September 2, 2015

Saxophone Saga

My grandparents Francis & Evelyn Fraetis with my aunt Sandra, 1937

Certain people have been surprised to learn that I used to play the saxophone. I've never referred to myself as a "saxophonist," because I'm not one; I never had a lesson, and if asked to play a specific note other than open E-flat, I can't. But there was a time when I played fairly often and could sound as if I kind of maybe knew what I was doing.

It started when I was in college in Olympia. I was studying composition and getting interested in the sounds of various instruments. I was also beginning to explore free improvisation, through the influence of guitarists like Fred Frith, Derek Bailey, and Davey Williams, which led to other improvisers, like saxophonists Evan Parker, and Jeffrey Morgan in Olympia. There was also a minor trend for using skronky free jazz-inspired sax in arty underground rock bands at the time, like Allen Ravenstine in Pere Ubu, James Chance in the Contortions, Steven Brown in Tuxedomoon, and Jim Anderson in the Beakers.

I had a girlfriend who had an alto sax that she rarely played, so I started honking on it. We broke up and the sax went with her, but a couple of years later my grandfather died and left me his alto and a C-melody, both old Beuscher instruments from the 1920s. The C-melody was unplayable, but I used the alto in the bands I was in then, Customer Service and Tiny Holes. I also used to play with Jeffrey Morgan in a big parking garage on campus, and in other improvised situations. That continued when I later moved to NYC and became involved in the improvisation scene there. I was never very "good," but I managed to find ways to play it that weren't totally embarrassing (though they might be in retrospect). That culminated in a saxophone duo gig at A Mica Bunker with my old college buddy Joe Halajian that was actually one of the best shows I ever played during my time in New York. I left there in 1988 and pretty much stopped being a free improviser and soon quit playing the sax.

Fast forward to 2014. The saxophones have made several moves with me across the country and mostly sat unplayed in closets or in the basement. Since this project revolves around my grandfather's grandparents, I thought it would be nice to get his saxophone fixed up and play it in this piece. It needed a major overhaul: new pads, new cork, springs, etc. And thus begins the saga...

My woodwind-playing friends in Seattle all told me that Scott Granlund is the best repair guy in town, but also that he is consequently very busy and can take a long time. I felt like I wanted to have as much time to reacquaint myself with the instrument as possible, so I opted to take it to another guy I knew of at a music store near my house that specializes in band instruments. That was last fall, their busy time, so he suggested I bring it back in the winter, when things were slower. I brought it back to him in February 2015, and he said it should be done in 4-5 weeks and would cost about $400 - $500. I sold the C-melody to local saxophonist Jacob Zimmerman, and sold some old mouthpieces on eBay, and raised most of the money for the overhaul of the alto, which it turns out is a very fancy gold-plated model.

I checked back in with the repair guy maybe six weeks later, and he said he thought it would be done in another week or two. This went on and on: it would be ready tomorrow, Monday, next Friday, etc. Lots of apologies, excuses, shame, promises, etc. – which I'm sure were all sincere but did not result in the horn getting repaired. Finally, more than six months after I brought it in, he called to say that he didn't know when he'd be able to finish it and I should take it to (wait for it...) Scott Granlund, and that he would pay for Scott to finish it. I went to pick it up, and he apologized again and suggested that "You should never take your horn to a music shop to get fixed," the wisdom being that they are too busy fixing their rental instruments to do any serious outside work. That would have been really helpful advice six months ago!

So now the sax is with Scott. He says it might be ready by the week of the performance, which leaves me no time to regain whatever pitiful "chops" I may have once had. He says it will cost at least $500 just to fix all the stuff that the first guy did poorly. So I may or may not be playing it in this performance as planned. But I will have a very nice, shiny, expensive, fully restored family heirloom saxophone. Time to start playing again...