! He lost a great deal of work because of his refusal to undermine union principles but he never wavered when it came to following the honorable path. He was chosen at various intervals as President and Secretary of the American Society of Music Copyists during his years in the industry and was presented with an award that read in part: “In recognition and deepest appreciation for your dedication and service to the improvement of wages and conditions for all music copyists.”

He delighted in observing youngsters work at and achieve musical success. He attended the Essentially Ellington HS Band Competition and Festival at Lincoln Center every year and would often call me to rave about a particular band, a kid who sounded like Johnny Hodges, or a trumpeter who could scream like Cat Anderson. His son, Curtis, was a talented music student at LaGuardia HS and that allowed Larry to attend many performances at the school. I would typically receive a call the day after one of these concerts with a critique–always positive and with pride about the abilities of all of the students. He loved hearing rehearsal bands work their craft at the union and would often attend their concerts. Larry was genuine, the real deal, someone who I thought I would always encounter in the industry but rarely did. He never lost his love for his woodwinds, even when his ability to play them was taken away as a result of laryngeal cancer and the subsequent total laryngectomy he lived with for many years. This disease was attributed to years of smoking and when I had Larry work with a music business class of mine years ago, the first bit of advice he offered them was to never, ever smoke!

We connected on so many areas of life in addition to music—family, politics, sports (especially baseball), education, restaurants, etc. I sought his help and counsel in many important endeavors that I encountered over the years including work on my two books, my CD, my website, and my teaching and performing careers. I am so lucky to have met him and to say that I honestly knew a man who defined the word “mensch.”

The following are some remembrances of Larry by friends

I met him [Larry] at the time when we were studying with Joe [Allard].
He always was very supportive of my playing….always made me feel good.
It is amazing the way he dealt with his voice problem.
It did not stop him from living his life the way he always lived.

–Joe Soldo

He lived such an amazing life. And yes, he was a true mensch…one of a kind. Really miss him!
–Laura Sherman

I met Larry for the first time in 1977. I was going to sub the percussion book on the original “A Chorus Line” and I asked Larry to print me a copy of the current book. He made sure I had copies of all the alternate keys, because many numbers had 3 or more different transpositions.

When my son Anton was born in 1985, I thought maybe I could be a professional copyist to supplement my playing income. I arranged an appointment to show Larry a sample of my copying. He pointed to a half note with a down stem that was in the middle of the bottom of the oval. “That’s not a half note! That’s a f***in’ balloon!”
–Larry Spivack

Larry was such a bright star. He was a great example and I will always be grateful for the time we spent together.
–Robin Petrie