Tram on alto sax?


This is a question that has always fascinated me. Tram is (by no means always, but predominantly) listed as just playing C-melody saxophone. As a long-time admirer of Tram and myself a clarinet and saxophone player, including C-melody saxophone, my studies have tended to suggest that Tram played alto saxophone from time to time. Quite a bit in fact.


    However, I have found (to my surprise) that this is, to some people, a controversial topic. Almost as if, in simply trying to firm up some guidelines to help indicate which horn he may have played on which record, (a VERY difficult thing, as you will see if you read on...), this necessarily involves 'diminishing' Trumbauer's musical gifts, artistry and abilities in some way. This is not so, as it is those very talents and attainments of Tram that have fascinated me for the last 40 years and indeed led to this little article, the better to try to get even more insight and understanding of Tram's wonderful musical legacy to us.


    I sincerely hope that you will not be offended by anything you may read here; rest assured that however indispensible Tram is to you, he is no less indispensible to me!




(I am very grateful to my friend Steve Walker, who read the original draft of this article, and by efficiently fulfilling the role of ‘devil’s advocate’ saved me from quite a number of embarrassing errors and misapprehensions.)


     Just as the drum and percussion kit had been the icon of Jazz in 1917, by 1920 or so it had become the saxophone. To the instrument makers of the ’teens and early ’twenties (such as C.G. Conn, Buescher, Holton etc.) these were the years of the saxophone boom. Countless thousands of saxes and other 'Jazz' instruments were eagerly bought by enthusiastic amateurs at the time. Trumbauer himself though, had taken up the saxophone rather earlier, and at a young age.


     In many personnels, Frank Trumbauer is usually listed as playing only C-melody saxophone. This was an instrument which had a considerable vogue in the period outlined above. As a non-transposing instrument, its player could simply read the music of the vocal line of a normal piano copy of a popular song, without the need for a special part, such as would have been the case with an alto or tenor saxophone.


     As the C-melody was a favourite for the amateur playing in the home along with the parlour piano, the makers appear to have slightly re-designed the instrument. They customarily have a less-flared bore than one would expect. This gives the C-melody a soft, even a velvety tone, which was doubtless the intention of the makers, rendering the instrument better for use in the living-room. (Remember, the saxophone had originally been devised as an ‘outdoor’ instrument for military bands in France.)


     Yet the C-melody was forever an odd, eccentric instrument. When they appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, saxes had originally been made in C and F. That is, the soprano in C, alto in F, tenor in C, baritone in F, and bass in C. Later, for whatever reason, they were made that bit larger, giving us the now-familiar soprano in Bb, alto in Eb, tenor in Bb and baritone in Eb and bass in Bb.


     You could therefore look on the C-melody as a ‘fossil’ survival of this earlier family, placed between the modern alto and tenor. This gives rise to the obvious question, is it equivalent to a large alto or a small tenor? It was a tenor to start with, after all! To be fair, it’s pitched only one tone above the current tenor, and three semitones below the alto. So it’s nearer a tenor in pitch. But it’s a lot nearer the alto in size. So what is it? A small tenor or a large alto? Oh, it’s called the C tenor on orchestral parts, but that’s just a name! Besides, as we’ve seen, it definitely was a tenor once.


     The answer is as indefinable as the instrument itself. Quite simply, it can be whatever the player wants to make it be. To this writer, Tram chooses to treat it as a large alto, especially in the Bix period. Other people did things differently: Jack Pettis, the only other famous player who persistently used C-melody, seems to us to have adopted the ‘small tenor’ approach. ‘Booting’ is not quite what Pettis does on the C-melody, but he comes as near to that as is possible with this idiosyncratic instrument. (Let it be said here once and for all, if you put a tenor mouthpiece on a C-melody, it will then readily ‘default’ to a tenor, and you can ‘boot’ on it, but that is not the inherent nature of the instrument. And besides, if you want to ‘boot’, the tenor is the obvious instrument to do it on anyway! Conversely, if you have chosen the ‘large alto’ route, as I suggest Tram did, then you can put on an alto mouthpiece which will give the C-melody an even more refined tone than it has already. I don’t know what mouthpiece(s) Tram used on his C-melodies; but Rudy Wiedoeft is known to have used an alto mouthpiece on his (perhaps not always), just as Rollini used a baritone mouthpiece on his bass sax to ‘refine’ the tone and response of that large horn. (It need hardly be said that the choice of mouthpiece to go on the ‘wrong’ saxophone is very critical, but fortunately that topic lies well outside the scope of this modest article!))


     Yet for all its advantages as a ‘parlour’ instrument, the C-melody was by no means ideal for the modern dance orchestra as it developed in the early 1920s. Why?


     The typical range of keys in use at the time for the dance (Jazz) orchestra was:





B flat

E flat

A flat

D flat
















     As can be seen, the normal family of saxophones are pitched at or near the centre of the spread of keys. Thus, their key signatures would conveniently range between three sharps and three flats for the soprano and tenor, and four sharps and two flats for the alto and baritone. (To the less skilled musician of course, this also represents the spread of 'difficultness' of playing: the further from the home key of the instrument, the more sharps or flats in the key signature and hence the more difficult the piece to execute well).


     But the C-melody is well offset from the centre, and to cope with all normal major keys would have to play with up to five flats This would have been difficult for very many players at the stage that modern rhythmic music (Jazz) had reached in the early 1920s. However, Trumbauer was of course already a virtuoso by this time. This is the main reason that the C-melody saxophone made little headway in the Jazz orchestra.


     Other reasons were (a) its 'different' sound (by virtue of its narrower bore) would have prevented it blending with the ‘consort’ of saxophones in Bb and Eb, and (b) its proximity to the pitch of alto and tenor saxes would have tended to make it redundant in any case.


     So far so good! But what is this article actually about?


     It all started when I got my first C-melody saxophone. Now I can try to learn the classic solo from SINGIN’ THE BLUES, I thought. However, SINGIN’ THE BLUES is in (piano) Eb, which is three flats on the C-melody saxophone. That’s like playing in Db on a tenor, or a clarinet for that matter. I found it quite impossible to make any significant headway, and abandoned the project. After all Tram was a world-class virtuoso and I was a rank amateur. It had obviously been presumptuous on my part to attempt to tread in the Footsteps Of The Gods!


     But years later, while playing SINGING THE BLUES on the alto saxophone, I light-heartedly attempted to play the Tram solo, and found to my surprise, delight - (and consternation!), that the solo was very much easier to play on the alto than on the C-melody. Not that I could actually play it all, you understand, but large passages of it ‘fell under the fingers’, and seemed to ‘fit’ the alto, as it were.


     I trembled; a heretical thought had come to me. Was Tram playing alto on SINGIN’ THE BLUES?


     I banished the thought. (Tram could play anything in any key!)


     But the thought returned. (Tram would not pick an ‘easy’ instrument for a solo in Eb!)


     It would not go away. (Can we find out what he played? If so, how?)


     So was born THE QUEST.



                               #2: IF SO, WHAT ARE SOME OF THEM?




     METHOD:  Er, well; listen to the records again I suppose.


     That was my first approach, and it was the obvious one to try. I picked the Trumbauer Orchestra OKeh sides, beginning with TRUMBOLOGY. This was simply because I had most of them on original 78 master pressings, and there would thus be little likelihood of mistaking what key they were in.


     But as I listened to what after all were familiar sides, with this new approach, it soon became obvious that this system wasn’t going to work very well, if at all. Because I discovered that, almost always, you can’t tell whether Tram is playing C-melody or alto (assuming he ever does) by just listening!


     This is because Tram produced virtually the same sound from both instruments. This is remarkable in itself, as the C-melody, as we have shown, generally has a characteristic tone. We can only account for this by saying that Tram, when playing the alto, produced the same sound as on C-melody.


     This sounds an over-facile statement, but Trumbauer is in fact on record as saying that he spent years on developing the sound of his saxophone playing to be as nearly like the human voice as possible. Thus, were he to use two different instruments, it is inevitable that he would require them to sound the same.


     Thus, simply sitting back and listening to the records themselves is of practically no use whatever.


     Another approach was necessary. The only one we could think of was to concentrate on the difference in compass of the two saxophones. The alto can play three semitones higher than the C-melody. Very well: we would look for occurrences of those three notes, and if they occurred, it would indicate that Tram must be playing alto, because those notes just aren’t on the C-melody.


     But it is possible to extend the range of any saxophone upwards by over half an octave by using special fingerings! A chart of these fingerings is given in the Jimmy Dorsey saxophone tutor (not sure what date this is), which begins by treating high F# as an ‘out-of-range’ note. Saxophones normally ended at a high F, but an extension to F# was fitted as fairly standard by the early 1930s.


     Trumbauer, as a top-line veteran even by the early 20s, must have known about these special fingerings. So how much did he use them?


     More profitable might be consideration of low notes: after all, if your sax ends at low Bb, (as they all do except some modern baritones) there ain’t any way of making it go any lower! But most sax players don’t use the ‘bell notes’ much anyhow!


     Right; that’s enough theorising, and it’s getting us nowhere. Let’s look for some things that are favourable to our quest.


     Well, as many musicians actually are, Tram appears to have been extremely conservative about his instrument(s). He replied to a comment about the 'beat-up' looking nature of his horn to the effect that 'it took me years of work to get this instrument to play just how I want; it's been my meal ticket for many years and will continue to be so...'


     There’s a fine picture of Tram with his C-melody in the photo. section of TRAM The Frank Trumbauer Story by Evans and Kiner (1994). He’s with the ‘Three T’s’ so it was taken around 1936 and it looks like the C-melody does NOT have a high F#, but I can’t be sure.


     But mainly, in that same photo section is a picture of the Whiteman reed section in 1932, and LO! Tram is holding an alto. If he held one he probably played it and if he probably played it he probably recorded with it? He recorded on cornet and clarinet didn’t he, on DEEP HARLEM? Come on, there MUST be SOME Tram alto on record somewhere!


     The original draft of this article considered forty-seven sides by the Trumbauer Orchestra, in other words, most of them from TRUMBOLOGY to HOW AM I TO KNOW. In some cases, purely circumstantial evidence was presented for his use of C-melody, some for use of alto; many tracks produced no particular indication one way or another.


     But what I am going to do here is just list the four most likely occasions on which I ‘intuitively’ felt that Tram was on alto, present the circumstantial evidence and put it to people better qualified that myself to say ‘Yea!’ or ‘Nay!’




In the last chorus, at bars (measures) 7 and 8, Tram plays a truly startling break:

This is just a very rough idea of how it goes, but the point is, the high notes in the second bar aren’t in the normal compass of a C-melody sax. So I seriously suggest he is playing alto here.. Indeed, he’s playing the top note on the alto, F and the D below.


To hear an mp3 of this break three times, click here.


#2 JUST AN HOUR OF LOVE. (Keys F, Ab, F, Ab)


Tram solos in the final Ab chorus, and his solo includes an alto top E, again higher than a C-melody. I think Tram is on alto here as well.


To hear an mp3 of this part three times, click here.


#3 LILA (Keys C, Eb, C, Eb)


In the coda, Tram plays a note that is alto high Eb, off the top of the C-melody. Bix enters over the second note in the second bar.


To hear an mp3 of this three times, click here.


#4 LOUISE (Keys F, Eb)


Although there are no notes outside the compass of the C-melody here, this phrase from Tram’s solo is so much in the nature of a ‘noodling’ break on the alto, that I feel convinced it’s that horn he’s playing.


 To hear an mp3 of this three times, click here.


    I have ‘begged the question’ I admit by putting these examples in the alto key, and I would also freely confess that I’m not a ‘reading’ musician at all, just a ‘busker’, but I had to try and write these simple examples down somehow!


     What do YOU think?


     Remember, I’m not for an instant suggesting that Tram ‘had to resort to another instrument’, or that he couldn’t have - played everything on the C-melody. It’s simply because I am such a big fan of Tram that I want to find out as much as possible about his playing.


     Can you help? Do you have any comments or observations? If so, please email me at:

    Norman Field.


N.B. (added June 2007) The distinguished musician Scott Robinson has kindly outlined another and better approach to this question. Rather than concentrate on the extremes of the saxophone compass, attention should be given to the ‘break’ between the registers of the saxophone. The sound of the sax. may change between the C sharp at the top of the lower register, and the D at the bottom of the upper register. Even in the hands of a master player like Tram, there may be a perceptible change of tone - and this could be emphasised on recordings where he is relatively close to the microphone. Because in that case, the sound will physically emerge from the top of the horn on the C sharp and bottom of the horn on the D. The microphone might emphasise this. As yet, I have done no work using Scott’s approach.

(Originally written in 1995, unpublished and revised August 2000.)


Uploaded to new website 1st. July 2002.

Audio samples added 1st June 2007.