I recently had the opportunity to overhaul two Conn saxophones built during World War II. To understand why this is unusual and pretty cool, some background is helpful.
In the lead-up to American military involvement in World War II, the materials necessary to make saxophones such as brass, steel, and cork became harder and harder to come by for non-war related items, and eventually in 1942 the US Government passed restrictive measure L-37 (and its companion L-37a), which limited such war-critical materials to no more than 10% by weight of any given manufactured item. This means that unless there was a special exception (for instance military instruments), production of saxophones at the American saxophone companies came to a complete halt and the precision machinery and trained workers at the saxophone factories were converted to war-related production. Conn, for instance, made altimeters which you can often find on eBay. Holton made fuses.
At Conn, “According to Frank Savage, who was in charge of converting the factory from the manufacture of musical instruments to products for the war effort, the entire factory was gutted. All the tools for making band instruments were moved outside under makeshift sheds and tarps and replaced with the machinery necessary to produce precision equipment for the U.S. Army and Navy. Under strict government contract, the entire plant became a classified area and was completely surrounded by a chain-link fence…” (Click the source link at the head of the quote to read more and see some cool photos)
You can read more about this fascinating period in American musical instrument manufacturing here: Stop The Music! American Band Instrument Manufacturing During World War II.
As you can imagine, this was a tumultuous period for American musical instrument manufacturers. Their booming business of the 1920s and 1930s halted and put out in the rain, the jolt changed the trajectory of the industry as a whole and unfortunately for Conn, they never recovered their former brilliance and craftsmanship, and they eventually declined and sold out.
These instruments below represent some of the last sparks of that pre-war brilliance, albeit with wartime constraints. I noted that the metal was softer in the keys, and that key fit was not up to 1930s Conn standards- although 1930s Conn keywork was about as precise and well-fit as saxophones ever have been made in my experience, so that is a high bar. Plating quality (both are original silver plate) was also not up to pre-war standards, and both horns had some bubbling and and other defects which I have not seen on pre-war 6M and 10M saxophones. And to be clear, both of these horns started out in excellent physical shape, with apparently minimal playing history, no past repairs, and barely any wear of any kind, so my judgments are not of the ravages of time but rather of the ravages of the time in which they were built.
All in all, these took a bit more care than the same pre-war Conn to get the the best results. However, once put together, the sound of the horns was just as good as any pre-war horn. They played excellently, as Conn M-series horns are known, and under the fingers and in the overall experience of playing, they were indistinguishable from their pre-war brethren. This was gratifying to me, because sadly, in my experience the general quality continues to decline and eventually even the playability and tone tapers off within a few years after the war. After all, life goes on, right? When they pulled the tools out of storage and got the factory back to “normal” in late 1945, how could it possibly ever be the same as it was in 1938? Some workers had retired, some had gone off to war, a bunch of new guys had been hired, and the market had changed. Skills had gotten rusty, as had tarp-covered tooling, and in 1948 even the rolled toneholes that differentiated Conn from their competition had disappeared.
I consider these two instruments shown here to be a sort of farewell from Conn. Imagine the scene- a factory converted to make altimeters, and an order is approved for a saxophone. A few workers are shunted to do the old thing, the thing they came to do in the first place before war came. Among the altimeters, a saxophone is made.
The alto was made in 1944, the tenor in 1945. I didn’t have the time to take nice photos of the tenor, sorry!
Interesting note: The serial font on both of these is the larger, post-war style, and the A and L have lost their serifs. (Compare to this pre-war Conn alto serial number) The VIII stamp on the alto is also the larger font, and the stamp is also present on the neck though nearly impossible to see. This is the latest VIII alto I have seen, so now we know that the VIII horns were both pre-war and mid-war, but as far as I know none were made post-war. Also notable is that both instruments lack a military stamp (usually just a simple engraving below the main engraving like USN or USQMC, for example), which until now I had assumed every wartime musical instrument would bear. I wonder who these were made for? Interesting little mystery to add to these beautiful and unique saxophones.