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Pan American (Conn) 56-M bass saxophone

Pan American 56-M bass saxophone reviewOrigin: USA
Guide price: £2500 +
Weight: 7.49kg

Date of manufacture: Late 1920s
Date reviewed: October 2003 (updated June 2019)

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

It's been 16 years (can you believe it?) since I first published this review, and while I've tackled the odd Pan American bass here and there over the years, I've never had the time to update this review and add more of the details I glossed over on the first time around. However, the planets must have aligned themselves fortuitously because another (slightly younger) Pan American bass came in while I had some time on my hands. Unfortunately one of the planets must have been a bit off-whack, because it wasn't a silverplated bass...so if it looks like there are a few colour jumps in the update, that's why.

What an incredibly imposing and impressive instrument this is!
The sheer size (it stands nearly as tall as its player) 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.

With that said, there's some debate as to whether this is a stencil horn. The terms refers to horns that are made by one manufacturer and sold by another under a different brand. For example, the Martin soprano I reviewed in June 2017 may well have 'Martin' stamped on the bell (a now-extinct American manufacturer of very fine horns) but the instrument is actually an S800 made by Yanagisawa. Such instruments are usually priced below the manufacturer's own model, and so represent a good way to save a few quid on the purchase of a decent horn.
Stencil horns can sometimes be identical to the manufacturer's own version of the horn, but more often than not the only differences are minor and/or cosmetic. In some instances a stencil model can be a cheaper or an older version of the manufacturer's current production models.
With me so far?

Now, we all know the Pan American was made by Conn - but it wasn't actually marketed by another company. If you go looking for the Pan American company, you find Conn. In other words it's their own brand. It's essentially performing the same function as a stencil (cosmetic differences, cheaper/older model, lower price etc.) but it's being done 'in house', so to speak - and the term for this is 'second line'.
Why not just simply make the horn under a different model name? Lots of companies do this - they make a top end horn and might call it the 'Pro' or the 'Special' - and make a cheaper range called the 'Student'. I can't say for sure why they didn't do this, but someone out there will probably know.
If I had to take a guess I'd say that they wanted to preserve their status as a top-line manufacturer, and that the Pan Americans were so close in terms of design and build quality that it might have raised awkward questions from the punters.

Proponents of the 'stencil' nomenclature will point out that the definition of a stencil is a horn made by one manufacturer and stamped with the name of another company...typically a reseller/distributor - and thus the Pan American fits the bill.
Those who favour the second line stance will say that Conn owns/is Pan American, and that a manufacturer can't stencil itself...or the world will implode.
The argument carries on in this fashion until someone throws a punch or accuses the other side of being communists or liberals (delete as appropriate).

Personally I think both arguments have their merits, but the whole thing is further complicated by the fact that the Pan American company was a subsidiary of Conn...and so was an individual company in its own right.
That the argument persist is, I suspect, because the use of 'stencil' as a descriptor adds value to the horn in the marketplace - whereas 'second line' perhaps carries with it the implication of a lesser horn.

But enough of the semantics, let's winch the bass onto the workbench and take a close look at it...

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.
Incidentally, if you're ever in some doubt as to who made the bass, have a look at the serial number - which you'll find located below the thumb rest, just above the bottom bow joint.
You'll see a patent number stamped into the body tube - if it's a Conn bass the stamp will read "Dec. 8, 1914, 1119954". If it's a Pan American it'll read "Sept 14, 1915, 1153489".

Pan Amercian bass saxophone bell braceThe construction is single pillar (post to body) - which is just as well, as a whole bunch of ribs and plates would add extra weight to an already hefty instrument. Being a (very) vintage horn there are few mod cons on the body. So you get a static metal thumb hook, a tiny thumb rest with a pearl inset, wire-type bell key guards with no adjusters for the bumper felts - and soldered body tubes...so no detachable bell/top bow. You also get a positively huge sling ring - it measures 22/13mm, and looks like it was designed to take a block and tackle rather than a simple sax strap.
There's also a spit key fitted to the U-bend down from the crook - which saves you having to upend the bass in order to clear the condensation out of the tube. Very handy.
Although the bass is keyed to low Bb, it only extends up to top Eb. Some might consider this a drawback, but I tend to be of the opinion that you buy a bass for the low notes...and if you want to play up in the squeakies...buy a bloody soprano.

The 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, and which led to its colloquial name of the 'Conn Crossbar'. This is a bell brace that means business, and in the event of a fall it should help to 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 vintage bass than it is the body - you have to unsolder whole sections of the instrument if the body gets bent. There are two other, rather smaller, braces that hold the down tube at the top to the main body tube.
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.

The toneholes are plain drawn, and despite the size of the body there's really not much 'meat' on them. This is an important point when buying a vintage bass sax. Because of the difficulty and expense involved in accessing the bore to remove dents and bends you'll often find that tone holes have been mercilessly filed in order to level them off in order to get the horn going again after a fall. 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 hefty wadge of cash just to have one dent taken out of the body.
A more conscientious repair would be to flatten the cup and shim the pad.

With that said, the bass is so large that it's sometimes possible to get tooling through the toneholes. This is a risky business, though - and requires the repairer to hold a very heavy and uncooperative instrument in place with precision, and be able to look in two places at once. It's why we charge so much.

The length of the downtube (up at the top end) marks this bass out as a 'long wrap'. The European basses that appeared a little later favoured a body design that resulted in a much shorter downtube, and these horns are known as 'short wrap' basses. As per usual there's lots of debate as to how this affect the tone, but I think it's fair to say that short wrap basses are perceived to be 'less tonally expressive' than long wrap basses. Feel free to disagree/throw a punch/call me a communist etc.

Pan American 56-M bass  top stackThe build quality of the body is excellent. This is because the assemblers were paid double the going rate for skilled workers, we're given an allowance of three bottles of champagne a week and were chauffeur-driven to work each day by members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra- or so the legend has it. Or it could just be that they took some pride in their work.
Unfortunately it's often hard to appreciate the workmanship because most vintage basses have had the crap beaten out of them, and have been repaired by people who couldn't get a job fixing Ellington's fleet of Cadillacs.

When it comes to the action the picture's a little less rosy.
To be fair, the build quality is still there - it's just the design that's at issue. 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 short(ish) key arms and linked keys coupled with extra braces for the barrels to run in, and just plain stiffer brass used throughout. There are no such niceties on the Pan American.

Here's the top stack - or rather a very small part of it. What you can see here (from left to right) is the A key cup, the B and A touchpieces and the G key cup (which has a pearl fitted to it). The rest of the stack goes way off up to the left and is nowhere near the key pearls. This means having to use some very long key barrels...and the longer a key barrel is, the more likely it is to flex and twist (due to torsion) in use.
And then you need to link all these keys together - and this is done via those flying arms. There's one that sits under a tab off the A key cup and another, with a T bar on it, beneath the B and A touchpiece arms.
These are all rather long, and really rather thin. The T bar in particular is a very poor piece of design - just look at how thin the arm is where the crossbar is attached. There's very little stiffness in these keys, and with each key connection the flex is compounded. Add in the torsion on the long barrels and chuck in a bit of wear and tear for good measure and it's a miracle than any of the pads close at all.
In fact they don't - at least not without a bit of 'gorilla grip' help from the player. But here's the killer - if you press a flexible key down hard to seal a leak, which is typically at the front on the pad, you can get to a point where pressing it down harder will cause the key to flex even more...and begin to open the pad at the rear of the seat.

Pan American 56-M bass  point screwsThe situation isn't helped much by the use of parallel point screws.
These screws rely solely on the corresponding holes in the key barrel being drilled accurately, and on the barrels being a snug fit between opposing pairs of pillars. Once a bit of wear sets in, and/or the horns cops a few knocks that shifts things out of alignment, there's no provision for taking up any free play.
Or almost - because these screws do have a degree of adjustability built in. They're the famous/infamous Conn points. These screws have no head to them, so can be continuously screwed into the pillar until they drop out of the other side. In effect you can alter the effective length of the screw. Once you've adjusted the screw to where you need it to be, it can be locked in place by tightening up a small grub screw that's fitted through the side of the pillar. There's a channel cut into the point screw where the grub screw can grip it.
It all sounds very wonderful, but there are a couple of problems. Unless the tip of the point screw has something to butt up against, it won't matter how much you tighten it up - it simply isn't going to take up any wear. For it to be able to do so it would require a tapered point on the end (which Conn later used). And then the grub screw had a habit of working itself loose and falling out - as it has done so here, probably decades ago.

All in all it's not a great system - and it looks like a previous owner of the bass got properly fed up with it and had someone make a few modifications.
In the lower of the three shots you can see that the grub screw hole has been fitted with a plug, and the point screw no longer has a channel cut into it - and although you can't see it, it's fitted with a tapered point.
But look a little closer and you might spot that the diameter of the new screw is a little smaller than the original screws...and if you look closer still at the rear (left hand side) of the pillar you can see a faint ring around where the screw goes through the head of the pillar. This pillar has been bushed and new, smaller thread cut into it - and it's been done very well, as has the fitting of the grub screw plug.

I suspect that these were repairs rather than upgrades though, because not all of the pillars have been modified in this fashion. Chances are the original screws went rusty and had to be drilled out - and whoever did the job either didn't have proper replacements, or simply decided to make a better job of it than the manufacturer did.
And 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 in diameter than those used on altos and tenors it becomes vital to keep the action well lubricated. It also helps to keep it reasonably quiet.

Pan American 56-M bass lower stackThe lower stack suffers even more from flex by virtue of the keys being that much larger and the various arms longer.
The touchpieces are grouped around the low E key cup, which works independently of its touchpiece because there's an Eb trill mechanism fitted (press the F and D keys down to get an Eb, bring the E key down to get a D). Although it's called an Eb trill it was actually of more use when jumping between Eb and low C - which would otherwise have involved some nifty fingerwork over the rather cumbersome Eb/C spatula keys.

Because of the very approximate nature of the keywork, setting up the regulation on the main stacks is very much an exercise in making compromises.
If you try to achieve by-the-book perfection it's going to drive you mad in no short order.
You can certainly make the job a little easier by ensuring the toneholes are level, and you can take a leaf out of the manufacturer's book by fitting soft pads - or at least avoiding firm ones. These will tend to take a deeper seat and will be rather more forgiving than a harder pad. It won't do a lot for the feel of the action, but then it's so springy anyway it's really not going to make any noticeable difference.

I tend to regulate such horns in reverse, which is to say that I try to ensure that the lowest pad that's closed has the best possible seal - and rely on combined finger pressure on all the keys above to overcome the flex in the action. It's by no means ideal - it's just what you have to do to get the thing working.

Note the mother-of-pearl rollers on the low Eb/C keys. It's quite rare to find a full set of m.o.p rollers in good working order because the rod screws they pivot on tend to rust. The rust expands and increases the diameter of the rod screw, which first jams up the roller and then splits it.
You can get away with jammed rollers on a smaller horn, but on one this size you're really going to need them - so it's worth checking they're in good order, and keeping them properly lubricated. I had to replace all the rollers on the silver bass - it made a lot of difference to the playability.

Pan American 56-M bass 38xxx octave mechThe octave key mech is...challenging.
To be fair, the mech on a horn this size is always going to be hampered by the need to span the relatively vast distance between the two octave key pips - but if you're careful to minimise the length of any flying arms, and do your best to optimise the leverage necessary, it's possible to come up with something that's reasonably efficient. All of which is exactly what this mech isn't.
There's nothing really wrong with the thumb key, and there's nothing really wrong with the two cup keys - it's where they all come together in the middle that the rot sets in. There's quite a lot of flex on those flying arms, and that seesaw mechanism that links the three keys together is rather approximate in action. At best.
With all that said, there's something to be said for having such a vague mech on a horn like this. It's all a bit exposed and prone to damage, which would render a slick and precise mech inoperable in no short order. Give this mech a whack and there's a good chance it'll make no difference at all. Might even make it better...

Pan American 56-M bass 38xxx top stayAnd if setting up the mech is hard enough, just wait until you have to deal with the link from the foot of the G key (which controls the switch between the upper and lower octave key pads). It's buried deep within this little rat's nest of levers. It's a bit galling really, that on an instrument so huge there'd be a spot where you could barely fit a scalpel blade into. If you want/need to make any adjustments to the octave mech it's very likely going to mean having to remove quite a few keys just to clear a bit of space. Not that you ought to fiddle with the mech unless it's absolutely necessary - the golden rule here is "If it ain't broke, leave it alone".
And just to add insult to injury, there's a transfer lever that sits between an arm that comes off the rear of the G key and the octave mech itself. You can just see a part of it sticking up over the key barrel (it's the bit with the torn cork). It's quite an important piece, this - but it's fitted with a very short barrel that'll wear in no time at all. When that happens it'll add yet more uncertainty to the already approximate octave mech.

The bell key table is typically vintage and has few, if any, concessions to ergonomics.
It's not a bad table, and on a smaller horn would be quite presentable. However, the bell keys themselves are massive - and very, very long - and it all adds up to a feel that's rather hit or miss.
Pan American bass spatulasIt can be quite hard work balancing the springing on the bell keys. You obviously want them to be as light and nimble as possible, but they're so big and heavy that the minimum spring tension required to make them work rather limits what you can do. Fortunately, none of the bell keys are connected to the G#. If they were I think you'd probably need two hands to press the key the low C# key down...

I'm aware that my overview of the action 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. We repairers are always banging on about how important it is to ensure a horn is completely leak free - but the bigger a horn gets, the more you can get away with. Not that you'll have much choice - and yes, it'll mean that the response of the horn will take a hit....but you'll at least be able to get the low notes out.

This example (on the right) is a slightly later model, and dates from 1929 - and in most respects is identical to the earlier silver example.
The most obvious difference is the finish, which is now bare brass. There are some tiny spots of gold lacquer hanging onto the crook, so it seems likely that this was the finish the horn came with originally.
There's also no engraving at all on the bell, which is rather curious. Every example I've seen thus far (and it isn't many, admittedly) has been engraved. I suppose there's a chance it's been buffed off in the dim and distant past...but you'd really have to go some to polish that much metal off the bell. And why would anyone do such a thing anyway?
The most reasonable explanation I can come up with is that the original bell suffered a catastrophe of some kind and had to be replaced. It's quite possible (indeed likely) that the engraving is applied only once the body's fully assembled - so an off-the-shelf bell might have been completely bare.

Pan American 56-M bass 38xxxThe only real difference between the two examples is that the later one has an extra bell brace, situated a little further down the body, below the low D key pearl.
This is a very sensible idea. It's not so much that the upper brace is weak - because it's not, and certainly won't bend in a hurry - rather it's the tubing the brace is fixed to. Give the bell a hard side-on whack and the impact is likely to cause the brace's opposing foot on the body to sink into the tube.
There's also the issue of day-to-day stress on the stay feet - they're supporting a lot of metal, and there's bound to be some flexing going on.
A secondary braces adds stiffness to the bell and spreads the stress load. It's an idea that's not without merit even on much smaller horns, and one that occassionally pops up here and there. Perhaps the most interesting example of which is the brace fitted to the TJ Horn 88.

You might have noticed that the design of the cross bar is slightly different too.
The orginal was made from two bars soldered together in the middle, with some decorative rounding off - and the later one seems to be cut out of a solid sheet of brass and left with squarer edges. It looks to be slightly thinner too, and I suppose it's natural to assume that it's all about cutting production costs. But it probably cost just as much to make and fit a pair of simpler braces as it did to make and fit the fancier one - and any reduction in the stiffness of the upper brace is more than offset by the lower one.

Pan American 56-M bass 38xxx bell bracesAnd this is all very impressive, but it still leaves the upper part of the horn from the upper bell brace to the top of the body tube rather exposed and unsupported - though in practical terms there's not a lot you can do about that. As you might imagine, it's not uncommon to see a slight bend in the upper section of these horns - and indeed on any vintage bass.

As bad as this sounds it's actually not too much of a problem provided the bend is both gentle and not too severe. There's such a lot of space between the keys and a considerable distance between the top and bottom ends of the upper stack that it's entirely possible to set the action up around a slight curve with few, if any, ill effects.
In fact it's quite possible to knock a slight bend in the upper section of a bass and not even notice a difference in the way the horn plays. More often than not even the bend itself goes unnoticed by the player - and many's the time I've told a bass client that their horn has a bend in the upper section, to which their response is "Oooh, is it? Where? ....Oooooh yeah!"

A quick word about the side keys to finish off. Both of the cup keys are sprung closed - each having a corresponding lever that presses down on the rear of the keys to open them. Nothing particularly special about that.
However, whilst the Bb lever is fitted with a foot that prevent the lever from rising too high - there's no such provision on the side C lever.
If you lift the touchpiece up it'll keep on going until the other end of the key hits the down pipe tube. Such an arrangement isn't uncommon on very old horns. But there's usually some means of keeping the lever key in contact with the cup key - and typically this would involve the use of a light spring to force the lever key down and hold it in place. But there's nothing on this bass, nor any sign that either a spring or a key foot was ever fitted. Very strange.

Under the fingers the action feel a lot better than you might think - at least if it's in reasonable working order.
A lot of this is going to be down to the fact that the thing is so huge. Your arms are much further apart, as are your fingers - and it's almost as if your brain primes you to expect a cumbersome affair. And it is, but because the thing is so much fun to play you find yourself almost willing it to work.
Once you've got used to it you might even find that the action feels quite sprightly...though I'll admit this does require some suspension of disbelief.
The same action on a smaller horn would feel utterly dreadful.

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.
And then there's the issue of the horn only going up to top Eb - which could be something of a drawback if you're playing contemporary pieces. 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 American 56-M bass palm keysAs 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. I may have mentioned it before but it's worth repeating - 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 some players make use of a stand, and there are some that can be used in both the sitting and the standing position.
There's also the issue of how you 'dress' your bass. Some players like to throw the instrument diagonally across their front on the basis that it does away with the need to support the horn with the right hand thumb. I tend to start off in the traditional by-my-side position, and gradually move to a diagonal position when fatigue sets in. This usually takes about two minutes.

Tonewise the Pan American sounds exactly like it should do, with that classic vintage US rumble combined with an easy expressiveness. However, it's also a surprisingly lyrical horn - capable of rather more subtlety than you might think. Get it right and this horn will croon as well as a tenor. Granted, it takes a more advanced player to coax such lightness out of the horn, but it's there - and in vast quantities too. It would be a great shame to confine an instrument like this to the simple role of playing 'oom-pah' 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.
I can't in all honesty say that the tone is even across the range. This is a tough call even for a baritone, and on a bass it's practically impossible. The only way around it is to spend some time, and quite a lot of it, getting used to the instrument's quirks and foibles (known in the trade as 'practice'). It's what marks out a proper bass player from someone who merely owns one.

As for the tuning...
It depends on how picky you are, and what you're going to use the bass for. If you're just pumping out bass lines you're probably not going to run into too many issues. If you're using the bass in a solo or ensemble context I think it's fair to say that 'some steering is required'. As with the uneven tone, it's all about finding out where the quirks are and being prepared for them. You can certainly make your life a lot easier by using a proper bass mouthpiece rather than a baritone piece (which won't fit on this particular horn anyway). However, decent bass pieces are few and far between, and ain't cheap.

Cases? 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. If you feel the need to replace it, or you don't even have a case, a decent one will probably cost you an arm and a leg (though I recently saw an old one sell on ebay for 99p. Yeah, 99p), and the combined weight of the instrument and its case will be a recipe for a hernia. Many bass sax players settle for using zip-up covers, and take great care with handling the horn in transit.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely, without hesitation. Let's face it, if you're after a bass there's really not a great deal of choice - you either have to go vintage (of which there are but a handful of options) or you go new (of which there are even fewer options). However, new basses tend to be focussed more on tuning than tone - and to my ears at least they rather sound like 'uber baritones'. They're precise and responsive, but it comes at the cost of expression. The only exception is the fabulous Eppelsheim bass, which combines the fullness of the vintage tone with impeccable tuning, vastly improved evenness of tone and a modern action. You'll pay dearly for the privilege, mind you. And then there are the aforementioned Chinese basses - which are only a good bet if you're prepared to throw a good few hundred quid at them to sort out all the build quality issues.

So there we have it - the Pan American bass sax. 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 the silver bass wowed the punters on its first gig after its service.

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