Low Tone

Back in 1995 I got a saxophone for Christmas. I thought it was a shotgun.

It was an easy mistake to make, the kind that could happen to anyone. We’d gone down to a flat we’d got hold of in Lyme Regis and while it was all French Lieutenant’s Woman it was freezing and bleak and apart from walking there wasn’t a huge amount to do. When I brought the bags in from the car I thought the heavy square box was a cased 12-bore, which was unexpected but then, so was a saxophone.

I’d wanted to play one for years but got slightly beyond the age when you can tap on garage doors and ask the teenagers practising if you can jam with them. No thanks to Jimmy Saville, but as Louis Jordan used to sing, you cain’t get that no more. 

I was about thirteen when I bought my first LP, the original RCA Victor Glenn Miller recordings from 1943/44. Nobody liked that, then. Older people who knew it from the first time around didn’t seem to listen to it, but maybe they’d heard about enough of it already. I still can’t see how that’s possible. People my age weren’t into it then. It’s nice to know that one or two are now. It wasn’t just me.

I don’t know what it is about that sound. It wasn’t so much Tex Beneke who arguably had as much to with establisahing how the band sounded as Glenn Miller did himself or Charlie Parker or even, as we learned, them Duke boys’s big city uncle, Bill Clinton. It was all of it, the wrap-around warmth of the sound. That would have been something I could have done with, back then. It was reassuring, somehow, the reassurance helped by the distance between then and now, because you can’t hear that Big Band sound in England, something like Moonlight Serenade without realising why all those Americans were here, bringing the tunes with them. Close your eyes to that music and you can still see the Fortresses and Liberators slowly waltzing through the sky, the quick step as the bomb loads drop away, the dainty pirouettes of the fighters boring through the formation, the innocent wisp of smoke from first an engine, then a fuselage and then the pyre of twelve men dropping through five miles of sky. It was an odd childhood. We were haunted by the War. Nobody talked about it. It was so big nobody had to. My school was full of kids with names from two thousand miles away whose parents hardly ever spoke about how they got there. Every toy-shop window had the plastic 1:72 scale Airfix memorials to the jeeps and tanks and planes and boats lots of our fathers knew much too well back when they were just ten years older than we were, looking through the glass from the street.

Learn to play the saxophone

But it was still good music. It was what I wanted to play. And later, when I heard it, I wanted to play Louis Jordan and the Motels and Dexy’s Midnight Runners and of course, of course Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Springsteen and Steely Dan and Cole Porter. I liked that honeyed sound. I liked the seduction of it all. Who wouldn’t? When I was on summer camp one year in Wisconsin I used to take a friend’s uncle’s sax out into the woods and learn how to make sounds with it and by the end of camp I could run through some of the easier Glenn Miller tunes from the memorial library in my head as well as have a stab at the solo in the Motel’s Total Control. There was someone I really, really wanted to play that to. One day, maybe.

Learning to read music would have helped and it still would, but until then I just have to play just what I feel, in the absence of a more formal, structured approach. I know I should. I will. But I’ve got stuff to do first. You know how it is. I’ve got to listen to Deacon Blue – no, the real one, the one Deacon Blue got their name from – a lot before I go back to Every Good Boy Deserves Favour on the stave. That’s the song I want at my funeral. How cool would that be?

The Spring I got my sax I had four top front crowns done. I spent nearly two hours getting my teeth ground off. The dentist told me it wouldn’t hurt and he was right, but he warned me it would probably do stuff to my head, stuff you couldn’t see. He was right about that too. He’d told me to bring a CD in. He forgot to say bring a CD that is going to take your attention for a long time but one you don’t mind never listening to again. It was Mozart. I haven’t been able to listen to it ever since. After that I was more than a little wary of biting hard on anything for months, even though my brand new Terminator-style replicant teeth would have happily bitten straight through the mouthpiece and looked darned good while they did it. Even so, I didn’t want to play sax for a long time.

Me and Teresa, sax and voice

Once I’d had a dream of living in Camden and playing in pub bands. That was a dream that might have happened if I’d (a) had a saxophone then and more importantly (b) done anything at all about it. Just recently someone was getting a band together, a reunion of a band they’d had at university. I said I’d play. I’d never, ever played in public before and up to the night before I was still wondering if anyone I was with would ever talk to me again if I said I wasn’t going to do it. But I did it, thanks to some wonderful support. It taught me something I wish I’d learned a long, long time ago, even if I do still remember how that music used to make me smile. Friends don’t care if you mess up. They care a lot more if you don’t do what you can.

When I got back home after that weekend I’ve tried to get an hour a day practising, accompanying those old tunes, the really old ones and the ones that when I first heard them weren’t old at all. I looked up my Martin Handcraft on the web, using the matching serial numbers to find out when it was made. This particular Low Tone, so old they didn’t call them tenor saxes in those days, was made in the summer of 1924. I’ve cleaned it as well as practiced more with it. I’m going to get a decent brass mouthpiece because I think it deserves something a little better than the £9.99 piece of plastic I’ve been using and losing control of the reed on, after about half an hour. Odd to think of it being that old though. That same sax, all the way from Indiana, was around before every one of the musicians I’ve been talking about here. Any one of them could have played it. I don’t know how, or when it got to England. But I can make a story about it.



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