A jazz saxist by trade, Tim Nunnink repairs saxophones in a shop built into the garage of his La Mesa home. Born and raised in San Diego, he went away to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and perfected the craft of jazz sax before coming back to San Diego and earning a master's degree from SDSU in jazz studies.
"I never went to school to learn how to play sax. I went to validate what I knew and to learn how to make money. San Diego is an interesting place to make money in jazz." How a jazz musician earns a living here: by doing other things.
In addition to sax repair, Nunnink is the jazz instructor at Southwestern College, and he runs the technical shop at SDSU. "I'm in charge of all instrument repair and all of the performance spaces in terms of their sound systems and the instructional spaces. From music stands to microphones," he says. "I have an office and it looks like the shop here," he says. "Mostly machines."
A saxophone is really a sort-of megaphone. It is a tapered tube made of brass, straight, or bent into an s-curve and drilled full of holes. It has flaps and pads that are operated by a series of spring-loaded levers and knobs.
It is wind-activated: a player blows into the mouthpiece causing the one moving part, a cane or plastic reed, to vibrate. A saxophone is an imprecise and sensitive balance of engineering tolerances and improbable mechanics and sound dynamics as conceived during the late 1800's by a German named Adolphe Sax.
Over time, sax has become known as possibly the single most identifiable voice in jazz music. It makes a range of tones that resemble the human voice. It has an allure that is hard to contain in words. Some call it the devil's horn. Maybe it is.
One doesn't go to college or a trade school to learn how to repair a saxophone. Rather, it is a trade that is either self-taught, or learned via apprenticeship with a master repairman, or both. Saxophone players over time come to understand the malleable nature of their instruments and are often quite knowledgeable about the inner workings of the machine.
Smooth jazz alto icon David Sanborn, for example, is said to almost work in tandem with his own saxophone tech. James Carter restores saxophones and does his own repairs, as does a brilliant jazz saxist based in Montreal named Al McLean.
"Three or four years ago I was just playing and teaching sax. You gotta have some source of income during the day, so I took a job at a shop doing sax repair for two years. Prior to that, I'd studied with an Encinitas repairman named Les Arbuckle. He let me apprentice with him and he gave me homework assignments" - meaning, dead saxophones to revive -- "to take home. He showed me where the bar is set."
Nunnink explains that he began working on saxophones around the age of 10 -- his own. "When a pad would fall out, I'd get some glue from my dad's workshop and put it back in."
At the San Diego Music Studio in Vista, Nunnink performed what the industry refers to as 'make plays.' "It ends up on your desk, you gotta make it play." Later, he began getting enough work from area sax guys such that he stopped making the drive to Vista. Now, he has a good two month backlog. "I don't advertise. It's mostly guys who know me from around town."
Does he do work for any jazz sax stars? "Not many, because there aren't many of them in town."
He picks up the husk of a neckless alto sax. It gleams like a gold disco ball in the shop lights. It has heft. It fits into my hands. But the keys are springy, meaning they take extra finger muscle to move. And the horn is rampant with little pad-kissing noises and metallic clicks, all hallmarks of cheap construction.
"This is an example of what is being made in China. H.L. Hutchins is the name stamped on the bell, but who knows who really made it? This is what's wrong with horns on the market today." It is the disposable Bic Pen of saxophones and not worth the cost of an eventual $600 dollar re-pad, he says.
"There's something wrong with it. I haven't figured it out yet. But it's new and it's shiny. It's what kids want, as opposed to older horns."
He puts the Chinese alto aside and turns to the C melody. "This horn is over 80 years old, and it still plays beautifully." He wets a reed and tightens it onto a mouthpiece with the ligature. He blows a few tentative notes, then gains in volume as he moves about through the octaves.
The horn has a sweet other-era sound, dated perhaps, a bit gaseous and undefined as such (today's tenor style is so hard-edged you could cut diamonds with it) but it plays rich and reedy and heavy, like an after-dinner liquor. I walk out into the back yard and listen while Nunnink works out on the old horn, the notes rolling and rolling out of the silvered bell and into the night.