Leonard Laux: The grandfather and musician I never met
Leonard Laux, my late grandfather, was a clarinet and saxophone player in several dance/swing bands during the mid to late 1920s and 1930s. I chose to pursue my grandfather as a topic for this historical project because I have always been curious about his musical life. Since I am the only musician in my family, I feel that I share a musical bond with my grandfather and have always had many questions about him because he passed away due before I was born. From some of the stories told by my grandmother, aunt, and father, it seemed as if Leonard was not the most pleasant man personally so he was not talked about all that much. I came to understand that he was a very stern man and suffered from alcoholism. Regardless of this, I have always been very curious and will look upon him in a musical light. Again my family, being non-musicians, sometimes doesn’t really understand what I go through as a musician and music educator. If he were alive today, I am sure my grandfather would “get it!”
My inspiration to begin musical training started with the exploration of my grandmother’s attic when I was a young boy. There were many interesting things in the attic including my grandfather’s clarinet, saxophone, and violin. Since the string instruments were introduced in my school district prior to wind instruments, it was by default that I chose to play the violin. My first violin was a ¾ size, which my parents rented, however when it was time to upgrade to a full size instrument my grandfather’s old violin was a consideration. After having its condition inspected by professionals, it was determined that it would cost more to fix than the instrument was worth. The violin was not my grandfather’s principal instrument, thus his instrument was not a high quality model and not worth repairing. I still have the old violin, and I was able to fix it to make it playable, but it is not a professional quality instrument. I feel I owe a lot to my grandfather, because without those old attic instruments I probably would not be where I am today.
Leonard’s Musical History
I was not able to find out when Leonard began playing an instrument or when he stopped playing. During his years in bands, he played under the direction of noted bandleaders Russ Lyon, Jack Jackett, and Gene Beecher, performing mostly in the Cleveland area and traveling to some other states including Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Leonard played in several bands during his career, however I was not able to find out the exact years that he played in each band. One band I remember my late grandmother telling me about was under the leadership of saxophonist Russ Lyon.
Leonard Laux (rear center) with Russ Lyon (front), and other bandmates
It was interesting to note that in this particular photo that Leonard his holding a tenor saxophone. There was nothing available about Russ Lyon and his band, but I did find a brief history of where he ended up. Apparently in 1947, Russ Lyon and began to relocate to California after spending years as an executive in New York for the Music Corporation of America (MCA). On their way, the family stopped in Arizona to enjoy orange blossom season and decided to stay there permanently. Once there, Lyon purchased a home, became interested in real estate, and stated the Russ Lyon Real Estate Company which is now a huge franchise with over 650 real estate associates. I did email the company and sent the picture of Russ and my grandfather to double check that he was the correct Russ Lyon but never heard back. I’m hoping they will respond someday. It looks as if Russ Lyon’s son Dennis is now the company’s chairman. I did find out that Russ Lyon had passed away.
Another band my grandfather played with was under the leadership of Gene Beecher. If found several newspaper articles at my father’s regarding this band.
Gene Beecher and the Gentlemen of the Ensemble performed at several larger venues, including a live radio broadcast on the Columbia Network Coast to Coast, sponsored by MCA. There are several more short write-ups about the Beecher band, including a performance with singer Lorraine Elliot, and opposite Jimmy Grier’s famous big-band. I also found a newspaper feature comparing big band music to the “national pastime” of baseball (figure 6). I found that Lorraine Elliot’s voice was dubbed into several movie soundtracks in the mid-1940’s to cover for actors who could not sing.
Gene Beecher and the Gentlemen of the Ensemble
Upon retirement to Lakeland, Florida, Beecher became interested in painting and became fairly well known in the art world. His paintings are displayed in several museums and can be viewed/purchased online for upwards of $1100. Beecher passed away in 2002 at the age of 93.
I couldn’t find any recordings, but I decided to do research some artists who might have played music similar to the music my grandfather played and listened to, considering the time that they were composed. One of those artists was Rudy Wiedoft, a famous sax player of the day. His songs had a ragtime/swing feel and some of them were novelty-type pieces, including “Sax-o-Phun” and “Saxarella.” Another artist, mentioned above was Jimmy Greer, who’s compositions, arrangements and big band were extremely popular.
Listen to a sample of Sax-o-phun:
Listen to a sample of Jimmy Greer’s Object of my Affection:
Around 1939, Leonard put his hectic musical travels aside due the birth of their first child (my aunt Marica) and the changing of the times. The beginning of World War II and the draft marked a decline in big band music. During the war era, Leonard worked for the Cleveland-based Jack & Heinz Company, that produced aircraft parts. In his later years, until his untimely death from heart disease in 1971, he worked for Sears & Roebuck Company.
The Vintage Saxophone
The artifact I researched for this project was Leonard’s vintage alto saxophone. Since I have it in my possession, I was able to dig up quite a bit of information about it through web research and by taking the instrument to James Hill and Shawn Wallace, two saxophone professors at The Ohio State University. Some undergraduate saxophone majors also looked at it and it was amusing to see their eyes light up enthusiastically.
The saxophone is a Buescher (pronounced “Bisher”) “True Tone” model with a serial number #160XXX (hidden for security). I was able to find out the age of the instrument by using its serial number. According to Mensinga (2002), the serial number falls into the range of saxophones made in 1924. I couldn’t believe it was that old! My next question was, “How valuable is the horn?” After surveying the web, including auction sites and vintage saxophone sites, I cam to find that the instrument is valued between $400-$1000 . One of the mouthpieces I have was selling for about $150.
James Hill trying out the sax:
Shawn Wallace trying out the sax:
I found out that are some interesting design differences between this saxophone and a modern instrument. The vintage sax has a few handy trill keys (Eb and G#) which are not included on today’s instruments.
In addition, there are large sound holes on both sides of the bell and modern instruments have the holes on the same side which may help better the instrument’s intonation. Lastly, many noticed that the thumb rest is very small as compared to the modern saxes which are larger, more comfortable, and even replaceable.
In an effort to learn more about the Buescher line of saxophones, I decided to research the history of Buescher. The first saxophone made in the United States was made by Ferdinand August “Gus” Buescher, a native Ohioan, in 1888. Gus was employed by the C. G. Conn Company in 1876 and became a foreman in 1888, but then started his own instrument company in the fall of 1894 (Goodson, 2004). His saxophones became some of most highly regarded instruments in the industry, especially the “True Tone” line which became one of the most popular saxophones of the 1920’s and one of the few with exceptional intonation (Boudreau, 2002).
I found several advertisements for 1920’s era Buescher saxophones. Many ads at the time would be extremely politically incorrect in today’s society. Sexism and racism were prevalent in advertisements of that time. An example of one of these ads was as printed in Music Education: Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today by Michael Mark (p. 106-107):
Sister Suzie and the Steno Job
She finished high school with honors! Then Business College gave her training in six months and she started out to beat typewriters for a living. Fine!
But Suzie was temperamental. Grinding drudgery might do for the type of girl whose only aim is an early marriage. For Suzie it was killing. So Sister Susie “took up the saxophone.”
Now Suzie was just an average girl. You could never call here gifted or talented. But within a week she was playing tunes and in six months she could handle her saxophone like a veteran.
Then things happened. First, a little club orchestra. Next, a local sextette. Then some home town “entertainment” – a sharp-eyed scout from a well-known booking office – a contract- and little Miss Suzie his the “big time” vaudeville, drawing down as much cash weekly as the salaries of half a dozen stenographers.
Only Buescher assures success!
Click on a thumbnail to view the full image.
In an effort to somehow reconnect with my grandfather and truly take this project to heart, I decided to try my hand at playing the sax. Since it was actually playable in its present condition I figured “Why not?” I never took a saxophone methods course and forgot just about everything about the clarinet so I needed to figure out the fundamentals of playing. I did a quick search for the simple fingerings and proper embouchure and was off. I grabbed my tuner to make sure what I thought I was playing was coming out of the instrument — being a string player, it was odd for me to see a ‘G’ and hear a ‘Bb!’ Transposing instruments make it a more unusual experience. I was surprised how easy it was to get a sound, as crude as it was. I kept it simple by trying not to worry about all of those odd shaped keys that are played with the pinky fingers. To have a bit documented for this project, I whipped up a simple 12 bar blues accompaniment, complete with bass, drums, and organ, on my computer using Garageband. Then I practiced along with the accompaniment until I felt comfortable doing some simple improvisation. Finally I loop recorded some takes of my playing along with the Garageband accompaniment. I took a few of the better takes and instantly had a little C blues jam on my grandfather’s saxophone. It was a lot of fun and I’m hoping to now continue playing the sax as a hobby. Maybe I’ll even get some lessons!
Throughout this project, I learn a lot about the history of saxophones and big band music era. I was also able to uncover some interesting information behind the “mystery” of my grandfather’s musical life and the instrument he held so dearly.
Blokhuis-Mulder, Jr. (n.d.). Dance Band to Dancing Brush: Folk Artist Gene Beecher. Retrieved March 3, 2008 from http://www.folkartlife.com/articles/genebeecher.shtml.
Boudreau, M. (2002). Buescher/Bundy Seral Number List. Retrieved February 29, 2008 fromhttp://www.musictrader.com/buescher.html.
Goodson, S. (2004). Buescher 400: The Best Saxophone Ever?. Retrieved February 29, 2008 fromhttp://www.saxgourmet.com/buescher.htm.
Mark, M. (2007). Music Education: Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today, 2nd ed. Routledge, New York, 106-107.
Mensinga, A. (2002). Buescher/Bundy Seral Number List. Retrieved February 29, 2008 fromhttp://www.musictrader.com/buescher.html.
Rice, A. (2008) Buescher. Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy. Retreived March 1, 2008 fromhttp://www.grovemusic.com.
Russ Lyon Realty Company. (2005) Company History. Retrieved March 1, 2008 fromhttp://www.russlyon.com/content/Page.asp?PAGE=rlrcomphist
Unknown. (n.d.). Gene Beecher. Retreived March 3, 2008 fromhttp://www.hustontown.com/beecher/index.html