The Sound That Time Forgot
by Scott Robinson
What initially attracted me to the C-melody saxophone was its obsolescence. As a boy, I remember a stack of old black cases, high up in the rafters of a Virginia music store, marked "C-melody" on their ends with bits of masking tape. "Nobody plays those anymore", I was told. Being a young alto and baritone player with a nascent interest in the bass sax, I was intrigued by the idea of an endangered species of saxophone that lay in disuse, perhaps waiting to be brought to life again.
A year or so later, I answered an ad from a Mr. Charles R. Cole in the Original Swapper's Column of Yankee Magazine, offering to swap a silver Conn C-melody, made in 1918, for an alto (any alto). After sending him a Reynolds cheaply obtained from a friend, my C-melody arrived in the mail, and I was in love.
I quickly discovered, practicing among the antiques at the Herndon Curio Shoppe where I worked after school, that the instrument had a plaintive, yearning quality unique among saxophones - a sound full of hope, yet touched with a kind of loneliness and mystery. It was a sound I would turn to again and again through the years to evoke that special feeling that only comes when I am playing the C-melody saxophone.
The tonal characteristics of the C-melody can be at least partly explained by the fact that its taper is unlike that of other saxophones. Close to a tenor in length, the bore at no point exceeds that of the much smaller alto saxophone, giving the instrument a "covered" or slightly muted quality. In this way it can be somewhat likened to a French horn, which is also disproportionately narrow for its length relative to other brass instruments.
Adolphe Sax's original plan called for two distinct families of his new invention to be built - one pitched in Bb and Eb for band use, and another in C and F for the symphony orchestra. The latter tunings would facilitate playing in the sharp keys prevalent in orchestral music, and perhaps a narrower bore was intended even then, as a way of achieving an ideal blend with the other instruments of the orchestra.
In fact, the first saxophone Sax constructed is believed to have been a C-bass, although I know of no C-basses (or F-baritones) in existence today. There are a few F-altos, or "mezzo-sopranos", around (anybody care to swap me one?) and I sometimes play my C-soprano - but the C-tenor, or C-melody as it has come to be called, is the only instrument of this group that has survived in any numbers.
Despite the efforts of Maurice Ravel, Georges Bizet, Richard Strauss and a handful of others (Strauss' score for Symphonica Domestica calls for a quartet of saxophones in C and F), these instruments never found a lasting home in the orchestra. However, the C-melody experienced a period of widespread popularity as a "parlor" instrument in the teens and twenties. Before television took over the universe, music was often played in the home, and informal family bands were common. The player of a saxophone in C could read the melody line directly from the piano music, without having to transpose the notes as is necessary for instruments in other keys - hence the term "C-melody". While the Eb and Bb horns continued to flourish in other settings, the C-melody finally faded into obscurity along with the family bands.
Ironically, it is through a tenor player that the sound of the C-melody can perhaps be said to have exerted its most significant influence on jazz. The great Lester Young once remarked that it was the recordings by Frankie Trumbauer that inspired him to arrive at his characteristic tone and supple phrasing - a lustrous, pliant sound that has motivated saxophonists for decades. It could be argued that were it not for the C-melody, least overt of saxophones, an entire school of tenor playing would not exist as we know it.
While no C-melodies are being manufactured today, some of my musical friends (Gary Regina, Joe Lovano, Dan Levinson, Dave Pietro and Anthony Braxton come immediately to mind) have added the instrument to their sonic palettes with wonderful and varied results. Perhaps one day there will be enough of us to form a C-melody saxophone choir! Until then my instrument and I will continue to revel in the comfortable obscurity of obsolescence.
- Scott Robinson July 1999