Corky Corcoran: Tenor Sax Ballad Master

Yesterday I noticed a vintage photo on eBay of tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran. Now I must admit, this was a name that I hadn’t heard in years. I think the last time was likely in the 80s, when one of my private instructors mentioned him as one of the tenor players I should be listening to.

What’s interesting about this picture, is that it is an autographed photo of Corky Corcoran promoting Chesterfield Cigarettes. The seller dates this photo to the 1940s, which if accurate, would be a foreshadowing of sorts, of Corky’s demise—just a short three decades later.

Corky Corcoran, Chesterfield Cigarettes, tenor saxophones, autographed promotional photo

Source: mixa11 on

Corky Corcoran was one of those astounding tenor saxophone players who got his start during the big band era. He was discovered as it were, when he was only 16 years old, while playing at a jam in his hometown of Tacoma, WA. In the early 1940s Corcoran was already working in big bands.

When he was 17, band leader and trumpet player Harry James, recruited Corky Corcoran for his band, and featured his tenor sound not only on stage, but in radio and movie appearances as well. James would turn out to be the greatest influence in Corcoran’s musical career.

If the introduction to the following 1957 recording from Vienna is to be believed, James adopted Corky because at 17, he was too young to play in big bands. According to the announcer, for a period of four years, Corky Corcoran was sort of Mr. Harry James Jr.

Although Corky Corcoran played much of his career with James, he did a stint with the Tommy Dorsey band. After his return back to Harry James’ band, he also took repeated leaves to develop his own combo. Sadly, Corcoran never got the recognition that some of his contemporaries like Stan Getz did.

Corcoran was known for his ballad playing style, and was known to be influenced by Lester Young. The following 1946 recording of It’s the Talk of the Town, exemplifies Corcoran’s mastery of the tenor saxophone ballad…

Like so many professional saxophonists of his generation, Corky Corcoran battled his share of demons, and passed away too soon. Born in 1924, Corcoran’s star burned out on October 3, 1979 at the age of 55, when he died of complications from throat cancer.

On October 5, 1979, the New York Times ran the following obituary:

Corky Corcoran, 55, Saxophonist With James and Dorsey Bands




TACOMA, Wash., Oct. 4 (AP) — Corky Corcoran, the tenor-saxophone player known for his work with the Harry James orchestra and other groups in the 1940’s, died yesterday in St. Joseph’s Hospital here. He was 55 years old.


Born Gene Patrick Corcoran in Tacoma, he was considered a child prodigy and joined his first band at the age of 16.


In 1941, he was a featured soloist with the Harry James band and gained international prominence through radio and movie appearances. H? also played with the Tommy Dorsey band and other wellknown musical groups of the day.


For a brief time, in 1949, he had his own band, but returned later the same year to the James band, with which he worked, off and on, until 1957. Since then, he has worked primarily with groups in the Seattle area.


Funeral services will be at the Mountain View Funeral Home in Tacoma.

Source: New York Times Archives


Written with the help of the following additional sources:

“Corky” Corcoran: HepJazz

Corky Corcoran Biography by Eugene Chadbourn: AllMusic

© 2017, Helen. All rights reserved.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.


  1. Hello, my name is Walt Kaplin and a very good friend of your Father. I went to High School with you Aunt Diane Corcoran Mosied, Stadium. Diane introduced me to Corky in 1953.
    I loved your Fatherand his wonderful tenorl Be sure you save the Decca Album recorded August 4th, 1947 at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California. The name of the Album is Stardust and recorded live by Lionel Hampton and the Just Jazz Allstars. Perhaps the greatest evening in the history of Jazz. Take care and the best to you. August 8, 2019

  2. This also has the same style key guard as the Centennials.

    • Helen,

      It does appear to be a Martin Centennial, which is what I play. I just happened to be doing some research and saw that Corky played in the official Seattle World’s Fair band in 1962. I have a copy of that album that I would gladly use in partial trade with Deneen for Corky’s Martin!!

      Mark Fleming

  3. Deneen Corcoran

    Hi my name is Deneen Corcoran. I have my dads horn and need a professional to buy and play it. Thanks for the kind words about my dad he was a very gentle kind man and I miss him so.
    sincerely, Deneen Corcoran

  4. Hello:

    I am new to your site, and I found it via a post on “Sax on the Net” in which I am also a newbie. I am especially excited to read through the posts here, with their pleasantly long- style writing format that provides so much more detail than is found in the forums (which are also good for other reasons).

    I am adding my comment/question here but it is about an older post. I was not sure if you would see a comment on an older post from last year or not. In your 2016 post about your bass clarinet, you mention the key system is odd or different. Could you explain more how it is odd, because in the photograph it looks like a standard Boehm style .

    Again, thank you for your site!


  5. His sax looks to be a Martin Comm III (The Martin) so that would place the photo in the later 40’s.

    • The neck of the saxophone makes me think of the Martin Centennial (1941-1942).
      Only for the tenor, the neck has Handcraft and Committee iii features combined.

      • I know him to have played a Sylmer and a Conn before receiving his Corky Corcoran horn from the Leblanc company in the early 70s.

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