The XI Encuentro Internacional de Jazz y Música Viva ended Saturday, but I stayed in Mexico until Tuesday before flying to San Francisco, where I am writing this post. Thankfully, this year’s event wasn’t marked by the social unease that framed Encuentro X. (Monterrey was the focal point of several drug cartel-associated mass murders that occurred on the opening night of last year’s festival and again on the morning after the last performance.) However, it was framed by its own internal controversy that emerged from its saxophone competition sponsored by Roberto Romero’s company, Roberto’s Winds.
Musicians who use their own instruments often take care of problems arising from the wear-and-tear of practice, rehearsals, and performance themselves. (Competent violinists are expected to change a string or adjust a bridge and trumpeters constantly open valve casings to lubricate moving parts.) But when major problems arise, such as when my bass took a fall in October and lost its fingerboard, a specialist is required to bring the instrument back to playability. So it behooves every working musician to cultivate a long-term relationship with at least one well-established instrument repairperson.
These highly skilled craftspeople can be found just about everywhere. Some work out of their living rooms and garages, others out of multi-leveled facilities that double as instrument showrooms and/or music studios. To enhance their bottom lines, most will sell accessories for the instruments they repair (cases, sheet music, etc.) at a reasonable markup. Others go as far as to offer their own line of “custom” instruments and accessories. (I deploy quotation marks because these items are usually mass produced to a set of manufacturing specifications that are the repairperson’s retail “customization,” instead of tailoring the product for any specific customer’s requirement.) Barrie Kolstein, the proprietor of Kolstein Music, provides a case in point. His shop, located in Baldwin, New York, offers its own line of strings, rosin, repair kits, polishes, and other accessories, as well as a large assortment of high-quality instruments. A more instrument-specific facility is Lemur Music, a double bass shop located in San Capistrano, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Good repair people are usually pretty good players, too. Steve Berger is an excellent guitarist who often plays with vocalist Melissa Hamilton and is a long-time accompanist for pianist-vocalist-songwriter Bob Dorough. He is also a gifted guitar technician who, unfortunately, lost his repair shop, which was located in the basement of the Westbeth artist residency complex during the flooding of Lower Manhattan caused by Hurricane Sandy. But instrument repair is an art in-and-of itself that requires training, practice, and talent. More often than not, a good repair person will let performance fall to the wayside as more and more artists bring them their broken tools of the trade. Another facet of repairpersonship is how “schools” of repair and instrument design become established through apprenticeship. Iconic names like Stradivarius and Selmer belong to such schools in which a family member takes over the business. Such is the case of Barrie Kolstein, who took over Kolstein Music from his father, Samuel.
Often apprentices break away from their masters’ tutelage to strike out on their own. Such was the case for my first long-term repairperson, Chuck Traeger. He started out working alongside Samuel Kolstein and then broke away to start his own company, The Bass Shop. I used to carry my factory-assembled, possibly pre-war Juzeck up the three flights to his Christopher Street shop. He showed me everything that needed to be changed to maximize its sound (new tailpiece, fingerboard, and bridge), explaining why it all had to be done while demonstrating his points on the instruments that filled his intimate “showroom,” a 35′ x 15′ waiting area that he crammed almost 100 basses in, some being sold on consignment and some waiting to be repaired or picked up. His logic was impeccable and the list of bassists who trusted their instruments to him backed up everything he said. Over the two years it took to get my bass up to snuff, I learned more about the instrument than any private teacher could show me. When I finally had the money to buy a high-quality pedigree instrument from the early 19th century, I wound up buying one of Chuck’s personal basses—the one that lost its fingerboard.
Traeger’s apprentices, David Gage and Bill Merchant, alternated repairing my instruments. Gage took care of the first major mishap, when a taxi ran into my bass and caved in one of the bouts (the rounded panels that make up the sides of the instrument). It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle with no picture to follow. But the repair has lasted for over thirty years without needing to be revisited. Merchant took care of the next one, when I slapped the side of the bass too hard while producing percussion sounds and poked a hole in it. He used a long metal rod inserted through one of the instrument’s F-holes to push the piece of wood that was hanging towards the inside back into its original position and then applied a patch behind it. It was supposed to be a temporary fix, but it also lasted until another accident tore open the entire side of the bass in 2011. When Traeger retired, Merchant took over his shop and Gage established his own in Lower Manhattan. I’ve stuck with Bill over the years because of brand loyalty, and I recommend both Merchant and Gage (and Kolstein as well) to anyone needing work done on their bass.
Merchant’s facility is a bare-bones repair shop. You walk in and there are basses for sale and basses being fixed. There are one or two of his “Traveler” basses and one or two of his “Vertical” basses on display (if leaning in a corner counts as “on display”). There are two photos on a bulletin board (one of me and one of David Finck) and the “office” section is filled with bass cases. He does great work. By contrast, David Gage occupies three floors of Tribeca loft space. The ground floor is the repair shop and the two upper floors are display/event rooms where bassists have given master classes and workshops. My first exposure to The Marks Brothers (Mark Dresser and Mark Helias) was in this room. There haven’t been any workshops or master classes this year because of the upcoming International Society of Bassists Convention. Instead, Gage Instrument Repair has been developing a new line of products that they intend to unveil there that includes a new piezoelectric transducer pickup that I hope to review in the future.
Like Gage, Roberto Romero runs a multiple-story complex that includes a repair shop and show room. He also has several floors worth of practice rooms he calls Michiko Studios that are very reasonably priced. The rooms are clean, with in-tune pianos, good sounding drum sets, and well-maintained amplification systems and are very popular with New York jazz musicians. Romero came to New York from Italy in 1981. He was on his way to Brazil, but ran out of money. He took a job at the now defunct Sound of Joy School. He was asked to help the school’s owner build extra rehearsal studios on West 46th Street—on the same block where the street dance scene in the movie Fame was staged—and met his mentor, a well-respected saxophone technician named Saul Fromkin, there. Romero’s skill as a repairperson was tempered by a genius for understanding what Fromkin’s clients needed. Word got around about Roberto’s talent for saxophone repair and he became Fromkin’s lead repairperson. When Fromkin’s health began to wane in the late 1980s, he retired and Romero took over the business.
If Nashville is the center of country and western guitar, New York would have to be called ground zero for jazz saxophone. Thirty-two years of maintaining and repairing the instruments of the best saxophonists in the world have given Roberto Romero a profound understanding of what makes American music tick. His clients have included Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Jordan, David Murray, Paul Winter, Jay Rodriguez, Pharoah Sanders, Benny Golson, Joshua Redman, Bobby Watson, Dave Schnitter, Joe Temperly, and Sonny Rollins. Some of these names are synonymous with the music known as jazz, and these greatest of jazz musicians rely on their saxophones retaining the idiosyncrasies that help them express their musical sound and ideas, their voice. So, being a repairperson isn’t about resetting someone’s horn to factory presets. Romero has to know what the players want their horns to sound like and what they need to have their horns be able to do. So when Ornette Coleman called Roberto’s Winds because his alto saxophone fell off the roof of his car on his way to the airport, Romero cancelled his vacation long enough to repair the instrument before Coleman’s flight left. (It reminds me of when a taxicab knocked the neck off of my bass while I was on my way to catch a train for a New York State Council of the Arts tour. Bill Merchant got out of bed, opened the shop, and glued the neck on in time for me to catch the next train to Buffalo.) Repairpersons like Romero have to know how these iconoclasts think and how they’ve lived. He’s heard them talk about how they learned to play music and why they play it the way they do. So it’s a very special thing when someone like Roberto Romero sponsors a saxophone competition with the first prize being one of his signature instruments. Last year he did this and the winner sold the instrument within a short period of time so he could have the money and then came back to compete again this year!
To be fair, the person in question has every right to do whatever he wants with his property, even a hand-crafted saxophone he won in a student competition. But it struck Romero as a real waste of that instrument. You see, Romero opened a store in Mexico City last year, so if anyone nearby needs to have their instrument repaired, all they need to do is set up an appointment to have one of the best saxophone repair people in the world attend to it. If the young man wasn’t satisfied with how his soprano saxophone played, all he had to do was to call Roberto’s Winds and discuss the matter. Roberto Romero’s calling in life is to make saxophones work for the artists who play them. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the young man got rid of the horn. As a result, Romero directed the judges to hold all the applicants to a standard more in keeping with the artists who make it possible for him to sponsor the competition, rather than merely deciding the winner to be whomever was the best from this year’s applicant pool. It’s the difference between grading on a curve and giving an absolute grade. The result was that no prize was awarded at the competition, which was held on the first night of the festival. It was announced that the competition would be held again on the festival’s last night. This was agreed to by all of the judges involved, as well as by the accompanists (myself included). The competitors would just have to practice for the next five days and do better.
It was a sublime statement to these young men, who believed that they were competing with each other when they came into the performance hall and left realizing that they were competing for a standard of musicianship. Needless to say, on the last night no first prize was given out. Instead, two second prizes–a collection of DVDs featuring workshops by some of Roberto’s clients (Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, Dave Liebman, and others)–and one third prize–a set of reeds and accessories for maintaining a saxophone–were awarded. Some of the contestants’ parents were upset and wrote letters, but Omar Tamez has stood by Romero’s and the judges’ decision. Tamez and I spoke about it while I stayed at his home in Monterrey, recuperating from the mold that permeates the air conditioning of so many of the hotels there. We realized that by not giving away a horn to someone who hasn’t really paid enough dues to play it, Roberto Romero did more to transmit the epitome of the jazz tradition to Mexico than all of the radios, CDs, and streaming videos could ever do. Those mediums, which are outlets of the Great American Culture Machine, can only present what their manufacturers believe will sell the most units. The message that they’ve conveyed about jazz is that it’s easy, natural, and best done by the unstudied. But Romero told the truth: that life doesn’t imitate art, it fashions it.