My Sax drawing unfolded like a dream. I woke up one morning with the image floating just beyond my visual field, a saxophone writhing with fishes, little shellfish for the mouthpiece and valve covers, abalone for the bell, a hammerhead shark for the sinuous neck.
It was a beautiful idea, but it made no sense, no sense at all. What did fish have to do with jazz? I drew it anyway, fleshing out the instrument with the Gulf coast creatures I studied way back in college Zoology*.
Even though it wasn’t funny at the time, it made a great picture. The humor came later, in a cascade of titles and subtitles: Musical Scales, Harmony in the Key of Sea, Sax on the Beach. You can’t tuna fish. I couldn't have been more pleased. Beat the heck out of drawing a pile of hosiery, and calling it a soxophone.
Band mothers didn't find it amusing at all, however. Where’s the trombone? they asked. Where’s the clarinet? My daughter plays the clarinet. How am I supposed to buy this picture for my son the saxophone player, and nothing for my little girl? Huh? Where’s the trumpet?
Always sensitive to the wants, needs and suggestions of my clientele, I set to work on making the funniest darn trumpet you ever saw.
This would be a natural. Heck, I had Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and a history of trumpeting that predated the Exodus. Cornus to cornets, bugles to flugelhorns. There was just no way to miss with this one.
I sat down and tried to synthesize all that history into one instrument, with a funny theme. Do it right this time, I told myself. Start from the beginning. Have a reason for throwing this bunch of things together.
Maybe I could do the whole thing as a memorial to Satchmo. That would be great! There must be a dozen ways to smoosh Armstrong’s classic smile into some part of the instrument, even though my initial results weren’t encouraging. Scat? Hello, Dolly? Great words, but they just didn't bring enough specific pictures to mind to build a horn. Same thing with Miles, and Gabriel. Same with the history of the instrument.
Weeks, then months went by, and still no trumpet picture. Not even a really good idea for a trumpet picture. The band moms were not getting any happier.
Okay, start again. What does the trumpet represent? Brass. Sounding brass. That will work. Make a list of brass things: Brass knuckles, brass buttons. Do the research. Try different connotations of the word, other than just the alloyed metal. Okay, use the alloy, too: Copper and Zinc. Use the old golf club, a brassie, from a hundred years ago. Add a colonel’s hat for the Top Brass. Hey – there’s the title: Top Brass!
Now the ball was rolling. It wasn’t particularly funny, this brass idea, but the picture grew without any fuss or major hiccups, and it turned out well enough. A consistent theme, and it was nice to look at. A brass spittoon for the embouchure – that’s funny, right? The band moms should be pleased.
In fact, they were. The prints were well received, and continue to sell well to trumpet players (and trumpeters’ mothers) everywhere. I was pleased with my work. After a year of struggling with concepts, Top Brass came through for me.
And things would have been fine, if not for the offhand comment of one of those trumpeter’s dads.
“Wow, that’s pretty clever. It’s all made of brass,” he said. “How come you didn't make it out of shoes? Then it would be a Shoe Horn.”
I could have killed the guy on the spot.
Dang it! Shoe horn! Shoe horn! Why didn't I think of that? It’s so obvious, it hurts! After all that rumination and brain sweat, the simplest pun eluded me completely. (And how great would that have been, paired with the Sox-ophone!) Oh, the things we miss when we’re not paying attention.
But when life hands you lemons, there’s usually a bag of sugar somewhere close by – so I turned the idea inside-out, and drew another picture: A shoe made of horns.
The band moms like it, too.
* The original Saxophone - Musical Scales drawing now hangs in the Dan C. Holliman Biological Specimen Room at Birmingham-Southern College.