Repairmen—Past & Present

Every professional musician owes part of their success to the talents of their repair technicians. The need to have one’s instrument in top performing shape for any job is self-evident but finding the right repairman is akin to finding the right medical doctor. It is more than just their abilities we seek; it’s also their understanding, creativity, flexibility and support that we need. One never knows when a pad or spring will break down at the 11th hour, a support post gets bent, reeds stop sealing on the mouthpiece, or the instrument has been jostled in the carrying case and suddenly doesn’t work as well. THAT’S WHEN WE REALLY NEED OUR REPAIRMEN!

There have always been many capable technicians available but in my career, I’ve experienced a few who went beyond that category who were also ARTISTS and enjoyed sharing their time, knowledge and experience with their customers. They were always there in case of a last minute emergency in addition to their regular appointments. Here are a few who made my life better, in alphabetical order.

Bill Cole's Shop

Photo L to R: Dan Willis, Bill Cole & Ed Joffe at Coles Woodwind Shop, Saratoga Springs, NY. July 2012.

BILL COLE is a renaissance woodwind repair technician in that he works with excellence on all woodwinds. He has a first-class woodwind shop in the heart of Saratoga Springs, NY having relocated from Albany, NY about 10 years ago. Bill has been in the woodwind repair business for over 35 years, servicing not only the local population but also all of the woodwind artists from the NYC Ballet Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra during their summer residencies at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). His work is superb and it’s a pleasure to be in his shop. You always come away feeling satisfied with his work and better for having spent some time with him.

NICK ENGLEMAN was already retired from his job as principal woodwind repairman at Links & Long music store in New York City when I met him in 1971. I was a college sophomore in the Fall of that year but was already dissatisfied with the repair people I had been dealing with in NYC at that time. My father found out through a friend about Nick and I was able to contact him at his home in Hillsdale, NJ. After my initial visit, I realized that I had stumbled upon the real deal. Here was a man that had lived through the rise of the music industry since the 1920s, had the greatest respect for musicians and had worked on everybody’s horns. Nick was about 80 when we met. He spoke of every “client” with the greatest respect, love and admiration while maintaining a smile on his face. Here I was, an 18 yr. old nobody and he treated me as if I were Stanley Drucker! (The memory of hearing Nick relate stories of a 15 yr. old Stanley Drucker or a 13 yr. old Jackie Mclean still gives me great joy.) He devoted himself totally to you when you were with him and even made room on Saturday mornings to do the work at his home. (This was so kind of him since I was in school full-time during the week in those days.) Once, he kept Gerry Mulligan waiting a full hour in his living room on a Saturday while he finished up my work in the basement—who would do that today? He was also the person who showed me how to make the low “B” speak easier on the alto sax by dropping a fish anchor in the bell of the horn. (This is particularly good for executing the low “B’s” in the first movement of the Ibert Concertino.) The final anecdote of his affection for musicians was the fact that he named his dog “Marmaduke,” after the Charlie Parker tune. (He also knew Bird.) There wasn’t one encounter with Nick in all the years that I knew him that I didn’t come away feeling great about my instruments, music and life in general. For me, he has always been the gold standard for repair technicians.

TOMOJI HIRAKATA is a multi-talented woodwind repair artist who works on all single reed instruments. Tomoji came to this country while still in his early 20s and immediately established himself in the upper echelon of woodwind repair specialists while working at the NYC branch of the Woodwind & Brasswind. After a few years working in his own shop in Manhattan, he eventually agreed to work for Yamaha in their NY Showroom. He has been there for the past 11 years and has designed the new Yamaha “A” clarinet along with other innovations for Yamaha woodwinds. However, he still services the top professionals regardless of what brand of instrument they play. His ability to concentrate and the elegance of his work are second to none and he is respected by all throughout the industry. His love for jazz permeates his workplace and music is always playing when you’re with Tomoji.

MARK JACOBI is the top clarinet repair technician in the U.S. Mark carries on the tradition of Philadelphia as the hub of the best professional clarinet repairs, as established by Hans Moennig. Mark only works on clarinets and his work is long-lasting; you can count on it holding for a very long time. Mark was a serious clarinet student himself having studied with two of my former mentors—Ron Reuben and Joe Rabbai. He brings to the table a world of knowledge and experience since he has worked on the top players horns for over 35 years (i.e. Harold Wright, Stanley Drucker, Anthony Gigliotti, Ron Reuben, Don Montanaro, etc.). When Mark sets up an appointment to work on your horn at his home in Philly, that day is yours! He works exclusively on your horn that day and will work until he feels it is perfect. He will never short-change a job and is the most humble person you will meet. He doesn’t try to enlarge one’s opinion of himself by talking negatively about others; his work speaks for itself. I feel fortunate to have known and worked with him for the past 30 years.

HERB KLEEMAN was the next great repairman I encountered after Nick Engleman passed away. He was also retired from his job as repairman at Ponte’s on W. 46th St. in New York City when I met him at his home in Demerast, NJ. (He eventually relocated to Oradell, NJ before moving to Camarillo, CA.) Herb’s shop was the cleanest I have ever seen and he was meticulous when working on the woodwinds. His father had been a repairman and young Herb had learned to build a clarinet by the time he was thirteen. While he played the accordion, his knowledge of woodwinds and his knowledge was honed through a lifetime of experience being around woodwinds and musicians. Like Nick Engleman, they were old-school artists who treated every customer as a friend and made you feel welcome. Our relationship continued beyond the repair shop to the golf course and Herb was also very talented as a golfer. He was a consummate professional and loved to share a joke. If you had a real emergency, he made himself available to you—he understood that we were all in this together. He worked on student instruments for beginners at the same time as working on those of the top pros. Everyone received the same degree of excellence. Herb was a mensch!

EVERETT MATSON was one of the most decent human beings I ever encountered. The fact that he was a superb mouthpiece refacer and friend to all who spent time at his home with him and his wife only made that time more memorable. Everett grew up in Chicago and was trained as an orchestral clarinetist at Juilliard. His desire to improve the performance of the mouthpieces that were available during his playing years led him on a lifetime journey of discovery that resulted in thousands of clarinet & saxophone players finding increased enjoyment playing their instruments. Everett treated everyone the same—with respect and a desire to help them. It didn’t matter if you were a student player or a world-class professional, everyone got his best. He also wasn’t afraid to share his “secrets” regarding mouthpiece acoustics. If you were willing to spend the time, he would teach you how to reface and work with mouthpieces. He kept a little notebook of players mouthpiece measurements so that if you said you wanted a bass clarinet mouthpiece refaced, he would say for example: “Well, I can put on the facing that Ron Reuben (Philadelphia Orchestra bass clarinetist) seems to like.” That often meant that you started out with a mouthpiece that played wonderfully without having to waste hours. It wasn’t unusual to spend three or more hours at his home working on as few or as many mouthpieces as you desired. At the end of the session when you asked what you owed, he would say, “how about $30?” Coupled with the lunch that he provided, talk about players and orchestral performance, and the classical music on the radio, it made a day with Everett seem like a little bit of heaven. How lucky all of us were who knew him.

CHARLIE ROBERTS was a flutist and flute repairman who trained at the original Powell factory while still a college student. He learned first-hand about the art of making and repairing flutes from the masters, including Verne Powell himself. As a result, he demanded and expected perfection in his work. He also held those high standards for the flutes that were produced by other companies. More often than not, he was disappointed with the trends in the modern flute world of manufacturing. However, that didn’t stop him from delivering to his customers a level of work that I have never experienced from any flute repairman. Since he lived in a small, out-of-the way town in Massachusetts, most of his customers mailed their flutes to him for repairs. When you got your flute back from Charlie, each section was wrapped elegantly and played and looked better than it ever had before. You didn’t even want to put your fingerprints on the horn after unwrapping it because it looked so beautiful. In the fifteen years I knew him, never once did I have a complaint with any aspect of his work. There were no mysteries to his work, as he once told me. He didn’t claim to have uncovered any secrets or found the fountain of flute resonance. It was just superb work and the flute did resonate better than it seemingly ever had before after he adjusted it. He put all of his love and effort into his work and not enough into taking care of himself. He died way too young but left behind a loyal contingent of customers who will always remember and appreciate him.

TONY SALIMBENE is a common name to NYC woodwind players. For many years, Tony worked at Roberto’s woodwind shop in midtown Manhattan where he serviced all woodwinds. In recent years, he has opened his own shop in his hometown of Nutley, NJ—AJS Woodwind Repair. It’s one of the nicest repair places to visit, set in a quiet suburban atmosphere, with wonderful jazz on the radio always permeating the shop. Tony adds to this enjoyable experience with his love of music and desire to help you with whatever problems exist with your instruments. It’s important to note that Tony plays the single reeds so he understands our needs and desires from a players perspective. You feel that your concerns become his concerns when you’re with him and I always feel satisfied and glad to have made the trip upon leaving. Tony’s a good cat and fine repairman.

I met CARL SAWICKI in the early 1980s when we both lived on the upper west side of Manhattan. Carl was a bassoonist who had transitioned to repair work. He had great hands and feeling for how an instrument should play and had the unusual ability to concentrate for 10-12 hours at a time. His creative talent is beyond any I have ever experienced but that is probably what one would expect from the son of a man who helped design the experimental devices that the Apollo astronauts placed on the moon. (Carl himself has been devoted to astronomy in recent years and is the co-author of two astrophysics papers published in the prestigious journal, “Astronomy and Astrophysics.”) Throughout his time in the northeast while living in Manhattan, Jeffersonville, NY and Delhi, NY my instruments were in the hands of an artist who saw no boundaries in trying to develop more efficient, resonant-sounding instruments. He now lives in Texas and I miss working with and seeing him greatly.

BILL SINGER has been a fixture in NYC for over 25 years during which time he has serviced virtually every saxophonist’s instrument who lives in NYC or is passing through. I have been a customer of his for 20 years and have referred every student of mine to him without reservation. Bill brings a sense of joy to his repairs—delighting in hearing the results of his work by the smile on his customers faces after they get the horn back from him. He treats everyone with the same respect—whether they are raw amateurs or seasoned pros, whether they have wonderful vintage horns or student-level horns. He loves discovering nuances of saxophone repair and sharing his discoveries with his customers. There has never been a moment that I have been unhappy with his work in the past 20 years. His desire to share his understanding of saxophone repair is well documented in the series of videos that he put out years ago—a must for all serious saxophonists! Bill is still going strong today and is situated at the D’Addario Showroom in Manhattan on weekdays.

FRANK WELLS had the reputation of being the finest mouthpiece reconstructer in the U.S. when I went to him for the first time in 1981. He had a shop in downtown Chicago on State Street in a funky neighborhood. His shop was unique in every way—dusty, dimly lit, and somewhat claustrophobic. It nonetheless radiated with great character and integrity and that was because it reflected Frank and the type of artist he was. To say that he loved being around horn players would be an understatement. The stories he would tell could keep you riveted to your seat for hours while he continued to work (construct, reconstruct & reface) whatever mouthpiece(s) you brought to him. His desire and ability to create mouthpieces that resonated and possessed great overtone presence was second to none. The list of players who made their way to his shop in Chicago and then eventually to the Sax Shop in Evanston, Il towards the end of his life was a Who’s Who of jazz, commercial & classical artists. Everyone was on a single name basis for Frank—Johnny (Coltrane), Eric (Dolphy), Carney (Harry), Benny (Wallace), etc. Frank liked to partake in drink while he worked (a flask under his desk) on State Street and his hands would shake EXCEPT when he started to work on the mouthpiece. At that point, he was as steady as a rock. It wouldn’t matter to him how long it took as long as the end result satisfied both the client and him. There were days that I remember being in his shop for 10-12 hours with one or two mouthpieces and then went out with him to a restaurant for dinner and a taste! A brass player initially, he brought his concept of projection/resonance to every piece of equipment he worked on. I never saw or heard anyone be able to improve a mouthpiece so radically as Frank was capable of doing. For saxophones, he preferred to start on rubber Berg Larsen mouthpieces with a small/medium tip openings and small chambers if he was going to create a mouthpiece from scratch for you. (His rationale was that the Berg rubber was good but also soft, so it could be easily removed or modified.) Towards the end of his career he developed a clarinet mouthpiece prototype that had modified rails of popsicle sticks adhered to the rubber rails of the mouthpiece window. To this day, I have never played a clarinet mouthpiece that had as much “ring” in the tone as that one. Unfortunately, when the mouthpiece was put into production, it never came close to Frank’s. Some 35 years later, I still have every mouthpiece he ever worked on for me. Two of them remain my prime mouthpieces for alto & baritone saxophones and most of the others are my go-to backups when I find myself in a situation where I can’t hear myself when playing on the job. I miss everything about my experiences with Frank Wells—the trips by either plane, bus, or Amtrak to Chicago; the funky hotel I stayed at near his shop; the coffee shop meals, etc. But most of all, I miss being in Frank’s presence and his friendship. He had a way of making you feel good about yourself, music and life.