For over one hundred years,
the name Conn has meant the very finest in American-made saxophones.
The legendary models of the earlier part of the twentieth century are
among the most prized and sought after among collectors and performers
alike. As a tribute to the quality of construction and design, vintage Conn
saxophones are often seen today in the hands of top professionals as the
“instrument of choice”, and many of the innovations first pioneered by
the Conn company are found on instruments produced today by manufacturers
around the world.
THE BEGINNINGS: 1889 – 1925
The very first saxophone
built in the United States was built at the Conn plant in Elkhart, Indiana,
in 1889 for E. A. Lefebre, a saxophone virtuoso who had risen to
international fame as a soloist with the famous
Sousa and Gilmore bands of that era. Mr. Lefebre was also a personal
friend of none other than Adolphe Sax,
the inventor of the saxophone, and had previously used instruments supplied
to him by Sax himself. The original Conn saxophone was actually constructed
by Ferdinand “Gus” Buescher, who was foreman at the Conn factory and who
was employed by Conn from 1875 until 1895, at which time he established an
instrument manufacturing company bearing his name.
The instrument that Buescher built for Lefebre was essentially a copy
of an Adolphe Sax horn, and Lefebre was eventually persuaded to join the
Conn company, where he was employed in the saxophone department from 1895
Conn exhibited alto and
tenor models at the 1893 World’s Columbia
Exhibition under the model name “Wonder”, and in 1894 advertised
a line of “Improved System” saxophones which included straight
soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone models. These instruments were available
in silver plate with gold plated keys; nickel plate; and polished brass.
C. G. Conn, the founder and
owner of the company, was elected to the United States Congress in 1892,
and introduced a bill which required that every United States Army
regiment have its own band, and specified the instrumentation for the
musical unit. As a result,
military orders for Conn instruments boomed, and in May, 1900, 150 Conn “Wonder” saxophones were delivered to the Army, and were
received at the Schuylkill Arsenal by Louis Seel.
During this era, Conn began
trade-marking names that designated various models. These included Wonder
(February 1, 1891); New Wonder (May 1, 1917); Pan American (January 29,
1918); American First (February 5, 1918); C. G. Conn (April 2, 1918); and
Victor New Wonder (October 15, 1918).
In 1911, Conn advertised a
family of saxophones that included a curved soprano (which replaced the
previous straight model); a C
Melody; and a
bass, in addition to the standard alto, tenor, and baritone models.
The ad mentioned an automatic octave key (actually introduced some time
earlier) and a forked E flat mechanism. Only the alto and tenor models were
keyed to high F, the rest of the line was limited to high E flat. A 1915
advertisement references an “improved” octave mechanism; a front F key;
a G sharp trill key; a
lengthened G sharp key, and a revised arrangement of the left hand pinky
table. The 1915 horns were referred to as “New Invention” models, and
were awarded the Medal of Honor; a gold medal; a silver medal; and a bronze
medal at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition held in San Francisco.
In an effort to increase
international sales during this period, Conn offered saxophones in both Low
Pitch (A=440), and in High Pitch (A=457).
By 1916, Conn was
advertising that “the saxophone department has been quadrupled in size”,
and the 1918 catalog references the introduction of a straight soprano in E
flat and a straight soprano in C. This catalog also makes mention of the
Conn Microtuner and the Conn Resopad, both hailed as significant advances.
These horns are referred to by Conn as “New Wonder” models, Conn
saxophones of this era were seen with both soldered and drawn tone holes.
The drawn tone holes are referenced by a patent engraved on the body tube
8, 1914) which was actually held by William S. Haynes, the flutemaker,
and licensed to Conn. Rolled
tone holes were introduced around 1920, although straight tone holes were
often found for a few more years.
The 1922 catalog saw the
re-introduction of the straight B flat soprano and the Conn Vacuum pad,
which was designed to be installed without adhesives.
The straight neck C Melody also made its debut in this year. During
this period, Conn saxophones were often seen with spectacular engravings,
and considerable experimentation was carried out in manufacturing techniques
and design improvements. Conn was unique among American manufacturers in
that a full time laboratory with a staff of six was maintained to pursue
The Conn design laboratory
employed several designers, principally Allen Loomis; Hugh Loney; Paul
Hardy; Russell Kerr; Edward Gulick; and Leland Greenleaf.
The legendary Santy Runyon also consulted with Conn on design
matters. Loomis was known for his innovative, often bizzare, designs, many
of which were never considered practical enough to enter production. Gulick
might best be remembered for his design of the locking pivot screw, a device
which has frustrated repairmen for years.
THE GOLDEN ERA: 1925 – 1955
Conn saxophones in the late
1920’s were essentially an evolution of the earlier models.
There were, of course, improvements in keywork (the cross-hatched G
sharp key of 1925, for example), and a redesigned straight soprano in 1928.
The Conn instruments were considered the standard of excellence of the
period, and a total redesign was not needed. Custom engraving and various
finishes were offered, and these are among the most beautiful saxophones
A surprising lapse of
judgment was exhibited by Conn in 1928, with the introduction of the F Mezzo
Soprano. Although the instrument had several unique features (left mounted
bell keys, for example), there was simply no demand for a saxophone keyed in
F, and the vast majority of these instruments went unsold. Many, in fact,
were later used in the Conn Repair School to train technicians.
The F Mezzo was quickly followed by the Conn-O-Sax, also keyed in F,
but with an extended range from written low A to high G. This strange
instrument was quickly rejected in the marketplace, and both it and the F
Mezzo were no longer offered by the factory after 1930.
In 1931, a new alto was
introduced which set the saxophone world on its ear! The totally new design
carried over some of the great features of the past such as rolled tone
holes; Resopads; Microtuners; and adjustable pivot screws; and added an
entirely new mechanism which was far superior to anything seen before. The
neck gained a tenon skirt to assist in sealing and aid in the elimination of
the “buzzy A”; the octave key was moved to the underside of the neck to
protect it from damage; the low C sharp, B, and B flat keys now opened the G
sharp pad; and the high E key gained a curve.
A swivel thumbrest was added and most keys were repositioned to give
the most direct mechanical action. Most,
but not all, of these features soon found their way to the tenor. The line
continued to evolve, and the baritone and bass models were soon offered
keyed to high F.
Conn raised the bar again
in 1938 with the introduction of the Connqueror seies alto and tenor.
These instruments used the wonderfully complex but efficient
Permadjust action, developed by Hugh Loney. This system solved the age old
problem of cork compression and key height adjustment. The left hand pinky
table was moved to a more comfortable position, and the mechanism was much
improved. Key touches were
inlaid with silver, and special engraving was added. These are perhaps the
greatest of the Conn saxophones.
Following World War II,
Conn again established itself as the leader in innovation with the Santy
Runyon designed Connstellation alto. This instrument used three octave pips
to even intonation and voicing; a unique mechanism unsurpassed to this day
for lightness and precision; ergonomic placement of the keywork; and an ill
conceived plastic keyguard. While
not a success in the marketplace, the Connstellation is still highly
regarded by saxophone designers and collectors.
– PRESENT: THE PROFESSIONAL MARKET ABANDONED
Conn put greater emphasis
on student line instruments to take advantage of the post World War II baby
boom market, and paid less attention to the professional market which was
increasingly dominated by other makers from outside the United States. The
saxophones lost their rolled tone holes in 1948; and their Microtuners in
1954. The professional models gained nickel plated keywork in 1955, along
with clear lacquer. The tenor neck was changed significantly in the late
1950’s to an underslung design, but by
then it was too late. In 1960, Conn acquired the Best Manufacturing Company
of Nogales, Arizona, and moved most saxophone production there, although the
“artist” models continued to be produced in Elkhart. The company has
undergone several changes in ownership, and discontinued professional models