A new CD by American saxophonist Scott Robinson is devoted entirely to the C-Melody saxophone. If you've heard Scott's name before, it was probably in the context of his 1997 CD, (his fourth) Thinking Big (ARCD 19179). That featured him as arranger, and playing clarinet, bass clarinet, C-melody, alto, tenor, baritone, soprano, bass and contrabass saxophones, Theremin and contrabass sarrusophone. Scott is a man of accomplishments. He has won four fellowships from the (American) National Endowment for the Arts, and was the youngest faculty member at Berklee, at the age of 22.
The new Scott Robinson CD is called Melody from the Sky (ARCD 19212). Here Scott plays in a variety of contexts, but always on C-Melody saxophone, from which he produces a gorgeous, effulgent, tone, at times somewhat reminiscent of the late Stan Getz. Given its closeness to the tenor it isn't surprising that the tone, lighter and brighter than the Bb instrument, sounds Getzian.
The C-Melody is a tenor saxophone pitched in C, a tone higher than the everyday Bb tenor. Early stock arrangements actually have parts for the instrument labelled as "C Tenor". Ignore the British jazz writer who recently asserted that: "the C-Melody is a soft, plumper version of the alto in tonal terms". He's wrong. Softness is determined by the player, the C-Melody has a bore that is proportionally thinner than the alto and tenor, and the instrument is nearer in pitch to the tenor than the alto.
Today no one makes C-Melody saxophones. Yet there is a real and growing interest in the instrument. Scott Robinson lists several contemporaries who own and play one. They include Gary Regina, Joe Lovano, Dan Levinson, Dan Pietro and Anthony Braxton. In Britain, John Dankworth plays C-Melody with his Dankworth Generation Band.
John Dankworth explains that the Generation Band is not really a big band. The idea was to have one of everything. The instrumentation includes one trombone, one French Horn, one tuba, and one each of alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. There is one flugel horn, and John cheated a little to get a strong brass section by having two trumpets. John, with typical modesty, claims that he didn't wish to play a type of saxophone that was being played better by somebody else in the band. Therefore, he decided to play C-Melody.
Most of the C-Melody saxophones that you'll hear, or see for sale in second-hand shops, date from the period just after the Great War. Scott Robinson swapped a Reynolds alto for his 1918 silver Conn. John Dankworth has a 1921 Hawkes, which cost him eighty pounds when he discovered it in the pages of Exchange and Mart some twenty-odd years ago. John's instrument also has a silver finish, as does every C-Melody I've ever seen. Do you know of one in any other finish?
These instruments are all around eighty years old. There is inevitably a problem with mouthpieces. John Dankworth uses a Lawton tenor mouthpiece, in plastic, specially adapted for him by Geoff Lawton. He uses ordinary tenor reeds. There is nothing new in using a mouthpiece or reeds from a neighbouring member of the saxophone family. Twenties virtuoso Adrian Rollini is known to have used a baritone saxophone mouthpiece and reed (and later a specially constructed neck) on his bass saxophone. In recent times Berg Larsen offered a baritone mouthpiece that would take tenor reeds. I have known several soprano players use clarinet reeds.
John Dankworth says that the C-Melody doesn't sound like an alto, nor does it feel like the smaller horn. It feels like a tenor. He says that makes him solo in a more Getz-like style. John believes that the sound of a saxophone section led by the C-Melody makes for a better blend in the typical Basie/Nestico scoring style, where the first saxophone is scored in unison with the lead trumpet. John also points out that being in C, the saxophone places one more frequently in the flat keys than is normal for a saxophonist. While this isn't a problem for someone with John's technique and experience, it is nevertheless strange when busking or improvising, to be constantly playing with cross fingerings. There are also mechanical disadvantages common to early saxophones, such as knobbly keys, and the lack of a top F sharp.
Scott Robinson makes some perceptive remarks in the notes accompanying his CD. He draws attention to unusual proportions of the bore of the C-Melody, and suggests that this may be the reason for the instrument's unique tonal quality amongst saxophones, what he calls a "plaintive, yearning quality". It seems that the bore is narrow for the length of the saxophone. As Scott puts it, "Close to a tenor in length, the bore at no point exceeds that of the much smaller alto saxophone, giving the instrument a 'covered' or slightly muted quality."
The history of the C-Melody is as old as the saxophone itself. Adolphe Sax's original patent, besides including saxophones in Bb and Eb for bands, also included saxophones in C and F for symphony orchestra. Ravel's Bolero was written for saxophones in C and F, as was the Sinfonica Domestica of Richard Strauss. The C-Melody instruments that survive today all date from the time of the saxophone craze of the post-World War One period. This was the time when saxophone manufacturers produced many unusual variants, such as the Saxello, or the diminutive keyless open-holed Saxie, and the straight alto. Many of the surviving curved sopranos and early bass saxophones date from this period, as does the Couesnophone, developed by the Couesnon instrument company of Paris. This was a type of harmonica shaped like a toy saxophone. It could play chords. Adrian Rollini renamed it a Goofus, and recorded on it. Rollini is also associated with what he called the Hot Fountain Pen, a ten-inch clarinet, with eight holes and no keys.
The late teens was a time of great enthusiasm for the saxophone. There is no doubt that manufacturers pushed the virtues of the C-Melody very hard toward the amateur market. No bothering with transposition, anybody could get a tune out of the saxophone within minutes - or so the contemporary adverts claimed. The C-Melody also found popularity with working musicians. Many of the professional bands of the period employed string players. Violinists could feel threatened by the public enthusiasm for the saxophone. Many took up the saxophone as a double.
When I first started playing, during the 1950s, I worked with many older violinists, usually theatre musicians, who also played the saxophone. It's easy to see the appeal of the C-Melody for such musicians. A violinist playing in a small hotel band, or in a small theatre pit orchestra, or as a member of a ship's orchestra, could pick up a C-Melody saxophone and read the melody line direct from the piano music, or from his violin part, and give the ensemble a peppy, modern, sound without having to tangle with the mysteries of transposition.
The importance of the C-Melody in the history of virtuoso wind playing, and in the history of the jazz saxophone, must not be overlooked. The most famous saxophone virtuoso of the twenties was the American Rudy Wiedoft. When London was blasted by the gale of his arrival in 1926 critics praised him fulsomely, calling him ''The Kreisler of the Saxophone". Born in Detroit in 1893, he appeared in vaudeville, cafes and hotels, playing short pieces of light music. Many of these were his own compositions, highlighting his dazzling technique - Saxarella, Saxophobia, Sax-O-Phun, Sax-O-Trix, Saxema, Sax Serene, and the famous, and incredible, Valse Vanité.
His playing really glittered. In 1917 one critic wrote: "Rudy's obbligatos ... were so thrilling that he took more bows from the pit than the singer from the stage. His staccato was so smooth that it required close attention to ascertain whether he was slurring or tonguing fast passages."
Though he played soprano and alto, Wiedoft played most of his solos on C-Melody saxophone. He began recording in 1916, even before the first jazz was recorded. His technique still sounds stunning today, his staccato quite incredible. You can hear a collection of his solos on a CD on the Clarinet Classics label, number CCOO 18.
Wiedoft was not a jazz player. Only a few early jazz saxophonists used the C-Melody. Jack Pettis was first heard on record in 1922, as a member of the Friars Society Orchestra. Stomp Evans played C-Melody on some early Louis Armstrong tracks. Both were overshadowed by the great C-Melody jazz player of the twenties, Frank Trumbauer.
Born in 1901, Tram stands at the very beginning of jazz saxophone playing. Lester Young, whose playing changed so many lives, has said that the playing of Trumbauer inspired him. He told Nat Hentoff in an interview, in 1956: "I tried to get the sound of a C-Melody on a tenor. 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." Scott Robinson puts it well: "It could be argued that were it not for the C-Melody, least overt of saxophones, an entire school of tenor playing would not exist as we know it."
Trumbauer's first widely acclaimed solo was a full chorus on I Never Miss the Sunshine, recorded in June 1923. Jimmy Dorsey so admired Tram's chorus that he inserted it into an arrangement he wrote for the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. Very soon Trumbauer's name was known everywhere. He is best remembered for his recordings with Bix Beiderbecke. Singin' the Blues and For No Reason At All In C are his most acclaimed solos, worth searching out.
Trumbauer has never enjoyed full credit for his achievements. The writer Dick Sudhalter attributes this to the sober and successful life led by the saxophonist. It was the very antithesis of the tragic tale that was Bix's.
Trumbauer married at the age of twenty, spent the rest of his life with the same woman, saved his money, did not drink, was responsible and punctual, and during World War Two worked as a test pilot. Moderation may be the key to happiness, but it doesn't make a good story. Frank Trumbauer died in 1956.
More about the C Melody saxophone.