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Wednesday, 28 May 2014 06:15

Getting down to brass tacks: An interview with Mark Overton of SaxQuest

Getting down to brass tacks: An interview with Mark Overton of SaxQuest facebook.com/pages/Saxquest/18588350786
Written by Kevin Korinek
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Mark Overton is just your regular, run-of-the-mill, Ph.D graduate in Molecular Genetics. He also happens to own and operate Saxquest, one of the most internationally acclaimed saxophone shops in the world, located in the Cherokee Antique Row in downtown St. Louis.

Downstairs, antique wooden and glass cabinets line the shop floor, filled with tubes of cork grease, Superial brand reeds in cigarette-sized cases, an impressive collection of mouthpieces and more brass than you can shake a trombone at. One side of the wall features posters of jazz giants: Parker, Gordon, Rollins, set in old record sleeves. On the opposite side are images of some of the modern but lesser-known greats. A couple of large saxophones adorn the front window of the shop, catching the gleam of the mid-morning sunshine.

Overton is dressed plainly, in a ball cap and crumpled button-up, and gives the impression of an aging band geek. But he wears his passion on his sleeves. And that passion is saxophones. "It's rare to find a shop that specializes in one instrument," he says. "I classify SaxQuest as a woodwind speciality shop." Originally from Iowa, Overton came to St. Louis to pursue his education and ended-up occupying a niche that he never expected.

Located at 2114 Cherokee Street, SaxQuest does most of their business and sales online. "I would say probably 20% of our sales and repair work are in house and 80% are online," he says, "both nationally and internationally. We definitely have more out-of-state business than anything else."

The business has six musician-techs in the repair shop, each one focusing on a specific instrument. They've also recently hired a clarinet specialist for repairs, lessons and potentially workshops. Overton admits that the repair shop is typically 6-8 weeks behind, but that isn't slowing down the constant influx of work. "I would put it up against any repair shop in the world," he says. The staff is knowledgeable, and take special focus on fitting the right horn for the right person.

But the business isn't just a repair shop and sales floor. Over the years, Overton has amassed an impressive assortment of antique saxophones for his personal collection, which he puts on display in the famed Saxophone Museum, located upstairs. The museum is free to the public and comprises approximately 150 pieces. Indicated by a single sign next to a staircase, the steps squeak like a rusty scale by a beginning horn player in training.

The museum looks less like a museum and more like a haphazardly-organized hoarder's bedroom of all things saxophone. It's a beautiful chaos. It's jazz. Even if you're not a musician, you'll love exploring the rooms that are packed shoulder to shoulder with solid brass.

Overton is a true enthusiast. A veritable saxophone encyclopedia. Perhaps all of that brain-processing power might have better served his catalogue-like ability for science and biology. But being a mad saxophonist is a hell of a lot cooler.

His unique collection features several Conn and Adolphe saxes, spanning many collectible pieces that represent some significant moments in the evolution of the instrument. Invented by Adolphe Sax in 1842, it's strange to think of this instrument as being from the mid-1850s, since it's predominantly thought of as belonging to the Jazz Age. In fact, the saxophone didn't really become popular until the days of vaudeville, during the Roaring '20s.

Adolphe's mission was to create a woodwind instrument that could resonate loudly and match the volume of the trumpet and trombone, something that could specifically compete in marching bands. Conn was the first American company to make saxophones in the US in 1893. "Conn was probably the most innovative company as far as development of the instrument as a whole," Overton remarked, as he showed me the ornate scroll work and gold plating of a signature baritone horn.

He also does a lot of work focusing on the history of the instrument, having amassed several binders worth of product catalogs and advertisements for saxophones that date back to the early 1900s. As I toured the museum, he jumped from room to room, showing me one instrument and then another, barely pausing. His excitement was palpable. One of the largest pieces in the collection is a mammoth bass sax, which is much bigger and has a deeper octave voice than any baritone. "You don't see these too much anymore," he says. "They still make them, but you would normally see these in a jazz crawl. They're much like a tuba."

The case that houses some of his Adolphe collection he originally thought was a gun case, because of its height. "I found out it's actually Eastlake style and it was an old pool cue display case, built in 1860," he explains. "So it was perfect to house the saxophones, since they're both from the same time period."

The earliest piece Overton has is an 1852 Adolphe sax, which is fairly significant considering that it's 10 years after the invention hit the market. Most of the original Adolphe Sax saxes he has collected have been imported from a Paris dealer, but he has seen several interesting trades over the years.

Overton started the business while in St. Louis as a graduate student at Washington University. He began as a music major in college but he "hated marching band." So he quit. Instead he pursued an education in science, ultimately completing his doctorate. But saxophones and jazz have always been his primary passion.

When asked why he chose the Cherokee neighborhood to open a brick and mortar shop, he says, "It's an interesting part of town and I think the history of the instrument really fits in here with Antique Row."

In addition to repair services, sales and museum, SaxQuest also hosted 19 events last year alone, some of them high-level master classes, generally for saxophone players and jazz enthusiasts, but many of them are free are open to the public. They also recently attended the National American Saxophone Alliance (or NASA) in March, and featured a large display of about 50 saxophones from Overton's collection.

One of the great things about the shop, Overton confides, is some of the great players he's had the opportunity to meet. "Being connected to a higher-end and professional market, we try to do a lot of community involvement," he states. Overton sets up clinics with visiting and professional players, people like Jeff Coffin, the saxophonist for Dave Matthews Band and Bob Reynolds, who is John Mayers go-to guy. They even sponsor their own jazz ensemble, the Saxquest Jazz Orchestra.

Early on in the heydays of the Internet, Overton secured the domain for saxophone.org, an online marketplace for buying, selling, trading these instruments. "My goal is to dominate the entire web-space for saxophones," he confides. A terrific historical resource, it's also a giant virtual museum, including information on the development of the sax, PDFs of product literature and catalogues, teacher directories, event calendars -- everything you need to know and love these great instruments.

I played saxophone for a few years in school, before dropping it to try a different elective, ultimately regretting that decision. But by the time I left, Overton had me so "jazzed" (pun intended), that I broke out out my old horn, dusted it off and squeaked out a few notes. The thing was so rough and definitely needed some work. Good thing I know where to take it.

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