Carmen Leggio's been playing tenor sax for about six
decades and it shows. His small frame is stooped over and his head
is bent down a bit. The man was made to play music, so it's fitting
that his body has conformed to his gift.
Leggio blows tenor the way Willie Mays ran down a flyball.
They both let you know from the get-go that you'll never be able
to do it their way.
"I have thousands of songs memorized," Leggio explains
with childlike joy and not an eighth note of boasting. "I can hear a
song once and know how to play it. In my whole life, I've never
bought a piece of sheet music. Saved a lot of money."
Leggio (incredibly, it means "music stand" in Italian) taught
himself how to play at the age of nine. He began on clarinet,
imitating Artie Shaw on the radio. He still performs "Stardust,"
"Nightmare" and "Begin the Beguine" on an old King metal
clarinet. At 14, he switched to tenor sax and began playing in clubs
in his hometown of Tarrytown, a suburb just north of New York
"I quit high school, because I knew I was meant to be a
musician," he said. "But my father was so angry that he didn't
speak to me for years. On his deathbed, he admitted I was right to
That admission came after Leggio had played with Benny
Goodman, Maynard Ferguson, Gene Krupa, Woody Herman,
Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie and Doc Severinson. There have also
been television shows, movies, the Newport Jazz Festival,
Birdland and, yes, Carnegie Hall.
Today, Leggio still lives in Tarrytown and performs regularly
throughout the New York metropolitan area. And he still gets into
the studio to record. His latest album is "Sax After Midnight for
Lovers." It's a compilation of romantic ballads with everyone's
favorites including, "My Foolish Heart," "Angel Eyes," "I'll Be
Seeing You," and "When Your Lover Has Gone."
On this album, Leggio employs a lot of breath and vibrato to
seduce his listeners. He sounds a bit like Ben Webster, but with
even softer edges. The tone he gets throughout the range of his
tenor will put anyone in the mood for love.
"I'm self-taught, so I use a double embouchure," he
explained. "I did it naturally; no one told me to use my upper teeth.
But I'm glad I use both lips, because it makes you much more
flexible. I can play classical, big tone, mellow, screaming rock,
anything you want. You just adjust the way you blow."
Leggio doesn't fuss with equipment. He's been playing the
same horn since 1961 -- a Gold Medal SML made in France by Strasser,
Marigaux & Lemaire. And the same mouthpiece -- a Selmer D.
"I don't know much about horns and mouthpieces," he
explained. "A friend of mine got me to the right sax and set-up and
I just stayed with it because it worked for me. A sax is like a pair
of shoes. If you get a pair that are comfortable, you can learn how
to do any kind of dance in them."
Leggio cherishes his SML (Serial No. 16388). He was given
the horn by Jack Loeb, a Manhattan dealer who was an importer for SML.
Leggio tried the horn and it was love at first sound. He became one of
a bunch of professionals who endorsed SML horns. The company ceased
production of saxophones in 1982.
"I never heard of SML before," Leggio said. "But I loved it,
because of the tone the bigger bell gives you. I also liked that it
was heavy. I like a heavy horn because it's like a heavy car--it holds
the road better. I was told that Coleman Hawkins played an SML and that
influenced me a little, too."
The bells on SML tenors are 6¬ inches in diameter. Most
tenors have 6-inch bells. The company maintained that this larger
bell produced a better sound, especially when playing softly. SML
horns, in general, are heavier than most. Some players contend that
the gauge of the metal used in the horns gives them their distinctive tone.
Apparently, Coleman Hawkins did play an SML. For a while,
SML produced a tenor called, "The Coleman Hawkins Model." Details of
the relationship between the tenormaker and the great tenorman are part
of an ongoing SML research project.
Recently, Leggio was backing his car out of a parking space
and he felt a rear wheel run over something. In an instant, he
realized it was his saxophone. He became ill when he stepped out
of the car and saw his soft gig bag under a tire.
"It was virtually destroyed," Leggio said. "I took it to my
repairman, Jay Beers, and he told me that, if anyone else brought
that sax in, he would tell him to put it in the scrap heap. But, for
me, he said he'd try to resurrect it. He did an incredible job.
Actually, it sounds even better now. I have no idea why. It's darker