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Pan American (Conn) bass saxophone

Pan American bass saxophoneOrigin: USA
Guide price: £2500 +
Weight: 7kg (approx)

Date of manufacture: Late 1920s
Date reviewed: October 2003

A fine vintage bass saxophone built at the start of the golden age of US vintage horns

What an incredibly imposing and impressive instrument this is!
The sheer size (it stands nearly as tall as a man) is enough to demand your attention, as is the sound it makes.

The Pan American is a stencil horn - it's built by another company and rebadged, and in this case the builder is none other than Conn.
There are many features that give this away, in particular the use of locking point screws - though the design of the keywork and the format of the serial number are also very good indications as to its origins.

This model dates from the latter part of the 1920's, or thereabouts - records this far back tend to be sketchy, but the inclusion of the letter 'L' after the serial number indicates the horn is low pitched, which puts its manufacture at a date after concert A was shifted down to what we play it at today (440Hz). This means the horn plays in tune with modern day instruments.

Another striking feature of this instrument is its weight - it's heavy, very heavy indeed, and it would be a very brave (or strong) player who'd consider gigging this beast with just a mere plain saxophone strap to support it with.
Sensible players will use a harness of some sort - though it's often seen used on a stand if the player remains seated throughout the gig.

The biggest drawback to bass saxophones is the unwieldy action. The keys are huge, and some of the key barrels and arms are rather long. Keys as large as this have a tendency to flex in use (known as key whip) and this is understandably problematical when it comes to maintaining any degree of accuracy in the action. Moderns basses are rather better designed in this respect, with the use of cantilevered and linked keys coupled with extra braces for the barrels to run in and just plain stiffer brass used throughout.
Given this drawback, the use of the Conn locking point screw only makes matters worse. In effect these are parallel points, which have no real capacity for taking up free play in the action.
It would be possible to fit different point screws, but quite expensive and perhaps unnecessary in practical terms.

The design of the action is positively quaint - long T-shaped keys (note the arm running between the top B and A key arms) serve to link the individual keys together in the stacks, and given the flex in both the key arms and the T bars it's a wonder that anything closes at all!
This sounds appalling, and were it an alto or a tenor it would probably mean the horn would barely work at all - but it's a bass, and therefore capable of being extremely forgiving when it comes to such discrepancies.

Something that may put off the modern player is the omission of a Bis Bb key. This certainly catches you out initially, but once you get used to it it's actually not something you miss that much. Indeed, there are many modern players who prefer not to use Bis Bb because they consider the tone of this fingering to be poor.
Another throwback is that the instrument only extends to a top Eb - but then who buys a bass sax for the high notes? While I'm on the palm keys it's worth mentioning that the touchpieces are not really very easy to reach - so you might find it pays to bend them around a bit to suit you.
This isn't as risky as it sounds given the size of the keys, although you wouldn't want to keep on doing it time and again.

Pan Amercian bass saxophone bell braceThe body itself is very sturdily built, and with due regard to its heftiness the PanAm bass is fitted with a most excellent bell brace. This design is reminiscent of the crossbar seen in Conn's later baritone saxes. This is a bell brace that means business, and in the event of a fall it should prevent damage to the body even if the bell takes all the punishment. It's a great deal easier to straighten out a bell on a bass than it is the body - you have to unsolder whole sections of the instrument if the body gets bent.
Note the arm reaching over to link up with the low Bb key cup - the key that actuates this arm rises about a foot from the arm, and couples to the low B key, which is about half as long again. I can assure you it takes a not inconsiderable push to close these keys in order to get a low Bb out of the horn - and due to the sheer weight of the key cups themselves you're rather limited as to how light you can set the springs.

This is true throughout the horn, but in use the action feels surprisingly sprightly once it's been well set up. Much of this will be due to the fact that the thing feels so big in your hands - the same action on a smaller sax would be extremely uncomfortable to play on.

The toneholes are of the straight variety, and despite the size of the body there's really not much 'meat' on them. This is an important point when buying a bass sax - because of the difficulty in accessing the bore to remove dents you'll often find that tone holes have been mercilessly filed in order to level them off. It's also why you'll find a lot of basses with bent key cups - where they've been bashed to allow the pad to meet the contours of a warped tone hole.
I'm not a fan of either warped toneholes nor bent key cups, but I'd far rather see a bent cup than an emaciated tonehole - and many a punter can be forgiven for opting for a 'botch job' on a bass sax as opposed to shelling out a three figure sum just to have one dent taken out of the body.
A more conscientious repair would be to flatten the cup and shim the pad.

Rust is an important consideration on a bass sax - there's a lot of steel present in the form of long rod screws, and bearing in mind that these screws are no larger than those used on altos and tenors it becomes vital to keep the action well lubricated. It also helps to keep it reasonably quiet and light.
It's worth inspecting the rollers - you'll need them to work, and they're often rusted solid.
I had to replace all the rollers on this instrument - it made a lot of difference to the playability.

Pan American bass spatulasAs for overall quality - well, no-one builds a cheap bass saxophone (apart from the Chinese). Either it's top notch or not at all.
That such an instrument remains a viable purchase after so many years is mainly due to the price. Modern basses start at around the £9,000 mark - so there's a healthy market for these grand old stalwarts, provided you don't mind putting up with a few quirks.

Playing the thing is huge fun - and no-one should be ashamed of heading straight down the bottom end and giving it large with the low notes. Ye gods, what a thunderous sound!
There's a very marked difference between playing an old, knackered bass and one that's been set up ready for action. The low notes have a rich roundness that make your ankles wobble (as does holding the thing up after a while).
Tonewise the Pan American sounds exactly like it should do, with that classic vintage US rumble combined with an easy expressiveness. Granted, it takes a more advanced player to coax the lightness out of the horn, but it's there - and in vast quantity too. It would be a great shame to confine an instrument like this to the simple role of playing bass parts.
The top end gets a bit tricky - like the baritone sax, the sound thins out considerably and it's a mistake to think you can play the top notes like you can play the bottom ones.

As for tuning, well, it's often not even an issue on bass instruments. Sure, it's all there on this horn - I noticed nothing that couldn't be overcome with a spot of practice, though you do have to bear in mind that it's not so easy to find such a wide variety of mouthpieces should you come up against a specific tuning problem.
Given that you can lip a note almost a tone in each direction it hardly seems worth worrying about.

Cases? If you can find a decent one it'll probably cost you an arm and a leg, and the combined weight of the instrument and its case will be a recipe for a hernia. Most bass sax players use covers, and take great care with handling the horn in transit. Vintage bass sax cases are little more than plain boxes, with no padding - all they do is protect the horn from light knocks and scratches...the big knocks go right through the case.

Amazing, thrilling, wonderful... and almost completely insane. The world would be a better place if we all owned a bass saxophone like this.
Check out how it wowed the punters on its first gig after its service.

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