This is a guest interview by Todd S. Feldman of RS Berkeley Musical Instruments.
Vintage instrument expert, accomplished multi-reed player, masterful improviser, and Chase Music & Cadence recording artist Bob Ackerman epitomizes the term “musician’s musician.”
As a saxophonist under the tutelage of world-class teachers including the legendary Joe Allard, Bob’s early career found him working with such diverse artists as Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, Joe Morello, Mike Mellillo, John Coates, and Chet Baker. No slouch in the composition department either, he’s received a Ford Foundation Grant and a National Endowment Grant for his original works.
With his legendary shop, Progressive Winds, Bob’s made a massive mark on the saxophone world, selling, restoring, and repairing saxophones and mouthpieces for some of the greatest players this side of the moon.
Todd S. Feldman: You clearly have an extensive background with saxophones of all eras, but seem to be partial to vintage horns. What are the major factors between your start with vintage horns and those made today?
Bob Ackerman: I have devoted a substantial part of my life to the study of music. Within the last fifty years, I have played thousands of instruments. My first good horns were a ’56 Conn alto and a ’53 Martin tenor and they were great playing horns, but Selmer Mark VI’s were all the rage. The process of instrument-making has changed from the craftsman and his hand tools, to the craftsman and his machines, to the machines and their operators and finally the machines and their computers. This transformation has taken more than a century and represents the dehumanization of musical instruments. Older instruments seem more resonant, more flexible in pitch, sound and overall individualization.
The instruments of today sound oppressively identical. Their pitch is fixed on a center that cannot move easily. This becomes painfully obvious in performances, whether in a philharmonic or in a big band when these fixed-pitch models fail to keep up with the shadings and nuances of the older movable pitch instruments.
TF: I have spoken to a number of musicians and it seems that your name is touted for your expertise in vintage mouthpieces. You decided to expand your vintage mouthpiece business by adding vintage horns to the mix. What type of role has this played in your career?
BA: I began my mouthpiece business in the seventies, but when the business really developed in the early eighties, I began to deal in horns. Today I am not restricted to those sax sections whose sound was controlled down to the reed and mouthpiece. I also am no longer a commercial musician trying to fit into someone else’s mold, thus I am free to play whatever and however I wish. This opportunity, coupled with a worldwide interest in vintage equipment, has allowed me to use instruments from an earlier vintage. This is an experience that is still constantly evolving but seems well rooted in concept. It is opening many new doors for me both in business and music.
TF: What is the most important piece of information you can provide someone about vintage mouthpieces and what can you tell us about true vintage mouthpieces from the early 20th century?
BA: Generally mouthpiece designs do not work on horns that pre-date their invention. The early horns up to the late twenties work best with an original style large chamber mouthpiece. The Rauscher mouthpiece is the modern example. Twenties Buescher horns will not play at all without this large chamber mouthpiece. They are the 20th century sax most like Adolphe Sax’s original design.
By the late twenties and throughout the thirties, horns play best with original round chamber models with smaller holes and higher, longer baffles than the twenties. The other innovation to appear in the thirties is the elongated circle design. Brillhardt was one of the first to use this design. The elongated circle is indigenous to the plastic molded mouthpiece. Molded rubber mouthpieces can have a perfect circle.
By the forties and into the fifties Berg Larsen and Brillhardt Level Air high baffle mouthpieces with a second inner chamber appeared. Most, however, still played the round chamber or elongated circle designs.
In the 60’s Bobby Dukoff developed his famous D chamber on alto and tenor. Many others came along after that, including, Dave Gaurdilla, Freddie Gregory, Elmer Beechler and Claude Lakey to name a few.
TF: What insight can you offer someone interested in working with vintage horns?
BA: As you experiment with these older great horns, you must bear in mind a few things. Their mechanisms are simple and must be set in the original fashion to work at their best. Appropriate pads and mouthpieces must also be used. Players who cross idioms to make a living – playing jazz, legit, and/or commercial – will need not only a selection of mouthpieces but also few different axes.
Remember that key height and correct size pads are critical. The exact height of the keys should always be set by your repairman with you personally playing the horn with the mouthpiece you have selected for it. There can be a variation of 1 – 3 mm in heights depending on you. If anything is off, pitch and response will suffer.
I personally have certain horns for commercial section work and a different set for creative playing. There is nothing like a vintage horn to give you the raw, individual character a jazz player should have.
TF: Within the last thirty years, how have you expanded your vintage mouthpiece/horn business?
BA: At one point, the business (Progressive Winds) had one of the largest collections of vintage horns in the world. I’m not sure where we rank today, but we still maintain a vast inventory of hard-to-find horns. We also offer three services to sax enthusiasts, including horn work, custom mouthpiece work and vintage restoration.
Horn work involves custom keywork, complete overhauls, neck repairs, pad replacement, complete voicing of saxophones, intonation corrections, and ergonomic improvements of mechanisms. Our custom mouthpiece work includes repairs to all parts of the mouthpiece, such as bite plate, tip rail, table shank, and the interior. Because of the demand for vintage equipment and the scarcity of vintage parts from the manufacturers, we have dedicated our time to careful restorations of original parts that in the past would have been discarded. We can re-seam necks, which in the past would have been patched, replace shanks on original mouthpieces or necks, reconstruct tone holes, and bring back interior dimensions to factory specifications
TF: How do you determine whether challenges in your playing such as poor intonation or difficulty at the extreme registers are due to your equipment or due to playing habits that need improving?
BA: Before playing, you should inspect every aspect of your instrument, including your mouthpiece, reed, horn, set-up, etc. You can think of this in the same way that a pilot checks an airplane before takeoff. If there is the slightest issue with any part of your gear, it can certainly affect your playing. If your instrument looks the part and you are having difficulty with intonation and other aspects of playing, you may need to modify your set-up. The right set-up involves a combination of the right mouthpiece, paired with the right reed and horn. Consult your teacher if you are still having issues, as every situation is unique. They will be able to help you inspect your instrument or help you with proper technique.
To learn more about Bob, check out his website at www.BobAckermanSaxophones.com.
About RS Berkeley Musical Instruments
Since 2002, RS Berkeley has offered the most complete and innovative selection of brass, woodwind and string instruments. Generations of musicians trust them to provide instruments that maximize their playing ability and improve the clarity, intonation and sound of their instruments while protecting their investment with the finest materials at affordable prices. RS Berkeley saxophone endorsers include Don Braden, Bob Ackerman, and Greg Banaszak to name just a few.
For more info please visit their website at www.RSberkeley.com