Jazzing It Up: A Visit to Tim Moran Woodwinds
When I stepped off the bus in a cute neighborhood in Hamden, Connecticut, I immediately came face-to-face with a carved wooden rooster playing saxophone. This was the display window of Tim Moran Woodwinds, where Yale woodwind instruments go when they start to break down. I play several instruments, including saxophone, but I had not considered what happened to these instruments after being shipped away. I imagined the rooster figurine playing “Careless Whisper” by George Michael, and it quickly lured me inside.
The entire shop consisted of only one room, but it had much to offer. A collection of saxophones, clarinets, and flutes sat in display cases, suspended from the left wall and stretching all the way to the shelves full of cases in the back. On the right side of the shop were two chaotic workbenches covered in an assortment of pliers, pins, screwdrivers, tape measurers, wires, resins, and other materials I could not name. Pictures of musicians I didn’t recognize hung around the room. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn about the music world, so I went searching for a man who had devoted his life’s work to keeping the art of music performance alive: Tim Moran.
Tim swiveled around in his chair and then stood, revealing his short stature, round-framed glasses, sturdy shoulders, and hair greyed from experience. His apprentice, Julia, was quietly soldering a large saxophone on the bench behind Tim while we sat down to talk. Tim told me that he grew up during the influential careers of many jazz musicians in the 1950s and learned to play the saxophone at age 12. His inspiration came from the episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show he used to watch at his childhood home in Massachusetts. Each episode featured either the Duke Ellington or Count Basie Orchestra. Tim vividly remembers watching each group’s five saxophones on the television screen: “The camera pans in real close,” he recounted, “and all you could see were the hands on the saxophones, on the keys, and these guys all had diamond pinky rings and shit, and their fingers were just doing this.” He proceeded to imitate a live concert, complete with air saxophone and scatting, while his eyes glowed with joy. “And I went — that’s what I want to do,” he said, letting out a nostalgic laugh. Tim’s pinkies did not have diamond rings and shit, but he did catch the bug early on.
Tim’s bug got even more intense after he graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in music performance. In addition to playing gigs, he became a woodwind instrument repair technician — a “mechanic” in his words, or a “sax guru” in mine. “I brought my horn to my repair guy to do some work on it,” Tim said, “and when he finished he said, ‘Look, I’m getting real busy in my shop, and I need someone to take on as an apprentice. Do you know anybody that might want to learn the trade?’ ” Tim excitedly raised his hand. “Me! Sign me up,” he said. Out came the same nostalgic laugh, this time even more contagious. I could feel his bug in the air now.
Now I was signing up to learn the trade, so Tim led me to his workbench and began to show me the sax he had been fixing. “In the realm of saxophones,” he said, “this is the holy grail. This is the Selmer model they call the Mark VI. It is considered the epitome of saxophone design. Everybody wants to buy a Mark VI. I have a Mark VI.” A rounded tube that fit snugly into the bell of the Mark VI supported it slightly above waist level. All the keys were still intact. Now I understood the reason Tim considered himself a mechanic. Most customers simply dropped off their horns for repair and picked them up a few days later essentially brand new, but the magic happened here. “It’s a metal machine,” Tim said, “and you use tools to fix all the parts of the machine.”
As he surveyed his tools, Tim explained his process to me. “This is what we call an overhaul. We took off all the keys, and it looks like something’s missing — it’s just a bare, little skinny tube. It’s dipped in a chemical and then given a bath in hot, soapy water. We washed all the keys, stripped off all the old pads, all the old corks, everything came out, everything came apart.” He then described the meticulous reconstruction of the keys, demonstrating the use of a tube lamp that emanates from inside the saxophone, revealing leaks and imbalances of the pads that sealed the holes.
After this reseating process came the essential personalization of the instrument. No automated machine could give an instrument a certain character better than a trained pair of hands, and Tim’s were no exception. “Even with kids I spend some time getting the feel right because, I figure, if it feels terrible to a kid, he’s probably not going to want to play it,” Tim said. “They could be the next Charlie Parker, and I’m blowing his career because I made the keys too stiff, you know?” Tim expressed this hypothetical as a joke, but it’s true that many musicians discover their passions as children. A poor first experience with guitar for Jimi Hendrix or piano for Chopin could have altered the history of rock ’n’ roll or classical music. If, at age 11, Charlie Parker had abandoned his saxophone because he lacked guidance from his sax guru, the brilliant Lester Young, bebop-style jazz would not be the same. Like Lester Young, Tim Moran strongly influences the young and talented musicians who approach him. His overhauls take ten to fifteen hours, but he perseveres, knowing those hours could potentially change the next genre of music.
During my overhaul crash-course, Julia continued working diligently on the back workbench. As a musician, I was already familiar with music shops, but Julia was still able to surprise me with her professional knowledge. “People don’t know that this trade exists,” she said. “If you’re not a musician, you wouldn’t know that there’s people all over the country that do this.” Tim continued, “Every little music store’s got somebody, but most of them are hacks. They really don’t know what they’re doing.” Tim guarantees that every instrument leaving Tim Moran Woodwinds will be even more comfortable, versatile, and expressive than when it arrived. After spending only a half hour in the shop speaking with Tim and observing his work, I would trust him with my broken saxophone if it meant I could continue playing music. Tim Moran Woodwinds may be tucked away in a small Hamden neighborhood, but the store is a hidden gem, its polished saxophones glistening in the window.
“There’s something about playing music that feeds your soul,” Tim said. “When you’re playing, you’re opening yourself up because music is emotion. And there are moments that feel like something is coming through you.” Moments like this motivate Tim to continue playing music and working as a mechanic. “Musicians need us,” he said. Instruments are tools for the art of music performance, and Tim wants musicians to be able to trust him with these tools. After all, he wouldn’t want to risk blowing off the next Charlie Parker.