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Great Horns of America

by Bob Ackerman

In the Beginning

In the 42 years I have devoted to the study of music, I have played thousands of instruments. Having been educated in the 50's, I was naturally introduced to the instruments of that period first. They were the models being sold in the stores and were touted as the best ever. If you went to your local music store today and looked at the new models, you would probably hear a similar story.

My first good horns were a 1956 Conn 6M alto and at 1953 Martin Committee tenor, and they played great. But Mark VI Selmers were the rage, and by 1957 I needed them to fit into the sax sections I was working in professionally.

On two separate occasions I did the switch with my teachers - alto, Joe Soldo, then two years later tenor, Joe Allard. I missed the Conn and Martin, but I hung in there and went with the trend, even when my friends complained that something had happened to my sound. For 25 or 30 years I played this pair of VI's.

In the early 80's, as my mouthpiece business (begun in the 70's) developed and expanded, I began to deal in horns. Today I am not restricted to those sax sections whose sound was controlled down to the reed as well as the mouthpiece. I am also no longer a commercial musician trying to fit into someone else's mold. Thus I am free to play whatever and however I wish. This opportunity, coupled with a worldwide interest in vintage equipment, has allowed me to use instruments from an earlier vintage.

This is an experience that is still constantly evolving but seems well rooted in concept. It is opening many new doors for me both in business and music. The process of instrument-making has changed from the craftsman and his hand tools, to the craftsman and his machines, to the machines and their operators, to the machines and their computers. This transformation has taken more than a century and represents the dehumanization of musical instruments. Older instruments seem more resonant, more flexible in pitch and sound, and more individualistic in general. No two are alike! Doesn't this sound like jazz?

The instruments of today sound oppressively identical. Their pitch is fixed on a center that cannot move easily. This becomes painfully obvious in performances, whether in the NY Philharmonic or the Basie Band, when these fixed-pitch models fail to keep up with the shadings and nuances of the older movable pitch instruments. The result: collision.

How did we get to this point? Here's a quick historical overview.


CONN: A medium-weight body. The king of jazz - all brass and reeds in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra played Conns. (Lunceford was Count Basie's original model.) Conn made gold-plate custom models as did most of the companies.

BUESCHER: A lighter-weight body. Mr. Buescher was a foreman with the Conn company. Both instruments influenced and mixed with one another. Buescher had a sweeter sound than Conn. Today there is a cult of Americans following Sigurd Rascher who use these instruments (primarily 1925 - 1940 models).

MARTIN: A heavy-walled sax with soldered tone holes and some heavy wailing sounds. Mr. Martin was also at one time an employee of Conn.

KING: Not yet big in saxes in the 20's.

HOLTON: Made a Rudy Weidoff model with very detailed mechanism.

SELMER: Was only starting to appear.


CONN: The absolute Jazz King, played by Pres and Bird. Conn changed models: 6M Alto, 26M Conquerer Alto (custom made), 12M Bari.

BUESCHER: Developed the Aristocrate, which had a still sweeter sound.

KING: Developed the Zephyr, a very modern design, light in body weight. This horn became very popular.

MARTIN: Made the Handcraft model, which represented the dark sound.

SELMER: Started with the Cigar Cutter model, which was used by the more commercial bands (Glen Miller, etc.) and just before the war, came out with a fancier model called the Balanced Action.

1940's - 1950's

The war stopped almost all production for many years. By 1947 things began to happen again, but American Companies faced heavy competition from cheap European labor. The Americans still tried, then sputtered, gasped, and gave way to Selmer. Student instruments were now their thing as school bands rose in popularity.

KING & MARTIN: King developed the Super 20, Martin developed the Committee Models. The more individualistic jazzers, such as Cannonball Adderly, Bird, Johnny Griffin, Jackie McClean, all played Kings. Buddy Tate played the Martin.

SELMER: Marketed a much fancier looking horn with a slick, fast mechanism to boot. Selmer brought out first the Super Balanced Action Nos. 47000 - 54000, then the Mark VI. They clearly gained control of a monopoly of the pro sax market. From here on we all know the story pretty much.

1960's - 1970's

SELMER: The Mark VI was made from 1956 - 1975, when worn tooling and the changing of the guard in the Selmer family brought on a new model - the Mark VII, a more wide-open, stronger-blowing horn with a change in key design and a larger bore. By 1980 the bright VII was again changed to the dark Super Action 80.


YAMAHA: Appeared with model 61's, then 62's, and now the 825's, etc.

YANAGASWA: Produced finely-made instruments with silver body and bell.

KEILWORTH (COUF): Made heavy-walled, drawn tone hole saxes with the same chimney on the tone hole as 30's Conns with a lip on the top.
BUESCHER & KING: Resembled Selmers with no lip on top of the chimney.


The early horns up to the late 20's work best with an original style large chamber mouthpiece. The Rauscher mouthpiece is the modern example. 20's Buescher horns will not play at all without this large chamber mouthpiece. They are the 20th century sax most like Adolf Sax's original design.

By the late 20's and throughout the 30's, horns play best with original round chamber models with smaller holes and higher, longer baffles than the 20's. The other model to appear in the 30's is the elongated circle design. Brillhardt was one of the first to use this design. The elongated circle is indigenous to the plastic molded mouthpiece. Molded rubber mouthpieces can have a perfect circle.

By the 40's and into the 50's Berg Larsen and Brillhardt Level Air high baffle mouthpieces with a second inner chamber appeared. Most, however, still played the round chamber or elongated circle designs.

In the 60's Bobby Dukoff developed his famous D chamber on alto and tenor. After that comes many others such as Dave Gaurdilla, Freddie Gregory, Elmer Beechler, Claude Lakey, etc.

One final concept. Generally mouthpiece designs do not work on horns that pre-date their invention.

AS YOU EXPERIMENT with these older great horns of America, you must bear in mind a few things. Their mechanisms are simple and must be set in the original fashion to work at their best. Appropriate pads and mouthpieces must also be used. Players who cross idioms to make a living - playing jazz, legit, and/or commercial- will need not only a selection of mouthpieces but also few different axes.

I personally have my VI's for commercial section work and a set of Conns (20's - 30's) for creative playing. There is nothing like these great horns of America to give you the raw, individual character a jazz player should have.

Remember that key height and correct size pads are critical. The exact height of the keys should always be set by your repairman with you personally playing the horn with the mouthpiece you have selected for it. There can be a variation of 1 - 3 mm in heights depending on you. If anything is off, pitch and response will suffer.

Incidentally, flutists face the same question: whether to play a modern fixed-pitch axe or go with the older, more flexible models. They like Louie Lot (1880's - 1920's), Haynes (20's- 60's), and Powells (30's - 60's). Clarinetists have fewer options, as wood is not long-lasting. Many players still prefer Selmer Balanced Tone and Centered Tone models. Buffett players often look for 70,000 - 100,000.

If you wish to explore these instruments, please contact me, as they are a big part of my work. Also, please note that I am not saying there is no place for modern instruments. They do commercial music best. In business I handle everything and feel we must be flexible to survive.

2013 Bob Ackerman Progressive Winds
Tel : 843-235-8355
E-Mail Bob Ackerman

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