Union Music in the News

"Music right note for horn players"

by Ken Garcia, San Francisco Chronicle

Much of the musical royalty that has passed through San Francisco in the past 80 years have found themselves in the same court -- a place so small it could barely contain a quintet. But somehow the Union Music Co. store has managed to overcome its diminutive size to remain a Mecca for brass and woodwind artists throughout the decades -- a shop that has seen the musical styles, trends and equipment shift with the gradual ease of a multiple chord change.

Most of the music specialty shops that once flourished in the Bay Area are gone, victims of chain conglomerates and mall-derivative tastes that have sent independent stores the way of eight-track tapes. During the heyday of jazz nightclubs in San Francisco, you could find music stores across the city. Now there are but a few, although Union Music has stood out from the beginning. "The shop has succeeded largely because it kept up this great tradition of supplying musicians with great instruments and service," said Christopher Leaf, the store's manager and a partner in the group that runs the store and its sister outlets. "It's been part of the music scene almost as long as there has been one."

Union Music is owned primarily by Dick Akright, a giant in the field of horn-crafting repair in the United States who has honed his craft primarily in the East Bay the past 32 years. Akright is considered a brass customizing wizard who has built specialized instruments for a number of leading jazz players, at one time forming a partnership with trumpeter Doc Severinson of "The Tonight Show" fame. Together the two men designed a Bel Canto trumpet that is considered among the finest instruments of its kind in the world. Akright said he knew his calling from the beginning, a sense formed by his upbringing in Elk Horn, Wis., which happened to be the manufacturing home of the Getzen Co., a maker of fine brass instruments. He moved to the Bay Area to run a subsidiary for a large music affiliate and ended up starting the Best Instrument Repair Co. in Oakland -- which, from its popularity over the years, apparently lives up to its name. "For me, the way of the business was simple -- just work 13 hours a day on your craft until you perfect it," he said."

One of the things I always loved about the profession is the musicians form such great relationships because of the respect we have for each other's abilities." That respect certainly applied to a musician/machinist named Dan Regan, who opened the Union Music Co. in a spot inside the Golden Gate Theater in 1922, a place that made sure a lot of the world's top acts were within earshot. Regan treated brass instruments the way Louis Armstrong treated notes -- individually, with perfect technical skills and artistic passion. His ability to provide top instrumentalists with custom equipment led to an underground fame that made his tiny store in the Tenderloin a must-stop for traveling musicians since the Depression. Count Basie made time to visit the shop, as did Duke Ellington. Artie Shaw, Buddy Rich and Cab Calloway stopped by before the war, and Donald Byrd and Allen Smith made the pilgrimage more than once. Arthur Fiedler couldn't resist, nor could Clark Terry. Members of the San Francisco Symphony became the store's biggest customers -- and the lineup of musical stars continued for decades. But Regan couldn't keep up with the beat of time, and after more than 65 years in the shop and in ill health, he sold the store in 1989 to Akright and his partner, Bob Gross.

Six years later, the pair moved the store to its present headquarters on Bush Street near Van Ness, an old brick building that is still severely cramped but makes the old shop seem like a dungeon. Though it is still a regular stop for professional musicians, Union Music is now less a part of the jazz virtuoso scene and more aligned with music education -- the stores rents close to 500 instruments each year to students in San Francisco Unified School District programs. It has also branched out to become a learning center, with nearly 100 pupils studying each week in the stamp-size rooms above the store. "This is the last remnant of music-specialty shops on the West Coast," said Leaf, a longtime professional musician who is part of the orchestra for "Beach Blanket Babylon." "It's not just that we have the best instruments -- we make sure that people are getting the right instrument -- right down to the perfect mouthpiece." And not many stores can make that claim, since Akright has long made custom mouthpieces and owns the rights to the venerable Parduba mouthpiece company, which also happens to be the name of the store's Web site www.parduba.com.

Such attention to detail and service has allowed him to expand his music empire to include A&G Music Products in Oakland and the House of Woodwinds in San Ramon. "I was lucky," Akright said. "I've gotten to meet all these great people -- Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sly Stone, Ray Bown -- simply because of the business I'm in. But it's all happened because of my firm belief that you shouldn't let these great old stores die. "The original store was just a little hole in the wall, but we managed to save it, and now it's bigger than ever. And that's a testimony to people in the Bay Area who have always supported great music. I'm happy to be a part of that."

You can reach Ken Garcia at (415) 777-7152 or e-mail him at kgarcia@sfchronicle.com

Article printed on Friday, June 28, 2002.