Q. 'How many C-Melody players can you get into a phone box?
A. 'All of them'.
It's an old joke, obviously, because it's no longer true. Long neglected, for nearly three-quarters of a century the C-melody saxophone appeared more frequently in junk shops than on bandstands. Instruments were more or less given away, regarded as unplayable curiosities. Yet today the C-melody is on the cusp of a gentle renaissance. The tide is turning. Prominent saxophonists such as John Dankworth,1 Joe Lovano,2 Anthony Braxton,3 and Scott Robinson4 are playing and recording on the instrument, and it's possible to buy a new contralto saxophone in C.5 Today, there are certainly more C-melody players than would fill a phone box.
This paper is written to recognise this 'sea change', this upset in the saxophonic order, and describe the C-melody's current position.
Saxophones in C were part of Antoine-Joseph ('Adolphe') Sax's original 22nd June 1846 patent for the instrument, though there is evidence that the invention and construction of the instrument took place before that date, at least as early as 1844.6 Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) intended that two sets of instruments be produced, analogous to the categories of human singing voice. One family of seven instruments, from sopranino to contrabass, was pitched alternately in C and F. A second family was in Bb and Eb. The first group included the C-melody, and was intended for orchestral use. The second group, in Bb and Eb, was intended for the marching band, also known as military band, concert band or symphonic wind ensemble. By the end of the nineteenth century it was clear that the Bb and Eb instruments - those intended for use in bands - were predominating over those in C and F. The popular saxophones were the alto in Eb and the tenor in Bb. Then, just before the start of the 1920s, two things occurred to promote interest in the C-melody and begin a decade of great popularity for the saxophone generally.
The first occurrence, paradoxically, was a glut of saxophones. With demobilisation after the end of the Great War came a reduction in the numbers of musicians employed by the military. Instruments were sold off. There was a surplus of Bb and Eb saxophones on the second-hand market. Some authorities say that this precipitated a decline in demand for new saxophones, and that manufacturers, seeking new ways to boost flagging saxophone sales, avidly promoted the C-melody.7
Whether or not there was a post-war decline, by the mid-twenties there was undoubtedly a saxophone boom, fuelled by a post-war demand for novelty. Production of saxophones in America reached a peak in 1924, when 100,000 instruments were produced.8 Five hundred thousand saxophones were sold in seven years.9 "C.G.Conn's manufactory was, from 1921, encouraged to increase its production threefold until the Wall Street crash signalled an end to this phenomenal boost to the saxophone's popularity."10
Many non-standard instruments were introduced during this period. These included the Slide Saxophone of 1922,11 the keyless Saxie of 1924, by Couesnon and Company,12 the King Saxello of 1925, and the Conn 22-M Conn-o-Sax of 1928.13 The saxophone that sold in large quantities, in numbers which it would never again match, was the C-melody.
The saxophone was promoted as an easy-to-learn instrument. A Buescher advertisement of 1923 claimed that with their wonderful new saxophones, "Buescher has made music a universal accomplishment, and has placed it within the possibility of practically everyone." 14 A 1925 advertisement, also by Buescher, claimed that, "The first note of the saxophone puts pep into the party." "Big Money and a Barrel of Fun," was promised if you took up the saxophone. Some of that big money was seen to be possible from teaching. "You can master it in a few weeks and be ready to teach", claimed yet another Buescher ad of the period.15 "It need not interfere with your regular work," it claimed, giving a final twist of the knife to professional educators and saxophonists everywhere. 16
Much was made of its freedom from the obstructive mysteries of transposition and the fact that the amateur player could play direct from piano music. Surprisingly, the C-melody was also adopted by orchestral players. Typically, it was popular with oboists and string players as a doubling instrument. They could increase their freelance work by adding the now fashionable saxophone to their list of doubles, without requiring extra written parts. One older British musician recalled his father telling of how he belonged to an ensemble that played in Bradford, in Yorkshire, England, during the early 1920s. In the afternoon the musicians constituted a small light orchestra. Then, in the evening, the oboist and violinist took up their C-melody saxophones to play the latest dance music, with instant modernity.17
The second occurrence to promote interest in the saxophone generally, and the C-melody in particular, was the career of Rudy Wiedoeft (1893-1940). A player possessed of a spectacular technique, his phenomenal tonguing continues to be discussed at length on contemporary internet bulletin boards. Wiedoeft had a brilliantly successful career as a vaudeville performer, playing both alto and C-melody saxophones. >From the late 1910s he made more than a hundred cylinder recordings,18 and many compositions and arrangements. They included Saxarella, Saxema, Saxophobia, Sax-O-Phun, Valse Erica, Llewellyn-Waltz, Valse Marilyn and Valse Vanité. Several of his later performances are available in a CD compilation.9 The British saxophonist Dave Gelly has summarised Wiedoeft's achievement: "He was the musician who did much to popularise the saxophone in America in the 1910s and pave the way for the 1920s boom."19 Dick Sudhalter went further. "No assessment of saxophone playing in the '20s, in or out of the precincts of "hot" improvisation, can be accurate without reference to Wiedoeft, so pervasive was his influence," he wrote. 20 Wiedoeft is known to have used an alto mouthpiece on his C-melody,21 and eventually he cooperated with the Holton company to introduce design improvements to the saxophone.
The role of the C-melody saxophone in early jazz must not be overlooked, though it frequently is. Several major jazz musicians began their careers on the instrument. Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins both began on the C-melody and, surprisingly, Paul Whiteman's pianist and arranger Bill Challis started his professional work in dance bands as a player of the C-melody.22
The two men to specialise on the C-melody and exert an influence on jazz history were Jack Pettis (born 1902) and, most notably, Franky 'Tram' Trumbauer (1901-1956). Pettis, "A thoughtful and agile improviser,"23 is unfortunately little-known today. He was the first musician to record a jazz solo on film, in 1925, and his work is well worth seeking out. It was Pettis (on both tenor and C-melody) who influenced Bud Freeman24 and, in Freeman's opinion, indirectly influenced Lester Young. But Young is also known to have had high regard for Freeman's playing. 25 All routes point to the same sources. These two players of the C-melody were undoubtedly important influences on the evolution of the jazz tenor saxophone.
Of the two men, the great genius of the C-melody was Frank Trumbauer. Trumbauer's achievements have been eclipsed by the rôle he played in the career of Bix Beiderbecke. Although his playing is known to have been a major influence on players such as Benny Carter,20 more importantly he has been labelled 'the grandfather of modern jazz' because of his influence on Lester Young.
Trumbauer's solo on Singin' the Blues is his most celebrated recording, and influenced generations of saxophonists. That solo was scored by Bill Challis for the Whiteman band to play, and Sudhalter recounts the wonder that clarinettist Kenny Davern expressed upon hearing tenor saxophonists Eddie Barefield and Don Byas meeting in a New York hallway, getting their horns out, and playing the solo together from memory.26
There is no disputing the influence Frank Trumbauer had on Lester Young. Pres told Nat Hentoff:
"I tried to get the sound of a C-melody on a tenor. That's why I don't sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story. And I liked the way he slurred the notes. He'd play the melody first and then after that, he'd play around the melody."27
Trumbauer, who recorded on cornet and clarinet as well a C-melody, also played the alto. A picture of the Paul Whiteman reed section in 1932 shows him with an alto. Couple this with the fact that the solo on Singin' the Blues fits the alto range beautifully, that Tram's alto sound was very similar to his C-melody sound, and that some other solos, e.g. Riverboat Shuffle and Just an Hour of Love (which are labelled as being played on the C-melody), go above the normal range of the C instrument. From this it's easy to understand how the British musician Norman Field came to the daring idea that maybe this famous solo was recorded on the alto, and not on the C-melody! It's a controversial thought. If true, it lessens the importance of the C-melody, and would change jazz history.28
At the end of the 1920s, after the Wall Street crash, interest in the C-melody saxophone declined.
Saxophones in the new swing bands were now used in sections of three and four, and this was more easily organised by using instruments in Eb and Bb. There was also the feeling that the C-melody had been developed as a quieter, domestic, instrument, and was unsuitable for the ever more powerful environs of the big band.
Rudy Wiedoeft appears to have made his last recordings in 1927. After the death of his brother, Herb, in 1928, he began to withdraw from playing, turned his hand variously to teaching, inventing, and even gold prospecting! He died of cirrhosis of the liver in February 1940.
Trumbauer continued to record into the '30s, left Paul Whiteman in 1936, and worked around New York. "In mid 1940 Trumbauer announced he was leaving music to take a full-time position as an inspector with the Civil Aeronautics Authority. He spent the rest of his life in aviation, working as a test pilot during World War II."29
From the early 1930s onwards few saxophonists bothered with the C-melody. The innovations of bebop held no rôle for the wistful gentleness of the instrument. For more than fifty years the C-melody was shunned. Examples, nearly always silver-plated, would appear in second-hand shops. These were often wrongly described as a tenor or an alto (though many C-melodies have a "C" below the serial number), and offered at giveaway prices. Beginners were warned to avoid them.
Certainly those old instruments had problems. The model produced by Conn has an angular, straight, neck, which forces the player to hold the saxophone at an awkward slope. To players used to more modern saxophones the feel of the keys of some of these older instruments is uncomfortable. John Dankworth has described them as "knobbly" 1. The ring for securing the sling is not always in the optimum place, making the instrument unbalanced.
Mouthpieces are also difficult to find, though there is at least one commercial C-melody mouthpiece currently available.30 From interviews with many C-melody players it seems that most use either an alto or (Bb) tenor mouthpiece, achieving a tone quality that tends towards the sound of the type of saxophone for which the mouthpiece was originally intended.
Interestingly, the instruments are narrow for their length. At no point does the bore of a typical early C-melody exceed that of an alto. Could this be the explanation for the gentle sound of the instrument? Could this be part of the design to produce a quieter saxophone? Scott Robinson certainly thinks so, believing this to be the reason for the horn's 'covered' or slightly muted quality.31
During the 1990s players began to explore the C-melody once again. In Britain, John Dankworth, a lifelong alto player, introduced the C-melody (using a tenor mouthpiece and tenor reeds) when playing with his Generation Band. His reason was that he wanted the band to have one of everything, liked to surround himself with some of the best of the younger players and, with typical modesty, didn't want to end up playing a saxophone that was being played better by someone else in the band. In 1999 Scott Robinson made a CD devoted entirely to the C-melody.31 In the accompanying booklet Robinson draws attention to other saxophonists currently owning and playing the C-melody. They are Anthony Braxton, Dan Levinson, Joe Lovano, Dave Pietro and Gary Regina. These players do not represent a school, or a style of saxophone playing. They merely represent a renewed interest in the instrument.
Given that today's commercial saxophonists frequently find themselves playing guitar-originated music in the sharp keys favoured by guitarists, it is strange that the advantages of an instrument in C had not been appreciated earlier. To spend an evening playing an Eb saxophone in an ensemble playing exclusively in the concert keys of A and E, putting the saxophonist into F sharp and C sharp, is to appreciate the joys of a concert-pitch instrument.
The most exciting element in the story of the C-melody saxophone is that once again one can buy a new saxophone in C. This is the contralto saxophone, in C, developed and built by Jim Schmidt of Sanger, California. Schmidt states categorically that the contralto is not at all like the C-melody. "Because of its large bore and wide conical expansion, it shares absolutely nothing in common with the smaller ill-fated C-melody," he says.32
Except, of course, that it is a saxophone, in C!
The Schmidt contralto has an ingenious system of joining the neck to the body. The ideal saxophone bore should be a continuous taper. This is not sustained on conventional saxophones, where the neck slides in and out of the body. In the new contralto saxophone, the inside of the bore is now tapered throughout the neck bushing, as it should be. The neck cork has been eliminated, to achieve a smooth air flow at the junction between mouthpiece and neck. Nevertheless, the mouthpiece is still adjustable for tuning. The instrument even has new pads.
The most radical aspect of this new C saxophone is the fingering system. "The logic behind my fingering system is straightforward," says Schmidt. "One note follows the next chromatic note by closing down the next key with the next finger of your hand, and so on down the line, one after the other, in linear sequence."33
It is fortunate that this new instrument arrives simultaneously with a renewed interest in the C-melody. Could we be at the start of a new chapter in the history of the saxophone?
1. Brown, John Robert. Reed Clinic 'C Here' in Crescendo and Jazz Music Magazine. August/September 2000 edition. London. ISSN 0962-7472.
2. Robinson, Scott. Booklet notes accompanying CD. Melody from the Sky. ARCD 19212.
3. Robinson, Scott. Op.cit.
4. Robinson. Op. cit.
5. Schmidt, Jim. The Contralto Sax (Key of C). Web site: http://cvip.fresno.com/~js210/contra.html
6. Kochnitzky, Leon. Adolphe Sax and his Saxophone. Belgian Government Information Centre. New York, NY 1964.
7. Buyer's Guide, at International Saxophone Homepage: http://www.saxophone.org/
8. Gelly, Dave. Sax and Brass Directory, in The Sax and Brass Book. Miller Freeman Books. Page 98 in 1998 edition.
9. McMillan, Malcolm. Booklet notes accompanying CD. Rudy Wiedoeft. Kreisler of the Saxophone. Clarinet Classics CC0018, 1997. 77 St. Albans Avenue, London, E6 4HH
10. Ingham, R. (Ed). Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone. CUP, 1998. Page 20.
11. Cohen, Paul. The Royal Slide Saxophone. Vintage Saxophones Revisited, in Saxophone Journal. Page 6 in July/August 1994 edition.
12. Brown, John Robert. 'The Mysterious Saxie'. Crescendo Magazine. July 1973.
13. Cohen, Paul. Vintage Saxophones Revisited, in Saxophone Journal.
14. Poster collection at http://www.saxgourmet.com
15. Saxophone posters on the internet, at http://www.saxgourmet.com/
17. Kershaw, Doug. Instrument repairer, Beadlam, North Yorkshire. Conversation with the author, November 2000.
18. Dryer-Beers, Thomas. Influential Soloists. Chapter in The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, Ed. Ingham. Page 38 in 1998 edition.
19. Gelly, Dave. Op cit. Page 105 in 1998 edition.
20. Sudhalter, Richard M..Lost Chords. OUP, New York, NY.1999. Page 449.
21. Brilhart, Arnold. Interview in Saxophone Journal. January/February 1990.
22. Lees, Gene. Arranging the Score. Cassell and Company. London. Page 149 in 2000 edition.
23. Cook, R., and Morton, B. The Penguin Guide to Jazz. London, 1992. Page 733 in first edition.
24. Sudhalter, Richard M. Op. cit. Page 241.
25. Sudhalter. Op cit. Page 255.
26. Sudhalter. Op cit. Page 451.
27. "Pres", an interview with Lester Young, Down Beat, March 7th 1956, anthologised in Lewis Porter, ed., A Lester Young Reader, Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1991.
28. Field, Norman C. Website: How Often and How Much Alto Saxophone did Tram Play? Posted August 2000, at http://www.normanfield.fsnet.co.uk/tram.htm
29. Sudhalter, Op. cit. Page 469.
30. Windcraft 'USA' plastic, at http://www.windcraft.co.uk/windcraft/index.html
31. Melody from the Sky. Scott Robinson. ARCD 19212.
32. Jim Schmidt's New Saxophone Design. Page 4 of 5 at : http://cvip.fresno.com/~js210/contra.html
33. Jim Schmidt's New Saxophone Design. Page 1 of 5 at : http://cvip.fresno.com/~js210/contra.html