During the period from 1900 to 1930 in America, there was a saxophone craze which made the electric guitar phenomenon of the 1960's look like nothing in comparison. The one person who best personifies this period is perhaps the biggest musical star of the 1920's, Rudy Wiedoeft. The fact that Wiedoeft is almost forgotten now takes nothing away from his essential role in establishing the saxophone in the public mind. It has often been put forward that the popularity of the Saxophone was a direct result of its use in Jazz music at the beginning of the 20th century. When one examines the historical evidence, the opposite appears to be true : the great popularity of the saxophone in the early 20th century lead to its role in Jazz and other popular music. When one looks at the facts, it seems quite evident that everything that happened after Wiedoeft would have been much more difficult if he had not lived. In establishing Wiedoeft as a figure of popular culture, one forgets that it was Wiedoeft who organized the first concert in America devoted entirely to the classical saxophone in the Aeolian hall in New York on April 17, 1926. The concert, which was also broadcast to a million people on the radio featured classical transcriptions by Bach and Tchaikovsky as well as original works composed for the occasion. It is not entirely fair to dismiss Wiedoeft's musical career as that of a vaudeville artist. Rudy Wiedoeft (1893-1940) was born in Detroit Michigan to a large family of musicians, with whom he began his musical studies, playing in the family orchestra which toured as a professional ensemble. He began as a violinist, but had to switch to the clarinet after an injury to his bowing arm. In 1908 Rudy decided he would make something of the saxophone in a green sack he had noticed in a pawnbroker's shop. "I thought there might be big money in the novelty. This revolutionary move on my part was not greeted with favour by friends, relations and colleagues." His initial attempts were, as with most of us, quite dismal. His mother insisted on him practicing in the wood-shed! But, after giving up and selling the instrument, he saved up and bought the best instrument money could buy at the time ($130) and renewed his studies fervently with oboe methods and pieces - there were very few specialist tutors published at the time.
Born in Detroit on 3rd January 1893, Rudy was the youngest of four brothers - Herb (trumpet), Gerhardt "Guy"(tuba/double bass),Adolph"Al"(trombone/drums) and when they moved to Los Angeles in 1903 The Wiedoeft Family Orchestra was formed with their father on violin, sister on piano and the flaxen haired, serious-looking ten-year-old Rudy on clarinet. They were moderately successful and appeared regularly at several local hotels and cafes including the Imperial and the Biltmore. As the work was far from lucrative Rudy toyed with other vocations for a while until he moved to San Francisco where, by 1913, he had become first-chair clarinettist with Porter's Catalina Island Band. The change-over to saxophone in the following year was well-timed for Rudy and, after leaving for New York in 1916, he cut his first solo disc, "Valse Erica". Appearing in the orchestra pit of the Morosco Theatre, New York, for the show "Canary Cottage" in 1917, one critic wrote: "Rudy's obbligatos ... were so thrilling that he took more bows from the pit than the singer from the stage. His staccato was so fast and smooth that it required close attention to ascertain whether he was slurring or tonguing fast passages." In 1918 he was in the pit orchestra of the musical "Canary Cottage" in New York where his playing was very favorably recieved by both the public and the critics. At this time, he began the long series of recordings with the Edison company which lead to his world-wide fame. One of these recordings, Sax-o-phobia, written in 1918, became the largest selling solo in the history of the Saxophone. Most of these recordings were composed of novelty solos which Wiedoeft wrote for himself in the post-ragtime " Tin-Pan Alley " style of the 1920's (thus named for the sound of all of the badly tuned pianos one heard on this street !). These works, which were designed to display Wiedoeft's beautiful singing tone, incredible technical brillance and strong musical sense, also frequently use effects such as slap-tonguing, " Laughing " and chock tones, which Wiedoeft uses to underline the humorous elements of the saxophone. These elements have often be derided as evidence of Wiedoeft's lack of musicianship, probably because of a certain attitude among classical saxophonists to gain " respectability " for their instrument. A closer look will reveal that Wiedoeft's compositions, in spite of formal convention, are extremely well concieved for the saxophone and full of surprising harmonic freshness. The effects seen in this light are simply embellishments which do not take away from the inherent compositional strength. In my mind, such things as the reference to Mendelssohn in the coda of " Sax-o-doodle " would seem to indicate an extremely knowledgeable musician who was perhaps poking fun at the vocabulary of his own musical idiom. Wiedoeft obviously had a strong sense of humour. Perhaps it might be more interesting to look at these works not in the first degree, but as elaborate musical puns ? During his short life, Rudy Wiedoeft recorded over 300 record sides for all the major labels - many being his own compositions - and influenced generations of saxophonists after him. Famed pianist Oscar Levant once descibed Rudy as "...the world's greatest saxophonist.." ! Apart from writing and arranging his own solos, he joined forces on several occasions to write songs with Al Bernard, the eminent comedian/blues singer who sometimes appeared with the Fenton band. The Californians' work load was so hectic and its output so prolific that Rudy found no time left to promote his own solo career, so, after only a year, he handed over the leadership to his brother, Herb. By all accounts Rudy had a natural flair for showmanship and enjoyed the wealth and fame bestowed on him over a very short period of time. He became very busy commuting between recording studios; and appeared on the stage, where he often wore a cowboy outfit, jigged in time to his saxophone playing and filled the halls to capacity, with his audiences sometimes dancing in the aisles! In 1926 Rudy embarked on a tour to Europe with his famous accompanist Oscar Levant.They debuted in London cabaret on 28th June at the New Princes' Restaurant, Piccadilly, and a month later recorded at the British Columbia studios, which had been equipped with new electrical equipment the previous year. He seems to have enjoyed the tour, writing several articles in "The Melody Maker" magazine praising the British musicians he had met and heard: they, of course, were all enamoured of his talent and friendly disposition. He went on to appear in Paris and was heard by the instrument maker Henri Selmer, who said: "I have never heard a saxophonist to equal Wiedoeft, and I doubt if there will be any to excel him, his staccato is so rapid, his execution so brilliant." His fame came about, albeit inadvertently, through his formidable rendering of the comic sounding technical tricks that he had developed - slap-tonguing, flutter-tonguing, Always close to the Selmer Company, his association with that firm became exceptionally close after his European tour of 1926, where he was invited by the Selmer's to spend a weekend in the Swiss Alps. Wiedoeft and his wife enjoyed the affluent lifestyle which his sucess allowed them to pursue. It was this affluent lifestyle and especially his prominent hipflask which was to lead to his early death.
On 12th May 1928 Rudy's brother, Herb, met with a fatal motor-car accident, and when the tragic news reached Rudy it must have been an ominous sign.This seems to mark the beginning of the end of the life to which he had become accustomed. Herb Wiedoeft's Orchestra, which had started life as Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians and then The Cinderella Roof Orchestra in Los Angeles, carried on under the direction of the trombonist Jesse Stafford until the mid `30s, but it is not known if Rudy returned to play with them. One can only guess that he waited for a new opportunity in his solo career, which unfortunately never came. Apparently, he declined sessions in the 10 recording and radio studios as a side-man, where most musicians were making a lucrative business, knowing fully well that he would not be suited to that environment. After the Stock Market crash of 1929 made his happy-go-lucky style seem rather inappropriate to the hard times of the Depression in America, he moved to Paris for a year where he toured the European capitals where his music was still highly appreciated by the public. Following his time in Europe, Wiedoeft decided to invest what money that he had left from his great success in the 1920's in a Gold Mine in Death Valley, California. While the idea was indeed romantic (and completely in charactor for Wiedoeft who loved to dress as a cowboy, complete with ten gallon hat and boots), the mine proved to be empty and Wiedoeft had to let his men go and continue working alone. Even after moving back East, he continued to return to continue his search for gold. As his fortune disappeared, his relationship with his wife, Mary Murphy Wiedoeft, also suffered. This relationship, which had always been rocky, came to what appeared to be a violent end on March 24, 1937 when Mrs. Wiedoeft stabbed her husband with a butcher knife in a domestic dispute about money. Wiedoeft recovered, however and the couple were reconciled. Wiedoeft, except for one brief appearance on the Phil Spitalney Radio Show, never performed in public again. One of his pupils and close friend, Hubert Prior Vallee, renamed himself Rudy in homage to his great idol as he himself rose to fame as a band leader and actor, R. W's last years of decline were spasmodically spent sheltering under his pupil's roof. By the time he was 46 he had contracted cirrhosis of the liver, from which he died on 18th February 1940 at his home in Flushing, New York.. Nothing is known of the history of his widow, Mae.
1900 Census Detroit
Head Adolph Widoeft M 37 Germany
Wife Anna Widoeft F 36 Germany
Son Gerhard Widoeft M 15 Germany
Son Herbert Widoeft M 14 Germany
Daughter Erica Widoeft F 13 Germany
Son Adolph Widoeft M 11 Germany
Son Rudolph Widoeft M 7 Michigan
1900 Census Michigan
Sex Age Birthplace
Head Rudolph Wiedoeft M 62 Germany
Wife Cornelia Wiedoeft F 66 Germany
Servant John Bash M 56 Germany
1910 Census Los Angeles
Name Sex Age Birthplace
Anna Wiedoeft F 45y Germany
SON Gerhard Wiedoeft M 25y Germany
SON Herbert Wiedoeft M 23y Germany
DAU Erica Wiedoeft F 22y Germany
SON Adolft Wiedoeft M 21y Germany
SON Rudolph Wiedoeft M 18y Michigan
1930 Census New York
Head Rudy Wiedoeft M 37 Michigan
Wife Mary F Wiedoeft F 32 Massachusetts
not proven yet
Born 1838 Germany
Died 29 Nov 1908 Blair, Grand Traverse, Michigan Age: 70 Retired Farmer & Cornelia ?
Adolf Wiedoeft b Darmstadt Germany m. c1884 Anna Dunst b. Nov 1864 Darmstadt, Germany
Gerhardt "Guy" b. Germany C1885
Herbert "Herb" b. Germany c 1886
Erica C b. 29 Nov 1887 m. I Page Noll 11 Sept 1916 Los Angeles d 19 Oct 1989
Adolph"Al" b.7 Mar 1889 Germany d. 13 Jun 1943
Female d. 1 Jan 1891 age 0 days.
"I have never heard a saxophonist to equal Wiedoeft, and I doubt if there will be any to excel him, his staccato is so rapid, his execution so brilliant."
His fame came about, albeit inadvertently, through his formidable rendering of the comic sounding technical tricks that he had developed - slap-tonguing, flutter-tonguing
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Rudy Wiedoeft's legacy to the musical world was not just a collection of compelling compositions and recordings, but the distinction of having introduced the saxophone as a serious voice in a truely innovative way and gaining for it a tremendous following. He actually laid down the foundations of jazz saxophone technique, without getting personally involved with the idiom. It is said that neither his records nor the way his music was printed reflected the exciting and spontaneous aspect of his live performances and sometimes bore no resemblance to them at all! He had many followers and imitators throughout the world, but none approached both his virtuosity and highly imaginative style. Those musicians who were influenced by his example included such names as FrankieTrumbauer, Jimmy Dorsey, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Freddy Gardner - all of whom went on to develop their own styles and reputations. Even non-saxophone playing musicians were inspired, amongst whom was the great English bassoonist Gwyddion Brooke, whose recitals have often included "Valse Vanite" as a favorite encore.