It was the peak of the Roaring Twenties, and a great time to sell saxophones. More than a million of the instruments were already in circulation in the United States, with at least one apiece being used by each of an estimated 60,000 dance bands performing across the country. Understandably not wanting their good fortunes to end, the folks at the C.G. Conn company in Elkhart, Ind., had many ideas for expanding their market. Among the most interesting was an instrument pitched in the unusual key of F (one full step above the alto sax). Called the Conn-O-Sax, it was perfectly straight except for a slightly curved neck and a spherical bell that gave it a cutely chubby appearance. Its look was meant to mirror that of a baritone oboe known as the Heckelphone, while its tone was designed to imitate the higher-pitched cor anglais or English horn.
Played with keys just like a standard saxophone, the Conn-O-Sax had a range of nearly three octaves, from low A to altissimo G, still impressive today. According to a Conn magazine advertisement from 1928, the year it was first sold, “Not only is the Conn-O-Sax a novel instrument in appearance and in tone quality, but it is very fine musically. It is not a freak with little or no musical beauty but it is a fine musical instrument in its own right.”
Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression meant that most musicians were making a lot less money, and they weren’t about to spend what little they had on strange new instruments. By 1930, Conn-O-Saxes were already a thing of the past. Only about 25 are still in existence. But those in the know swear that they’re the sweetest-sounding of all the saxophones. And having been lucky enough to hear Conn-O-Sax expert Paul Cohen play one at a New York concert a few years back, we’re inclined to agree.
Cohen, a distinguished classical saxophonist and music historian who’s on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, NYU, Rutgers University, and Queens College, lent his Conn-O-Sax to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a 2015 exhibition called Celebrating Sax: Instruments and Innovation. He also wrote a blog post for the museum, in which he describes the Conn-O-Sax as having “a unique timbre, visual appearance, and technical versatility that was visionary for its time. The Conn-O-Sax succeeded brilliantly as an instrument … but ultimately failed in the marketplace.” The same held true for another saxophone introduced by Conn in 1928, the F mezzo-soprano—but that’s a story for another column.
Scroll through the slideshow below to learn about new instruments and musical gear.