Most days you can catch Rob Verdi in a pink suit, walking the streets of New Orleans Square in Disneyland. He’s been a professional musician, and he’s worked at the Happiest Place on Earth for almost 30 years.
But when he’s off the clock, Verdi visits shops all over the country in search of one thing: rare and unusual saxophones. He now has more than 75 in his collection. Some of the instruments don’t sound much like saxophones at all.
Rob Verdi is playing a “Slide Sax.” His fingers move up and down a saxophone with no keys. Instead, he guides a zipper device with a roller to make his sax sing.
“To me it almost sounds like one of those saws – you know, wood saws, bending the wood saw or some type of Hawaiian instrument," he said.
Learning that instruments like the slide sax even existed is what Verdi says inspired him to research the history of the saxophone. It was 1990. Verdi had just finished a concert in Yuma, Arizona. Afterwards, a man came up to talk to him about his slide sax.
“I basically called him a liar," he said. "I had never heard of a saxophone with a slide on it like a trombone. So he sent me photos, we corresponded for a while, and he finally sold it to me.”
Ever since, Verdi said he has discovered dozens of variations of the original.
Take the basic shape of a saxophone — and blow it up to six and a half feet tall. That’s the Contrabass.
"I joke that it kinda sounds like the Queen Mary leaving port," Verdi said.
“The gentleman I got it from – he was in the war and he took this over to Korea to entertain the troops, and he said he was shot at a number of times and one time laid down next to it to protect himself from the bullets.
Verdi said it didn't get hit. He secures the big Contrabass back into a wood display cabinet. Then he pulls out another, much smaller saxophone.
The sopranino is one of the smallest saxophones in existence. It spans about 10 inches from top to bottom. Verdi said he got his at a music store in Portland, Ore.
“It was owned by a street performer in Paris who dressed up in a clown outfit and rode a unicycle," he said. "I feel like I saved its life. How long would it have lasted being played by a guy on a unicycle?”
Verdi’s devotion to the saxophone has also made him an expert on its history.
Invented by the Belgian Adolphe Sax in the 19th century, Sax took after his father – also an instrument maker. Originally intended as an instrument for military bands, the saxophone was an international hit.
“There’s a sad turn to this," Verdi said. "[Sax] won awards for his invention and his design, and he was becoming very successful, and then some of the other instrument manufacturers, they started attacking him, and they stole his patents, and they sued him, and he ended up going bankrupt and dying penniless. Never knowing just how popular his instrument would become.”
Verdi said one of the reasons the saxophone is still popular today is its versatility. You hear it in jazz, pop, rock and roll and classical music. The saxophone resonates with people.
”I think it’s the timbre. It’s the sound," he said. "I think the range of it and the sound of it is similar to the human speaking voice. It’s just sort of right in the middle. I mean, a piccolo is really high pitched, and a tuba is so low. And I just think it’s the mood that you can create with the saxophone.”
Maybe the mood is sexy. Maybe lonely.
“You think of this guy on a street corner standing up against a light post. Maybe he’s dressed nice – maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s just kind of playing the blues, and there’s the moon behind him. It’s that whole image," he said.
Verdi said instrument makers capitalized on the sax’s popularity in the 1920s. That’s when unique variations of the original sax debuted. For example, the Slide Sax, the F Mezzo-Soprano and the Tipped Bell Soprano.
“That was the onset of the Depression, so sales really plummeted, so a lot of the manufacturers were all scratching their heads to trying to conjure up some creative new ways to stimulate sales of the instrument," Verdi said.
The Conn-O Sax is a saxophone pitched in the F key so it can play English horn parts. Verdi holds his fingers in the same place as he would on a regular curved saxophone, but the body of this Conn-O Sax goes straight down, and it has a big bubble at the bottom.
“Although this doesn’t sound exactly like an English horn, it was close enough to where Conn thought they had a really exciting idea here," Verdi said.
Conn started making the Conn-O Sax in 1928. But Verdi said production stopped in 1929.
“I think some composers were reluctant to write Conn-O Sax parts, so if there were no parts, band directors had no need to order them," he said.
A couple decades pass, and the Grafton Co. releases a saxophone made out of plastic. Verdi has a white one. It almost looks like a children’s toy. Verdi said the materials to make the plastic saxophone were cheaper than metal, so manufacturers thought they had a good thing going, but that thought didn't last long.
“This is a very delicate, very fragile material, and most of these Graftons are not around anymore," Verdi said. "They developed cracks, they were sensitive to temperatures.”
Verdi said the saxophone that has best stood the test of time – and weather – is still the basic design Adolphe Sax invented in the 1840s. The alto is still one of the most commonly played saxes today.
Verdi said he takes breaks from his day job at Disneyland to take his saxes on the road. He travels the country to play a tribute show to Adolphe Sax called “Saxophobia.” It’s aimed at teaching kids about the history of the instrument. Verdi said he hopes to one day build a museum where others can enjoy his collection.