Thursday, January 2, 2014

Lester Young's Mouthpiece - I've got one. You might, too.

Search around the net and find the different opinions about which vintage mouthpieces were used by various famous sax players (or their horns, for that matter).  Then check auction sites like Ebay and you can check out what those mouthpieces sell for compared to other vintage mouthpieces.  If somebody like Lester Young played that brand/model of mouthpiece, then it is likely to be selling for several hundred dollars more than an identical piece stenciled for another company.

What's a "stencil" mouthpiece?  As with saxophones, stencil is a term applied to designate a mouthpiece that was ordered by a woodwind manufacturer, an instrument wholesaler, or a music store to be used as a private label piece for their exclusive sales.  Most mouthpieces are stencils. Don't believe me?  Read this blog.

Let's get back to Lester Young's mouthpiece.  It's an obscure stencil.  I know, you've heard about Mr. Young playing an Otto Link 4 Star and maybe you've seen a picture that sure looks like he is playing an old Link.  And you've heard that he played a Brilhart Ebolin and seen a picture of him playing a black mouthpiece with a white tooth guard.  Fine, maybe he did.  But I'm talking about the other mouthpiece.  The last mouthpiece.  The one that he still owned when he passed away in 1959.  The one that we really know that he owned.

His last horn and mouthpiece sat in his brother's basement for 56 years.  Mr. Young had given away his Conn tenor years before he passed away and he had kept a Dolnet tenor that had been presented to him a few years earlier.  Any prior Brilhart or Link mouthpiece was also given away, sold, stolen, or whatever by the time of his death.  But the Prez still had a Dolnet horn and a mouthpiece.  In fact, here's what Dave Pell, the first person to play the Prez's set up, said when he got ahold of it.

  “It had fifty-six years of rust. I took the thing home, and I said, ‘Gee, maybe I can play the mouthpiece.’ The mouthpiece plays just sensational. Just perfect. It sounds like Prez.  The mouthpiece that was on Lester Young's horn was an Emil Lyon.”

What the heck is an Emil Lyon tenor mouthpiece?  Turns out that we have to go off into stencil land again.  I've seen a few Emil Lyon clarinets.  They show up on Ebay once in a while. 

They appear to be a stencil of unknown origins (other than stating that they are from Paris).  I found one reference that they were imported and distributed by U.S. Musical Merchandising Corporation (USMMC) in New York, but then I couldn't find any further information on the corporation (other than an old address and the name of a line of Japanese-made guitars that they also distributed).  I also found a "for sale" advertisement for a Emil Lyon Db piccolo in a 1953 newspaper.  The trade name isn't very common.  I did later find information that Emil Lyon was a trademark used by USMMC for it's woodwinds from 1946 until 1964.

I have never seen or heard of an Emil Lyon saxophone, so I don't know why there are Emil Lyon saxophone mouthpieces.  It could be that Emil Lyon was a sufficiently popular trade name in clarinets such that the distributor decided to try and branch out.  First with a sax mouthpiece and then maybe an actual sax?  I don't know.  But I have seen an Emil Lyon saxophone mouthpiece.  It's white plastic.  And it's not uncommon.  That is because the identical mouthpiece was stenciled with trade names other than Emil Lyon in the 1940s, 50s, and maybe as late as the 1960s.

The actual plastic material used in making these pieces was never really addressed by the various wholesale sellers of these stencils (if the sellers even knew).  When these pieces were stenciled for Sorkin Music under the trade name Revere, a 1958 catalog said that the mouthpiece material was ivory (third picture) when shipped with the Revere Paris Model saxophones.  That's just advertising hype.  I can't find what the mouthpieces were called when they were stenciled King for H.N. White, although they shipped as one of the standard mouthpiece with the Super 20 horns (and changed over the years).  When stenciled True Tone for Buescher and shipped with the Aristocrat saxophones, this 1949 catalog said the material was Lucite (at page 7).  That's possible. 

Lucite was developed in the 1940's and first prominently used as the "plexiglass" gunner's window on the B-17 Flying Fortress.  It is still used in making everything from jewelry to dentures.  The fact that it can be injection molded to make "fake teeth" shows that it can be produced in mouthpiece colors that look like ivory, as well as some of the later plastic mouthpieces that were red, blue, etc. 

Whether these old stencil mouthpieces are actually Lucite (a trademarked recipe) or simply some form of injection molded polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) isn't important.  The generic term most people use is white plastic.  White plastic mouthpieces became popular because of injection molded mouthpieces being produced (maybe in house) by Arnold Brilhart in the 1940s.  The stencil pieces we are looking at appear to be a knockoff of the Brilhart plastic mouthpieces. 

Brilhart made injection molded PMMA mouthpieces in white (Tonalin), black (Ebolin), and clear (Tonalite).  Mouthpiece princesses, as discussed in another blog, can hear the difference between these different colors, despite the fact that the mouthpieces were produced in identical injection molds using the identical material.  I believe that the differences that they are hearing, if any, are caused by the varying quality of the individual facings, not the colors.  Or, possibly auditory hallucinations based on a preconceived notion of what they should be hearing from a certain colored mouthpiece. 

The weakness in these plastic mouthpieces is the brittleness of PMMA (watch out for cracks in the shank).  If you click on this picture, you can see one.  It's easy to see because the plastic is white.  Black PMMA  mouthpieces, like the Brilhart Ebolin series, also commonly have these cracks.  Most people never notice the cracks, especially on the black pieces. 
One solution to reduce cracking was to use rubber toughening, whereby small amounts of rubber are added to PMMA to try to stop the cracks from developing.  It makes the material slightly less brittle, more resistant to shock and stress cracks, and often results in surface crazing that doesn't actually progress to a larger crack.  Brilharts are famous for needing a metal band on the shank because of developing cracks, and the other plastic mouthpieces of the era can have the same problem.

Rubber toughening does not seem to add any protection from surface wear, and Brilharts and other PMMA mouthpieces seem to suffer more than most from tooth gouges.  Click on the picture below and you can see that the tooth gouge has also spawned a crack.  Because these pieces are white, little stress cracks are more obvious than with the black PMMA models.  The black plastic mouthpieces have cracks just as often, but they tend to go unnoticed.  With care, and especially with a shank band and a tooth guard, these can easily go another 50 years.
Although the gouges can be fixed, it generally isn't done because vintage plastic mouthpieces aren't collectible (yet).  The tooth guards on vintage Brilhart pieces are the same PMMA material as the body of the mouthpiece, just a different color, so it is a guard in name only.

Okay, back to Lester Young's mouthpiece.  You probably want to see what it looks like.  Here is an Emil Lyon mouthpiece.

Some of you may say, hey, I've seen that mouthpiece before.  Maybe not engraved Emil Lyon, but that mouthpiece.  Right you are.  They show up on Ebay once in a while.  I've paid up to $20, but my favorite was only $12, including shipping.  Probably about what the Prez paid for his in the 1950s.  Buescher's 1959 parts catalog listed their white tenor piece for $12.50 (it has a slightly different shank shape, as discussed below).

Here is it is as a King mouthpiece.  Same interior.  They have not quite flat sidewalls and not very much "squeeze" compared to newer Brilhart tenors but basically identical to the earlier Great Neck Brilharts.

Here is a PMMA tenor as a Lyons of Chicago Artist. This is not related to Emilio Lyons, the well-known instrument repairman.  It isn't related to Lyon & Healy, the Chicago harp manufacturer which also distributed woodwind instruments.  It isn't related to the Emil Lyon mouthpiece shown above.  This one was stenciled for the one-time leader of musical instrument distributors Lyons Band Instrument Company.  These mouthpieces are sometimes claimed to be "rare" and sell for above $40.  As we will see, the only thing that is rare (and not that rare) is this particular stenciling for Lyons of Chicago.  The actual manufacturer used this "Artist" stamp on other mouthpieces, including hard rubber pieces (picture #4).

Here it is stenciled as a Medallion and with a black after market tooth guard (recommended, for reasons that you saw above). 

Flat sidewalls and a large throat.

Here's one (above) with no name engraved on it and a clear tooth guard (again, recommended).

A smooth roll over baffle.

And here's one marked as a Paul Dupre Conservatoire.  So who the heck was Paul Dupre?  Some say that he was a famous Paris woodwind maker.  Nope.  When Paul Dupre woodwinds started circulating in the 1920's, people had heard of the Frenchman Paul Dupre.  He was a famous Rugby player who died in World War 1. 

The name Paul Dupre was perfect for a business looking for a French sounding trade name for clarinets, oboes, and flutes.  Henry Stadlmair Co. in New York needed a trade name for woodwind instruments that they were importing from international makers.  So the name Paul Dupre is to woodwinds what Betty Crocker is to cuisine.  Not that it's bad.  Stadlmair, like the wholesale house Sorkin in another blog, often sourced from excellent makers before putting their house brand on the instrument.  In fact, Stadlmair is famous for some of their banjos, ukuleles, steel guitars, etc. all of which were outsourced from a variety of makers.

These white plastic mouthpieces were generally marked as a 2 or 3 facing (if they are marked at all) and are generally between a .065" and .070" tip opening for the tenor.  The "no-name" pieces never having any indication of the lay (not that it really matters because most owners will want to change that).

Buescher Aristocrats altos and tenors shipped with a #3, and their 1950 catalog said that the standard #3 mouthpiece could be exchanged for one of the five True Tone facings that were available.  They later offered them directly for sale in various facings.  I've never seen one of the other facings, but they must exist.  Here's a #3 alto True Tone showing the wider sidewalls (as compared to a newer Brilhart alto piece). 

The Buescher is actually not quite identical to the Emil Lyon, Lyon & Healy, etc. on the exterior of the shank.  The beauty of injection molding is that a chamber interior can be used with a variety of distinctive exterior molds.  So any interior shape might be later used with a generic exterior, or a Buescher exterior, or a Dukoff exterior, or a King exterior, etc.  And the mold for the exterior shape, like this one, can be reserved for use just by Buescher, making it appear to be distinct from the "common" white plastic mouthpieces.

This generic white plastic tenor mouthpiece has had the tip opened up to .100"  or about a Great Neck 5* to 6 (recommended).

Above is the white PMMA mouthpiece actually marked as a Babbit.  It has the slightly smoother barrel to shank shape, i.e., the "Buescher" shape, but the same interior.

Here it is as an alto piece, again unmarked.  Notice that the sidewalls on this particular alto piece are relatively narrow (in the little picture), like a modern Brilhart.  

Below is another alto piece with the narrower sidewalls.  It also has one of the "later model" straight shank exterior designs, although it appears that the rounded and straight shank designs probably overlapped in the late 50's and early 60's.  Notice also in the second picture that this PMMA mouthpiece was stamped Dukoff.  That's why the asking price for this alto piece is $750 instead of the normal $20 for a white plastic mouthpiece.  As is common with Dukoff stencils, it has been refinished to a much larger tip opening than those on the generic blanks from which it was made (.084 for this alto).  Generic PMMA pieces are usually about .063 for altos.

The Revere PMMA alto piece below has the wider sidewalls, but gets a second shank ring (and as we have learned in another blog, it is sometimes alleged to have been made with genuine ivory!!).   The narrower sidewalls, like on the Dukoff, are the more common interiors.

There is really nothing about the exterior shape that gives a clue about the interior shape.  In fact, the Revere trade name was later used on a different exterior shape.  Below is an example of the later exterior with the same narrow or "late Brilhart style" chamber.  If you are selling one of these generic pieces, you could also call it a "Dukoff style" chamber.  Or, to be honest, you could call it a standard Babbitt PMMA chamber, as discussed below.

Enough about the vast number of trade names stamped on generic PMMA mouthpieces.  

It's no wonder that Lester Young used an Emil Lyon white plastic tenor mouthpiece after playing a Brilhart Ebolin for many years.  On the left below is a vintage Brilhart Ebolin Great Neck (with a metal shank band because of the well-founded fear of PMMA cracking).  On the right is not the Brilhart Tonalin Great Neck, but one of the white no-name pieces pictured above with the Emil Lyon style wide chamber.*  I've been over these two with my calipers and there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two.  I'm just joking.  The pieces are identical, but there's actually about $150 difference between the two according to Ebay sales prices.  But not according to Lester Young.  Who ya gonna believe?

There are several other names and logos stenciled on these pieces besides Emil Lyon and those listed above.  But only one of the names actually manufactured these mouthpieces: JJ Babbitt Co.  JJ Babbitt has been around for a long time.  It's company profile in trade publications states "The company also produces custom mouthpieces with private labeling."  From the JJ Babbitt web site: "JJ Babbitt is an OEM supplier to the world's largest instrument manufacturers and also supplies mouthpieces internationally to professionals, distributors, and dealers."

In other words, JJ Babbitt Co. will stencil one of their mouthpieces with trade names requested by a music store, a saxophone manufacturer, or a mouthpiece finishing business.  Say like stenciling one of their Babbitt white plastic tenor models with the name King, Coast, Medallion, True Tone, Revere, Perfectone, Dukoff, Emil Lyon, etc., etc., etc.  Also available in "No Name" white.  All of these are okay deals at under $20 (because you will need to reface them from the general student facing).  Keep in mind that you can get a new plastic student piece like a Selmer Goldentone to reface for about $18,so why start with an old, possibly damaged blank if you're not looking for the slightly mellower sound of these vintage PMMA blanks?

You need to buy one of these before the word gets out and these common-as-dirt mouthpieces are claimed (by owner/sellers) to be rare examples of the piece played by the Prez.  And, just like those common JJ Babbitt hard rubber pieces that are claimed to be Dukoff House of Note clones, these will start selling for hundreds of dollars. 

You'll sound just like the Prez.  I promise.**  

*  There are Babbitt-produced white plastic mouthpieces that have wider chambers than the two styles discussed above.  Some of them shipped with the King Super 20 horns for years. But that would double the length of the blog.  

**  It might take some practice.


  1. Hi!
    I've read and tried to find this mouthpiece on ebay and couldn't.

    It would be very useful if you could say here how to find it, keywords, or whatever. The closest thing I found was this:

    Please help me find it cheap hahaha

    Thanks for the post by the way, I learned a lot :)

    Hope to hear from you soon

  2. There might not be one on Ebay right now. Sometimes it takes a week or two for one to show up. The King shown in the blog just sold in October for $25.
    Other times, there are three or four at a time. If they are priced above $25, they usually don't sell. That may change. Gnome-honey

  3. hey, I have one of these! I always thought it was quite a decent player, if a little small... I was gonna get rid of it, but now I'll just keep it around. thanks!

  4. I'll buy it at the original sales price ($12.50)!!! I've opened these up quite a bit from the original small tips (my present favorite is a .097). I kept the original modest rollover baffle with no other chamber work. I play it way more often than my pieces costing 10, 20, or 30 times more.

  5. I just picked up one of these as an alto "King A". It was along for the ride with what I really wanted. When I got it, I was surprised how like a Brilhart it appeared - and played like - and sounded like!! Then I remembered I had read this post months back. I've got a Great Neck era Ebolin #2, so I compared them.

    Like you said, the KingA's chamber is like that in Brilhart, but narrower. The Great Neck's sidewalls are obviously farther apart. Its table and window are wider, too, though the KingA's window is longer.

    Also, the table on the KingA is cut more parallel to the neck, where the Ebolin's table is cut at more of an angle "down" towards the tip. Is what you call a "Butt Cut"?*

    The Ebolin's tip opening is probably a smidge wider, but the KingA "feels" bigger. It seems to have a shorter facing curve. Maybe's it's a copy of a Brilhart "*" short facing.

    Other than that the blanks are so similar I wonder if somebody was sharing the Brilhart molds. The KingA's pretty well finished, too, it plays nicely. A bit zippier and louder than the Brilhart, which may be due to the narrower sidewalls.

    What era are these from? I'm guessing '40s & '50s? Shipped stock with Zephyrs, S20s, Cleveland horns?

  6. The white King mouthpieces came out with the Super 20s in 1946 and shipped with every new horn right up until the early 60's. You can see them in the Super 20 catalogs shown at the H.N. White website. The Zephyr catalog pictures always show a black mouthpiece that looks like the older hard rubber King A and King T (sort of retaining the 1930's look, but the pictures are really small.) The Cleveland saxophones also appear to have had black mouthpieces as standard issue. So the white plastic mouthpieces shipped only with King's top-of-the-line horns (as they did with Buescher's top-of-the-line).

    I think that the King "MO" mouthpiece, a hard rubber streamlined piece, probably came very late in the production, maybe even after King's saxophone quality supposedly started to decline.

    The way that the table is cut on two identical blanks could make the window longer and the rails thicker on one piece. Taken to extremes (like placing the table on a belt sander), it would be possible to reduce the table so much that the window went all the way to the neck opening! But the butt cut (those words just rolls off the tongue) that I was referring to was simply removing material from the back or butt end of the table, primarily to cant the table and increase the tip opening.

    Check out

  7. FWIW, I took some pics of the two mouthpieces; a shot of the facing & one lying on their facings so you can compare the slightly different angle of cut. I had to 'shop them vigorously. It was hard getting a good pic of both the black & white mouthpiece at the same time!

  8. Although Buescher, Conn, and others shipped white plastic mouthpieces with their horns back in the day, it looks like King did it for the longest period with their Super 20 horns. Because of that +20-year period, King mouthpieces have the most variation of the white plastic pieces, both internally and externally (at least for the tenor pieces, which is sort of where I focus). I have a white King T that has a chamber considerably larger than the Great Necks. Because of the random nature of what a King T mouthpiece might be, I get the impression that H.N. White ordered "some more white mouthpieces" and Babbitt made a production run of whatever design was the most convenient. No rhyme or reason to "what's inside" a King white mouthpiece. Some are Brilharts, some are better (that's probably heresy to a Brilhart fan).

  9. I read this article and, surprinsingly, in my stock of tenor mpcs there is one Emil Lyon professional that came to me from a friend that found it in the home of a death sax tenor player.......Incredible!!!!