Who is Grover Mupply?

I was at my daughter’s orchestra concert a few years ago, sitting next to my son, Oliver. We were subjected to the full range of orchestral sounds, from beginnings efforts only a mother could love, to the top orchestra kicking out Stravinsky in ways that most college orchestras can’t touch with a conductor’s baton duct taped to the end of a fishing pole.

The directors had individual kids introduce the titles. This is an oft-practiced confidence building effort, creating poise in these young leaders, a great opportunity deeply feared by the introverts in the clarinet section. “Hi, my name is Sally Johansen. Our next selection was composed by Mozart in 1786….”

During an early applause that day, I whispered to my son that what we really needed was a balcony box for he and I, where we could heckle these kids. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t deserve heckling. They were great. I just like the thought of being Waldorf to my son’s Stadler. If you’re under the age of 40, you might need to know that Waldorf and Stadler were the grumpy, old Muppets who heckled Kermit during the Muppet Show in the 1970s. I’ve always admired Waldorf and Stadler, aspirational and inspirational characters for my sarcastic brass-playing soul. At any rate, this conversation had my son and I primed for inappropriate giggling at a Very Serious Classical Music Concert.

A new kid approached the mic. His shirt was neatly pressed and tucked in to his black concert pants, cinched tightly above the required black dress shoes. He was as professional as any that day, and he confidently read his short script. While I’m positive his family was proud of him, I was sure I heard him introduce himself as “Grover Mupply.”

I leaned over to my son. “Did he just say his name was Grover Mupply?!?!” 

The giggles began in earnest. We tried to contain ourselves, but once a trumpet player, always a trumpet player, and we bounced and shook well into the second selection played by the following orchestra. It wasn’t actually that funny, but you know how the giggles can take flight.

I later wrote about this inappropriateness in a Facebook post, simultaneously proud and ashamed of my behavior. My friend and trumpeter Bill Simenson saw the post, and took up the chore of writing a big band chart to honor this fictional kid. I believe this is how Prokofiev first conceived of the idea for Lt. Kijé. Bill is also a fantastic composer, and organizes a weekly reading session of his charts the first Tuesday of every month in Minneapolis, holding court in front of The Bill Simenson Orchestra.

That’s right, a kid who didn’t articulate his name to the extreme became a fictional kid, and that fictional kid became a big band composition.

I’ve been asked many times to check out the band, but unfortunately, I was the parent who drove my daughter to most of her orchestra rehearsals…you guessed it, every Tuesday night. On top of having an impossibly busy year, it just never worked out. However, tomorrow night, I will finally be hearing “Grover Mupply”! 

Or, as Bill says, “We’ll Mupple it up.” 

I’m truly excited to hear this chart, and will report back next month!

–Steve and the Gang

PS: The kid’s name turned out to be “River,” and as far as I know, he does not know he is slightly fictionally famous.

PPS: Bill’s CD, “Big Alpaca” can be bought on Bandcamp, and it’s great stuff! One of my old students, Paul Stodolka, is swinging the lead book. You should buy it. 😉

Banjo Gig Bag

Ferdinand & The Finger

There was a sewing factory down the road apiece that went out of business. I knew the guy, went down there to see what might be available, and ended up buying every sewing machine he had.

One of them was the Famous Ferdinand 900B Bull, a massive block of steel that spent its days impersonating a sewing machine. I swear on my mother’s dusty bible that the needle alone weighed 14 pounds.

Do you remember the actual bull from the child’s book named Ferdinand, the one who only wanted to smell the flowers in the Spanish countryside, until he sat on a bee? Well, our Ferdinand made that Ferdinand look like a baby chipmunk.

About Ferdinand

We got him loaded in after a while. I ended up selling him to a guy who knew what Ferdinand could do. He drove up from Iowa with his wife, and was going to use Ferdie for saddle work. Ferd didn’t have reverse, so for what we do he wasn’t a great machine, but he sure was fun to look at for a few months! I have a few newer versions of him with reverse – same size but somehow 1/5th the weight. These beasts can sew through 1″ thick plywood without any show of strain whatsoever – They might as well be sewing butter, or lace … or a flute player’s psyche.

But they’ll never be as tough as Blanca.

About a year ago, I was working at my shipping table, and I heard a short squeal. One of my sewers had made a mistake – you work around needles that go up and down ten thousand times a day, and sooner or later you’re gonna get bit, sure as a cat in a dog park. But she went back to sewing! What?! One of our ladies went over to her, and so did I – she had run the needle clean through her thumb! Up it came, and I think out of embarrassment and pride she tried to keep sewing. Oh my, no, go home! Wrap that up! This is why we have PTO and MNSure and bandaids and cold packs. Go home!

This was the first time that had happened here, but every one of my sewers told me right then and there that they had ALL gone clean through a digit at least once in their careers.

But they’ll never be as tough as Jairo.

You still reading? I’m just saying, leather work is not for the faint of heart. I’ve hurt myself plenty at work, but usually doing dumb stuff with power tools. Ask Lindsey. She has stories.

I’ve got one more myself. Steel your stomach and read on if you want, no one’s forcing you. This is a bad one, from about 8 years ago.

Before I get into it, I want you to know most of my crew has been with me for many years, and I rarely ask anyone to work overtime or push them for fast production times. But there are a LOT of blades and needles and belts and pulleys and rivet machines and clickers and snap setters and more in a leather goods factory, and there are going to be mistakes. This one is famous.

My cutter’s name is Hairo. He pronounces it like Hydro, rolling the r pretty hard, which I can’t do because I’m a muppet. Others might spell it “Jairo.” Up until last year, he cut every leather bag and nylon bag we ever made, by hand, with a knife made from three bars of steel taped together. He slides the middle bar forward from time to time, when he needs more steel. He sharpens it constantly on a stone he keeps on the table next to his work. Lay up the leather, scan it for marks, lay up the pattern, lay down the straight edge, push it down hard and draw the blade, sharpen sharpen sharpen, draw it again to make sure, rinse and repeat.

It’s that straight edge that scares me, and he really has to push it down hard, with his left hand fingers, right on the edge of the edge. One day I came back from lunch, and noticed a good amount of something blackish-brownish on the floor in the bathroom. I grabbed a towel to clean it up, and under the brown it was … red. “What’s this?” I thought. I went out to the floor, and Hairo was still cutting. I asked if he was OK, and he kinda looked at me, like, no, not so much at all – but he didn’t say much. The bandage was huge. And it didn’t appear to be working! Oh my, go home! How bad is it? Do you need anything? Like, some more blood? I know a guy. Please, sit down, my friend.

He actually came in the next day, but went home right away. You can’t cut leather without a strong left hand. He came back 4 days later, and that’s when he finally showed me his finger – the poor guy had actually…

OK, seriously, why are you still reading?

…he had actually removed a ½ inch piece of his finger – big enough to think that he could put it back where it came from, tape it down long enough and maybe save it. Oh my. Oh m-y-y-y-yeow! Stitches maybe? Too small for that, really, but not by much. Oh my.

That’s leather work.

It’s not easy. It’s hard work. Things are heavy, things are sharp, and things will sting.

Just like that Spanish bee who bit Ferdinand in the butt and got him into all kinds of trouble.


Keep safe, everyone. Leave the danger to us.

It’s Good that Glenn Knew Leather Goods

I spent a few days in Berkeley with Glenn in 2017, where he lived for most of his life. It was apparent that he was a musician from the start – the first thing we did was listen in awe to the Vertical Voices recording of Maria Schneider’s compositions, on an incredible stereo that had its own back story: They were given as gifts to members of a studio house band Glenn was in, after an executive got a line on them following a record label meeting in Germany — something like that. I’m messing up all the details, but it was a fantastic amplifier/speaker set I’d never heard of, before or since, and we let the recording run. Did he invent the gig bag? Uh, yeah, pretty much.

I don’t think we talked much about the bags probably until the middle of the week, a day after Glenn drove in to San Francisco to hear Maria Schneider and her band, while I was next door checking out the San Francisco Symphony for the first time (I went to college with their extraordinary first bassist, Scott Pingel, and my tix were free. Ha!).

Turns out, he learned to sew as a kid, on a farm in Indiana or Illinois, if I recall, and even made some stick bags way back. 60-some years later, he estimated that he had designed about 15,000 patterns. Some were in his basement, some in his stable, most in his warehouse, and we got to digging through things by Thursday the week I was out. At one point, Glenn found himself crawling around in the rafters at his Oakland, CA factory looking for something I’d need — while I was having an Oakland Stroke down below. He assured me he would not fall, “something something about having trained as a trapeze artist.”

Wait. Huh. WHAT?! 

He told me about a circus act that wintered on a farmstead near where he grew up — Not the Flying Wallendas, but close enough. He became friends with a circus kid who lived there, and the family taught Glenn how to … uhh … trapeze, I guess. He wasn’t joking about any of it, decades later, walking across a rough hewn beam 14 feet in the air without any safety nets, while I was trying to decide if I’d try to break his inevitable fall or not. Thankfully, he got down well enough and we got back to sorting the leather I’d end up buying.



It's Good that Glenn Knew Leather Goods

Ask me about the historic landmark Wells Fargo stable in his back yard sometime. It’s the shed he shipped out of, and where he made his patterns, and smoked the cigarettes that were causing a pretty ferocious cough as we talked through the details of transferring his life’s work to Minneapolis.

I’ll see if I can’t remember more of the stories down the road apiece. There were plenty. Maybe the one about drawing the first tenor bag ever made around his friend Lenny Pickett’s Selmer. Or the fact that David Garibaldi was his roommate way back. Or that Glenn played on some of the Peanuts sessions, and was in both Journey and Jefferson Starship before they were either. Or that a young Jimi Hendrix used to hang out 2 or 3 doors down from Glenn’s house. Or that one of his handbags was central to an episode of Fantasy Island.

For now, though, I just want you to know that it’s good that Glenn knew leather goods.