THE SAX GOD—WIEDOEFT
Probably most people connect my name with the saxophone, but only a few know that all my life I have had a great desire to play some sort of a musical instrument. I went from drums to clarinet, to trumpet, to saxophone.
The clarinet I studied faithfully for ten weeks and then was forced to neglect it, due to a very hard job in a sawmill during the summer vacation. When I think of how close I came to losing my fingers I thank my lucky stars that I finished that summer’s work without receiving so much as a scratch from a saw. Many times when I worked on the “edger,” the saw teeth striking a knot in the board would throw it back so that the palm of my hand just missed the teeth.
I took up the study of the trumpet while working back stage with a stock company, and then rented a saxophone when I began my senior year in school. The similarity between saxophone and clarinet made it possible for me to play a limited range of notes on the saxophone. The horn that I had was called a C Melody, being pitched in C. I could read song sheets, the violin parts, without any transposition. I used to play at night with several acquaintances who gathered in a bowling alley where near beer was served, and go canoeing with a banjo player or a violinist. Always I played for my own amusement and for those who cared to listen. Finally I was engaged by a small dance orchestra playing two nights a week in a Pythian Temple Building. This led to more engagements in northern Maine with what had been Maine’s most famous dance orchestra, Welch’s Novelty Orchestra.
By that time I had begun to think I was quite a saxophonist; the boys in that band, and in fact every band I played with, made so much of me that I was very pleased with my progress.
I had read somewhere, possibly in a Victor catalogue, about a Victor record that Joseph C. Smith and his orchestra had played called “Caravan.” This was the composition of a young man, a saxophonist by the name of Rudy Wiedoeft, who, the article said, dropped in when Smith was recording the number and played a chorus of variations which were truly marvelous. Just before I had left for the summer engagement in northern Maine I had listened to a record that this young man had made with another saxophonist and two pianos (these four called themselves the Wiedoeft-Wadsworth Quartet). On this record, called “The Crocodile,” the saxophones had employed a peculiar form of tongueing known as “slap tongue” because it gives forth from the bell a sound very much akin to that produced by two boards being slapped together. I noticed that this always intrigued the layman even as it did me. After experimenting a little bit with the mouthpiece and reed, I stumbled onto this effect, and it stood me in great stead in those early days, and brought a lot of attention to my playing, as many saxophonists are to able to do it.
Then in the fall when I returned from the summer engagement, the Victor Company released the first solo played by Rudy Wiedoeft on the same type of instrument that I used, the C Melody. Both numbers were his own compositions and one of them is his pièce de résistance, that one that he is always associated with, namely “Saxophobia.” They are masterpieces even today, and I truthfully believe no one could record them in quite the way Wiedoeft did. Although Wiedoeft’s beautiful tone was apparent in “The Crocodile” it remained for this wonderful record of “Valse Erica” and “Saxophobia” to show me the great possibilities of the saxophone as a concert solo instrument.
I wrote Wiedoeft, asking him a few technical questions. The weeks dragged by but no reply came, so I wrote a second, and a third, and a fourth, and so on until I had written eight letters. I made up my mind that if persistence counted for anything. I would hear from him, but I did not realize that I was writing to perhaps the busiest man in New York City. Between phonograph records, solo appearances, and a thousand and one pressing engagements, Rudy Wiedoeft had no time for answering fan mail. Then again, Rudy Wiedoeft had no time for answering fan mail. Then again, Rudy dislikes letter writing, not being of a particularly literary turn of mind. I did not hear from him until I came down with acute appendicitis in December, 1920. This time, noting that I was sick and in the hospital, he answered my letter, replying to my questions in full.
I had begun the study of the saxophone with a man who had had many years’ experience with the instrument. This man decried the use of “slap tongue” as being “illegitimate,” and perhaps it was pity for my helplessness in the hospital combined with irritation at the criticism of “slap tongue” by this instructor that made Wiedoeft reply. Anyway, he censured my instructor roundly for daring to criticize him, inviting him to come to New York City where, as he said, the phonograph business was open, and any one of the phonograph companies would welcome him with open arms if he were as good a saxophonist as he was a critic. Wiedoeft’s final point impressed me very strongly. He said that anything is legitimate so long as it produces the goods. I never quite forgot that statement, and although it is not actually or completely true, it comes pretty near being.
During my convalescence several more of Wiedoeft’s records had come out. He had become the rage of all the phonograph companies and had made records for all of them; he had his dance band that he called the Californians, his Palace Trio, his Wiedoeft-Wadsworth Quartet, his solos, and his interludes with Henry Burr and various other vocalists who had him take up the melody for half a chorus to make a contract.
As my side was healing, I made up my mind that when I got out I would begin the study of the saxophone, using as my pattern and guide Rudy Wiedoeft’s records and my own intelligence, and when I came to an effect or a point that puzzled me, I resolved to work it out by myself, so I never went back to the instructor with whom I had intended to study. In passing, I might say that the instructor did impress upon me one important point, and that is the fact that tone comes first, and that the only way to secure it is to play long tone scales; he also assisted me in the selection of a new horn, for which I was always grateful.
This new instrument had come while I was in the hospital. There had been a drain in my incision, which of course left a weakened spot in my side. As a boy I was always impatient and eager to do things and could never be restrained when it was something near and dear to my heart, and the day I came home from the hospital I committed a folly for which I was to pay dearly years later. The family left me alone that afternoon knowing that I needed nothing and that it was safe for me to inspect my instrument. But I could not resist the impulse to play it even though the doctor had cautioned me that dire results would follow were I to attempt to blow my saxophone. The temptation was too great. Had it been my old instrument with reed and mouthpiece adjusted so that I could play with a minimum of effort, probably I would not have suffered, but it was a new instrument, stiff and cold, which even today I would have difficulty in playing. Trembling and expecting any moment that darkness would close in upon me and that I would fall senseless to the floor, I took the new instrument into my hands and blew a few notes . . . nothing happened . . . no pain . . . so I continued to blow.
Of course, I put the horn away before my family returned, and the next day I showed my horrified mother that I could play the instrument and nothing would happen. But without knowing it I was weakening the muscles of my side in the place where the drain had been, and two years later it was necessary for me to spend the two most beautiful weeks of a golden September in the hospital at New Haven while Dr. William F. Verdi, one of the greatest surgeons in the East, performed the operation gratis, as I did not have the money to pay for his wonderful services. He made my side stronger than ever for which I shall always be grateful, and this time I did not begin playing until he told me that it was permissible for me to do so.
Recovering from the first operation, I resolved to practice four and five hours a day as I read Wiedoeft had done, and to perfect myself so that Wiedoeft would be forced to reckon with me. With his pictures on the wall as an inspiration and a taunt, I locked myself in my room and practiced so long at times that the neighbors nearly went mad, and my poor mother became distracted through fear that I would injure myself. My practicing after luncheon annoyed my father so that he expressed himself vehemently about it, and so I set out to find a place where I could practice and not feel that I was disturbing anyone.
The old Scenic Theatre in our little home town where I had once given away “grab bags” of candy for my father, as an advertisement for my father’s store, was now closed. I went there to practice for awhile but my father soon became reconciled to my home practice, which continued during the year I took a post-graduate course in High School. I had begun the study of several Wiedoeft saxophone solos with the aspiration to present them somewhere. The first time that I presented a solo was at a Sunday afternoon meeting at the Y. M. C. A. in Portland, Maine, where the big Y. M. C. A. orchestra supplied the diverting part of Sunday afternoon meetings after talks by famous ministers and leaders. On Easter Sunday I played “The Palms” and another Sunday I played Victor Herbert numbers and beautiful songs such as “The Sunshine of Your Smile,” “A Perfect Day,” and so forth.
Then came my first chance as a soloist on a stage in a spotlight! The Portland lodge of the Elks had heir annual minstrel show in the Jefferson Theatre, where I had once served as an assistant property boy. It was in this theatre that I had learned to worship Robert Gleckler for his tremendous personality, had polished the boots he wore in the war play, “Lilac Time,” had brought him food to his dressing-room and had admired him from afar. Perhaps one of my greatest happiness came recently when this same Robert Gleckler, who was one of the stars of the plays “Broadway,” “The Tavern,” “Heads Up,” and many other shows, took the trouble to come back stage to congratulate me on my work.
The Elks spotted me in the middle of their program for a couple of solo choruses of a popular song, and although I was trembling with fright, I played the number well enough to receive a wonderful ovation.
During the summer that followed I played at a pavilion on an island in Portland Harbor. It was then I arranged to matriculate at the University of Maine the following fall. During that summer I was told that the young leader of the Strand Theatre orchestra, one theatre in which I had worked as head usher, wished to see me. I knew what was on his mind and dreaded meeting him. I knew that he wanted me to play some saxophone solos at intermission, and I knew that I could easily be talked into doing it. But feeling that I could not do justice to them, I avoided meeting him. Finally, however, he cornered me and convinced me that I could do it. Then he began making the orchestral parts for the accompaniment to the solos. After agreeing, I practiced very hard down in the pavilion on the island where I played for dancing. Often on the hottest days I shut myself up in the room and practiced with no windows open, because the inhabitants of the island had complained to the owner of the pavilion that my practicing was worse than a fog horn, with its endless monotony of scales and long tones (which I sometimes held for two minutes and practiced for four and five hours at a time!).
I recall the day when President Harding came up on his yacht, going, I believe, to New Hampshire for his vacation. I left my practice long enough to go out and watch the “Mayflower” steam past the island; but except for that, nothing ever took me from my practice. I was determined that I would play “Saxophobia” and “Valse Erica” and do justice to them. Two years from the September that the chief electrician of the Strand had presented me with a saxophone he was renting from a Portland music store. I stepped out on the stage to play “Valse Erica” and “Saxophobia” while this same electrician manipulated the lights to give me the right lighting effect. As well as I learned these two numbers, I did not know them so thoroughly but that my nervousness on the opening performance, (yes, and even to the last one!) made me sometimes skip whole cadenzas, when my trembling fingers refused to obey my mind.
However, the crowds seemed to like them, and I will never forget the effect it had on my father. Up to this time he had always called me a “cheap faker” and had been comparatively unwilling to help me with my instruments. In fact, he had considered the plating of the instruments an extravagance which he refused to countenance, and I pawned my clarinets in order to silver-plate my newest saxophone. I had told him nothing of my coming appearance at the Strand Theatre and I watched the expressions on his face when he read the big announcement in the Sunday paper after Sunday dinner. He said nothing but I knew that he was profoundly affected by the announcement. He had to be shown, as I believe many people did, but I know that my mother always felt that I would amount to something with my music.
Portland is practically Maine, and that Strand Theatre appearance did wonders for me because it made me quite an important musical figure in Maine. At The University of Maine at which I matriculated in the fall, the Strand Theatre appearance did much toward causing the fraternities to rush me. In fact, my saxophone brought me a great deal of happiness at the University.
During all this time I had not forgotten my resolve to make Wiedoeft some day acknowledge me, and I still followed all the musical magazines for news or notes about him. I had every record he had ever played on; I knew all the gossip there was to know about him; in fact, I ate, drank and talked Rudy Wiedoeft so much that it earned for me the nickname of “Rudy.” I had been pledged by Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and I moved into a room there with three other boys. They had given me one wall of the room for my pictures, which were all of Wiedoeft. Every new man was brought into that room to listen to me play along with Wiedoeft’s records, which I had learned to do by tuning the phonograph so that it corresponded with the pitch of my saxophone. Some fellow, seeing all these pictures and records, misunderstood, or perhaps intentionally began the moniker of “Rudy” from which I have never been able to get away. After awhile it became so natural and pleasant and seemed to go so well with the “Vallée” that I hardly recognized my given name of “Hubert.”
I was now confronted by the problem of preparing my studies, going to my classes, playing in the evening to earn my tuition, and yet continuing the study of the saxophone as a solo instrument. It sometimes took me hours to select and find a perfect reed. I went through dozens of reeds I could ill afford before I found one that answered my purpose. I used the sleeping chamber of the fraternity house for practice in the afternoon until I realized that even there I disturbed the study of my brothers in the fraternity, so I moved next to the town hall, which was a mile from the campus. I engaged the opera house at a nominal cost per month to practice in. There were no offices in this two-story edifice, just a cellar and a small auditorium; consequently there was no heat during the day and very little even on the nights of functions. I purchased a small electric heater of the circular coil type, but no matter how I adjusted it, it only heated half of my body at a time; consequently, when my feet were being kept warm, my fingers froze, and vice versa.
On one particular morning I was scheduled to play solos at chapel at noon. In order that my jaws and fingers should be in working order for the solo at noon, I got up at 5:30 in the morning, and practiced from 6 to 7:30 in the cold town hall so that at noon I would be able to do justice to the songs. It was quite an effort, what with loss of sleep and suffering from the cold, but it was worth it.
Sometimes it did not seem as though I was going to have time to practice my long tones which was the only way I could improve my tone and keep it constant; and since these long tones required no mental concentration I would practice them while reading over one of my courses of the interesting type, such as history or psychology, something where there was no figuring or mental perplexity. I had prepared two new Wiedoeft solos which I presented at the Strand the first week of Christmas vacation.
An amusing incident occurred there that week. When I had been head usher in the theatre several years previously, the director of the orchestra had been a rather irate individual, inclined to be very tempestuous. He also played the violin. One day as I watched him unpacking some violins from a case in which they had come he became annoyed with me, standing there watching him, and ordered me out of the dressing-room. Times had changed since I was head usher, and at this particular Christmas time he was only one of the violinists in the orchestra; the present leader, the young man who had asked me to do the solos, had returned from the Rhine where he had been with the Army of Occupation. As coincidence would have it, I occupied the same dressing-room in which this former leader had unpacked his violins. I left nothing in it but my tuxedo hanging on the wall and never locked the door since there was nothing to take. One day I walked in to find several of the musicians smoking and talking in my room, which was on a level with the stage, their own room being down below, and believe it or not, this same violinist-director asked me if I minded their smoking in my dressing-room! However, I bore him no ill-will and did not remind him of he time when he had been quite unkind and I suppose he never remembered it.
At Easter vacation my dream came true! I had been writing to Wiedoeft’s manager, Joseph Davis, who was also a music publisher, and in whose little office Wiedoeft had a still smaller room. Mr. Davis promised me that if I came to New York he would arrange an appointment, so at Easter time I set out with high hopes of meeting Rudy Wiedoeft, hearing Paul Whiteman, and making a solo on a record, for which privilege I paid fifty dollars, the savings of many months. All three of my dreams were realized and of course the greatest thrill was that of meeting my idol, whom I found to be just as gracious and charming as I hoped he would be. I asked him if I should give up my school and go into music entirely, and he replied that by all means I should get my college education, so I often thank Wiedoeft for helping me in my decision to secure my degree. He allowed me to watch his band recording and gave me several hours of his time, which, of course, was quite priceless. I have never forgotten his kindness and I resolved that some day I would repay him.
The next summer I had resolved to transfer to Yale where there was more opportunity for work, moreover, New Haven’s proximity to New York guaranteed me many things. During the summer I received a wonderful offer to play in London for the winter at a very fine salary, with a guarantee of many records and concerts, and the opportunity to study at London University. I gave no definite answer until I met the group of men who were sailing; luckily I met them only four days before they sailed when it was too late for me to get my passport, because they persuaded me to go. Rather than go alone, I turned it down and they sailed without me. Thus I can thank the regulations regarding passports for saving me from losing what I value most, my college education.
I entered Yale the following fall and still continued to practice. In a short while, I found that I disturbed the other students in the dormitory by my practicing, so I paid fifty cents an afternoon for a Swedish fraternity hall where I practiced to my heart’s content. It took quite a walk to reach it but the complete freedom that I experienced while practicing was worth it. I played at the dining-hall nightly and played at country clubs and golf clubs and deb parties with the orchestra with which I was associated during my four years at college.
The summer of 1923 a group of us under the direction of Peter Arno, the famous artist whose clever drawings adorn The New Yorker, played for Gilda Gray at the “Rendezvous,” taking the place of the Cornell Collegians who had gone to Long Island during the summer. I bumped into Wiedoeft several times, and he wa always kind and courteous. Even though he had already told me all I wanted to know, it was still an inspiration to meet him, and of course I was helped considerably when he played even a few measures for me of some solo or other. I also met Don Clark, first saxophonist with Whiteman, whom I have mentioned before. He was likewise a great friend and admirer of Wiedoeft’s and owed much of his development to Wiedoeft, as they had both begun at practically the same time in California. Don was very wonderful to me and gave me considerable help. He has since retired and I count him among my staunch friends, and one whose friendship I hope I never lose.
I saw Wiedoeft just before I underwent the second operation on my side and he wished me the best of luck.
Then came another year, 1924, at Yale, a summer in Maine with a Boston orchestra, and the final acceptance of the London offer which had been continually forced on me ever since I had rejected it.
While in London (Sept., 1924 to June, 1925), I instructed over fifty pupils implanting in them the Wiedoeft method and ideas and holding Wiedoeft—and his records—up before them as my God, who, should also be theirs.
I returned in July and played again in Maine. I was in Maine that I first did a little singing. The summer of 1924, and the summer of 1925, for no reason at all I had taken it upon myself to sing such numbers as “St. Louis Blues,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” and several other songs. The summer of 1924, I had played with a small society orchestra and most of the times that I sang the crowd gathered around to listen to the words which seemed to fascinate them. Although they applauded me heavily I never thought any more about attempting to feature myself as a vocalist. When I returned to Yale the orchestra with which I had been playing threw cold water on my vocal efforts. Although they considered me a capable saxophonist, it was immaterial to them whether I attempted to sing or not, and as no one ever asked me, my megaphone remained unused. This I can readily understand, as after all my voice is not strong and at most of the affairs we played the crowd was very noisy. Society chatters while it dances and my vocal efforts were practically wasted on the air.
After I returned from London, I met Wiedoeft and this time it was he who thanked me for publicizing him in England as the publishers there had told him that I had caused an increasing demand for his records and solos. He asked me if I thought he would go well in England. Feeling that I had sown the seed for his personal appearance, I advised him by all means to appear there. He did so a year later and was very well received.
I continued to practice though not quite so steadily as before, since it gradually began to dawn on me that even the world’s greatest saxophonist was not overpaid, and that a business career in South America, with a knowledge of Spanish and English, might mean more of a fortune than all the saxophonic skill in the world.
The following summer I was in vaudeville with a group of Yale boys whom I did not lead; I was just the saxophone soloist playing one of Wiedoeft’s solos and simple encores like “Kiss Me Again.” The following fall, the greatest of my collegiate ambitions was realized: I led the Yale band in the big bowl. I organized a saxophone quintet which played “Bye Bye Blackbird” and various other songs and received a tremendous ovation. That fall I appeared as saxophone soloist at one of the local theatres.
After graduation I once more did a tour of vaudeville with the Yale Collegians, though this time I did not play saxophone solos but sang the lead in a trio and played first sax in the orchestra.
Following the break-up of the act in September, when the rest of the students re-entered Yale, I played in New Haven at the arena, during a “Radio Week,” with the orchestra with which I had been associated while in Yale. Here I got my first glimpse of the great McNamee. As there were no radios at Yale it has never been my good fortune to “listen in” except once, to a big prize-fight. But I knew that McNamee was a man greatly admired throughout the United States for his ability to broadcast sporting events, and I was as much charmed by his wonderful personality as any of those present in the arena the night of the radio show that he appeared. Little did I realize then just what radio was to do for me.
I went next to Boston in the fall of 1927 where I played with several bands. But realizing that the field was too limited, I transferred to New York, hoping to find work. I have already written of meeting my boys and our climb to popularity. I have also mentioned that one of the greatest happinesses came to me at the height of our vaudeville success. During the week we played Flushing in Keith vaudeville, it was my good fortune not only to bring my idol, Rudy Wiedoeft, on the stage to acknowledge public acclaim, but to have a dinner cooked at his home in Flushing by his very capable wife, and to sit for pictures taken of the both of us playing together.
Two years previously, while on a tour for Publix Theatres, he had played Portland, Maine. I had notified my father of his coming; father had met him on his arrival and had seen to it that Wiedoeft had everything he needed for comfort. He was kind enough to come out to our little home town as soloist for the Kiwanians, something which I doubt his contract permitted him to do, and something which money could not have made him do unless he wished to. My sister had the honor of accompanying him and that clipping is stuck away in my scrap book to remind me of one of the brightest spots in my life.
My little brother met him after his last show the night he soloed in Westbrook, and brought him out again to our home where mother had prepared a big feast. Many of the neighbors came in while Wiedoeft entertained them with the jokes and tricks for which he is also well known. Today Wiedoeft is still the greatest of them all.
He has opened a studio where he accepts only advance pupils, and how lucky are those who are fortunate enough to be accepted by him! I count myself as one of his first pupils and a letter from him saying that I am, is one of my most prized possessions. He gave it to me shortly after I had returned from London, in gratitude for the work I had done for him there, and I feel so happy in the thought that I have been able in some little way to reflect some of my popularity upon this accomplished saxophonist, who did so much for me.
At this time I received a great deal of inspiration from a book called “The Guarded Heights”—in my day-dreams I often pictured myself in the role of the hero. However it was Wiedoeft who was my greatest inspiration.
It was he who inspired me to work over my saxophone, which in turn helped me to put myself through school and win friends and which eventually brought me the opportunity to lead my own band; and this in turn led to the discovery that my voice was suited to broadcasting and that my ideas on the presentation of simple dance music with song were ready for a warm reception by a public tired of raucous noise and discordant sounds.