School of The Rock


Fake Chu Berry Saxophones

by Paul D. Race

As a saxophone player who tends to prefer any American or European-built horn over 99% of the stuff coming out of China today, I have written extensively on the subject of shopping for vintage horns (just look in the left margins).  I’ve also gotten quite a few e-mail questions about whether or not a specific horn is worth what the seller is asking (something that’s almost impossible to tell unless I have the thing in my hands or the photos show obvious abuse).

But I have noticed one disturbing trend - the tendency to call any pre-1935 Conn saxophone a “Chu Berry,” to justify jacking up the asking price.  Since so many of the top-of-the-line vintage horns are now in the hands of collectors and priced out of reach of players, the vintage sax subculture has identified the “Chu Berry” saxophones as an alternative worth considering.  Unfortunately, Internet vultures are capitalizing on this trend by mislabeling any old student-line Conn a “Chu Berry” and acting like they’re selling the Holy Grail.

Who was Chu Berry?

Leonard Brown “Chu” Berry was a tenor sax player who made a name for himself in a series of swing bands, including Cab Calloway’s.

What was Special About His Saxophone?

For much of his very short career Berry played a “Transitional” Conn tenor saxophone (“experimental” might be just as accurate a term).  It was an upgrade to the Conn New Wonder II, which was, in turn, a 1924 upgrade to the New Wonder, Conn’s first saxophone to use modern “low pitch” tuning, back in 1914. 

Pre-1928 “New Wonder II” horns were fairly standardized.  But somewhere in the 1929 range,  the “New Wonder II” horns started evolving.

Conn was facing stiff competition from Buescher and Martin, who were also coming out with new features.  Between 1930 and 1935, Conn tried a number of different combinations of features, many of which would eventually find their way to their 1935 6M and 10M saxophones (the first of the desirable “Naked Lady” series horns).  One of those “transitional” tenor saxophones found its way into “Chu” Berry’s hands, and there, it seemed to perform magic. 

You could search for years and not necessarily find a horn with exactly the same subset of features as Berry’s horn.. Yet, many of the late “Transitional” New Wonder IIs include a similar subset of “professional” features.  So sax players have taken to calling any Transitional New Wonder II a “Chu Berry.”  Even Altos, Baritones, and Sopranos, whconn_tenor_nail_fileich Berry never playedconn_10m_spatula_keys.

In some cases, vintage sax lovers look for specific features like the “nail file” G# key (left) that identify New Wonder II, or the 6M and 10M- style streamlined spatula keys, which found their way to a few very late Transitional horns.



Where Wishful Thinking turns to Fraud

Unfortunately, some frequent eBay sellers have taken to calling ANY Conn produced before 1935 a “Chu Berry” horn. I was prompted to write this article when a reader asked me about the value of a Pan-American “Chu Berry” she was considering.  Pan American was Conn’s student line.  Not only was it built in a separate factory; it was never updated with the professional features of its classier brethren.   Yet this reader had encountered some seller who was using the name “Chu Berry” to imply that his old student line saxophone was a desirable vintage horn.  (Again, Pan Americans were more solid than most of the stuff coming out of China today, and they can be made playable if they haven’t suffered too much abuse, but they never shared any of the New Wonder II or Transitional features to speak of.)

Frankly, if you’re sure it’s a New Wonder II, that’s not a huge problem - most of the “Transitional” upgrades were ergonomic, related to shape and placement of the pinky keys and such.  The bore and tone-hole dimensions were basically the same, so a good sax player should be able to get a decent tone out of any restored New Wonder II.

Or any restored professional sax of that era, including:

  • Buescher Aristocrat
  • King Voll-True II or Zephyr
  • Post -1933 Martin Handcraft (Imperial, Standard, Special, or Committee)
  • Selmer Adolphe Sax or Super Series. 

This was the beginning of the golden age of professional saxophone experimentation, after all.  All of these horns were radically different from each other, compared to modern saxes which are nearly identical in most points.  But they all had (and have) their followers. 

The point is that there is no one “magic bullet” or “Holy Grail” from that era or any era that will automatically take your horn playing “to the next level.”  (For more information about other pro sax lines that are in the same quality category as the New Wonder II, check out our Vintage Pro Sax Timeline.)

Back to our main topic: if a seller is calling anything besides a Conn New Wonder II Transitional a “Chu Berry,” he is probably lying about other things, too. 

How do you know they’re lying deliberately? When you e-mail and tell them they have misidentified an instrument, and they either fail to change the ad or tell you to mind your own business.  Or they fix that ad, but a few weeks later post an identical horn with the same wrong information.

In other words, if you’ve heard a lot of positive things about “Chu Berry” saxophones, be careful not to start drooling like Pavlov’s dogs when someone advertises one you can afford.  It may be a false alarm.

Don’t get me wrong, I love vintage saxophones of all kinds, and I don’t lay awake nights worried about whether a vintage horn I paid $400 for is really worth $375.  But I also answer a lot of e-mails from people who really don’t know what they’re looking at, and who can’t afford to be taken in by someone’s false claims. 

Other Resources

Other articles you may find helpful include:

Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years.  Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource.  Others will just like to reminisce along with me.  On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.

Felix’s Saxophone Corner Blog has a nice two-page overview of the major brands that made desirable vintage horns.  Click here to jump to the first page of the article.’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.

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