Over the weekend, while going through the transcription of my most recent conversation with baritone saxophonist Danny Bank, I found this almost-overlooked anecdote:
"I bought my first sax when I was in high school, in Brooklyn. I had been looking in pawn shop windows and came across what appeared to be an alto sax. When I went in and asked the guy how much it was, he asked if I was sure I wanted to buy it. I said yes. He said $35— which is how much I had in my pocket. So I paid the guy and took the horn home.
But when I brought the sax to school, the music teacher told me it wasn't an alto sax. It was a C melody sax with a straight neck, which looks like an alto. I took the sax back to the pawn shop, but the guy wouldn't give me my money back. So I had to learn to play on the C melody sax, which is quite different than the alto.
For one, the sound of a C melody is a little harder than a E-flat alto. But the big difference is that the instrument is in the key of C, which meant I could read piano music right over my teacher's shoulder and play along. With a E-flat alto, piano music has to be transposed up a major 6th before you can play along. No transposing of music is necessary with a C melody.
I learned so much about music playing that instrument. I wound up being able to play the flute, oboe and every other instrument in the symphony orchestra.
When I joined Charlie Barnet in 1942, I was playing a wide range of reed instruments. Then Charlie taught me how to play big like Harry Carney, the great baritone saxophonist in Duke [Ellington]'s band. Harry was a god to all baritone saxophonists. His tone was huge. You can hear him on every record.
I joined Charlie Barnet in Minneapolis. I had to take the train from New York to Chicago and change trains. When I got there, he didn't talk to me for a few weeks. When he did finally come over to me, I thought he was going to fire me. Instead, he said, 'Listen kid, you know Harry Carney?'
Of course I knew Harry. He was my hero.
Charlie told me to change my horn, to get the same one Harry was playing—a Conn. He said: 'Get the same mouthpiece, too, and the same reeds. I want you to play the same thing as Harry.'
By that time, the band had traveled from Minneapolis to Detroit. So I called a local instrument repairman and asked him if he knew anyone with a Conn baritone for sale. He said he knew a kid who had just bought a new horn and was selling his Conn. I told him to send the kid over to where we were rehearsing.
So this kid shows up and sells me his Conn for I think around $150. The kid's name was Pepper Adams, who of course went on to become a terrific bari player. That was done all the time—selling horns. Years later I sold my Selmer to Serge Chaloff.
After buying Adams' bari, I bought the mouthpiece Carney was using—an over-sized one made by the Woodwind and Company—and the same reeds in a music store.
The next time I played on that Conn, Charlie shot me a look on the way to the dressing room and gave me the OK sign with his fingers—rubbing the thumb and the forefinger together for emphasis. Man, that made me feel great . When Charlie gave me that sign, he made me a bari player. Before that I was a good alto and tenor player. But after that, I knew that I would always be a baritone saxophonist. I just fell in love with that horn."
Wax clip: To see what happened to the kid who sold Danny Bank his baritone sax go here. The song is Dylan's Delight. The tune appears on Adams Effect (1995) and features Frank Foster on tenor, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Billy Hart on drums. What a sound!