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The Dr. Sax Treatment

THE great reed players performing today have one thing in common with me. Richard Stolzman, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Bradford Marsalis, Harold Wright, George Coleman, Jane Ira Bloom, David Sanborn, Kenny Garrett, Illinois Jacquet, Yusef Lateef, and I all drink at the same well, so to speak. True, I am an amateur musician and they are stars. But I'm not apologizing. Fellow students of Basil Chapman, conductor, impresario, and woodwind teacher, have applauded me and another elderly pupil performing Mendelssohn at Basil's home in Newton where he holds recitals. The wife of a viola player, and sometimes his son, listen to us playing a Mozart trio with a pianist friend on Saturday mornings. Sometimes the wife or the son stay for the second movement.

A cat listens when I rehearse with her travel-agent mistress, a pianist, and a package-delivery driver listened to 12 bars of Vaughan Williams the other day. Such men are usually pressed for time, and I was grateful.

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What I share with Getz, Stolzman, and the other great reed players is that our instruments are all doctored expertly by Emilio Lyons, the master woodwind technician recognized throughout the music world for the precision and durability of his repairs and adjustments on clarinets, flutes, and saxophones. Especially saxophones.

In this country he is known as the Sax Doctor. In Europe he is Dr. Sax. He would be known as the Clarinet Doctor except that the saxophone is far more prone to problems, having intricate mechanisms, large tone holes, and bulky leather pads that are damaged by moisture. Clarinets and flutes are sturdier and easier to fix.

Emilio writes a regular column on saxophone maintenance in Downbeat magazine, bible of the music industry. This year (1990) one of Boston's radio stations dedicated a full hour to Emilio on his 55th birthday. He travels to Italy every summer to run clinics and repair instruments during the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia. This year he will add Nice on the French Riviera to his schedule. For three weeks in July, I will rely on rubber bands and flower paste to make emergency repairs.

In Perugia, Emilio's language is Italian, still fluent after 38 years in the United States. He was born in Salerno of an Italian mother and a Boston, Irish-American father named Lyons, whose adoptive parents moved back to their native Italy. The elder Lyons served as interpreter for Eisenhower's staff in Italy in World War II, as Emilio informed me recently while he replaced my damaged C pad.

After the war, Emilio went on, he learned tailoring in Salerno and moved at age 17 to the US, of which he was a citizen by inheritance from his father. An American aunt found him a job in a Boston clothing factory where he rose rapidly to foreman. Evenings he took clarinet lessons and played clarinet with a rumba band. Emilio quit his well-paid factory job to become a clerk in Rayburn's musical instrument shop behind Symphony Hall where he had been taking lessons. He took up repair work and caught the attention of Joe Viola, renowned saxophone teacher at Berklee College of Music. Viola started referring the big stars, many of them his former pupils.

Emilio now manages the store, where symphony players and rock and jazz stars rub elbows with students and amateurs. He takes his private repair work to a tiny room behind the garage of his ranch house on a maple-shaded back street in suburban Lexingon, Mass. (He moved there 20 years ago because he ``liked the name. Very musical.'') Every evening he spends four hours mending saxophones, clarinets, and an occasional flute.

Some clients ship their instruments. Others, myself included, deliver our horns in person. Sonny Rollins makes three-day appointments far in advance and spends all of the second day sitting beside Emilio in Lexington, watching every detail of the overhaul of his tenor saxophone and swapping trade talk.

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For Stan Getz, dinner at Emilio's is de rigueur whenever he plays in Boston. ``It's like good luck for him to come here for a meal. Kind of a superstition,'' Emilio confided. Getz is special. Emilio told me he was his first big-name client. Twenty years ago the store got a call from Berklee College of Music asking for emergency repairs on Getz's tenor sax. Emilio, who had been repairing horns for students and amateurs until then, landed the job. When Getz's emissary came for the instrument, Emilio refused to give it to him. The man offered to pay double. Emilio refused. ``I want to give it to Mr. Getz myself. I want to meet him. I want to hear him play and ask him if the horn is OK.'' Getz came, he saw, he played - and Emilio's reputation took off. He framed Getz's check, along with those of Sonny Rollins and other stars that adorn the wall at the instrument shop.

Stolzman, who can make a clarinet sound like a wood nymph or a banshee, lives in nearby Winchester and is a regular visitor to the Lexington workroom. ``He's very hard on his clarinets. I like to see him every three months,'' Emilio informed me. But he assured me that most of his overhauls last four or five years. Jane Ira Bloom's soprano sax was last overhauled in 1978. Emilio last did mine in 1988.

The Sax Doctor has the features and the authoritative mien of a Roman senator. Black hair brushed straight back. Wide brow. Square jaw, crinkly brown eyes, and charming Italian accent.

While he's working on my horn he tells me of the comings and goings of the stars. Last week Stan Getz, next week Sonny Rollins. Gossip from New York. Jazz jammer Woody Allen, who also stars in his own films, plays an ancient Albert system clarinet, the same kind played at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Poor jazz musicians in New Orleans and Memphis bought discarded Alberts when the easy-fingering Boehm system came into vogue nearly a century ago, and some of the great traditional jazz is still played on Alberts. Jazzy slurs and slides are easier on Alberts, their devotees say.

The repair of my Boehm system horn complete, Emilio blows a brilliant virtuoso succession of trills, chromatics, and arpeggios, testing every note on the instrument, and hands it to me. I take it apart and return it to its blue velveteen case - without retesting it.

The virtuosity of the warmup routine is the reed player's signature. I'm still working on mine, and often it squeaks. Better not to spoil the illusion that somehow I belong with the stars in the exalted Emilio Lyons's circle of woodwind hall of fame.

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