Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vintage American Saxophones: Conn New Wonder, Transitional and M Series "Naked Lady"Saxophones

As those who follow my blog know, I really love vintage American saxophones, particularly those manufactured from the mid-twenties until the late 50's.  They were built by skilled craftsmen and women who plied their trade with pride.  Although the saxophone was invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian living and working in  Paris, in its infancy it was sparsely used by symphony orchestras if at all.  Composers like, Ravel, Goudonov, Bizet and Prokofiev wrote saxophone parts into some of their compositions.  Early New Orleans jazz also did not include the saxophone, the clarinet being the most commonly used wind instrument.  Much of this was probably due to the fact that as a newly invented instrument, there still weren't many musicians playing it, and that teachers were few and far between.

Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans player, was probably the first jazz saxophonist, having switched from the clarinet, the wind instrument that was common to New Orleans players of the time, to soprano sax, which he became famous for.  As the New Orleans players started moving north and spreading the music, most notably Louis Armstrong, the saxophone began appearing in jazz ensembles to the point of being an indispensable part of any modern orchestra.  When Sidney Bechet went north and was in Boston, he had a young student by the name of Johnny Hodges.  From the 1920's on, every jazz ensemble had a saxophone section, and the saxophone reigns supreme as the dominant wind instrument in jazz and popular music, and is now used more extensively in classical ensembles, particularly saxophone quartets and choirs.  The very vocal quality of the sax, and its tonal flexibility lends itself to so many genres of music. 

The first saxophone built in the US was built by Gus Buescher in 1888 when he was foreman at the Conn factory in Elkhart, Indiana.  He would later leave Conn and start the Buescher Musical Instrument Company.  The best place to start discussing American saxophones would be with Conn.  Here is the history of the Conn company, courtesy of the Conn-Selmer website.


C.G. Conn History

Young C.G. ConnC.G. Conn, the oldest continuous manufacturer of band instruments in America, literally gave birth to the U.S. band instrument manufacturing industry. Today, C.G. Conn encompasses some of the greatest names in musical instruments - C.G. Conn, King and Benge brass instruments, Artley and Armstrong woodwinds and Scherl & Roth strings. Always committed to serving the needs of students, music educators, amateurs, and professionals, C.G. Conn's storied history reflects a dedication for innovation and quest for the ultimate in design and craftsmanship - an industry leader in musical performance.
One Saturday night in 1873, Civil War veteran Charles Gerard Conn got involved in a brawl that resulted in a split lip. Not good news for a man who played cornet with the Elkhart, Indiana "Brick Brown Band." In order to get around this problem, Colonel Conn set out to perfect a special rubber-cushioned mouthpiece so he could continue playing. The new mouthpiece, which he later patented, caught the eye of other musicians. He made a few for his friends, but soon there was such a demand for his mouthpieces that he rigged up a lathe from an old sewing machine and began turning them out as fast as possible.
C.G. Conn, Middle AgedIn 1875, a French musical instrument maker named Dupont stopped by the shop and asked if he might use Conn's bench to repair some horns. After watching him work for several days, Conn decided that he, too, could make a horn. In that same year, in a closet-size shop only 20 feet square, Col. Conn produced the first American-built cornet.
By 1879 the shop moved into larger quarters, and Conn began adding instruments to his line. In 1888, Colonel Conn brought 15 European instrument craftsmen to the United States and gave them the space, the tools and the incentive to make the finest instruments their skills would allow. Their expertise, teamed with the Colonel's ingenuity and ambition, soon produced instruments so exceptional that they were accorded highest honors in the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago.
Twice the Conn plant burned to the ground. Twice it was rebuilt, bigger and better than before. Famous bandmasters and musicians visited the plant and personally endorsed "Conn Wonder Instruments." John Phillip Sousa, Patrick Gilmore, Herbert Clarke, Arthur Pryor, A. Liberati and others were frequent visitors.
The Conn Wonder CornetVaudeville was at its peak, and the theaters and music halls of Elkhart saw a steady procession of the finest bands and musicians of the day. All played the Colonel's instruments. Conn instruments - ornate and often jeweled - became world famous as Sousa and others toured Europe playing before kings, queens and czars.
The Colonel also loved strange and bizarre instruments. In 1907 he built an Immensaphone, the largest horn in the world. It measured 12 feet in diameter and 35 feet long. The Conn factory also built the world's largest drum, a slide tuba to make noises like a ship's warning whistle, tenor tubas for the jackass role in Strauss' Don Juan, and a saxophone for one-armed musician Al Miller.
Conn Factory in 1875Since the first American cornet in 1875, C.G. Conn continued producing "firsts" throughout its distinguished history: the first American saxophone, first double-bell euphonium, first sousaphone (built to the great Sousa's specifications), and a long list of many others.
In 1915, Colonel Conn sold the C.G. Conn Company to C.D. Greenleaf. Greenleaf, almost clairvoyantly, realized a need for the advancement of instrumental music in the schools. His foresight and energy continued to add to Conn's innovations. He was responsible for founding the first national school for band directors, first and only center for the study of musical acoustics, first successful short action valves, first all-electronic organ and first fiberglass sousaphones, among other legendary advancements.
Conn Factory in 1950During World War II the Conn factory was completely converted to manufacture precision instruments for defense. Conn received four Army-Navy "E" Awards - the first given in the band instrument industry. During the Korean War part of the facilities was converted to defense production, and Conn achieved another record in precision manufacturing.
Many of today's most preferred instruments owe their original success to Conn's innovation. C.G. Conn French horns, for example, have been the horn of choice for the Hollywood film industry for most of the 20th Century. C.G. Conn Symphony Series trombones have a legendary place in the classical trombone world. Today's best trumpet players are discovering the break-through performance with Vintage One trumpets. These innovative designs, enhanced by superior craftsmanship and technological breakthroughs, have provided today's musicians with the superior instrument performance.
Building on the proven designs of the past, C.G. Conn continues to meet the demands of today's best musicians. As well, amateur and student musicians can enjoy the very best in instrument technology and performance with brass instruments and saxophones from C.G. Conn.

Conn Saxophones

Although the first saxophone built by Conn was in 1888, I feel the best of them were built from the 1920's until the 1950's.  This is just my opinion, but it is shared by a few other musicians who love Conn saxophones, and are the ones most collected and played by vintage sax enthusiasts today.

The New Wonder Series II a.k.a. Chu Berry

Starting around 1923 or so, these models were an improvement over the previous New Wonder Series I and Worcester models, and came to define the jazz and big band saxophone sound of the time.  The Chu Berry designation was never an official one, and in fact, Chu Berry actually played a later transitional model.  Features included rolled tone holes, which Conn began using on their saxophones starting around 1915 or so, the "nail file" G# key, split bell keys, meaning that the B and Bb keys are on opposite sides of one another on the bell rather than on the same side as later models and on modern saxophones today.  Many of the saxes were elaborately engraved and had luxurious finishes, silver plate with gold washed bells being the most common, as well as gold plating, and sometimes a combination of the two.  Another variation of the New Wonder was the Virtuoso Deluxe, which had elaborate engraving all over the horn, and every key touch was inlaid with pearl.  They came only in gold and silver plate. 

These horns have a big and rich sound, but some modern players complain that the intonation is sketchy.  However, keep in mind that if you use the larger chambered mouthpieces used at the time or its modern counterpart, rather than a modern mouthpiece used on modern saxophones, intonation should not be a problem.  Vintage Conn saxophones are a bit temperamental when it comes to mouthpieces.  My friends Chuck Hancock and Elery Eskelin both play Conn New Wonder saxophones, alto and tenor respectively, and just love them.  Chuck won't play anything else.  Elery has several vintage horns, and aside form the New Wonder, also has a Buescher Aristocrat and a Conn 10M, all of which he plays at his gigs.  They both agree that you can't beat the sound of these old horns.

One thing to keep in mind, up until the 1940, Conn saxophones were manufactured in both high and low pitch.  You can tell by looking where the serial and model number is, and seeing either the H or L underneath.  Low pitch is the standard in the orchestra, being A=440hz., while high pitch is around 442hz.  Choose the horns with the L underneath the serial number. 

New Wonder Series II Saxophones

Conn New Wonder Tenor Gold Plate


New Wonder Nail File G# Key and Pinky Cluster

New Wonder Virtuoso Deluxe Tenor Gold Plated

Virtuoso Deluxe Pearl Inlaid Keys

 My father with a New Wonder alto

New Wonder Engravings 

There was a standard engraving on most models, but many models featured different engraving designs unique to the individual saxophone. 

Transitional Models

Starting in 1930, Conn began slowly redesigning the mechanism and other aspects of their saxophones culminating with the M series saxophones in 1935, arguably one of the greatest saxophone lines ever produced, though I wouldn't argue that.  To me, the M series saxophones are among the best saxophones I've ever played, a combination of pure craftsmanship, sound and ease of facility.  They are legendary saxophones, right up there with the Selmer Mark VI as far as I'm concerned.  The early transitional models, while keeping some of the older designs of the New Wonder series like rolled tone-holes, nail file G# key cluster and the micro-tuner and split bell-keys, added improvements in the mechanism like the underslung octave key to prevent it from being damaged whenever the neck was put on or removed, the low C#, B and Bb keys could now open the G# pad, the high E key gained a curve to make it easier to manipulate, the neck tenon gained an extra skirt in order to eliminate the buzzy A and to create a better seal, and a swivel thumbrest, and most keys repositioned for greater playing comfort.  As the saxes continued to evolve, the bell-keys were moved to one side of the horn, the G# to Bb cluster was completely redesigned, until it became the famous "Naked Lady" saxophone that many vintage sax lovers covet.  
Transitional tenor with art deco engraving with split bell-keys and nail file G# key cluster

Close-up of art deco engraving

Transitional alto 1932.  It now has the characteristics of the M series, same side bell-keys and underslung octave key, but still retaining the nail file G# pinky key cluster

Transitional alto 1933 with all of the characteristics of the M series

The M Series a.k.a. "Naked Lady" 
The famous "Naked Lady" engraving

By 1935 the transition from New Wonder to the M series was complete.  The M series featured a much improved keywork which was lightning fast.  While some who play Mark VI's and more modern horns may not think much of the ergonomics, I personally feel that the layout is very conducive to rapid execution of musical phrases, and in fact, though the position of the G# key cluster is different than on modern horns, I feel it is far more efficient than modern pinky keys based on the Selmer design especially when playing chromatic scales.  On a modern horn you always have to shift your pinky down in order to execute a low Bb, but on the M series, you can simply slide your pinky straight across to reach it, as the Bb wraps around the B key.
The G# to Bb pinky keys are a wide table so the pinky really has room to move around, and with Bb extending around to the side of B, makes playing chromatics much easier.

The M series maintained the rolled tone-holes until 1947, after which the M series had flat tone-holes.  The microtuner was also discontinued some time in the early 1950's.
Charlie Parker with a Conn 6M alto
Conn 6M Alto silver plate
10M tenor lacquer
12M Baritone favored by Gerry Mulligan and Harry Carney

Also in 1935, the 26M alto and the 30M tenor were also introduced, which was basically a 6M and 10M with more elaborate engraving and featured a more ergonomically positioned G# to Bb pinky cluster, and the "Permajust" system, which allowed regulation of the keys without using felt or cork which could pack down or fall off and would need periodic replacement and instead used an adjusting screw that would keep it in regulation for far longer.  On the alto, you could opt either for a model with the underslung octave key, or the New York neck, with an overslung octave key.  The 30M tenor came with the New York neck only.  Both saxophones came with two finishes.  The lacquer finish also featured sterling silver key touches, and it came in silver plate with gold washed bell.
26M alto with silver plate and gold bell
30M tenor with gold lacquer and sterling silver key touch pieces

Generally, only the alto had the microtuner, but my father had a rare tenor with a microtuner, which he owned in the late 1940's. 
My father with a 10M tenor with microtuner.  My father exclusively played Conn saxophones when he was a professional musician.
 My father's band late 40's, with him on the right with a Conn 10M tenor
Dad serenading unidentified woman with his 6M alto late 1940's.  Actually, my mother identified her as that "whore".

Conn would eventually lose its preeminence as a builder of some of the world's best saxophones, but still has left behind a legacy of having built instruments that defined the sound of American jazz.  To conclude, here are some of the great players, aside from Charlie Parker pictured above, who played Conn saxophones in their heyday.

Benny Carter with a 26M alto with New York neck
Dexter Gordon with a 10M tenor
 Gerry Mulligan with his 12M Baritone
 Lester "Pres" Young with a New Wonder tenor
Johnny Hodges with a 6M alto
Leon "Chu" Berry with a New Wonder Transitional tenor





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