Baritone Sax Seduction and The Merits of Good Band Directors

NOTE: An update to this blog is added in the ADDENDUM at the end!

Okay, I’ve finally had to admit it to myself. I’ve been seduced by the baritone saxophone. That’s me in the picture on the far left when it began when I was 13 back in 1969. Today, as I look at my other three saxophones, soprano, alto and tenor, I feel ashamed that it’s been over a week since I last touched them. Yet I’ve played my bari every single day! What is it about the baritone sax that I like so much? That is the subject of this blog as well as giving kudos to the influences, teachers and band directors that gave me my first taste of it.

First off, have you ever really looked at this sucker? It’s a big, beautiful piece of metal work, huh? As early as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with the look of the saxophone. Such a beautifully timeless creation that Adolphe Sax made. It seems both ancient and futuristic in design. No other musical instrument created by man is quite like it. The first sax I ever laid eyes on was my brother Guy Fielder’s Mark VI Selmer alto sax back in 1962. Selmers are the highest quality saxophones ever made and he had bought it brand new back in 1958 for $500. That was big money back then. Keep in mind you could buy a new car for $500 then. And his friend, noted Pittsburgh saxophonist Phil Celli, my future sax teacher had a Mark VI Selmer tenor. They’d lay these horns across the bed in the room I shared with my brother and I’d hear these seductive sounds from all the records they brought back from their trip to Lomakins Music Store in Pittsburgh 30 miles away. I’d look at these pictures on the album covers of Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Mobley etc. and recognized that Selmer “S” on the neck-piece of their Selmer saxophones and was entranced. I could not wait to get old enough to get one of my own! Finally when I was 9 years old and entered 4th grade, my brother’s friend, Phil opened up a music store in my hometown and provided instruments for rental to all the local schools. To my horror, they told me I couldn’t have a saxophone. They recommended that I take up clarinet for one year, my brother saying, “this will make you a better saxophonist. If you stick with it for one year, I’ll tell mama and daddy to get you the saxophone.” I was horrified and so disappointed but did as my brother said. I looked at that ole black stick and hated it. I did well with all my clarinet lessons, even learning how to “jazz them up”. But all I could think of was next summer getting a saxophone.

When I entered 5th grade, finally, my parents brought home an alto sax for me. But something was wrong . . . this ain’t no Selmer! (what an ungrateful brat, eh?) It didn’t look like Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson or Jackie McLean’s alto. This alto was so ancient, it looked like a civil war horn. And it being made of nickle, oh it was all wrong. Real saxophones have gold lacquer! But to my credit, I didn’t make too much of a fuss, at least it was a saxophone, and I settled down to the business of learning how to make those sounds I heard on the records come out of my instrument.

Finally I was entering the 7th grade at my high school. We were such a small town that the junior high and senior high was combined. By then I had learned how to play and improvise the easy jazz standards: “Bye Bye Blackbird” “Tune Up”, “Billy’s Bounce”. I was regularly playing in a local R & B Band during the weekends. I was ready! I got to play in the marching and concert bands even though I was in 7th grade. When I entered, my parents had contacted the band director to make sure I had a “proper” instrument. They earmarked a Buescher Aristocrat tenor sax for me. A great horn and that’s what I started with. Now, I was playing the instrument my heroes Coltrane and Rollins played. But it still wasn’t all the way there yet for me because they weren’t Selmers. One day, that year I was fooling around in the band room’s instrument room. Way up on the top shelf was a huge shaped case I hadn’t seen before. Being a lover of instruments, it was my habit to pull out all the various instruments and check them out up close. I had a very encouraging band director, who would let me take any instrument into a practice room with a fingering chart and beginners book and I’d learn the instrument. I pulled this behemoth down and dusted off the case and to my astonishment, the label said “Selmer”. I couldn’t open the case fast enough. What I saw inside made me utterly speechless: a brand new Selmer Mark VI baritone sax! The finest saxophone ever made. So well made that they appreciate in value the older it gets. And nobody was playing it! Keep in mind how expensive of an instrument this is. A new one today costs anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000. For some reason, my band director was out for a few days, sick or something and I needed his permission to have that horn assigned to me. I couldn’t sleep for the next few days waiting for him to come back to school. I cut out this really cool Selmer ad in the 1968 Downbeat Yearbook that showed all the new Mark VI saxophones with the baritone in the foreground. I hung this picture up on my nightstand dreaming of having that Selmer baritone sax. Each day at free period, I’d go to the band room, take that horn out and get me a practice room and blow until the bell rang for the next period.

After about the second day or so, Mr. Schor, the band director was back and unbeknown to me, he had been listening to me practice the baritone sax. He had gathered all the players to come out into the main room to rehearse as a ad-hoc ensemble. I really didn’t want to go and leave this bari to get my tenor sax and tried to ignore his call. Maybe he won’t call me to come out. But he surprised me by knocking on my practice room door and told me to bring the baritone sax. When we assembled, he blew my mind by passing out, “Salute The Duke”, a medley of Duke Ellington compositions! The seduction was complete by the time I played the ‘Satin Doll’ portion of the suite. Of course by then I had heard several versions of Duke’s orchestra playing this tune. I was hooked as I played Duke’s baritone sax great, Harry Carney’s part on it. Afterwards, Mr. Schor and I talked about Duke, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and jazz in general as he knew I loved jazz and could improvise. But instead of stressing that I should concentrate more on ‘legitimate’ playing as I thought he would do, he encouraged me to keep improvising as a jazz player! He said, “I wished I had your ear. Keep with the jazz!” Then he blew my mind by rolling his eyes up in his head and said how much he admires trombonist Urbie Green! “Boy that guy has it all! He can read and improvise. He can play anything!” he said. Needless to say, I brought in Dizzy Gillespie’s “Gillespiana” LP the next day where we both sat down and listened to Urbie Green play a fantastic solo. This was my thanks to his answering in the affirmative when I asked could that Selmer baritone sax be assigned to me the day before!

I am so appreciative to the people and teachers in my formative years who shared and conveyed their love of music to me that enabled me to become the musician I am today. Last but certainly not least is my last band director, Mr. Versella, “Mr.V” as we affectionately called him. He came in during my junior year. He was fresh out of the University of Pittsburgh, –Pitt, what was to be my future alma mater where I went on to study with sax great Dr. Nathan Davis. Mr. V, was in his twenties, so he was closer to our age and really understood us and the music we liked. He was an open sky and let us try everything we wanted. He gave me my first experience writing for an ensemble where I would transcribe soul and R&B hits of the times for our Pep Band. This was no little deal as our basketball and football teams were highly touted, won state championships and performed in the big arenas. I remember our ‘hit’ with the fans was my transcription of Mandrill’s “Fencewalk”! Mr. V also let me improvise with that baritone sax with the Pep Band where I also would make up riffs for the guys to play. But more importantly, Mr. V. let me keep that baritone sax all the way thru my senior year even though my primary instrument was the tuba in marching season and oboe and bassoon in concert season. He would give me solos with the marching band at half-time shows and knee-knocking, nail-biting (for me) oboe overtures in symphonic band. He even tried to ask the powers that be at the school to let me take the horn with me upon graduation, as I was voted Best Musician and had successfully competed in district and regional band and choral competitions, representing my school. However we were unsuccessful. As I’ve mentioned, that was an expensive instrument. So my seduction by the baritone sax started at age of twelve and temporarily ended in my 17th year. I would not play the baritone sax again until 2002 when I finally got my own Jupiter Artist baritone sax and recorded the “Howling Monk” CD. But that, as they say is a whole ‘nother story . . .

ADDENDUM:

This blog was written several years ago on the Blogspot version of my Frugal Apathy blog.  I wish I could find the exact date it was posted.  I had an ‘accident’ on my blog site that wiped out all my blogs and I’ve been asking Blogspot how to re-post them in date order to no avail.  What is it with these internet sites like Facebook etc. that never get back to you or refuse to offer good customer service? This failure on Blogspot’s behalf is one of the reasons I have moved Frugal Apathy from Blogspot to WordPress.  Anyway its been several years ago since I wrote the above.  In May of 2013, I  partially tore a tendon in my right arm and was unable to play the baritone sax for a whole year!  Luckily I was able to play alto with virtually no pain; soprano and tenor with varying degrees of ‘acceptable pain’.  Soprano was the worst!  I could only play it for about 10 minutes at a time.  But the Universe is so merciful! Exactly one year later, in May of 2014, I went to see the legendary saxophone repairman Manny at his Horn Connection store in Hollywood to find a new ligature for my soprano.  While trying out ligatures (and I did find a killer one!)  he directs my attention to this baritone sax displayed on the floor.  “See this horn Dale?  I poured my LIFE into it’s restoration.  And I’d like someone like YOU who would appreciate such a good horn like this to have it!”  I looked at it and my heart almost skipped a beat.  It was a Selmer Mark VI baritone sax, -Low Bb.  Just like my old horn I had in High School all those years ago.  Perfectly restored as if it was brand new!

I laughed because I knew I couldn’t afford a horn like that.  I had seen a horn like that the other day on Ebay going for $14,000.00.  More importantly I didn’t even think I could play it because of my torn tendon, totally forgetting that it had been a year since the accident.  I came back the next day to try it and discovered NO PAIN!  I had finally healed enough to start back playing my beloved baritone sax. Needless to say, Manny offered me a deal I could not refuse and made it so easy to purchase this horn.  So the baritone sax seduction began again in EARNEST!  Having the finest crafted saxophone on the planet just doubled down on the seduction.  I can’t keep it out of my hands.  It is just pure pleasure to play.  More importantly, playing this horn now for almost 6 months re-affirms my realization that my most original and true voice is on the baritone sax.  There are just things I can do on it that I just cannot do on the other saxophones.  So a whole new world of discovery about myself and my musical expression just opened up for me as 2014 comes to a close.  In playing the baritone I seem to “hear music” better.  Not only has my playing improved, but my writing has opened up as well.  Yeah, I’m lovin’ this sweet seduction and in it, with it, look to the future at endless possibilities in the joy of discovery and musical expression.

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