Vintage Bass Saxophones: Where Are They All Now?

In the sax-happy 1920s, bass saxophones were common-place…Well at least much more common place than today…A couple of months ago one of the moderators at the Woodwind Forum started a thread discussing his theories of what happened to all the bass saxophones of by-gone days.

This is is what SOTSDO said:

I’ve aired out this particular issue before elsewhere, but it probably deserves repeating here for some new eyes and ears:

Where did all the bass saxophones go, and what did you do with them?

Back in the good old days, there were a lot of bass saxes made, for the most part by the minions of Colonel Conn. Sure, there were a lot more alto and tenors, but the horns were there in the day, and they were large objects that were not capable of being lost through a crack in the floor or behind the bleachers.

And, then…well, mostly they just went away. “As scarce as hen’s teeth” is appropriate these days, and their presence (or lack of same) over the past half century or so has occasionally been a cause for comment.

Look, I know that tastes change. The day of a tuba or a banjo in a “big band’ is long gone, and saxophone quintets aren’t very common. So, not seeing them in performance situations is understandable. But, I’m not talking about that at all.

Just where have they all gone? For those who are relatively young and lead a sheltered life, a bass saxophone isn’t easy to ignore. The term “coffin” can literally be applied to a bass saxophone case. Yet, there are so few out there to be found.

For many years, I played in a variety of musical situations at Washington University in St. Louis MO. That was a school had both money and some eclectic tastes. Their instrument room was an interesting place. Things like an F alto sax, a Heckel contra-bassoon (one made back in the days when they actually looked like a bassoon), a pair of basset horns (even though one was missing a neck), and just about every form of brass instrument known to mankind.

But, one thing that I never found was a bass saxophone. And this at a school which never met a helicorn that it didn’t like. Why?

I put out and out theft out of the picture. It’s hard to spirit one off with anything short of a pickup truck, to begin with. And, I give college students a bit more credit for honesty than that.

And, although some of them smell like they have just died, we know that they are not alive and that they didn’t walk off of their own accord.

So, the question remains, where did they all go?

To start with, some will claim that there weren’t that many of them in the first place. To this, I say “Bosh!” And, I offer up some “proof”, as good as anything else that can be offered.

My parents, between them, attended three Saint Louis (MO) public high schools between them during the mid-1930’s. While Dad’s family didn’t go for such frivolity as yearbooks (or, as my aged mother still calls them, “annuals”) Mother’s bought them all.

In all three school’s annuals, there is the inconvenient truth of a bass saxophone (along with a goodly number of metal clarinets), proudly displayed in the back rows of the formal portraits. Three basses (and two of them are unmistakably different horns, due to dent patterns and the like) in three different high schools.

The three schools in question (all but one of which have long been shuttered) were about one-seventh of the total high schools in metro Saint Louis at the time. And, one of them was known as being a school that was “poor” compared to the other two – something borne out by the larger proportion of metal clarinets that show up in the portrait.

So, let’s run the numbers here. Let’s say that one-third of the urban high schools passed out the dosh sufficient to pick up a bass saxophone. In very round figures, that would indicate that there were at least a thousand or so such instruments in high schools at one point or another. Take that figure and double it to account for “professional” use horns. Whether you go this route, or attempt to tally things up through serial numbers and the like, assuming a bass saxophone universe of something like two thousand here in the US is not all that unreasonable.

So, where did they all go? In those three schools in Saint Louis (all of which were open during the days of my youth), they were no longer there. Nor were they in any of the other schools at which I had access to the horns.

So, where did they all go? World War II scrap drives are my pet theory. The parts weren’t being written for them any longer, they were just sitting there taking up space, and they were mostly made of copper alloy, and – presto! – 75 mm shell casings.

But, it’s only a theory. It would be nice to back it up with both realistic production figures and a realistic understanding of where they all went.

 Pete, the man formerly known as Saxpics, chimed in with his thoughts:

Opinion: there weren’t many. And the ones that were around got so badly damaged, they were just tossed, primarily for the reason that the bass sax just isn’t written for.

Yes, havening them sold as scrap for the war effort is possible, but why weren’t other instruments scrapped, too? There are lotsa brasses that aren’t in common use (as Terry mentioned) and his school didn’t toss those. Hey, I went to a school that had one of those four-bell monstrosities brasswinds that I’ve NEVER seen anyone play (I think those were invented by A. Sax, too).

Same with the contrabass sax. While there were at least three companies that made them (Evette-Schaeffer, WA Stowasser, and Kohlert), they were expensive and not many were produced — and I’ve never seen one just lying off in a corner, like the Conn bass I used was.

I shared my thoughts on the subject in the thread as well. My thoughts on the matter are informed in part by my personal experiences, as well as by the stories I hear from other bass players and would-be players. (Would be bass sax players if they could only fnd themselves a horn :shock: )

What I said was:

Well…A 1922 Buescher is sitting in my studio in British Columbia.

It originally was owned by the University of Oklahoma (at least according to the stencil on the outside of the original case) and then somehow ended up in a junior high school in Bunkie, Louisiana. There it had been sitting on the top shelf in an storeroom for at least 3 decades. Paul Coats and Wayne Shell of the Bayou Sax Ensemble, bought the instrument when the school board decided to put it up for sale. Paul, with the help of Steve Goodson, painstakingly restored it to its former glory. I then bought it from Paul in 2000.

I know of a bass in someone’s basement in Sedro Wooly (sp?) Washington. So I think many of them are still out there. Like someone already said, many have most likely been forgotten in the attics, basements, storage rooms, garages of America.

The Internet has changed many things over the past number of years…One of which is access and visibility of previously unavailable items…As these old warriors are discovered during renovations or estate cleanups, they make it out onto sites like eBay where suddenly that “crusty old hulk” suddenly fetches thousands of dollars.

Sure, many will have been lost to scrap metal and landfills, but I suspect that most are still out there waiting to be found so that they might take their rightful place in the music world…

And in the words of Forrest Gump….That’s all I have to say about that…….

Well at least for today…  :wink:

Addendum:

My web designer just read this post from this AM, and after posting her comment, sent me the following picture.

  

It makes me a bit squeamish, since that’s my 1922 Buescher being crushed…virtually…but none the less…it is a bit hard to stomach…

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!


Comments

Vintage Bass Saxophones: Where Are They All Now? — 4 Comments

  1. I know where one is. My grandfather collected all kinds of rare and unusual instruments. I inherited them and have had many restored to their original glory. The most recent was his base sax, which I played in high school many years ago. It was thoroughly cleaned, got some new springs, and all new pads. It is now looking for a good home.

    • Hi there. Welcome to my site.

      What kind of bass sax do you have there? I take it that you planning on selling it. Tell me a bit more about it…helen

  2. There has to be a way to figure out what the bass sax numbers are. How many were produced from 1900 to 1955? Maybe there just were not that many as has been suggested.

    BTW I luv SOTSDO’s prose; he is quite the writer and he has a lot of stories to tell.

  3. How sad to think these wonderful old instruments might have been melted down and used as weapons of mass destruction.

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