The Exacting Art of Saxophone Repair
By Corey Kilgannon
June 1, 2018
Perry Ritter decided as a young man that he would never play the sax professionally. But he was good at fixing them.Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Perry Ritter’s tiny saxophone repair shop in Midtown Manhattan is as much a visual flight of fancy as a jazz solo is an auditory one.
The shop — in the heart of the Diamond District, on West 47th Street — is crowded with used instruments and the whimsical sculptures that Mr. Ritter creates during his downtime from spare saxophone parts.
Mr. Ritter, 59, has been repairing saxophones in Midtown for more than 40 years and is the go-to technician for some of the biggest jazz players in New York.
His workbench is nestled in one of the densest commercial hives in the city, in a building largely occupied by jewelry merchants.
Working on these valuable horns, usually vintage Selmers favored by jazz artists, can be tedious — replacing or adjusting delicate keys, rods, pins, springs, cork, and leather pads — so Mr. Ritter often takes breaks to work on his figurative creations.
His output has turned the shop into a menagerie of skeletal dragons and swooping prehistoric birds, as well as quirky figurines and decorative items.
Mobiles hang from the ceiling; movable figures sit on shelves. There is a jazz drummer who plays with the turn of a tiny crank. There is a mobile in the style of the artist Alexander Calder made with saxophone rods and key cups.
A bony reptile lay across Mr. Ritter’s toolbox as he worked on a saxophone by the soft light that filtered in from the air shaft through sooty windows.
A huge gong hangs on the inside of the door, signaling each customer’s arrival with a loud clatter. It announced the entrance of Jonathon Haffner, a saxophonist seeking a tuneup of his horn before heading off to record with the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and the drummer Jack DeJohnette.
The next customer was Michael Johnson, who played saxophone in the house band for B.B. King’s club in Times Square before the place closed in April. Mr. Johnson also needed a once-over on his horn and, like Mr. Haffner, he needed it done immediately.
“I’m sort of used to New York being like that,” said Mr. Ritter, who is married with two grown daughters and lives in Rockland County.
He grew up in Palisades Park, N.J. and said he developed delicate mechanical skills early on by working in his father’s machine shop. He played the saxophone in school ensembles, but by college he concluded that he might not have the skills to make a living playing instruments.
“I said, ‘I know — I’ll repair them,’” he recalled.
He attended the Eastern School of Musical Instrument Repair in Union, N.J., and started out at the bustling repair shops that once proliferated along West 48th Street in Midtown, including Art Shell, Silver & Horlan, Alex Music, Manny’s and Sam Ash.
Mr. Ritter can recount endless stories about legendary jazz saxophonists whose horns he has repaired. Ask him about the estimable teeth marks gouged by Sonny Rollins into his mouthpiece after endless hours of intense practice.
Or the time he fixed Pharoah Sanders’s chipped mouthpiece and Mr. Sanders doubled Mr. Ritter’s $150 fee for the work.
The revered saxophonist Michael Brecker visited the shop constantly, seeking minute adjustments to help facilitate his stunning technique.
Mr. Ritter said he introduced Mr. Brecker to the younger saxophonist Chris Potter in the shop so that Mr. Potter could buy one of Mr. Brecker’s saxophones.
It was also in Mr. Ritter’s shop that Mr. Brecker once met Lenny Pickett, the saxophonist in the band on “Saturday Night Live,’’ and invited Mr. Pickett to play his horn.
Mr. Pickett, who is known for his trademark high-register squeals often heard in the opening credits of “Saturday Night Live,” floored Mr. Brecker with a brilliant squealing recital.
Mr. Ritter said he once made a catastrophic blunder of cleaning out the layers of residue in the upper tubing of Illinois Jacquet’s horn, which brightened the sound.
“He said I took the jive out of the horn,” Mr. Ritter said. “Here was this hero of mine lambasting me. But what could I do? I couldn’t put the jive back in his horn. He never came back.”
On the wall was an old Christmas card from the saxophonist Frank Wess, who pulled the young repairman’s leg by feigning anger when picking up his horn.
“He slammed his fist on the table and said, “How much do I owe you, and why?” recalled Mr. Ritter, who would become friends with Mr. Wess, who died in 2013.
Pointing to an empty bottle of Beck’s beer on a shelf, he said, “That was Frank Wess’s last beer.”
Mr. Ritter also makes custom horns, like the three saxes he attached so that the musician Duke Washington could play them at one time. Mr. Ritter said he also maintains the so-called Flame-O-Phone, a fire-spewing baritone saxophone played by Stefan Zeniuk.
Mr. Ritter said he began making sculptures out of sax parts after curtailing his model rocketry hobby.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, he was spotted carrying a model rocket in Midtown and was swarmed by police officers.
“After 9/11,” he explained, “you just couldn’t walk around New York with a missile on your shoulder anymore.”