The Saga of the Bass Saxophone by Jim Cullum Jr

"Jelly Roll without the swing is like a martini without the gin," wrote critic/drummer Wayne Jones. I couldn't agree more. Swing is the one essential ingredient in all jazz. What is it, anyway? The answer is most easily found in listening to players who really swing. Number one on most lists is Louis Armstrong. In his wake, there are many other great swingers. We quickly add Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, Earl Hines, Count Basie, and his great wave of sidemen at the top of a long list.

No doubt the relatively obscure name Adrian Rollini must be included in this group. Rollini never rose to great prominence and fame, probably because his main instrument in the 1920's was the awkward and cumbersome bass saxophone. Ah, but what an artist Adrian was! In his master hands, the elephant became a ballerina.

Adrian Rollini. Photo courtesy Red Hot Jazz Archive

As the generations roll on, we, the inheritors of these traditions, sit in awe as Rollini appears like a polished diamond in priceless recorded treasures: the Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Venuti/Lang groups, all supercharged by Rollini, speak to us from across the years.

In his youth, my father, the late Jim Cullum, Sr., stumbled over this hot music and he never regained his equilibrium. Early on he discovered Rollini, so naturally he couldn't say no when an opportunity to buy a bass sax loomed up. The year was 1946, the price: $50.00. The sax was a Conn, as Rollini's had been. Many of the instruments Conn made in the 20's have never been surpassed, especially those old bass saxophones.

Delighted, Dad lugged the new toy home to our Dallas living room where he played it about twice and then put it back in its huge case and stored it in the only place it would fit: behind the sofa. You see, Dad was mostly a clarinet player and the bass saxophone was way down there at the other end of the reed family. Also, there was absolutely no one hiring bass saxophone players. Even Rollini had abandoned the bass sax 10 years earlier, and during part two of his career he played vibes and chimes exclusively.

But, what do you know? A little later that year, Adrian Rollini and his orchestra appeared for a two-week run at the Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. Apparently, he had adopted early what has now become an industry standard: travel with a few key men and fill out the sections with local players.

Dad got the call to play in the Rollini sax section. Of course, nothing could have pleased him more and nothing would do unless Adrian came to our house for one of Dad's famous late-night jam sessions. Hand-picked Dallas musicians gathered in our living room feigning a casual nonchalance when, in fact, we were all excited. These were players who understood the difference. Wow! Adrian Rollini! The real thing! In person!

Dad and Adrian made their entrance. Introductions and drinks were passed around and the party's noise level made a decided crescendo. The classic Beiderbecke records began to blast form our Magnavox. And then the sofa was moved out a little, Dad and Adrian stood between the sofa and the wall, and the bass saxophone appeared. Adrian balanced it against the back of the sofa and began to play along with himself on the old Bix records. The party fell silent. Everyone stood up or sat around in a circle, just soaking it up.

Having not touched a bass saxophone in years, Adrian was pretty excited. After about four records, he was beaming.  He put down the bass sax and, in exuberance, actually jumped over the sofa into the room. Then he jumped back, grabbed the sax, and continued playing along. I, as a child, was unaware of the significance of this once-in-a-lifetime musical experience, but I certainly was impressed by that "crazy" guy jumping back and forth over the couch.

When the party was over, I had become fascinated with the bass sax that lived in its black case behind the sofa, sticking out at one end.

During these years, we lived in a sort of "family compound." My grandparents owned a small farm on the outskirts of Dallas and, as their children married, each was given a lot on which to build a house. Most of our neighbors were aunts and uncles and cousins who, amazingly, seemed to get along very well (although I have heard that the volume from Dad's all-night sessions often strained relations).

Having observed Rollini, I now considered myself an expert on the matter of the bass sax which continued to live behind the sofa. For the next few years, I may have been its only visitor. I could show-off to neighborhood friends (mostly cousins) by opening up the musty case and attaching the neck and mouthpiece. With a big breath, I could produce a healthy honk.

Eventually, Dad quit the professional music business. We moved away to Venezuela, back to Dallas, and finally to San Antonio. The bass sax was stored in my grandfather's chicken house. Neighborhood children led by my cousins dropped in occasionally, shooing chickens and blowing dust off the old black case as they, in my absence, showed off the mysterious piece of silver plumbing.

The years rolled by. We kids grew up. Dad again became a "pro" musician. The scene for us had long before shifted to San Antonio. The family neighborhood was gone. My grandparents' wonderful house was replaced by a Taco Bell. The chicken house collapsed. But somehow, the bass saxophone survived, its case reinforced with several rolls of friction tape.

One night in 1971, it finally, after a 50-year wait, made its professional debut at the Landing. It had been completely overhauled for the occasion. There it stood on the Landing stage, shiny as a new penny, fresh with silver plate and new springs and pads.

We had great fun with it for a few nights, but as the novelty wore off, the bass sax became only a bandstand decoration. Dad was a clarinet player at heart, and even the inspiration of the great Rollini wasn't enough to make him wish to trade in some of his clarinet solo space for solos on the bass sax.

One day, he announced to me that Charlie Boeckman, a clarinet player from Corpus Christi, wanted to buy the bass sax. Dad figured up the price: $50.00 purchase price (in 1946) plus $150 for the recent overhaul--a $200 total. He didn't exactly apply increases form the Consumer Price Index. Off went the bass sax to Corpus Christi where, again, it fell into disuse. Charlie Boeckman was a clarinet player, too.

Fast forward a few years and the Landing had become inspirational to one Drake Mabry, a symphony oboe player. He was there every night and once he said to me that he was drawn to our music because he had heard Adrian Rollini on record, and what he really wanted was a bass saxophone. Did I know where he might find one? I told him to call Charlie Boeckman and in a few nights, here was Drake grinning ear to ear holding the bass sax over his head like a barbell. Charlie Boeckman had applied the Consumer Price Index and then some. Drake had paid $500.00.

Fast forward a little more. Enter tubaist Brian Nalepka who came to San Antonio from New York City to join our band. He had a bass saxophone in tow.

"Where'd ja get that bass sax?" I asked. "Well, they're hard to find." came the answer. "I got this one from a guy up in Connecticut, who only sold it to me because he was able to replace it with a silver-plated Conn from someone down here in Texas. Bought I think he said from some symphony oboe player! Stole it, really--only paid $1,000.00."

And then, after a few more years, our band was playing at the national Ragtime Festival at St. Louis. The great jazz tubaist Mike Walbridge was there. We are longtime friends. Mike reported he had just purchased a bass saxophone that he understood had once belonged to my father. "Bought it from a guy in Connecticut," he said, "Really got it at a bargain price: only $3,500.00."

After thinking a minute I said, "Mike, let me make your day and instantly add a couple of thousand more to the value, because when I was a little boy, I, personally, with my own little ears, listened to Adrian Rollini himself play that saxophone both before and and after he jumped back and forth over our sofa!"