Classically Trained: Stories from a more musically golden age

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.

"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."

Still, serious musicians of Newport-Mesa and everywhere else can thank Decker for his contribution to music education.

"There are 40,000 high schools in the United States that don't have orchestras," Decker said. "They have bands, but usually not orchestras. Serious musicians in those bands usually don't get to play orchestral music … a lot of material isn't available to them."

Realizing that, in 1990 he founded the International Video Audition Service Institute (iVasi).

The iVasi tapes (and now DVDs) allow a musician or groups to "play along" with a full orchestra. The videos show a conductor staring at the screen and leading a famous piece. With the visual aid of the conductor and the audio aid of the full orchestra, iVasi videos help players get adjusted receiving conductor cues and what it sounds like playing their part with all the others.

This kind of training is invaluable where opportunities to do the real thing with full orchestras and conductors are scarce. Dozens of universities nationally and worldwide use the videos.

After my short interview with Decker — which was my second time meeting him, the first being at a session in his Long Beach home — we went outside to hear the quintet again.

Known as Conical Sound, the quintet has current and former Cal State Long Beach horn students, most of whom I played with years ago. Decker has been working with Conical Sound for about a year.

Toward the end of the quintet's two-hour session, Decker conducted the last piece of the day. Holding his cane and with gentle conducting motions, he led Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus."

The serene music is set to a Eucharistic hymn of the 14th century. The horns, for those few minutes, drowned out the beer-induced sounds of Oktoberfest just over the wall. It was a few moments of musical heaven, led by a legend.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

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