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Classically Trained: Stories from a more musically golden age

November 01, 2010|By Bradley Zint
(Bradley Zint )

HUNTINGTON BEACH — No passersby recognized him, but I didn't find that surprising.

They were too busy hustling to and from the last day of Oktoberfest celebrations at the Old World Village. But a few stopped momentarily to hear the group of five French horns play a song of the old world and see the old gentleman conducting them.

The gentleman's name isn't instantly recognizable by many, but within the world of classical music — and its subset world of French horn players — Jim Decker is a legend. The 88-year-old Long Beach resident is a retired horn player whose notes are heard in hundreds of films and television programs from a more golden age. He played with orchestras coast to coast, helped start the Los Angeles Horn Club and taught at several universities, including USC.

Names like Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini and Igor Stravinsky he has worked with. Moments like V-E Day he still remembers. On Sunday, he told a story about how on May 8, 1945 — the day Germany surrendered and Allied victory was declared in Europe — was a hectic one.

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"I got a call saying, 'Stand by for an emergency. We're going to be on the air live sometime this afternoon,'" Decker recalled. All he knew was film composer Bernard Herrmann had written a score for Orson Welles.

"We got there and all hell breaks loose with this thing," Decker continued. "Orson Welles was made the actor, but he had no time to rehearse the script. He was an actor who would never wait for anything. He would be emotional when he was reading and would jump lines."

That jumping made Herrmann's conducting heart skip a beat — literally and figuratively — live over the airwaves.

"We were getting ready to play music and Bernard Herrmann would make motions to skip parts of the music because Orson Welles was jumping lines," Decker said.

Decker's connections to Newport-Mesa are not as strong as his Hollywood ties, where he and his wife Mary hosted musical dignitaries in their castle-like home. But he seemed to remember playing with the Pacific Symphony about 20 years ago when its principal conductor, Carl St. Clair, was new to the post.

But for a musician whose career has spanned more than 50 years, remembering all those gigs is hard. Even remembering which studio music he recorded is hard, too — usually because the musicians weren't always blessed with such information. Instead, he laughs and recollects a lot of "main title" music by its marking number: "M11."

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