Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Great American Saxophones

I admit that I am a lover of the classic American made saxophones.  In their heyday, saxophones made by Conn, Buescher, Martin and King were some of the best examples of the art and craft of saxophone building, made by some of the best craftsmen ever to hammer a bell or turn a screw.  On top of that, they had a SOUND!  It was these horns more than any others, that truly defined the sound of American music for years to come.  Until jazz and American popular music made extensive use of the saxophone, the instrument was used only by French military bands, and a few composers like Ravel, Goudonov and Prokofiev writing some pieces for it.  However it was American jazz that made the saxophone the most widely played wind instrument.  The saxophone has a very vocal quality to it.  After all, it comes in ranges from sopranino to contrabass like a human voice.  Of course, the most played are alto, tenor and to lesser degrees, soprano and baritone.

I have had the opportunity to play hundreds of saxophones over a 30 year period, from the newest models by Selmer, Yamaha, Keilwerth, Buffet and P. Mauriat, as well saxophones made by lesser known manufacturers like Holton, Kohlert, SML and Cuesnon.   Of course, all of these brands make or made quality and very interesting saxophones.  Just the same, there is something about the classic American saxophones that defined American music better than any of the other brands.  Take a look at most of the great early jazz musicians, and they are more than likely playing a saxophone made by one of the great American saxophones of the past.  Some examples:
 Charlie Parker with a Conn 6M alto.
 Johnny Hodges with a Buescher 400 Top Hat & Cane alto.
Lester "Pres" Young with the Conn "New Wonder" tenor which is more familiarly known as the "Chu Berry".
Leon "Chu" Berry, with what was to be his namesake saxophone. 
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley with a King Super 20 alto.
James Moody with a King Super 20 tenor.
Art Pepper with a "The Martin" Committee III alto.
Louis Jordan (center) with a "The Martin" Committee III tenor.
My inspiration Benny Carter with a Conn 26M "Connqueror" alto.
 Sonny Rollins with a Buescher Aristocrat tenor.
Dexter Gordon with a Conn 10M tenor.

Many of the classic recordings these greats made were made with the saxophones pictured with them.  Dexter Gordon kept playing his Conn until it was stolen in Paris.  Lester Young also continued playing his Chu Berry tenor until his death.  Johnny Hodges sweet and smooth sound was played on a Beuscher Aristocrat and later a Buescher 400.  Sonny Rollins recorded "The Bridge" with his Buescher Aristocrat tenor.  He also employed a Conn 10M from time to time.  Cannonball Adderley made his best recordings and performed extensively with his King Super 20, as did James Moody and Yusef Lateef.  Art Pepper's best recordings before he went to prison on drug charges were played on his Martin.  Benny Carter played Conn exclusively until he went to Paris and Selmer gave him a saxophone, and continued to give him one when a new model was introduced. Louis Jordan recorded many of his best known tunes and "soundies" (short musical films) playing a "The Martin" Committee III tenor and alto. Charlie Parker played lots of horns, some borrowed, some owned until he hocked them for drugs, but the two horns he managed to keep the longest were a Conn 6M and a King Super 20.  Some of the greatest players made some of the greatest music playing these great American horns.

At one time, America stood for rugged individualism, and these artists were definitely rugged individualists, playing saxophones that were full of character and rich with sound.  Sadly, there are no longer anymore saxophones being produced in the USA.  The great names that built these classic horns have either disappeared or merged with other names and corporations.  It's sad really. There are a lot of reasons for it. One was that after WW II, the designs were becoming antiquated, and with Selmer producing the Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action and Mark VI, and American manufacturers not offering up any new designs, save for the Santy Runion designed Conn 28M Constellation, which never took off with production ending only two years later.  Eventually, American saxophones were reduced to student level horns, and not very good ones at that, and producing them was getting more expensive, while imported horns, including Selmer were cheaper to buy.  Eventually production of saxophones in the US ceased altogether.