A Singular New York Horn

A Singular New York Horn
By Scott Olster
September 13, 2009

On what feels like a quiet Monday morning in Midtown Manhattan, Josh Landress has a straight line of trombone slides hanging on a pole next to his workbench, like shirts hanging in a closet, waiting for his attention.

Landress is instructing one of his apprentice technicians on the best way to fix a saxophone when his cell phone begins to ring.  Then the PA system sounds off, “Josh, phone call, line one.”  He continues to speak in hushed tones to his fellow technician.  “Josh, line one.”

In a town filled with custom-made everything, from suits and dresses to violins and guitars, you would think that there would be a few trumpet makers.  But that’s not the case at all.

Josh Landress is the only custom trumpet maker in New York City. He is one of the most respected brass repairmen in the business, and he is only 29 years old.  It begins to make sense that in five years he has only had time to build 23 trumpets and five trombones.

Landress works at the Sam Ash Brass instruments and music store on 48th street, splitting his days between running the repair department and building his own line of hand-made trumpets and trombones.  He earns a commission-based salary on the repair business he brings to Sam Ash and keeps the money he earns from selling his instruments.

Landress makes every piece except for the trumpet valves by hand and thus every individual part has a personality of its own.  His latest trumpet, which will be his 28th custom instrument and 23rd trumpet, will belong to Kenyatta Beasley, a trumpeter and composer based in New York who plays with the Saturday Night Live house band and has toured with Shakira, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Lauryn Hill.

The repair shop, which is located at West 48th Street, New York’s historic music row, is a narrow windowless workshop on the second floor of Sam Ash’s brass repair shop. Today, Sam Ash has four storefronts on West 48th Street alone.

The space has the emerald green tile floors of a public school classroom.  The walls are covered with thin wood strips that allow the technicians to hang a seemingly infinite amount of tools and spare parts.

An old city public telephone inexplicably sits on the floor next to a hodgepodge of sheet metal and other odds and ends. A series of trumpet bells hang on the wall next to Landress’s workstation. Some of the bells are Landress’s creations; others are antiques from the early 20th century.

Every handmade trumpet begins with sheet metal and a mandrel. Mandrels are essentially three-dimensional outlines of trumpet tubes.  They are metal cylinders that Landress uses to shape the brass tubes by literally wrapping the brass around the mandrel with his hands.  Landress has several different mandrels of different sizes.

The trumpet’s mouth pipe, the part that receives a player’s air through a mouthpiece, defines a trumpet’s sound. “The intonation of each individual note, the tonal response, comes from the mouth pipe,” Landress says.

To make the mouth pipe, Landress cuts out a metal shape from a kind of stencil and smoothes it with a power sander. To shape the brass into a tube, he needs to make it more pliable. “I want to heat this up until it’s red hot,” he says.

Landress takes out a handheld blowtorch connected to a gas tank underneath his workstation desk.  Without safety glasses, he aims the torch at the small strip of rose brass.  Pulsating rose circles expand and contract along the strip of brass as it is heated with the blowtorch.

The heat makes the metal easier to manipulate and shape in a process called annealing.  After Landress is finished, the brass sheet is sprinkled with black splotches caused by the carbon built up on account of the heat of the torch.

Brass is made of a combination of copper and zinc.  The more copper the brass has, the rosier the color, and the faster the instrument will respond when played.  Landress uses yellow and rose brass as well as bronze to create his trumpets.

Landress’ methods are all based on a steady accumulation of knowledge and tools over time. He inherited many of his tools from retiring brass repairmen and instrument makers.

His favorite hammer was made in Germany before World War II. He repeatedly breaks his hammers, but fixes them instead of buying replacements. “Hammers are a very personal thing,” Landress says.

Landress started repairing brass instruments at the age of 12. During middle school in St. Petersburg, Fla., Landress would take instruments home from school to tinker with and repair. His music teachers encouraged him to become an apprentice with the repair department at the local music shop.

Both of his parents are social workers with musical backgrounds.  His dad plays keyboard and bass in a band made up of the parents of Landress’s teenage band.

After a very brief stint studying music and engineering at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. (“That was a long party,” Landress said), he joined the Marine Corps.  He served from February 1999 until August 2001.

Landress trained at Parris Island and spent part of his military service at the U.S. Armed Forces School of Music in Norfolk, Va., but avoided being sent overseas.  “I lucked out by the tip of my nose,” he says.

After finishing his service in the Marine Corps, Landress moved to New York to work as a brass technician for Sam Ash on Long Island.  Today, he runs the brass repair shop for Sam Ash’s New York City shop.

Landress has also designed Sam Ash’s Jean Baptiste student line of trumpets, French horns and euphoniums and has visited instrument factories across the world to evaluate products and provide his perspective on design standards.

Landress’s experience as a brass repair tech makes him an ideal candidate to advise companies on their products. “We see all the problems,” Landress says.

A trumpet is both equipment and art, and Landress is keenly aware of that.  Some of the best sounding trumpets are also some of the most beautiful as well.  After cooling the brass off with a water spray bottle, Landress takes the tube to a back room with three industrial-sized gray garbage cans filled practically to the brim with different solutions.

Landress dips the brass tube into the first can, a degreaser to reduce corrosion and clean off the carbon sediment built up from the torching. The second can contains chromium sulfide acid, which will dissolve the brass if you leave it in long enough. Lastly, Landress dips the brass into a simple soap and baking soda solution to clean it off.

The tube is now ready to be bent against the shape of the mandrel. “It’s almost like making a paper tube out of a pencil,” Landress says. Landress takes a hammer to the bent metal, banging against the seams until he is satisfied with its shape.  The goal is to make the seams disappear.

It’s now time for round two with the blowtorch.  With a torch in one hand and a small strand of silver soldering material in the other, he feeds the solder along the seams of the tube, bonding the edges together.  Silver is very strong and will create a permanent bond.  It also melts at a lower temperature than brass, making it easier to use for binding the tubes.

To flatten the seams, Landress attaches a set of rollers to a vise and forces the tube through the rollers, back and forth, back and forth, in a process that resembles the work of a sausage-making machine, but is called burnishing instead.

After burnishing, Landress heats the tube once again to make it soft enough to further flatten the seams. Landress will repeat this process anywhere between three to 10 times, annealing, cleansing and burnishing, to perfect the mouth pipe.

Landress made his first trumpet five years ago for Asdru Sierra, who plays in the band Ozomatli. At that time, Landress says he was in an experimental phase, trying to make different kinds of horns. He has since gravitated to more traditional methods and standards, using the designs of Gustave-Auguste Besson, a 19th century French brass instrument maker, as his model.

Besson is widely considered to be the father of the modern trumpet. Titans of trumpet design like Vincent Bach and Elden Benge modeled their trumpets after Besson’s trumpets, and most of the trumpets manufactured today are based on Besson’s measurements and design standards.

Landress believes that the Besson brand trumpets from the early 20th century were some of the best trumpets ever made.  “Every piece was made of seamed tubing of sheet metal,” he says.  Landress uses the same methods.

Landress’s custom-made horns cost around $4,500. He has made trumpets for renowned professional musicians as well as devoted hobbyists with money to spend.  Most professional trumpets cost between $2,500 and $4,000 and typically consist of a combination of hand and machine-made parts, according to Landress.

“I really enjoy making something that will last ages to come. I find it very rewarding to make something from nothing,” Landress says.

Today, the New York-based conglomerate Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc. controls almost all of the major instrument brands, including Bach, Benge, Conn and Selmer. All of Steinway’s brass instruments are built with machines at a factory in Elkhart, Ind. “They bought all the names and all the factories.  Steinway eliminated the competition,” Landress says.  “It’s sad to see it, but I understand it as a business step.”

Even most “custom” brass instruments are assembled in factories in the Midwest with parts that come almost entirely from Asia. New York Trumpet Company, a Manhattan-based custom brass shop, uses a factory in Iowa, according to owner Felix Vayser.

“The rent’s cheap,” says Sweeney, while he continues to work on a bass trombone, referring to the vast difference in commercial real estate costs between a place like New York City and Iowa.

In its simplest terms, a trumpet is a set of connected metal tubes. How and where the tubes connect to each other, according to Landress, separates a brilliant from a mediocre trumpet.

Landress uses a set of bronze “Z” braces, so named because they are in the shape of the letter “Z,” to connect the mouth pipe to the bell of the horn.

“I don’t want to obstruct the vibration,” Landress says, as he taps the bell of the horn with a piece of metal from top to bottom, determining where the tube releases the most amount of sound and where the vibrations from the brass are dullest.

The braces, Landress explains, should be placed at the dullest portions of the bell so that the most resonant portions are free to ring.  “I want to give it structural integrity,” he says.

Landress connects the pieces together with wire before soldering them together.  He handles the tubes, jiggering them back and forth, into and out of place, searching for the right relationship, the right order.  Each brace is differently placed on every horn he makes.

Customers filter in and out of the repair shop throughout the day.  In between visits, Landress finishes repairs and devotes whatever time he has left to his custom projects.

“James! What’s up! So you had fun in Japan? How’s the little one?” Landress says to one customer.  James Burton is a trombonist who just finished his master’s degree at Juilliard. He is about to start teaching at the University of Utah and dropped off his instrument for some minor repairs.

“You’re always welcome,” James says, referring to his upcoming move to Utah.

“Holler if you need any thing,” Landress says, as Burton leaves.

“If I do great work, I may see one or two customers by word of mouth.  If I do a bad job, I may lose 10,” Landress says.

Landress plays French horn in a hip-hop group called EPICK and The MotherF*ckers that uses live brass music instead of the kind of DJ samples other hip-hop groups normally use to complement their lyrics.

Amid the various trumpet parts scattered on his workstation desk is an incomplete trumpet with its bell bent upward, much like the trumpet Dizzy Gillespie played. There are severe scorch marks where the bell of the horn begins to tilt upward.

“It’s a prototype,” Landress says. He is working on a hybrid trumpet for an Indian musician that will use both valves and slides to change notes.

Trial and error plays a major part in Landress’s work. He learned to make a trumpet through a combination of reading books and literally breaking instruments apart.  “There’s a lot to be learned from reverse engineering,” Landress says.

A young man comes into the repair shop with a dented silver Bach Stradivarius trumpet. Landress surveys the instrument for about five seconds and says, “OK. You’re looking at about 50 bucks. I can do it right now.” With the horn in one hand and a hammer in the other, Landress nonchalantly surveys the dents and begins to bang on the trumpet. “Nothing like hitting it with a hammer to make it play better,” Landress says.

Individual preferences, from the way an instrument sounds, to how it feels, to how it looks, play an enormous role in the instrument that a musician chooses.

Landress has just finished fixing a dent on a bass trombone.  He gives the horn a test run, playing a few descending notes of a scale.  “Not so much,” he says, with a grimace and hands it to his fellow repairman Scott Sweeney.  The instrument is no longer damaged, but it doesn’t have the kind of tone and feel that Landress prefers.  “Every horn is personal,” Landress says.

Sweeney gives the bass trombone a shot.  He plays a set of notes, extending each note to get a sense of the horn.  He shakes his head, agreeing with Landress that he is not a fan of the instrument.  Every horn is personal.

Landress spends a significant amount of time tweaking the instruments he creates to meet the needs of his customers. As for whether he names his creations: “The last, and I think only, thing I have ever named was my rifle in boot camp for the Marines. I named it Jessica.”

The amount of air resistance that the trumpet provides is also crucial.  Some performers prefer more resistance while others prefer a horn that blows easily.  “In general, most people like a free-blowing horn because that’s easier to play,” Landress says.

Jordan McClean is a 35-year-old trumpet player with the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, a group devoted to the afrobeat music pioneered by the Nigerian musician, composer and activist Fela Kuti.

McClean has asked Landress to build him a custom trumpet to support his upcoming schedule of eight shows a week when Antibalas’s Broadway show, Fela, starts this November.  McClean is the associate musical director, composer and arranger for the show.  He will also be playing trumpet in the pit for the musical.

“I play a balanced action [trumpet]. The valves are set up an inch or two closer to the bell,” McLean says, and that gives him room to stretch his arms.  Louis Armstrong also played a balanced action trumpet.  “I have very long arms so it feels better. It opens up the back, the shoulders,” McClean says.

With a handheld blowtorch in one hand and what sounds and looks like a dentist’s drill in the other hand, Landress instructs one of his apprentice technicians on how to repair a saxophone. They speak to each other in hushed tones.  The repair shop, on this Monday morning, feels like a library.

“There you are, young man,” Landress says, handing the sax to his apprentice, who returns to his workstation at the other end of the repair shop and inspects Landress’s work.

Landress and Sweeney take a break and rip the tubes of a trombone apart, making a huge popping sound.

“Playing the trumpet, you are part of a brotherhood. It’s such a difficult instrument to approach. It’s just so nice for us to have a young guy in New York who really lives and breathes the thing,” McClean says.