Lamps and Cornets by Jim Cullum Jr

After about two years of fascinated blowing with my first cornet, I began to think of a new horn. The original had served me well--a 1910 C. Bruno and Sons model that I purchased from a San Antonio pawn shop. The negotiated price had been $7.

But now I had my eye on a new horn, as one day I walked into the C. Bruno and Sons San Antonio office and came face to face with a brand new French Besson Brevette cornet.

I had briefly met Fred Hoy, absolute ruler at C. Bruno. He was a cornet player himself. He went “mm, mm, mm” and then “yum, yum” as he studied my old horn. “You know," he said slowly, “if you like these short cornets, you should see what we just received,” and with that he whipped out the French Besson. I could only say “wow” and repeated it several times, for to this day I’ve never seen a more beautiful cornet. The story goes that Ed Sonfield, owner of Bruno, was strolling on a Paris street one day in the late 1950s when in amazement he was stopped in his tracks as a cornet lamp was grouped with other oddities in a window display at a small store. The cornet was a pre-war French Besson. Ed rushed in and purchased the lamp with the intention of scrapping the lamp portion and saving the great cornet. As the shop owner counted out the change, Ed asked “Why would anyone make a lamp out of such a great instrument?” “Oh that,” came the reply, “I have twenty-four of those cornets in the basement and can’t sell them, so I finally started making lamps. The lamps at least sell a little!”

Within another 30 minutes C. Bruno and Sons was seriously in the French Besson cornet business. The entire collection was sent to cornet virtuoso Byron Autrey at Michigan State. Byron, an expert, saw to it that all the Bessons were silver plated and that all the valves were lapped perfectly. All were large bore (467 thousandths of an inch), and many consider them among the greatest cornets of all time.

So I was off with my beautiful French Besson and it wasn’t long until, to my delight, I discovered that one of my idols, Bobby Hackett, was playing this same cornet and had used it on his famed Coast Concert recording. These cornets were beautifully engraved and silvered and each came with a case made of genuine alligator.

I would probably have been happy to play the French Besson for the rest of my days had not the Landing audience one night contained Sandy Sandberg, sales manager for the newly organized Getzen Co. of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Sandy pushed a new Getzen cornet into my hand and bingo, I had a new lover. The Getzen’s design was influenced by a rare 1950s Conn cornet and by the French Besson, and I always thought the designer had been both smart and lucky. Getzen made up a large bore model just for me and I was a Getzen “artist” and advocate for 25 years. During all that time Getzen more or less took over what there was of the American cornet market.

Portrait of Bobby Hackett holding his Getzen cornet. The inscription reads: "To Jim, Jr. With thanks & best wishes, Bobby Hackett."

In 1968 Bobby Hackett arrived in San Antonio to record with our band, and as he unpacked, out came a shiny Getzen cornet. Hackett had been seduced just as I had. But Hackett was fickle about cornets, and the next time I saw him he had a Benge cornet and then an Olds that had belonged to Red Nichols.

At one point, Bobby decided to go into business with some fellows who were developing a sound component store located in New York City. It was called “Bobby Hackett’s Sound Stage.” Bobby would say, “I always wanted to be in business. Come on over and see my office.” Soon, when I was in New York I went to see Bobby, who was set up with a private office at the rear of the sound component store. The investors did the work, Bobby just lent his name for a small part of the ownership. As I was shown in, Bobby rose from a large polished desk. He was in high spirits and we visited. Conversation soon turned from his new business to our mutual fascination, cornets. “I’ve gone back to the French Besson,” he said. He seemed to change about once a week.

In addition to Bobby’s desk, the only furniture in the office was a large filing cabinet. Bobby approached it and pulled on a drawer. Expecting to see a bank of traditional file folders, I did a double take for the entire cabinet was jammed with cornets, six drawers full!

I have never been as nutty as Bobby Hackett about my search for the ultimate cornet. However, I do carry the "cornetaholic" gene, and fascinating cornets seem to be out there waiting for me to chase them down odd pathways.

One evening Bruce McKinley, a friendly “bloke,” approached, giving himself away with his Australian accent. I affected a “g’day” and he gained inner circle access by identifying himself as a friend of Bob Barnard, the great Australian cornetist. Not only is Bob a great cornetist, he is, with the passing of Armstrong and Hackett, clearly the greatest jazz cornetist in the world. At least that is my strong opinion.

So, Bruce and I were off yakking, when he asked, “Do you know of any hock shops around here? I want to buy an old cornet.”

I did a fast mental geography search. “Well, there are hock shops but maybe you should try the Army Navy store. It’s located just a few blocks away and I pass it every night en route to the Landing, and hanging from the rafters are all kinds of old horns--trombones, tubas, saxophones and lots of cornets. I avoid the place like a reformed drunk avoids a bar!”

The next night he was back questioning me, “Have you ever heard of a cornet by C.G. Conn?”

“Of course, they were the greatest makers in the old days.”

“Well over at that Army Navy store they have an odd cornet by C.G. Conn.”

“What’s odd about it?” I asked.

“This one has a vertical tuning slide.”

I jumped a little. “Hey Bruce, that’s a Conn Victor--right at the top of the list. Beiderbecke played a Conn Victor! You’d better go back and grab it!”

“Oh,” he groaned, “my wife has everything planned. She wants me to take her to Austin and then to the Hill Country. I’ll be doing my best just to get back to hear one of your evening sets.”

I protested, “It’s a Conn Victor man, I’ve been looking for one all my life. Maybe I’d better go and get it, and we’ll work it out later!”

The next morning saw me casually looking over cornets at the Army Navy store and feigning disinterest in the old Conn Victor. Finally I asked, “How much for this old Conn?”

“Two hundred dollars,” came the reply.

“Sold,” I cried, no longer able to conceal my excitement.

Bruce showed up that night as I was wailing on the Victor. “I see you got the cornet,” he said, “how is it?”

“Oh Bruce, it’s a gas. I paid $200, but it’s for you. Just give me $200 and it’s yours.”

“No” he said, “you like it, you should keep it.”

We were like Alphonse and Gaston saying, “After you, no you.”

“Look Bruce,” I said, “you found it, you should take it.”

Looking a little sheepish he finally confessed, “Jim, all I’m going to do is make a lamp out of it!”

I stood back soaking in this new information. “Well in that case, I’m keeping it.”

Jim Cullum with the Conn Victor cornet found at the Army Navy store.

The great Conn Victor set my playing off in a new direction. Its huge bore is an amazing 484 thousandths of an inch (the modern standard for cornets and trumpets is 460 thousandths of an inch). So, the Conn Victor was a different blow, as even the most extreme large bore modern horn never exceeds 470 thousands of an inch, and it took a while to get the volume of air just right.

The Conn Victor is easy to spot because of the “vertical tuning slide” Bruce spoke about. So over time, a variety of listeners noticed it and would step forward with old Conn Victor cornets that had belonged to their grandfather or someone, and had been stored in an attic for 50 years.

Generally unable to resist another Conn Victor, I gradually have amassed about twelve of them and the number is still climbing. Still, not one plays as well as the one Bruce found at the Army Navy store.

After Bruce and his wife had seen enough of the bushes and rivers of central Texas they moved on to looking at bushes and rivers in Louisiana and eventually bushed and rivered themselves all the way to New York City. Along the route Bruce had found his lamp cornet, but his forward momentum still had him keeping a sharp cornet eye out.

He was excited on the phone. “I’m in New York City and there’s a music shop that has a gold plated 1928 model Conn Victor.”

“Thanks Bruce,” I answered with a new passion in my voice, “I’ll be in New York in a couple of weeks and if it’s still there I’ll be on it.” Following Bruce’s directions I went to W. 48th Street. In those days that neighborhood was still throbbing with music stores, repair shops and teaching studios, and I always found it charming to wander around there. Usually a trumpet or trombone or two could be heard practicing from some hidden window. I found the address and climbed a steep stair to discover a world of sales and service of used instruments. The name read A. Morini, and Mr. Morini himself was holding forth with his strong immigrant Italian accent.

Finally, I started in, interrupting him as mildly as I could. “I understand that you have a gold plated Conn Victor cornet for sale.” “Well, I did have that cornet for sale for about a year until yesterday, but Wynton Marsalis, he came in and then he bought it.” Later I heard Wynton never plays the Conn and it's probably gathering dust--or maybe he’s made a lamp out of it!

After about ten Conn Victor years, fate took me to Portland, Maine to play two nights with the Portland Symphony. Carl Bradford, a trumpet player, soon to become a good friend, met me at the airport and showed me around Portland. Later, he and his wife provided oil skin slickers and we all went out to the craggy Maine coast where we sat out on the rocks and feasted on steaming Maine lobster just taken from a boiling pot. They were such splendid hosts. Naturally, when Carl asked if I’d give him a quick trumpet lesson I was pleased to comply and soon we were in his basement working on our lowest and highest notes.In the process he showed off a beautiful 1914 Buescher cornet.

“Play it a little,” he said, “and let me hear how you sound on it.”

Top: pre-war French Besson cornet. Bottom: 1914 Buescher cornet.

It was all innocent enough, but then I went head over heels again over another cornet. “What a horn,” I exclaimed as I handed it back, “What a horn!” Its bore size was .489, even larger than the Conn Victor. But, the Buescher wasn’t for sale, and several years passed before it arrived one day via United Parcel Service. A note was enclosed from Carl: “I’ve finally decided to play only trumpet,” it said, “the Buescher cornet bore is too large for me. If you don’t want it, send it back and I’ll make a lamp out of it.