You may well ask, what a Saxophone has got to do with family history? When my Dad died in 1987, my Mum insisted on giving me and my four younger brothers £500 each. I didn’t want to fritter away the money without having something to remind me of my Dad. I decided to buy a saxophone! At the time I was living in Kidderminster and, near a shopping centre in Halesowen, there was a music shop and that is where I bought a second hand Conn Alto Saxophone. I knew nothing about saxophones and didn’t know how to play one, but I did like the sound they made. A short while later, Sue bought a clarinet, so we were both in search of a teacher.
I wanted to start lessons, but couldn’t find anyone, then had a lucky break. We had an overseas student staying with us and the organisation that brought the student over held a function for the host families. We were sat on a table with another couple and she turned out to be a music teacher, who offered lessons in saxophone, clarinet and other reed instruments. We were off and running, but before we could make any real progress, we relocated to Kent, where we have been since 1988. Shortly after arriving, we got a cat who hated the sound of the saxophone, so it ended up in the loft where it has stayed for more than thirty years.
In all of this lockdown madness, I wanted to take on the job of making this instrument playable, so I decided to have a good look at it and watched some videos to see how it ought to be done. I was a bit wary of damaging an instrument that could have some value, so I decided to find out more about it. The model was called “Shooting Stars” and the stars are engraved on the bell, but due to wear and tear, not easy to see in a photo. I could make out the serial number, which is N 30227. The G C Conn company started in Elkhart, Indiana USA in the late 1800s and is still in business today as part of the Conn Selmer division of a large group.
After various changes, for a time the company manufactured saxophones in Nogales, Arizona or across the border in Nogales, Mexico. My serial number relates to the Mexican plant. During this period, the quality of Conn instruments was said to have suffered and so Mexican built instruments have very low resale values. No problem then with wrecking it in my attempt to refurbish it. The N at the beginning of the serial number is not for Nogales, it was the year of manufacture. My saxophone was made in 1970 and so I am the proud owner of a 50 year old instrument that I have owned for 33 years of its life. I had never wondered about its earlier ownership. Yesterday I noticed along the edge of the metal strip on the hard case lid, an earlier owner had faintly scratched their name, address and telephone number. Say hello to Charlotte Whitener of Vidor, Texas.
This entry was from the class of 1982 from Vidor High School. So I know she had the saxophone back then, but I don’t know how it got from Vidor to Halesowen, five years later. The reference to Keel, suggests that was her married name, but I have not been able to find anything else about her. However, I did find out a few things about Vidor, whilst I was looking. Vidor is in south east Texas, just across the border from Lousiana and is on Interstate 10 that runs down to Houston. Take a look at this map.
Charlotte Whitener lived in West Circuit Drive, which follows the red line that is in the top right corner of the map exiting on to Evangeline Drive. What caught my eye though was Conn Park. Could this be a connection to the saxophone manufacturer? Researching a bit further, I discovered that a young couple with the surname Conn were shot to death in 2010 at a trailer park and the likeliest explanation is that the park was named after them. A real tragedy, but nothing to do with saxophones.
Something else, I learned about Vidor, was its reputation for racism. It was known as a ‘sundown’ town, along with many others in the Deep South, which meant it was uncomfortable, to say the least, if you were black, to remain in town after dark. The town even had a Klan bookstore for many years and today is still predominantly white. Recently, in a sign of changing times, a demonstration in support of “Black Lives Matter” took place, so there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
One other fact about Vidor, I discovered yesterday, was someone used a billboard to complain about lack of action by the police in a case. This was the inspiration behind the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing”.
Country and Western fans would also like to know that Billy Jo Spears and George Jones originated in Vidor. Not bad for a town of about 10000 people. These two along with a number of lesser known celebrities are commemorated in a series of stars embedded in the pavement in the town.
I read a great deal about Vidor, but don’t want to dwell further on this, because my blog is about family history. The additional information provides a bit of background to the previous owner of my saxophone and on the place she lived.
Back to Conn to finish up. This picture is from the bell of my saxophone and it shows the word Conn, with some hatching below it, which happened for Mexican built models. The USA built models had “USA” instead of the hatching.
The final image is of the famous “three bandsmen” logo used by Conn in various forms and this one was on the outside of my saxophone hard case. It is amazing what a little bit of research can add on a bleak Sunday afternoon to the story of my saxophone. And all the while I was doing it I kept thinking of my Dad, which is why I bought it in the first place.