This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Sax Appeal

02 July 2016

Their sharp uniforms
and bright faces
may attract our eye,

but it's the six saxophones
that command our attention.

Six bandsmen in military cadet style uniforms stand at the ready with smiles and saxophones pointed directly at the camera. It's a large format photo and it's autographed by one of the young men.

With best wishes and
lots of luck to you
always —
Wally E. Hunt

— Pantages Tour 1926 —

They are young men, about college age, but this doesn't look like a typical school band photo. Their hats and short jackets resemble army dress uniforms, but I don't believe the US Army ever included platoons of saxophones. The photographer was Sussman of Minneapolis, a studio noted for producing high quality photographs for theatrical and vaudeville entertainers.

The six men hold a nearly full consort of saxophones from two alto saxophones on the right, followed by two tenor saxophones, a baritone, and a giant bass saxophone on the left. As American musicians, it seems likely that they are using a set of saxophones made by the C.G. Conn Band Instrument Company of Elkhart, IN. At one time this company was the largest manufacturer of band instruments in the world. It was partly through Conn's shrewd and relentless marketing that in the 1920s the saxophone became a popular instrument with American bands, large and small.  

C. G. Conn Band Instrument Catalog
circa 1925
A saxophone is played with a single reed mouthpiece using a woodwind type finger key system. However it is made of brass, which gives it a distinctive strong metallic tone. In the 1840s, the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax conceived this instrument as a new sound color between the wind instruments made of brass, like trumpets and horns, and those of wood, like clarinets and bassoons. His original saxophone family came in 7 theoretical sizes covering nearly the full range of audible musical notes, from a tiny sopranissimo or soprillo saxophone to a gigantic subcontrabass saxophone. These extreme sizes were essentially imagined designs by Sax and never actually built until modern times. The rare E-flat sopranino saxophone did have a limited production by Sax, and is an octave higher than the alto sax. The Wikipedia entry describes its tone as "notable for its juicy and expressive sound, reminiscent of the sonority of the E♭ clarinet, but with a more tender tone." This hyperbole surely comes from a contributor unaffected by the squeal of chalk on a blackboard. Such shrill high pitch instruments deserve a safety sticker, warning that it could be hazardous to your health.  

The contrabass saxophone, which is twice the length of the baritone, stands 1.9 meters (6ft 4 in) tall, and weighs approximately 20 kilograms (45 pounds), and has never been considered a practical instrument for anything other than honking out bass notes so low that they can only be felt. And not a good way.

Consequently the B-flat bass saxophone became a relatively useful bass instrument in bands, especially in the age before electric amplification. Early jazz bands needed a bass sound that could provide a musical foundation, one capable of making vibrations that could lift people off the dance floor. In the 1925, a premium level B-flat bass saxophone in burnished gold brass cost $510. The smaller  E-flat alto was only $250. The even smaller B-flat soprano and E-flat sopranino saxophone, which are absent from the sextet's photo, were a bargain at only $200. In today's modern bands, the monstrous bass saxophone is rarely played, in part because a new one requires an investment of at least $22,300.

The Conn saxophone line was heavily promoted in the 1920s using professional artists. This sextet was not an unusual ensemble as here are just three typical Conn advertisements from 1919 to 1922 which included photos of other more celebrated saxophone sextets.

Jacob's Band Monthly
February 1919
The Six Brown Brothers, a saxophone sextet from Ontario, Canada, were led by Tom Brown in period comic blackface. They were perhaps the first group of saxophonists to gain broad success on the vaudeville circuits.

Cosmopolitan magazine
August 1920

In this 1920 Conn advertisement, the saxophone sextette pictured in the upper right corner are six bandsmen of John Philip Sousa's Band. Note that the bass saxophonist seated on the left is dwarfed by his instrument.

Illustrated World magazine
March 1922
This advertisement from 1922 shows the Musical Nosses, "hit of Broadway musical shows", with their six Conn saxophones. Four of the group are women. Saxophones were regularly marketed to female musicians in this postwar period when sax and sex appeal were rapidly gaining public acceptance. These advertisements were filled with glowing testimonials; detailed technical specifications; and prominent assurances that Conn saxophones were "Easy to Play for Pleasure and Profit." Who could resist getting one?


The caption that Wally E. Hunt adds at the bottom of the photograph, Pantages Tour 1926, was the best clue for identifying this group. It refers to the Greek American theater impresario, Alexander Pantages (1867-1936), who owned 30 theaters and controlled 60 more in the 1920s. His theater circuit offered the public both live entertainment acts and silent films. His Pantages agency would book vaudeville artists and schedule them to perform exclusively at the Pantages theaters scattered around the country, mostly west of the Mississippi.

San Francisco Chronicle
13 March 1926

In March 1926, San Francisco's Pantages Theater ran a notice of their shows for that week. The feature was a new movie, "The Plastic Age", illustrated with a young woman of the jazz age dressed in barely nothing. It was based on the book that startled America, it had flaming youth, burning love, and mad action even better than the book.

On the stage was Ann Chandler, celebrated American Soprano;  Guy Voyer and Co. in "The Bridal Whirl"; the Bellclair Bros. looping the loop to a hancatch; Jarvis and Harrison in "The Love Burglar"; Lieut. Thetion, the French ace sharpshooter. Henir Lebel provided accompaniment at the mighty Morton organ.

And the middle act was
6 Saxophone Monarchs 6


Anna Chandler, the headline musical act, was a Broadway favorite and a singer of "blues" songs. Her picture appeared on the same page as the theater's ad with a brief review of the Pantages show. It was her first appearance since 1914. Her "blues", sung in satin and fur trim, were probably nothing like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, the first African American female blues singers.

The feature film, "The Plastic Age", starred Clara Bow, who had another movie, "Dancing Mothers" showing at the California Theater.  The other acts were short comedy sketches, acrobats, a trick sharpshooter, and the Cadet Saxophone Sextet, Wally E. Hunt's group, performed a program of popular music.

San Francisco Chronicle
13 March 1926

Later in October 1926, the Yost Broadway theater of Santa Ana, California ran a notice of its shows for the week. There was a feature movie, a Western, Zane Grey's "Forlorn River", a Paramount Picture with Jack Holt and Arlette Marchal. At the midweek, a Harry Langdon comedy, "The Strong Man." Music for these silent films was provided by Bartley Sims at the mighty organ, and Alexis Parlova's Concert Band. There were also special vaudeville acts. The Hollins Sisters in "Mirthful Moments". Monty & Carmo, "Minature Comics."

And headlining the live show was the Cadet Sextette, "Monarchs of the Saxophone".

Santa Ana, CA Register
05 October 1926

Helena, MT Independent Record
06 May 1928

Wally's Cadet Saxophone Sextette proved enough of a success to continue touring through 1928 when they made an appearance in Helena, Montana. The local newspaper ran picture of one of the musicians holding the largest saxophone in the world, a contrabass. It stood taller than the player, who is dressed in a West Point style uniform with a tall shako and crossed white belts across his chest.


The Cadet Sextette were booked for Appleton, WI in June 1928. The newspaper there ran a photo similar to the 1926 Pantages Tour photo with all six men standing in line with their saxophone armament.

Appleton WI Post Crescent
15 June 1928

The Cadets worked the vaudeville circuit until 1929, with even a brief appearance on radio schedules. By 1930 they, like so many traveling entertainers, fell victim to the seismic technology change in American culture that came with the advent of free radio, cheap 78rpm records, and 10¢ movies with sound.  This was Show Business — sell tickets or find another job. Vaudeville theaters remodeled into big screen cinemas that no longer needed organists and orchestras to accompany the now outmoded silent films. The live acts - melodrama companies, comedians, jugglers, and saxophone sextets were displaced by Hollywood films that came with their own voices and music. The Cadet Saxophones just evaporated, and the American public hardly noticed.

So far, Wally E. Hunt, (Wally = Wallace or Walter?), has proven impossible to accurately identify in the usual records. He was likely too young to be working as a musician in the 1920 Census, and by the 1930 Census he probably had moved on to another vocation. My best guess is that he signed his name over his position in the line, which would make him the alto sax player, second from the right.

Did he ever claim to be a graduate from West Point's music academy?


It did not take long to find the right video to accompany this story. A contemporary saxophone sextet called The Moanin' Frogs posted a fantastic performance that captures a full saxy sound with a flashy stage presence that surely matches the boys of the Cadet Sextette. Here they play that quintessential music of all virtuoso instrumentalists, The Flight of the Bumble Bee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.



And as a special treat
for my many British readers
who may feel this week
that their government
are nothing
but a bunch
of clowns
and jokers
chasing after themselves.

Maybe this will bring a smile.



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the like for more sax and violins


Jodi Lynn Strait said...

Mike, Why sextets for saxophones? Was that the minimum to get the "correct" sound from all the different types of saxes? Another great post!

Mike Brubaker said...

Jodi, most saxophone sections in big bands use only 4 players, generally two altos, a tenor, and a baritone. Six saxophones just offers a bigger musical range using every size of sax in different combinations for voicing the parts. There are saxophone trios and quintets too, and even saxophone "orchestras" where dozens of players double up the individual parts. In music, more is always better.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

This theme was made for you Mike :) wonderful images of saxophonists.

La Nightingail said...

I love the sound of a saxophone. Luckily my daughter plays an alto sax in a community band that also includes a tenor sax, a soprano sax, and from your descriptions of the contra bass and B-flat bass sax, I'm assuming the band has a B-flat bass player. She's not much over 5' tall, but boy can she play that big bass sax. It sits in a stand and she plays it sitting down. Amazing. Love this post. I'll have to check daughter's instrument tomorrow to see if it's a Conn, per chance?

Little Nell said...

Oh yes, but how lovely to see those young men smiling such broad smiles, so obviously content with their musicianship. That last clip brought back memories of old, watching a certain comedian.

Jo Featherston said...

Sax appeal for sure! Fascinating as usual, but was there actually someone called GC Conn behind the company name? I guess if there was, you would have found a photo.

La Nightingail said...

Just checked daughter's alto sax. Not a Conn, but a Yamaha. Oh well. Sounds rather nice all the same.


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