brass trumpet in close up photography

Otto’s Links

John Bliss

“It’s a bit early.”  I smelled whiskey as I walk into Ira Jackson’s apartment on St. Mark’s Place, in New York City’s East Village, for my 11am saxophone lesson. 

Ira came to NY after graduating Cass Tech High School in Detroit and made a living playing saxophone for decades. Ira is about 5’ 6”, mustache, goatee, dreadlocks and looks like he could still cover second base or go a few rounds as a middleweight. I don’t know how old Ira is, but it seems like he has been around forever. 

“I’m soaking reeds in bourbon.” 

A unique timbre, to develop a distinct voice is an overriding goal of musicians. The gear and strategies to achieve this are often absurd or mystical. The forever hopeful engages in futile pursuits of the secret that will vault them into the realm of artistic genius.  The alchemy could be encased in a mouthpiece, reed, or horn. One of Sigmund Freud’s theories of ‘transference’ was the endless pursuit of a relationship or accomplishment, motivated by the fantasy of endless fulfillment. The kicker to his theory is that upon accomplishment of said endeavor, to establish creative autonomy the dreamer must realize the wish is always unfulfilled. Finally playing a gig at the Blue Note just makes room for the next goal. The recognizable disappointment doesn’t make the wishing go away. We never stop looking for the psychic holy grail and experiencing the inevitable let-down. 

Adolphe Sax, an instrument maker from Belgium, patented the saxophone in 1846. Sidney Bechet. Lester Young, and Charlie Parker made the instrument synonymous with jazz. In 1903, Pope Pius X in his “Instruction On Sacred Music” banned the saxophone from being played in churches. His holiness realized that women became too aroused when hearing a sax’s primal tone. With the pontiff’s celestial endorsement, I was drawn to the ‘devil’s horn’ with its metallic splendor and salacious voice. 

Javon Jackson plays saxophone, has a big sound, is tall, handsome, and quick to smile. He was playing at the Jazz Standard in New York City, and I went with a few friends. 

After the set, I asked him what mouthpiece he uses. He said, “Selmer Star, you play saxophone?’”

I said yes. 

 “You play tenor?”  

“Yes tenor.” 

  “What kind of horn do you have?” Javon said, not missing a beat.

“Mark VI.” The French Company Selmer makes these horns. Their ‘Balanced Action’ and ‘Mark VI’ saxophones are regarded as premier vintage instruments. 

“What’s the serial number?” 

The Selmer Mark VI horns numbered between 1 and 100,000 with the original lacquer are the most desirable. There weren’t any design changes for the horns with a number greater than 100,000. Many musicians view a re-lacquered horn as if someone put a fresh coat of paint over the Mona Lisa. A horn’s patina does not affect its sound in any way. Yet, a refinished horn usually decreases its value.

“2-1-9-5-1-9.” I answered. I felt like a private reciting my dog-tag numbers to a five-star general. I don’t even know my daughters’ phone numbers; I just tap their names.

Javon told me his saxophone’s serial number was in the low 80,000’s. I am a struggling amateur and would have been uncomfortable if my number was lower. 

“What mouthpiece do you use?” He asked.

“A vintage blue hard rubber Vandoren Java.” 

“Junior Cook used a Java.” I added but it felt like we said that in unison.

I responded to an ad in the Village Voice under saxophone lessons, that made this claim, “Improve 4 years in 2 months with our secret method.” Ira had placed the ad and I asked him about this when we first met. 

“Oh, it was just something stupid someone said to me once and I thought it would help me get students.” 

“Well, it worked on me.” 

Ira’s admitted falsehood didn’t deter me from believing that there was a chance I could improve in unfathomable ways if I took lessons from him, even after he told me it was nonsense. I was happy to be learning, playing, and improving. Eventually, it led me to great friendships and wonderful excursions playing saxophone in the states and Europe.  

Tell a saxophone player that you’re going to Cuba, and they’ll ask you to find ‘those Cuban reeds’, supposedly the best reeds that ever existed. This belief persists even though it is well known that the best saxophone reeds come from the Loire Valley in France (another myth?). On a visit to Cuba years ago when I asked the saxophone players I met about the magical reeds, they laughed and asked me to let them know if I found any. Since the embargo, they had trouble finding any reeds. When I was back in New York a friend accused the Cubans of hording the magical canes.

I produced a record by Ira titled, “BEBACH.” Ira Gitler, a well-known jazz historian and music critic said, “Ira’s playing blew me away.” We never made any money from the music but learned a lot and are very proud of it. Ira credits me with making the recordings happen. He was the artistic force. 

One day Ira offered me two Otto Link mouthpieces. Emilio Lyons the “Sax Doctor” from Rayburn Music in Boston said that ninety percent of the horn’s sound comes from the mouthpiece. They are called Otto Link’s after the machinist who made them. Mystery overshadows this gear. There are rumors that the man, Otto Link never actually existed, and the name was created in some marketing department. Many of my saxophone heroes used Otto Link mouthpieces. 

The serial numbers on the Link’s dated them to the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Ira told me if I like them, I could keep them. It is not unusual for Otto Links from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s to cost hundreds of dollars. 

I took the mouthpieces and tried them for several months. Every now and again I’d get this incredible sound, but I couldn’t control it. It felt wonderful to have these relics, but I’d randomly hit a note that felt as if a tornado was sucking me and the horn into orbit. They didn’t feel safe. I returned them to Ira.

Several months later, I asked him, ‘What ever happened to the ‘Links’ you had?”

” I still have them; you can have them if you want. They’re just sitting there?”

“No, I’m just curious and really happy with my gear, somebody should be playing them but not me.”

“Did I ever tell you where I got those mouthpieces?” Ira asked.


“George Coleman gave them to me.”

George is an elder statesman in the jazz world. He played tenor with Miles Davis for several years. George will pack any jazz venue in the world.

“Ah! Cool.”

“Do you know where George got them?” Ira had an I just swallowed a canary look.

“No idea.” I answered.

“George got them from Pharaoh Sanders.”

“Wow, very cool.”  

“You know where Pharaoh got them?” Pharaoh Sanders as a young man was in one of John Coltrane’s bands.

“No, but I am getting an idea.”

“Where do you think he got them?”

“John Coltrane?” I whispered.

“Yes, from John Coltrane.”

“Man! That’s some heavy-duty lineage, good chi man! This makes me nervous. What was I doing with them? You know like taking lava from the volcano in Hawaii brings you bad luck and can ruin your whole life.” I was thrilled I had played them for a few months and sad I didn’t keep them.

“That’s good John, ‘Fell into the wrong hands’ so do you want them now?”

“Ira that’s very generous of you and it’s tempting but I’d only take them to have them. It might be fun for a moment to say I have two of John Coltrane’s mouthpieces. I mean, I’m not a collector and someone with musical conviction should be playing them. I’d be embarrassed. Plus, you know what the Buddha said?”

“What did Buddha say?”

“’All suffering stems from attachment.’ I can see myself in a frenzy rummaging through a drawer, throwing underwear, socks, and screaming where are those mouthpieces? Not to play them but just to know where they are. They belong on a horn not so I can brag and say look what I have, only to bury them with my skivvies.”

“OK, they’re yours if you want them. I was thinking of selling them.”

“That should be easy. I bet Ravi Coltrane would want them. Plus, the way I figure it I have something better than the Links, and I’ll have it and never worry about losing it. “

“What could that possibly be?” 

“I have Ira Jackson’s, George Coleman’s, Pharaoh Sanders’, and John Coltrane’s DNA in my body now. It will work its way out through the horn.” Science may be the greatest magic of all. “Well, they’re there if you want them.”

John Bliss lives with his wife Leslie in New York City and upstate N.Y. He is a psychoanalyst, clinical social worker, and freelance writer. The process of developing narratives in his therapy practice, playing saxophone, and writing is exhilarating to him. Writing has a special appeal; he can do it anytime and it doesn’t wake up the neighbors.