Cranky’s Horn

Cranky playing in Deering Oaks, Spring 2016
Cranky in the wild with his straight alto sax.

Cranky can spot the mansplainers. No big feat for Cranky since mansplainers are typically transparent in their behavior. They stop, stare briefly but intently, not at Cranky but at the instrument he’s playing. They will look for a moment and then as if a timer went off in their heads they get a satisfied look on their faces, like they solved a difficult puzzle. Turning to the person they are with, they will confidently tell them the name of the instrument. Cranky will chuckle to himself as he watches the interchanges, as the mansplainers will inevitably be wrong.

Rassan Roland Kirk playing simultaneously a tenor sax, a stritch and manzello.
Kirk’s Stritch, the middle one.

Mansplainer-spotting is one of Cranky’s entertainments while he plays in public. Regarding instrument identification he’s overheard everything from bass clarinet to oboe. Wrong. Mansplainers with a knowledge of jazz performers will perhaps identify the instrument as a “Stritch” as they might be familiar with Rahssan Roland Kirk, who was known to play a saxophone quite like Cranky’s. In this observation they are mostly correct.

Kirk’s Stritch and Cranky’s horn are both straight alto saxophones. In the case of the Stritch, it was made by the American instrument maker Buescher Co. between 1927 and 28. They apparently made only a few hundred of them as the novel idea never took off even though it was the “Golden Age” of the saxophone, a time when manufacturers were trying out many innovative ideas. It was Kirk who dubbed it the Stritch. Beuscher just marketed it as a straight version of the alto sax. Perhaps if they had come up with a clever name it would have been more popular. Kirk brilliantly had his sax’s keywork customized so that he could play a fuller  range of notes using just one hand, as he rarely played the Stritch singly but along with two other horns, a tenor sax and his “Manzello,” another doctored vintage instrument.

An advertisement for The Beuscher Co.'s straight alto saxophone.
The Beuscher straight alto, Kirk’s Stritch. c.1920s

Cranky’s gravitation to the straight alto sax was like grease to bacon. It would be the perfect marriage of his focus on novelty melodies of the 1920s and 30s and his interest in saxophone manufacturing history. Cranky had long been aware of the straight alto but it’s a little known fact of Clown School Dropout history that Cranky never played his now signature horn until after the duo had disbanded. Speaking of CSD history, in one infamous gig Cranky did play 5 different horns , though not all at once ala Kirk. They were a standard alto, tenor, and baritone, along with a C-melody and a C-soprano. It was a gimmick and novelty, as is the raison d’être for Cranky’s quest for a straight alto saxophone.

When Cranky started busking in the early aughts he was bringing out both tenor and alto saxes, his standard Clown School Dropout equipment. It was the inconvenience of schlepping two horns that pushed to the fore Cranky’s need for a single instrument. He could now sate the desire for a novelty horn and reduce the baggage. The search for a unique horn was born.

When Cranky began this search in earnest in 2002, he quickly realized that the hope of acquiring an actual vintage horn was a near impossibility. The known existing Beuscher straight altos had long since gone to collectors and museums and if even one were available it’d likely be out of range of Cranky’s purse. Cranky also looked around for a Conn Saxello (Kirk’s Manzello) which was a unique straight saxophone in the range between the standard soprano and alto. But, these too proved elusive and unaffordable. Further searches turned up two present-day companies that actually manufactured straight altos.1 Cranky’s first choice was to find one made by the company L.A. Sax for the sole reason that they made colored finishes. Just imagine: Cranky could have been renowned for a bright red straight alto sax! But alas, Cranky had again missed the curve (so to speak) as L.A. Sax had around that time just gone out of business.2 Luckily another company had made contemporary straight horns — the German saxophone manufacturer Julius Keilwerth.

Here too Cranky’s interest had come slightly too late as Keilwerth had only briefly manufactured their straight horns (they also made a straight tenor3) in the late 1990s. Reportedly they only made about a thousand of these. But as providence would have it, Cranky stumbled upon an online musical instrument retailer who listed one refurbished Keilwerth Straight Alto SR-90. The Keilwerth was a straight version of their top-of-the line professional horn, the SR-90, a beautifully engineered instrument with a gorgeous black nickel finish. Cranky, realizing after months of searching that this was the golden opportunity, immediately went into credit card debt to acquire this saxophone.

The rest is history.

Aside from the mansplainers with their wrong answers, “What is that instrument?” is still by far the most common Cranky question. “Did you really go to clown school?” and “Where did you get your clothes?” rank a distant second third, respectively4 Once Cranky tells the interested party that it’s a straight alto saxophone, a common follow-up question is usually a variation on “Why a straight sax?” Cranky’s quick answer is “For the novelty of it.” Other reasons could be that it does also have a mellow tone, but that likely has more to do with Cranky’s style and the fact that it tends to project the sound downward, relying on the reflectivity of the surface to relay the sound. But, that would get a little mansplainy, when the point is, yeah, just novelty.

One shouldn’t have to explain that the whole point of Cranky is novelty.

Postscript

Keilwerth straight alto sax stripped of it's key work revealing just the body.
Cranky’s horn all stripped down as sax surgeon Adam Montminy prepares to operate.

Many of you who follow Cranky’s reporting on Facebook know that the 2016 season ended with Cranky bustin’ his horn. Luckily the bright side is that he hooked up with an awesome sax-tech guy at Maine Saxes. After giving it the once over, Adam not only saw what Cranky broke but also pointed out that it still had the original, 12-year-old pads which were in dire need of replacement. So in essence Cranky spent all of his 2016 busking cash, and then some, to have his saxophone completely stripped down and overhauled. The results were astounding and Cranky is already looking forward to a much improved playing season in 2017.


Footnotes:

1. Dakota Sax is a new company (2016), that wasn’t around when Cranky was searching. They offer straight altos and tenors that appear to be stencils of the L.A. Sax models. Also an eBay search will bring up several no-name brand Chinese-made straight saxes.
2. Cranky does own a curved soprano sax by L.A. Sax, it has a plumb-purple finish. It’s rare that you’ll see him playing it in public, but he’s always vowing to bring it out some day.
3. Keilwerth’s SR-90 straight tenor became well known briefly in the 90s when popular jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano recorded his album Tenor Time (1996). The back and front cover of the album feature Lovano and this horn. It seems it was a one-gig affair.
4. Somehow not surprising, the most common question from musicians is, “How much money do you make?” or some less blunt variation.
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