Sunday, January 16, 2011

Great Vintage Saxophones Part One

If you've been following my blog, you know how much I love vintage saxophones, especially vintage American saxophones.  However I'm not limited to just those.  As I've had the opportunity to try out hundreds of saxophones, I've also played horns from not only Conn, Buescher, King, Martin, Selmer and Buffet, but some saxes from obscure or little known factories in the US and Europe.

This post features saxophones I've had the opportunity to play at some time or other, and if money was no object, which unfortunately it is, these saxophones would make up my dream collection.  Every one of the saxophones I feature were made by superior craftsmen and has its own special quality.  Some of these saxophones are famous and are highly sought after, and others are not very well known yet represent a unique voice or an excellent value if you want a vintage horn that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.  Savor and enjoy!

                                       Adolphe Sax                                  

I guess the best place to start is at the beginning.  The Saxophone was invented around 1840 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian wind and brass maker residing in Paris.   His idea was to make an instrument that combined the warmth and voice-like qualities of a woodwind instrument with the power of a brass instrument.  He based his design on the Ophicleide, an obsolete orchestral instrument which had keys like on a saxophone but used a cup mouthpiece like a brass instrument, and looked like a large Euphonium.

The original saxophones do not have the range of modern saxophones and the keys are not easy to manipulate.  The concept of sound was also different than those of modern horns.  Early Adolphe Sax horns have a very light and airy sound, no doubt as his original intention was to play classical music.  Although composers like Ravel and Goudonov were to write pieces for the saxophone, it never received a wide range acceptance in the symphony.  The saxophone was first employed by the French military, but it wasn't until it was used in jazz that it gained a wide following.

 Adolphe Sax Alto Saxophone

20 years after its invention, Buffet would be the first company after Adolphe Sax to produce saxophones, followed by Conn, Buescher, King(H.N. White), Martin and Selmer.  Throughout the years, the range of the saxophone was extended, the key work improved.  The saxophone is perhaps the most versatile of wind instruments, being used in every style of music in the world. 

For me, the vintage saxophones from the mid-twenties through the mid-sixties represent the apex of craftsmanship and sound.  Of course, modern saxophones have much improved key work, but there is something about a vintage horn that I think many modern horns cannot match.  This is not to say that there aren't any good modern horns.  Actually, at this point in time, the quality of saxophones made by the top manufacturer's of today are top-notch and are better than older saxophones in terms of overall build quality and just as good in tone quality.  They are certainly better in terms of ergonomics, intonation and playing comfort.  Even low cost student horns built today are far better than low end horns of the past, and in many cases are capable of handling a pro gig.  Nevertheless, I think that just by virtue of having been played by the musicians of the past, a vintage horn takes on a resonance accumulated through years of playing.  Also, these horns were made at a time when we lived in a less "disposable" world.  I may be romanticizing a little bit here, but every time I pick up a classic vintage horn and play, it just sings like a diva who has experienced all that life has had to offer and wants to tell us about it. 

Sometimes I pick up an old horn and wonder what stories it would tell if it could speak on its own.  Who were the men or women behind it that lent their voices to it to tell its unique story.  The people they've known, the places they've been, the happiness and heartbreak.  When I play a great vintage horn, I can hear its history and feel that in a way I'm continuing the story.  I know that when I first played the Conn 6M that my father gave me, the voice of the instrument was already the voice of experience and that I was now lending my voice and experience to it. 

Dad serenading unidentified woman circa 1949 Germany with the Conn 6M he later gave me. Actually, my mother identified her as that "whore".

The first saxophones I'll discuss were made by C.G. Conn, I guess because a Conn was also the first saxophone I ever played and owned.  I favor the models produced from the mid-twenties until the late forties, when I feel that Conn made simply the best sounding horns in the world.  I'm not being too objective here I guess.  They featured rolled tone holes, which means the lip of the tone hole is rounded and therefore gives a better seal and doesn't cut into the pad thereby extending its life.  Of course, tone and taste are subjective, but there is just something about the sound of these horns that makes me want to play them every time I see them.    

The New Wonder a.k.a. Chu Berry
The Conn New Wonder saxophones were made from around the mid-twenties until around 1929 to 30 when the transition to what would become the M series began.  They were unofficially dubbed the Chu Berry, after the tenor saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry who played with Benny Carter, among others of the time.  Actually, Chu Berry played the "Transitional" tenor, which was when Conn began slowly moving from the New Wonder to the M series.  It had some of the newer features of the M series, but still some of the keywork of the New Wonder.  He was known for a big sound, and the New Wonder definitely had that, but it could also play smooth and mellow, as Lester Young demonstrated.  Pres continued playing his New Wonder Transitional model until his death in 1959.  Personally, I think the New Wonder is one of the best sounding horns in the world.  Like the M series that would follow, it has an incredible spread of tone.  It can be played in any setting, whether it be old jazz or modern rock.  There are those that will dispute this, but I know a few players who use it for playing rock and electric blues and love it.  My friend Chuck Hancock, who plays lots of these types of gigs plays a New Wonder alto exclusively.    

My friend Chuck Hancock with his New Wonder
 Conn New Wonder Tenor with Gold Plate

Transitional Models
Starting around 1929 and continuing until around 1932 or 33, Conn was slowly evolving its saxophone line from the New Wonder to what would become the M series.  The was no clear demarcation line from the New Wonder to the M series because Conn was constantly reconfiguring its design until the M series was finalized.  Early Transitional models looked like the New Wonder, with split bell keys and the famous nail file G# key.  Gradually the bell keys were shifted to one side, the left, while retaining some of the same design characteristics of the old horn.   
Conn Transitional Tenor Saxophone with some design characteristics of a New Wonder
Conn Transitional Alto with the new design characteristics of the M but with the G# to Bb cluster of the New Wonder.  Note the underslung octave key which was a feature of the M series.

The M Series

The Conn M series was at the time a leap forward in saxophone design.  The key work was fast and slick for its day, and as far as I'm concerned it still is, though it would be harder for a player used to modern saxes to become adjusted to. Then of course there is that big Conn sound.  As far as my experience goes, it is the most versatile horn.  It sings like a woman begging for your love and then can scream like a banshee when you put the whip to its backside, and do everything else in-between.  The 6M alto, 10M tenor and 12M baritone saxes are among the best vintage horns in the world.  They are famously known as "The Naked Lady" horns because of the engraving of a semi-nude woman on the bell. 
Conn 6M Alto
 Conn 10M Tenor with silver plate and gold bell
Conn 12M Baritone
 Me playing the Conn 6M at the Blue Note circa 1990

These would be followed by the 26M alto and 30M tenor saxophones, which featured more elaborate engraving, improved ergonomics by shifting the G# to Bb cluster to the right front for a more natural hand position and the Permajust system, which allowed keeping the saxophone keys regulated without the use of felt or cork which would compact or wear out with use and throw the keys out of regulation.  This was the most ergonomic sax available until Selmer released the Balanced Action a year later. 
Conn 26M Alto Saxophone with New York neck
Conn 30M Tenor Saxophone
 The famous Conn Naked Lady

In part two, I'll discuss saxophones made by Buescher, King, Martin and of course Selmer.  Stay tuned!


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