A Speech for my Dear Friend and Mentor Jean Larrivée
Pictured L to R: John Larrivee jr, David Iannone , Grit Laskin, Jean Larrivee, Linda Manzer, Sergei DeYonge.
This speech was given at the Vancouver International Guitar Festival where Jean was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award for his immense contributions to the Canadian and international guitar building community.
When I met Jean almost 36 years ago to the day, I never imagined that I would be standing here today celebrating his many accomplishments. I walked into his small workshop in Victoria where 8 people were working including Jean and his wife, Wendy. I was looking to apprentice with this guy in dusty Levi's and a tee shirt who already had an international reputation. Jean asked me how much education I had. When I told him that I was university educated, he said I had WAY too much education for this job. You see, he was trying to dispel any romantic notions I might have had about the fine art of guitar building.
I worked with Jean for 7 years. And I say work with and not work for. Although Jean is the boss and the teacher, you worked alongside him. He never asked you to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself. When you started to work with Jean, you became part of his family. He pushed you to work super hard and to always challenge yourself. But nobody worked harder than he did.
He was really inspiring that way. And he had fun working - singing little phrases from songs that were stuck in his head, telling dumb jokes. He never got angry. You could screw up big time which many people did (there are some stories there!) and know that he wasn’t going to freak out at you. But he would expect you not to make the same mistake again. Make a new one instead.
I remember early on, I used to take a dozen boxes home to my small shop to bind them during the week and bring them back the following week. I guess I was working too quickly or was distracted but I forgot to use glue on one of the boxes. When the tape was taken off at the shop, some of the strips fell off. I was mortified. Jean laughed his head off.
Jean has a really generous nature. He is willing to share information about jigs, processes or contacts with anyone. Many, many times, guitar makers, hobby builders and manufacturers would pop into the shop. Jean would show them everything, give them any contacts they needed. A couple years ago, I called him as I needed a supply of a certain type of bridge pin at a decent price. He said ‘David you need to contact my Chinese supplier. In fact I will send them an email introducing you.” That’s the kind of guy Jean is.
He is always pushing forward, evaluating and reevaluating his methods, his tools and his contacts. Trying to make the process quicker, better, more ‘idiot proof’ as he calls it without compromising his designs.
Jean never loses his focus. In the late 80’s after the Frankfurt show in the spring, we drove to Spain to visit wood suppliers and also the Ramirez factory where we had been invited to visit. We spent a good chunk of our driving time imagining how to build an inexpensive professional grade guitar. Jean never stopped thinking about it as a decade later he introduced a couple models to his line up.
You can call him daily and ask him what’s up and he always says something about a new jig, a new method, new machine, new contact, new something. Always learning, always thinking.
After I left to build my own guitars, I continued to spend a lot of time with him on weekends, at shows and on wood buying trips.
I would help him re-saw thousands of tops or thickness large stacks of wood. He doesn’t take holidays so if I wanted to spend time with him, I had to work with him. And as I said earlier he is lots of fun to work with and to be with.
Jean is probably the best wood buyer in our industry. He doesn’t usually buy from brokers- doesn’t think the wood is worth that price. He likes to go to the source. He wants the best wood, he wants lots of it, and he wants the best prices. He has a magic number in his head and is willing to walk away from a deal if the price isn’t right. He doesn’t like to shop for wood when he says "my belly is empty."
I have travelled with him to inspect and buy spruce logs from wet sorting grounds on the sunshine coast, spruce tops from a spruce mills on Vancouver island, curly koa from Hawaii, mahogany from yards in the eastern US, and ebony from Spain. He is always game to dig through piles, get dirty, spend all day or multiple days and when he has what he needs, he says “my belly is full."
I remember 2 trips-
We used to go this mill in Ucluelet on Vancouver island looking for tops. We would always start with the low grade piles because we knew that we could grade better than they could and maybe find hidden treasures and we always did. We would laugh about it.
In the late 90’s, koa was becoming the ‘soup of the day’ as Jean called it. So what do you do? You go to the big island of Hawaii where koa grows. We didn’t have very good contacts so we sat in a motel in Hilo for a week with the yellow pages, looking for koa lumber, koa furniture, koa anything. We ended up at a small mill in a rural area where this guy had hundreds of sets of koa. Of course, we went through the low grade sets first. It poured all day like it can only rain in Hawaii. It didn’t bother Jean. It takes a lot more than that for Jean to lose his focus. We worked all day inspecting sets cold and hungry. Jean doesn’t seem to need a lot of food so it didn’t bother him. We came home with more than 100 sets and the beginning of a fruitful relationship with the big island and curly koa. Jean made several more trips there and worked directly this time with the sawyers in the forest. Just where he likes to be-at the source.
When my kids were young and we were out and about and would see people being pushy or greedy or angry or lazy, I would ask them whether they would like to include that person on a trip to Mars in our spaceship. It was the teachable moment.
I want Jean on my spaceship to Mars. He is constantly creative, an amazing problem solver, can fix and build anything, super focused, hard working and easy to get along with. The perfect team player. You can count on him.
I will leave you with this story. Many years ago, on a weekend, we were standing around on his shop floor on east Cordova St. in Vancouver surrounded by large machinery and the ubiquitous piles of wood and he said
If I could only live for 100 more years, I could really figure out how to make guitars.
That’s Jean. A guitar maker’s guitar maker. Inspiring and motivating , always searching to make it better. I am lucky to have him as a teacher and proud to have him as a very close friend.