Sunday, October 12, 2014

Wonder cornets and the first American-made saxophone

By Chet Williamson 

Isaac Fiske
Many of the first generation of jazz musicians – Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, et al – may have all played instruments made in Worcester. There is also the distinct possibility that the first American-made saxophone was manufactured here in 1888. 

The saga begins with Isaac Fiske, a pioneer in the development of American brass instruments. He was from Holden and in Worcester, he led the popular Fiske Cornet Band and manufactured a line of fine quality horns. 

His cornets were known for its copper bell. The shop was located at 13 Mechanics Street in downtown Worcester, not far from where drum-maker Walberg & Auge was situated. 

In 1886, Fiske sold the company to Charles Gerard Conn, who before outsourcing the company permanently in his hometown of Elkhart, Indiana, continued the operation in Worcester for more than a decade. 

According to Danny Chestnut, an expert on Conn and his company, instruments made by Fiske were “considered to be the best in its time. Conn operated it as a company subsidiary, and in this way he achieved his objectives. The company's product line now centered around the ‘Wonder’ cornet, but in 1885, Conn began importing French clarinets and flutes.”

The Conn company began as an outgrowth of his development of a rubber-rimmed mouthpiece. This was developed at the Elkhart plant before it was lost to fire. Conn was a celebrated cornet player himself and is said to have invented this particular kind of mouthpiece as a way of relieving lip pain after excessive playing. It was first patented in 1875, the same year Conn introduced his silver-plated brass mouthpiece.
Young C.G. Conn

According to Richard I. Schwartz, before becoming a maker of brass instruments, Conn was a soldier from Elkhart, Indiana who fought in the Civil War. “In 1869, he was married and had jobs as a sewing machine salesman, heath-care product salesman, silverware engraver and plater, zinc collar-pad maker (for horses), and rubber stamp maker,” Schwartz said. “Conn was twenty-seven years of age in 1871 when he started playing the cornet. He was obliged to do so as a result of an accident at the zinc collar-pad factory. Shortly after he commenced his study of the cornet, he toured with Haverly’s Minstrels.”

Schwartz says that in 1876, Conn established a partnership with Eugene Dupont, a French instrument maker. “In 1877, the Conn-Dupont company expanded to a three story building, used previously as a furniture factory. … The Conn-Dupont company dissolved in 1879 and Conn became sole owner of C. G. Conn & Co. In 1883, the plant burned down and in three months C. G. Conn built a new and larger factory. By early 1884, the firm was employing 130 workers.”

When C.G. Conn purchased the Fiske company in 1886, he used its Worcester facility for the manufacturing of Conn instruments. The marking on these instruments at this time read: "Made by C. G. CONN/ ELKHART, IND. and Worcester, Mass.” According to most sources, the instruments are rare and precious to collectors. Fiske, himself is said to have praised instruments from the C. G. Conn company. Of its Wonder Cornet, he said: "the only perfect cornet in the world." 

Cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden is widely recognized as the first “king” of New Orleans jazz. He was an enigmatic figure, born in 1877 and conceivably played the popular horn of the day, the “Wonder” cornet. 

First introduced by C. G. Conn in 1886, it was the center of the company’s brass line in Worcester. The early Wonders were built at the old Fiske plant and sold in the key of C, Bb, and A.

Bolden’s radiance burned red hot in the infancy of jazz before being committed to an insane asylum in 1906. In his landmark book, In Search of Buddy Bolden: The First Man of Jazz, author Donald Marquis notes that the beginnings of jazz and the story of Charles "Buddy" Bolden are inextricably intertwined. “Just after the turn of the century,” he said, New Orleanians could often hear Bolden's powerful horn from the city's parks and through dance hall windows.

Buddy Bolden, stands with cornet in hand behind guitarist

“Despite his lack of formal training, his unique style-both musical and personal-made him the first "king" of New Orleans jazz and the inspiration for such later jazz greats as King Oliver, Kid Ory, and Louis Armstrong. For years the legend of Buddy Bolden was overshadowed by myths about his music, his reckless lifestyle, and his mental instability.”

Bolden was never recorded and there is only one known photo of him. Trying to pin down the actual make and model of the cornet he played is an exercise in conjecture. One can only say it is possible. If you break it down time-wise, Bolden was only 10 years-old when the Wonder was first sold on the market, but continued for the next decade, making him 20. So, it’s possible, but no known record exists and it’s nearly impossible to tell from the photograph.

King Oliver is seated. Louis Armstrong stands fourth from the left. 

King Oliver however definitely played C.G. Conn instruments. Joseph Nathan Oliver (1881-1938) was a pioneer in the use of mutes in jazz. Influenced by Bolden, Oliver is said to have used a variety of objects in the bell of his horn, from hats to cups and his favorite mute was a small metal one manufactured by C.G. Conn, which was played on his famous recording of “Dippermouth Blues,” written for Louis Armstrong. The great Satchmo was the second cornet player in Oliver’s band at the time. However, it should be noted that this seminal recording didn’t happen in April of 1923.

As far as C.G. Conn making the first American-made saxophone, the story may well begin in Worcester. According to Schwartz, it happened in 1888. “The instrument was built with the collaborative efforts of clarinetist/saxophonist Edouard A. Lefèbre who, later in 1895, supervised the manufacture of C. G. Conn’s saxophones.” 

Adolphe Sax

The saxophone was first introduced by Belgian-born Antoine-Joseph Sax in Paris in the 1840s. Lefebre was a French-born instrument designer and former well-known soloist with John Philip Sousa's band. According to Paul Trynka, author to The Sax & Brass Book, it has been suggested that the saxophone was brought by Lefebre with him to the US and used as “the basis for the first Conn saxophone.”

Writer Steve "Saxgourmet" Goodson says that the first saxophone built in United States was constructed at the Conn plant in Elkhart, in 1889, for E.A. Lefebre. 

"Mr. Lefebre was also a friend of none other than Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone and had previously supplied to him by Sax himself," says Goodson. 
E.A. Lefebre
Now, here's where things get dicey. The other major contributor to the first American-made saxophone, was Ferdinand August “Gus” Buescher (pronounced as “Bisher”), who was a foreman at the Worcester plant. Goodson claims that the original Conn saxophone was "actually constructed by Ferdinand 'Gus' Buescher at the Conn factory." The question is: Was it built in Worcester or Elkart? In either case, the first American-made saxophones were irrefutably manufactured in Worcester. 

Conn, Alto, 1888, Gold and Silver-plated, Worcester

F. A. Buescher

It is believed that the model used was an alto saxophone that Mr. Sax labeled as serial number 36. In addition to the alto, Conn then added the soprano, tenor, and baritone to his “Wonder” instrument line. 

Conn, Alto, 1890, Worcester

In 1894, Buescher left C.G. Conn and established his own company, the world-renowned Buescher Band Instrument Company. He was also an early champion of the C Melody saxophone. 

In 1897, C.G. Conn opened its first retail store in New York City at 34 East 14th Street. A year later, the company left Worcester and re-established its manufacturing base back in Conn’s hometown of Elkhart, Indiana.

 File under Jazz Worcester related: The original inventor of the Harmon Mute was a New Hampshire-born brass player, who at 17, led the Worcester Brass Band. His name was John F. Stratton. From Papa Joe Oliver to Miles Davis and beyond, jazz trumpeters have selected Harmon as their chosen mute. 
Miles Davis
In the book, Music of the United States of America, edited by Richard Crawford, he talks about the early days of the music and cites Stratton for his contribution. Under the chapter of Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band: Complete Recorded Works in Transcription, he writes: “The straight mute was the basic mute of all early New Orleans cornetists and trumpeters and the one most in favor seems to have been the small doorknob-shaped straight mute called a pixie mute. Oliver and [Louis] Armstrong are known to have used pixie mutes, which are still employed by local trumpeters today. 

“The Harmon mute (or ‘wah-wah’ mute) was also a staple item among early New Orleans cornetists and trumpeters. Its distinctive ‘buzz’ timbre, played straight or with cupped hand for the ‘wah-way’ effect, is unmistakable even on early jazz recordings, such as the present Morgan sides. It was frequently employed by Oscar ‘Papa’ Celestin, who made it one of his signature sounds. King Oliver, a noted master of novel, or ‘freak’ muted effects also made the Harmon ‘wah-wah’ one of his special effects and he was even thought in some quarters to have invented this mute. 
“Oliver’s connection with the Harmon mute, by name, is interesting in itself. Oliver played at the Dreamland Café (at 3518 S. State St.) in 1918 as a side man in Lawrence Dahe’s Orchestra, and in January 1920 he formed a new band at the Dreamland under his own name, Oliver’s Original Creole Jazz Band, which played there until May 1921, when the band left for California. Patrick “Paddy” Harmon, a noted entrepreneur and club owner in Chicago who heard Oliver’s ear-catching ‘talking cornet’ effects with the ‘wah-wah’ mute at the Dreamland Café and who hired Oliver to play occasionally at his own Dreamland Ballroom (at 1761 W. Van Buren St.), took the initiative, possibly without Oliver’s knowledge, of having the mute patented under his name. U.S. Patent number 1578763 was issued on March 30, 1926 with a George Schlurearlburg listed as ‘Inventor’ and P.T. Harmon listed as ‘Assignee.’
“It appears, however, that this specialty mute was designed long before Oliver’s used of it. U.S. Patent number 51363, registered December 5 1865, for a ‘Mute for Musical Instrument’ used the same principle (i.e. an inserted cylindrical mute with full cork collar, or gasket that forced all the air through a tube in the mute’s core) as did the later Harmon mute. The patentee was John F. Stratton of New York, a bandmaster from Worcester, Massachusetts who became a successful manufacturer and importer of musical instruments. (See Bevan, “A Nineteenth-Century Harmon Mute, 129-30.)  John J. Joyce, Jr.” 

 John Franklin Stratton was born in West Swanzey, NH on September 14, 1932. He played a variety of instruments: the bugle, trombone, clarinet, and violin. After his band leading stint in Worcester, Stratton moved to Hartford, CT and eventually New York City, where he opened a music shop. During the Civil War, Stratton is said to have provided the government with more the 50,000 bugles and trumpets. He died in Brooklyn, New York in 1912. See: The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. 
Here's the Harmon mute entry from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, written by Clifford Bevan: “The Harmon mute (first patented in 1865 (US Patent 51,363), though not under this name, by John F. Stratton of New York) is a hollow metal mute held in the bell of the instrument by a cork collar so that all the air from the mouthpiece is directed through the mute; the chamber of the mute protrudes outside the instrument. The outer face, which may have a concave surface, is punctured in the center by a hole, through which passes an adjustable tube (or stem), open at both ends; the oscillating air column passes out of the mute chamber through the tube, the length of which (altered by pushing in and pulling out) affects the character of the sound produced. The sound is distant, with an edge that varies in presence according to the position of the tube. On many Harmon mutes the tube is removable; without it the player can produce a wa-wa effect by covering and uncovering the bowl-shaped face of the mute with the palm of the hand, thus controlling the escape of air through the hole.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also see:  Thank you.


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