Buescher Bass Sax Upper Stack

Incredible: One Handed Conn F-Mezzo Soprano!

This amazing saxophone was engineered and built by Conn to permit a player to execute the complete chromatic scale from low Bb to high F using only the right hand. To my knowledge it is a one-of-a-kind instrument, a rarity of the first order. Please consider the following attributes of this unusual collectible saxophone:
  • F Mezzo Soprano model
  • Super premium burnished gold plate finish
  • Engineered to play using right hand only
  • Pristine original condition, completely playable

A careful look at the pictures is all that’s needed to dispel any suspicions on whether this instrument is anything but a well thought out, original Conn engineering project. It was obviously built this way from scratch. Please note that the upper tone hole configuration is not the same as on standard saxophones, and these relocated tone holes were obviously extruded from a blank body into this configuration There is no indication whatsoever that any ‘normal’ saxophone upper tone holes have been covered or filled over. They simply never existed. Ditto any normal saxophone upper body keywork. Every key touch is placed so as to be executed by the right hand, with connections and unique key action combinations that open & close the pad cups required to sound the notes as the player intends. This one hand keywork system is ingeniously based on the all-open note of G, as opposed to the normal saxophone’s C#. The result is that the upper pads that control A, Bb, B, C and C# are sprung closed, not open — so the keywork opens these pads at the player’s option rather than closing them. If you think in terms of having ‘side’ keys for A through C# you are well on the way to playing this instrument effectively — and with just your right hand!

Of course executing G# is different, too, but F# down to low C is normal saxophone right hand fingerings. The remaining notes normally played by the left pinky are cleverly arranged above the right hand F-E-D touches so that your normal lower stack pads are closed when pressing low Db, B or Bb keys. The action is a bit stiff in places due to the extra springing that the player must overcome, and there are no alternate fingerings for C, Bb, Eb or F# as on a normal saxophone key layout, but the overall result is both comprehensible and completely functional.

Musically, the F & G scales (C & Bb concert on an instrument keyed to F) are quite easy to master & execute. I suspect that the reason the F Mezzo Soprano design was chosen as the chassis for this instrument is connected to the ease with which the keywork could be designed to execute the nominal F/concert C scale. The sizing of the F Mezzo Soprano must also have been a consideration since it is a bit lighter & shorter than the alto. Still, an alto would have worked, though the most facile scales of nominal F & G would have been the (musically) less common and less popular Bb & Ab concert. A fingering chart is one of our exhibits, so you can compare for yourself how comprehensible an Eb scale (so a player could produce sound in concert C on the alto chassis) might be to execute relative to playing an F scale on this saxophone.  Of course these considerations on playability are based on analysis by a two handed player accustomed to playing (and working on) ‘normal’ saxophones. If an individual has never played sax the perceptions might differ. And what if a player had lost the use of their left hand? This instrument is simply a Godsend. I suppose that’s just how the one-handed musician, Al Miller (whose name is stenciled on the case and for whom it is said Conn built this instrument), perceived this very saxophone during his performing career. In the vaudeville era this was ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ stuff.

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Aside from the brief reference to a one handed saxophone built by Conn for Miller (the type chassis is not given) on the UMI web site there is little concrete known about the origin of this instrument. In fact, it cannot be dated because it bears no serial number at all (which further strengthens the one-of-a-kind argument). Research reveals a couple mentions of one-handed saxophone designs, though. In the March/April 1990 issue of The Saxophone Journal Paul Cohen wrote that during the saxophone craze of the 1920s the Conn R&D staff had developed a design for a right-hand-only saxophone adaptable to either alto or tenor, and that Buescher had built a left-hand-only curved soprano. There is no mention of our instrument, nor of a right-hand-only Conn design for the F-Mezzo chassis, but that could be because the Conn research on one handed saxophones predated their work on the F Mezzo Soprano. Since Paul’s comments are in the context of a preamble to discussing the F Mezzo Soprano model you have to assume that if he was familiar with this instrument it would have been cited. 

The second mention is an article devoted to this very instrument in the British publication, ‘Winds’, written by editor Wally Harwood (“A Curiosity in F”, Spring 1989 issue). Harwood’s article was based on the experiences of US collector Theodore McDowell with our instrument while it was in the hands of a Chicago repair tech & player named Don Ponce. The article speculates on the origin of this instrument in a couple ways. The first is that it was made in the late 1920s for a vaudevillian novelty act where the musician played two instruments simultaneously. The second instrument in this act is proposed to have been a trumpet or cornet, which though supported by the instrument’s case configuration (see pix), seems a bit far fetched considering the complexities required to coordinate these disparate embrochures. The second explanation offered by Harwood is that the sax was built by vets returning from WWII to their jobs at the Conn factory in a program aimed at easing the reaclimation of injured servicemen.

While this post WWII theory is a rather romantic notion that would make a great movie theme, the theory has a couple big holes. First, the F-Mezzo design never caught on, so the instrument was long out of production by the time WWII ended. I doubt Conn dragged the tooling back out to make just one F-Mezzo body, so to buy the post WWII theory you have to assume Conn still had a formed F-Mezzo body with no tone holes still sitting around somewhere for over 15 years. Second, this sax is the premium burnished gold finish with custom art deco engraving. While I suppose it’s possible Conn made some burnished gold finish saxophones after the war, that’s hard to comprehend when even satin silver saxes of that era are a bit unusual. Even more unusual would have been an art deco engraving pattern such as the one on this instrument, though the style of engraving you see here was the norm on high end 1929-30 Conn saxophones. As one Conn engraving aficionado with whom I conferred on this instrument said, this particular engraving looks like a sample sheet of Conn engravings from the art deco period. 

For me, the most convincing piece of evidence that supports a late 1920s build date for this instrument is the case. It’s obviously a custom case made in the style of one I have in my collection that’s original to a Conn transitional art deco alto of 245k s/n. The cover material, hardware & leather corner guards are exactly the same. Especially note the case handle mount when you view the picture array on this instrument. This compressed ring style of attachment was superseded with a bradded sheet metal design in the early 1930s. Inside the case there is a space for a second instrument obviously of the trumpet family. Judging by the size of that cutout for the bell outline the second instrument might even have been a flugelhorn. Regardless of the type of this second instrument, a provision for its presence certainly supports the Vaudeville novelty act theory. We can leave to the imagination whether the act consisted of a two handed musician playing both instruments at once, or a one-handed musician playing them alternately …

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This very rare & unusual saxophone is sold, but please enjoy reading about it & seeing the pictures with us.

Just Who Was Al Miller?
From the best we can piece together, Al ‘Papa’ Miller was a talented vaudeville musician and World War I veteran who lost his left arm in service to our country. Al was also a family man, raising at least one daughter (Cleora Miller) who followed him into vaudeville. When Al returned from the war in 1918 Conn made him a One-Handed tenor of similar design to this F-Mezzo, which he played in his daughter’s group, The Cleora Miller Trio. By the Fall of 1931 Cleora’s trio had grown to an orchestra of fifteen — the lucky Al and fourteen lovely ladies — that was featured in Conn’s Musical Truth magazine as endorsing artists. The Conn caption credits Al as “one of the world’s foremost cornet players, having a range of 7 complete octaves”, which certainly explains the second position in our One Hand F-Mezzo case.

It’s curious, though, that in this 1931 picture of the Cleora Miller group, Al is holding a saxophone. In fact, the sax that Al is shown with is neither tenor nor F-Mezzo, but apparently an alto. By blowing up the picture (click the pix for a full size view) we can clearly see that the instrument Al is holding has no right tone holes, but apparently does have a tuning neck. Adding the date (1931) to the equation, Conn must also have made a One Handed transitional alto for Al. The One Hand Conn tenor is presently owned by Mr. Paul Cohen, and of course we recently placed the F-Mezzo ourselves. The transitional alto, however, remains unaccounted for, so if anyone knows of its location please give a shout. We would also like to hear from anyone who has additional information about Al Miller, or any of his instruments.

I’d like to thank noted saxophiles Mr. Paul Lindemeyer and Mr. Paul Cohen for their contributions to this information, plus Mr. Allyn Jackson and Mr. Andrew Jack, two long time CS friends & clients who were active in discussions that lead to insights about this remarkable instrument.

Special Note
A a result of our one hand Conn F-Mezzo offering we have been contacted by others interested in acquiring rare collectible saxophones. If you have instruments such as the Conn-O-Sax or standard F-Mezzo Soprano that you would like to place (or know of someone that does) please email or call Bear (918-625-9773).

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