In 1929 Adrian Rollini sat down to pen what could be considered the earliest treatise on the bass saxophone for the Melody Maker Magazine. It was authored only a year after Rollini made the trip across the pond to play with the Savoy Ballroom band as lead by Fred Elizalde. This would be a short run for Rollini as he left the band in 1928 and returned to the US. Throughout his career Rollini defined and refined the roll for the bass saxophone in the hot jazz band. Of course he wasn’t the only person playing the bass saxophone but he was widely known from his time with Bix Biederbeck.

In the articles linked below Rollini touches on the major parts of bass saxophone ownership and paying. In fact much of what he describes still holds true today nearly 86 years later.

 

Click Adrian’s image to download the complete Articles
Adrian Rollini with bass saxophone

Selmer S-80 Baritone vs. Selmer S-80 Bass Mouthpiece

When I purchased my bass it wasn’t in playable shape. The octave mechanism was a bit tweaked and needed some work. After a some time with the horn my horn tech excitedly called to tell me the horn was playing and sounds like a champ. He played it for me with a Selmer S-80 baritone mouthpiece. I though it sounded okay but something was missing. My tech hadn’t noticed the monster vintage bass mouthpiece hiding deftly in the corner of the case so he play tested with what he had on hand. When I played it with my Baritone S-80 I couldn’t get the response to work and the intonation was all over the map. Following that I defaulted to the vintage piece in the case and notice that a few notes seemed wonky.

On a whim, I bought a Selmer Bass Mouthpiece off of ebay brand new in the box. On a casual examination it looked exactly like the the Baritone S-80 except for for the engraving “Saxo Basse”on the table. On closer inspection the difference was huge. After a couple hours with the bass piece I don’t think I’ll be using the vintage piece ever again.

First, the similarities:

  • Exterior dimensions are identical
  • Baritone ligatures fit this perfectly.
  • Tip opening charts are identical (so i’m told)

The differences:

  • The chamber is much larger on the bass
  • Baritone has a square window into the chamber
  • Bass has slightly scooped sidewalls vs straight baritone walls
  • Bass has a slightly wider tip width for bass reeds though baritone work as well
  • The bass has a larger back bore (shank opening)
*UPDATE*
I am on the search for a smaller tip opening S-80 Bass piece as I think this tip is a bit to large for me. Otherwise the piece is fantastic.

Because bass saxophones are still somewhat unusual I managed to find a lot more images of my bass. I know who the last few owners were and when they had it. now that it is mine I am happy to add to this wonderful instruments chain of owners. 
Details:
Label: Holton
Manufacturer: Conn
Date of manufacture: 1923 +/- 3 years
Key: Bb
Range: Bb – Eb
Finish: clear lacquer + black epoxy paint
Unusual features: non standard neck, no bis key, no automatic G#
Known past owners: M. Stoecker (2008-?), N. Starke (2009 – 2014), Me (2014 – ?)  
Some images of this horn are from http://www.bassic-sax.info. Helen gathered these when the horn was for sale on ebay in 2008.

I’ll admit that I had no idea what I was walking into when I decoded I’d by a bass sax and learn to be proficient. Seriously, how hard could it be? The truth is that the bass is a saxophone but it’s also some very different. It is a resistance trainer, lung expander, wallet reducer, finger stretcher, backing breaking hulk of a horn and it’s quite fun to play.

Firstly I am referring specifically to my bass a 1923 Conn stencil keyed to High Eb. The old Conn and Buescher basses are the long wrap type. This means the upper portion of the horn doesn’t curl back on itself as much as baritone does making the main body tube considerably longer than the french wrap preferred by Selmer. French wrapped basses are more compact and more baritone like in their tone and timbre. Is any one type of bass better than another? Some say the long or American wrap has a bigger more booming voice whereas the French wrap blends into sections better and is easier to transport. I can’t speak the blend as I feel any horn can be made to blend but in terms of transportation I would have to agree.

Gard baritone gig bag (left) next to bass saxophone (right) rolling case

From the start the first thing you and everyone will notice is that the horn is big. It’s not just big it’s heavy. Weight is around 20lbs without the case and nearly 40lbs with the case. My low-A Yamaha baritone clocks in at 14lbs so it’s a big leap in weight. This larger size and weight stresses everything related to the horn: cases, neck straps, thumb hooks, horn stands, and lastly your body. Let’s take a look at these elevents marked for bass destruction.

First up is the case. Considering the age of my horn [1923] it’s no wonder it is not in it’s not in it’s original case. That case likely fell apart long ago under the weight of the horn, the elements and poor maintenance. Thankfully my horn came to me nestled snugly in the wheeled case seen in this post.This is the same case that Steve Goodson used to sells on his site. It’s made by a company in China, I believe JinYin. It’s pretty expensive, $1200, for a case but it does do a great job at shrinking the bass to size to fit in my Min Cooper. Yes, I can fit a bass in my Cooper. I could easily fit the remainder of the sax family in as well as long as I stack them. With that in mind be prepared to buy a new case if you are still using the old coffin style or vintage shaped case.

Once out of the case and together you will need a method of holding the horn to you. I initially tried using the Neotech harnesses I use on baritone. those didn’t work as they didn’t have enough height adjustment to bring the mouthpiece to my mouth. On my bass the mouthpiece location ends up being about 6 inches lower than the baritone. The playing position places the mouthpiece at about half way down the horn verses at the top of the horn for baritone. This means any sax harness would need to have a great deal of vertical adjustment. Most harness don’t have this. have to return to using the tried and true neck strap. Neck straps have issues all their own separate to the pains in the neck they cause. A cheaper strap will usually have a nylon hook instead of a plastic coated metal hook. While this is great for protecting the finish it just isn’t strong enough to hold the bass. There is nothing worse than to have a horn go crashing to the ground because of a bad or broken nylon clasp.

In examining my horn I saw that sometime in the past 93 years the thumb hook had been repaired, perhaps more than once based on slightly different solder colors. I suspect that it took a hit to the thumb rest perhaps during a fall. The weight of this horn amplifies small hits. It’s the classic equation of force = mass * acceleration. A heavy sax dropping, sliding, or falling onto a surface is going to cause damage to something. That something is going to be the sax or the surface it hit.

As you might expect once you find a way to hang the horn from your person you will find that your body will develop some ache and pains. Good core support if vital if you want to play it suspended from your body. If you don’t then a good stand becomes the second most important purchase after your case. There are playing stands with wheels that allow you to position the horn for tooting while mounter firmly in the stand. There are also stands  which are similar to baritone stands but have a much larger bell “U” to accommodate the larger bell of the bass. Saxrax has become the de facto bass stand for many players on the internet.

Lastly, being a bass sax player requires a change in mindset. Depending on the type of music you play you may not have the lead line. If you are the bass of the group then you have to play like the bass of the group. Low notes alone are only part of the bass equation. You have to become a rhythm instrument as well as a wind one. This requires rhythmic playing  and where a drummer is involved a connection to them. The bass and drums feed and compliment each other.  The bass provides the foundation of the chords while also complimenting the drum rhythms. This takes time and practice. There are several great bass sax players on Youtube who exemplify this rhythmic and chordal duality. Bert Brandsma of the Dixieland Crackerjacks is the first that comes to mind. The second is Joe Rushton who played with Red Nichols and the Five pennies.

Inspired by a post on another fantastic sax blog I decided to go on the hunt for some Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra information. I knew they were on a permanent hiatus but I wanted to know what has happened since. I have been a fan of theirs for the last 25+ years but hadn’t kept up with the group. I was vaguely remember when group member Ann Stamm Merrell passed away from breast cancer back in 1999 but not much more about the group since then. On a hunch I decided to go internet dumpster diving.

A basic trip to their old website netted me information about the  Fukushima nuclear disaster and unrelated information. Clearly the domain now belonged to another group. At some point the NWSO decided to abandon the website and as it seems public performances. Instead of wallowing in the nostalgia of bygone days I decided to dive deep and follow the bread crumbs.

Listing from Pinedalewyoming.com archive

After scanning the Archive.org site and skimming through page after page of the classic NuclearWhales.com website I found some old gig listings. The last gig documented on the site was for a March 13, 2004 gig in Pinedale Wyoming. I could not find a review of the performance sadly. If this was their last gig then a benefit gig is a great way to end a long run.

After hitting a dead end I decided to follow the musicians:

  • Kristen Strom – She’s still gigging with her group (The Kristen Strom Quintet), recording, and teaching.
  • Dale Mills – He runs his teaching studio and performs with a group called “Hot Club Pacific” 
  • Don Stevens – Founder of NWSO (can’t find any links to him)
  • Kelley Hart Jenkins – ???
  • Kevin J. Stewart – Currently with the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet and teaching at Dominican University in San Rafael.
  • Art Springs – Currently working as a Home Inspector
  • Ann Stamm Merrell*Deceased* Until her death was a well regarded quilt artists

In the end I hope a reunion album could be done and fill the contra-bass saxophone hole that fills my heart. *If late 90’s styled websites is too cringe-worthy  you may not want to follow this link.*

Link to Archive.org

If you have any more information on the members of the group please let me know. I’d like to keep this page updated.

I have recently purchased another instrument for inclusion on the site, a bass saxophone. It is a Holton labeled Conn stencil. Some dates suggest 1926 as the year of manufacture but I’m not certain. The finish is a black enamel paint of unknown age.

I first saw this horn back in 2008  on eBay when it was purchased by a regular on the website Saxontheweb.org. I don’t remember how much it was exactly when it sold but i remember wishing I had the money for such a fun looking horn. It wasn’t until early September 2014 that I spotted it again. I know which person bought it back in ’08 and i assume the fellow I bought it from got it from him. Either way I can trace its last few years pretty accurately and now it is in my hands and is a welcome addition to the family.

The horn survived shipping well, aside from leaks and maybe some tweaking from the 5 days in the back of a UPS trailer. These images are from the auction. When I get the horn back from the shop I’ll take new ones. I am quite tempted to strip the horn and have it silver plated. In all likelihood this horn was bare brass originally but a silver plate would really set this girl off.

The neck is not original as you might have notice but it plays in tune and the ergonomics of the tenor styled bend makes playing with a harness much easier. A huge bonus is the case. Normally this case is between $599 and $1200 by itself. I got a great deal. Look forward to hearing more bass around this place!

I understand if you may have never seen or heard of this saxophone group if you live in the United States but that has to change at some time and that time is now. This dynamic group has at it’s core a driving rhythm section composed of Henk Spies on bass saxophone and Sebastian Demydczuk on drums. The music comes from the Serbian/Baltic tradition and is a lively and energetic exposition on life and living. You can’t help but want to move when you listen to it.

I was less than familiar with this genre of music as I studied western European and American music. It reminds me of Klezmer or festival music. Regardless of your experience or understanding of the music the raw emotion and playfulness of it comes through clearly. The characteristic ornamental style of playing is in full display with trills, appoggiatura, mordents, and glissandos littering the phrases. Just listening reminds the musician that clean and clear articulation, both finger and tongue,  is a fundamental to the delivery of this style of music.

My initial attraction was without a doubt the bass saxophone holding down the rhythm section. Henk’s vintage Conn looking bass really burps out those bass tones. His tone ranges from tuba like to raunchy sax. More important to his execution of the bass line than his tone is his time. He is rhythmically tied to the percussion and together they form a solid percussive base for the others to play against. The more one listens the more the relationship between bass and drums becomes clear. They feed each other and play off of each other. I am loosely remininded of 1920’s style ragtime bass saxophone.

TAKE AWAY: This group is fun, different, and worth the price of admission or a CD.

The Band:
Akos Laki – Tenor saxophone
“Soso” Sandor Lakatos –  Alto saxophone
Stanislav Mitrovic – Alto saxophone, vocals
Henk Spies –  bass saxophone
Sebastian Demydczuk – drums

The Carlama Orkestar Website

 

When I say bass saxophone and jazz what comes to mind? I wouldn’t be surprised if “Tiger Rag” and Adrian Rollini came to mind or if your a hair younger then perhaps Colin Stetson. The fact that this much neglected member of the saxophone family is making a comeback in its own way is something to be excited about. While bass saxes didn’t go extinct between the 20’s and today they did become more scarce and more expensive. The recent proliferation of Chinese made bass saxes has brought them in to price range where the pro-amature/amature+ can afford.

In talking with a couple of Chinese baritone and bass sax owners about the horns quality it would seem that the larger the horn the greater the tolerances can be. Which for bigger saxes means that it is possible to get a well playing horn that is worth the investment. A chinese made bass can be had under 5k if you shop well, this is less than 1/3rd of what a new Selmer or Keilwerth bass will set you back. Let’s also consider that bass sax gigs are likely to be few and far between.

Here are a couple songs,  the first is played by Uwe Ladwig on a vintage American made bass sax. The 2nd video is a modern Chinese made horn. The 3rd is a classical use of a Selmer Series II bass and it’s spectacularly rich classical tone.


In 1841 Adolphe Sax had a dream of an instrument whose voice could command the heavens or make the angels weep with delight. He in visioned a horn whose basso-profondo voice would bridge the gap between the wind and stringed instruments. The lyrically exquisite instrument he created first was the bass saxophone. Though keyed in the key of “C” for orchestral use, it’s depth of character was everything Adolphe could have hoped for.

Now more than 150 years later the composer Jan van Dijk created a haunting showpiece for the saxophonist Andreas van Zoelen. This piece was written for the bass saxophone in its original intended home, the chamber orchestra. Van Zoelen gives life to the lines and weaves them into and out of the ensemble. While  this piece is quite short it still displays Van Zoelen’s command of his instrument and his musicality. The bass sax tone is near to that of a bassoon at times yet still unmistakably sax’ish. It’s controlled and absolutely in tune with the rest of the ensemble.

TAKE AWAY: I hear hints of Gustav Mahler in the scoring but that’s a great thing. If ever there was a bass saxophone tone I would want to emulate it is this one. Turn up your speakers and enjoy. Actually, there is one other bass tone i’d emulate and that is of Bert Brandsma of the Dixieland Crackerjacks.

ONE MORE  THING:   Please, someone send this video to the folks at J’Elle Stainer and let them know that this is what a silky bass could sound like and to emulate it all the way down their line.

Be sure to visit Andreas Van Zoelen’s website.

Where are all of the bass saxophones going?

If you haven’t been watching ebay for the last few years then you’ve missed out on the influx of Chinese made horns. These horns have taken the beginner market by storm. So much so much so that the traditional manufacturers have been priced out of the marketplace. Big producers like Yamaha, Yanigasawa, and Keilwerth still produce student horns but I am sure they sell them at a much lower rate than before. Whereas Selmer has chosen to take advantage of the Asian production capacity and  have a line of  student horns made by Taiwanese manufacturer under the brand La Voix.

With Asian manufacturers improving the quality of their builds it was only a matter of time before they would produce a bass saxophone,  and boy did they. Asian manufacturers choose to copy the “French wrap” a la Selmer and the more classic Buescher/Conn style. Regardless of which style you prefer the fact that new production of these behemoths  and at a price which is “affordable” is the best news of all.

If you hop to ebay and search you will find an average of 2 to 3 new Asian made bass saxes available and usually a single vintage Conn or Buescher. Now I don’t assume they are all sold but if we average 2 to 4 a month there should be a large pool of these beasts sitting in peoples homes. To that end, how is it that they are not showing up in recordings either. Colin Stetson, James Carter, and Bert Bandsma  are some of the best known bass players currently playing these horns but they can’t be the only ones.

With that in mind, if you have and/or play  bass saxophone please let us know what you do with yours. Please share the type of music you play with it and how it is received by your audience if you play in front of others. Let’s do what we can to bring this beast to the forefront and make it less of a gimmick and more of a valued member of the saxophone family.