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Contact: tomsancton@yahoo.com

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

TRADING HORNS WITH WOODY ALLEN

Continuing the series of posts prompted by photos and documents discovered in my attic near Paris:

I'm not Jewish. I didn't grow up in Brooklyn. I don't make movies. I'm not even very funny. But I do have one thing in common with Woody Allen: a passion for traditional New Orleans jazz and for the antique Albert system clarinets favored by the old players we admire. I can't claim to be a pal of Woody's and I don't hang with him, but this shared passion has brought us together on several occasions.
     I first met him in 1989 at Michael's Pub in New York, where he held sway every Tuesday with a band led by banjoist Eddy Davis. Eddy introduced us and we had a brief chat between sets. The conversation quickly turned to Albert system clarinets, now obsolete but far superior to the modern Boehm system for reproducing the fat sound of the legendary jazzmen like George Lewis, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet and countless other long-departed greats. It turned out Woody and I both had large collections of old Alberts.
     In both cases, the collecting began with the realization that you can't just walk into a music store and buy a new Albert system if a bus runs over your favorite horn, or it gets blown up by airport security while you're off having a coffee in the departure lounge (this actually happened to a friend of mine). So you start buying Alberts whenever you come across one. The problem is that a lot of them are in bad shape, or out of tune, or otherwise defective. So life becomes an endless search for the perfect Albert (named after Belgian instrument maker Eugène Albert).
     The photo above shows Woody and me comparing clarinets in October 1989 (okay, we both look a little older now). It was taken for TIME magazine to accompany my profile of Woody as a musician. (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,958826,00.html)   My clarinet was a Buffet-Crampon, once owned by the great Lorenzo Tio, Jr. Woody's was an Italian-made Rampone. The combined age of these horns was probably 150 years. Woody was unhappy with his horn, which was considerably out of tune. That didn't really bother him, because he thought being out of tune made you sound more authentic, like the old records, so he would make his band un-tune before they played. But his Rampone had leaks and cracks and the keys were worn out.
     Tired of trekking through pawn shops and flea markets in search of a good horn, Woody finally approached the Buffet factory in Mantes-la-Jolie, near Paris, and asked them to make him a brand new Albert system. They had not made one since the 1930's, but Woody was a star, so they got out their old templates and made him a matched pair of Bb Alberts in elegant leather cases with brass fittings.
     When Woody's band toured Europe in 1996, he called and asked me to meet him at the Buffet factory. He was going there to make some adjustments on his new horns, and the Buffet folks offered to show him their collection of antique clarinets. I met him there and we had a ball examining and trying out the vintage horns, all in beautiful condition. Woody fell in love with a metal instrument and kept playing the same riff over and over. He asked if he could buy it, but the Buffet folks said it was part of their history and they could not sell it at any price. Woody persisted in his offer, but finally gave up. (You can see this sequence in Barbara Kopple's 1997 film "Wild Man Blues.") As we were leaving the factory, Woody handed me one of the two custom-made Buffets. "Consider it a long-term loan," he said. I was delighted, and sent him a vintage horn from my collection to reciprocate.
     Several months later, his secretary called me in Paris and said Woody's main horn had problems and he needed the other one back. I Fedexed it to him and he returned the horn I had loaned him. Some years later, he invited me to his Fifth Avenue apartment to see his collection. It filled a walk-in closet. There were probably 30 or more horns in there. He gave me two of them that he said he was not interested in. I kept one and traded the other to a French musician for the marvellous instrument I play today: a 1900-vintage rosewood Selmer. Don't tell Woody, but it is perfectly in tune. 

6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Larry. See you soon in France!

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  2. There was a reason that Dodds, Bigard, Simeon, Procope, Bechet, Lewis et. al. - played Selmers!

    Nice article, Tom, thanks.

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  3. Nice to read, it's so seldom that I open my computer and read something about Albert system clarinets. You're lucky to have the Selmer. I didn't find one, but am still playing on the Buffet I bought from you in Paris some 6-7 years ago. There has been some problems but at the present it's working fine and I'm happy with it!

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  4. Hey Paul, great to hear you're still playing that Buffet. Stick with it.

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