The Andante Project — Part 2: Of Jazz-Era Saxophones and Old Lace   Leave a comment

A performance of “Gabriel’s Oboe” on the Conn-o-Sax, accompanied by an amateur band.
Youtube is miraculous, and so are these performers.

So… Jazz Era Saxophones… Why on earth would I choose saxophones to work on and to sell, given I’m an oboist?

Well… Because specimens of the brandnames I was interested in were fetching on Suckerbay — a couple years’ back anyway, I kinda forgot about “The Crash of ’08” and aftereffects amongst other things — anywhere from U$1,800 – U$4,500… Stuff like 1920s – 1940s vintage Conn, and Buescher and Martin saxophones. If it said “Selmer” on the bell, and you had the right one? (a “Cigar-cutter”, or a “Balanced Action” or especially a “Mark VI” — much later than my target dates, but the Stradivari of saxophones.) Those started at about U$4,500.00…

… The kicker unfortunately, was “the right one”. Knowing which was “the right one”, or “the right thing” was something alas, I did not know. Stencils for example — instruments made by say, Conn, but sold by someone else with their own brand-name on it — weren’t going to do. And I made a couple of whoppers, buying what I thought were tenor saxes — it can be very hard to tell what you’re getting from a photograph, especially when the seller doesn’t know what they’re selling — but which turned out to be C-melodys, an aberrant form of saxophone popular in the ’20s enabling performers to play the melody line off a piano score (almost no-one wants them now). I blush to admit: I didn’t know how to recognize a C-Melody from a photo… And yes, one of them was a stencil… OOPS.

The 1920s produced three other aberrative saxophones that never caught on: The C-Soprano, (I’ve got one ornamenting my wall at the moment, but I think it dates from the 1890s); the Mezzo Soprano in F— a local competitor has one he tells me he’s going to sell for U$4,500 — U$3,000 less than someone on Suckerbay was attempting to flog his for; and particularly grotesque, but I’d give my eye-teeth for one, if only for a little while:  The “Conn-O-Sax” of which maybe 2 dozen are left, thus the Youtube above: A saxophone pitched in F, shaped like and intended to sound like, an English horn… If you find one of those in your grandmother’s attic, they’re worth about U$40,000.Conn-O-SaxC Soprano SaxMezzo-Soprano Sax

Supposedly. Thus every night when I say my prayers kneeling at the foot of my little bed I ask The Goddess if she can give me two.

Further to “The Right One”: Just because it says “Selmer” on it, doesn’t mean it’s anything special. Has to be one of the “Paris Selmer” instruments, not the “US Selmer” variety, which are student / intermediate horns of varying degrees of mediocrity. Meanwhile the Selmer Corporation, I gathered at Keyano, managed to give themselves a colossal kick in the nuts: After ending production of the Mark VI, they destroyed all the information they had about it, all the blueprints, all the tools, all the dies, the metallurgy, the accumulated data, the customer feedback…

… Everything …

Nothing they’ve produced since has come anywhere close to the Mark VI, and they’ve lost their market share to Yamaha and Yanagisawa. The Japanese, like all Orientals, are most attentive pupils, and they have learned the lessons of Western-style Capitalism, very, very, well.

Incandescent stupidity of mythological proportions.Avro Arrow 2

Oh Well… that’s managerial bureaucracy and managerial decisions for you… But I’d probably better shut up, lest I get slapped with a suit.

Slapped with Suit


*   *   *

And in any event I’m straying from my point.

The other reason to do vintage saxophones I suppose, is saxophones combine just about everything I’ve learned about woodwind and brasswind repair, they would teach me the most in the least amount of time, about dent repair, pad installation, key repair, tool and part making, soldering (a fiddly, nasty, dangerous, but very necessary skill), yada yada yada…

… ‘Course there’s the piccolo to learn about. Supposedly repadding a piccolo is the single most difficult repair that can be done, but in my experience bass clarinets are way worse, or the bassoon, where at least one key covers 3 separate, rimless holes and must seal them all perfectly and instantly…

IMG_7943The dime and the twonie are there to give you an idea of the size of the keys I’m working on. Piccolo pads range in size from 6.5 — 15 mm, usually about 6.5 – 8 mm. Several must seal simultaneously, and all of them, perfectly. Paper is way too thick for shimming material…

Then there’s the oboe.

IMG_7939Feast your eyes on it: The D double-ring. A masochistic French machinist’s erotic dream: When you press the Left E♭key, a rod lowers the inner ring — perfectly of course, anything else and it won’t work — which diminishes the size of the D hole, enabling an in-tune trill between D and E♭. The outer ring, which also must seal perfectly over the inner ring, simultaneously closes the F♯ vent key and opens the F♮ resonance key… All of the mechanism of the oboe, is like this.

This is why repair rates start at $60.00/hour, boys and girls: The people who fix this stuff, know what they’re doing; they’re simultaneously a skilled artisan in wood and metal, a machinist and a jeweller. Don’t argue with them.

 *   *   *

As I was saying: With buying and selling saxophones among other things, and what probably did me in: Knowing what’s “The Right Thing”: As with so much old stuff on Suckerbay and elsewhere: Just ‘cause it’s old. Just ‘cause it’s rare: It doesn’t mean it’s valuable. Way too many people are selling way too much unrestored old junk thinking it’s worth something, vis:


That, Gentle Readers, is a soprano sarrusophone. Some clown on Suckerbay was attempting to sell one of these awhile back for U$7,500.00, since “The experts” assured him it was worth U$7,500.00.

The sarrusophone is (or mercifully, “was”) a double-reed brass instrument invented in the middle 1800s by one Alfred Sarrus, to replace the oboe and bassoon in French military bands. Imagine if you will (you probably shouldn’t) a double-reed saxophone… The French are truly demented… I offered him C$500 (not U$500) for it, explaining that the experts notwithstanding, it’s never been used in bands or orchestras, there is no music for it; its rarity was irrelevant, it is merely a curiosity, long consigned to the trashcan of musical history. The contrabass of the family is the only one that ever caught on, thus my quotation from “Jim” below. I’m into curiosities however, and so my offer of C$500. Two other individuals put in offers, which he also turned down. Love to know if they offered him more for it (I’d be surprised) than I did. He turned us all down of course, because the experts said it was worth U$7,500…

… Let’s not forget however, “The Experts”, also thought — along with the Sarrusophone, and the Conn-O-Sax — that fractional-reserve banking, tulip-bulb futures, radium gargles, psychoanalysis, mercury-amalgam fillings and lobotomies were good ideas. But go figure: The Conn-O-Sax, worth (far as a lot of people are concerned) U$40,000, the Soprano Sarrusophone, worth (far as I’m concerned) diddley-squat. Thus the lesson about “knowing about the right thing”: Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks, Doofus. And I hope Jim doesn’t mind my quoting him.

To be continued…


Posted February 7, 2015 by Capt. Roy Harkness in Uncategorized

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