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Carmen Leggio

Carmen Leggio
1928 - 2009

Young Man With A Horn

By Fred Cicetti, October 1999

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 City.

"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 leave school."

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 and mellower."


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©1999-2005 Harri Rautiainen
and respective authors



On April 17, 2009, Carmen Leggio suffered a heart attack in front of his home in Tarrytown, NY and died later that day at the age of 81.
What a loss to the saxophone community and jazz.

Created: October 26, 1999.
Update: May 5, 2009.

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Fred Cicetti was the first Sax on the Web guest writer in 1997. His initial SML story made this site the "SML on the Web", because Strasser-Marigaux did not have a web site of their own. In 2000 SML established their web presence, including a brief company history. Now Peter Hales is carrying the SML torch.

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