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GEORGE SARKIS - "The Doctor Of Horns"

In 1956, I began studying the saxophone while I was in my senior school year; the first saxophone was a borrowed instrument a vintage early 1940's Buescher Big B tenor sax from the school’s music department. Since it was an older model that needed minor repairs and adjustments, little did I know at the time, the instrument repairs were being sent to a repair shop in center city Philadelphia.  

A few months later, during this time while I was working a part-time job at a neighborhood sandwich shop I was able to save enough money to buy a used Martin Tenor Saxophone that was in excellent playing condition for a novice like me. 

I was fortunate to meet George Sarkis during the later part of 1958 when a musician friend suggested that I should take the instrument to a repair shop in center city for a routine check-up. Since my friend acknowledged that, the shop was associated for doing work for the Philadelphia Orchestra on a regular basis.

George Sarkis was a friendly person that always spent time in conversations explaining many aspects about the saxophone and the necessary repairs to keep the instrument playing well.  

 

He recognized that I was eager to learn how to play and kept an open invitation to the shop for repairs many times free of charge. It was during one visit we had a conversation about some of the contract work with various schools in the Philadelphia area. He talked about some of the vintage saxophones that he had repaired in the past. Ironically, he mentioned that a certain tenor sax made by Buescher had a distinctive beautiful tone was frequently brought in from a high school’s music department. Surprisingly, I borrowed the same vintage early 1940 Buescher Big B tenor sax from the music department a few years earlier.

Through the years, we remained friends and always kept in contact with each other.

George Sarkis:

Repairing Instruments for the Jazz Legends.

The name George Sarkis belongs to a man who is internationally known. The many musicians that play reed and brass instruments and have come to him for help call him the “Doctor of Horns.”  Since 1928, many legends of jazz and classical music have, at one time or another,  come to George Sarkis for repair work to be done on their clarinets, flutes, saxophones, and even trumpets and trombones.  Not only did he repair instruments, he also played them - saxophone, clarinet and flute. He told me, “When I was a young man, I worked all the dance halls and small clubs in Philadelphia with many of the big bands that were around at that time. Those were the days.  I really enjoyed playing with the big bands. Later when my friend Eddie Lang, who lived in South Philadelphia was playing guitar for Bing Crosby he introduced me to Frankie Trumbauer who specialized on the C-Melody saxophone.  Did you know Trumbauer inspired Lester Young?”

There was a time back in the big band era of the 1940's, 50's, 60's when Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Bunny Berrigan, Count Basie and others would come to Philadelphia to play engagements at the Earle Theater, Palumbo’s Restaurant and dance halls throughout the area. Each of these leaders had a number one item of priority of their things to do for their musicians. That item was to make sure that George Sarkis checked-out their horns prior to the play date whenever possible.

Sarkis’ store was a quaint little repair shop located in the heart of Philadelphia’s center city at 18th and Arch Streets. If you are visualizing a spacious shop area with isles of counter space filled with instrument parts and accessories well, you have the wrong picture.  Unbelievably, the shop was only approx. 16'×20'!   Inside it had one antique glass display off to the right side cluttered with cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling, saxophone and clarinet cases, old music sheets, and sections of unorganized plastic holders and containers filled with instrument parts.

On the walls hung a collection of autographed pictures of many of the jazz musicians and big band leaders who have come to the shop for repairs. Some of the pictures were of Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Ventura, Buddy DeFranco, Benny Goodman, Roland Kirk, Clarence Clemens, and Paul Desmond.

One would think that with such a clientele the shop would have had a more formal interior and definitely been larger.

Wrong!  - There was barely enough room for two people to stand side by side while waiting for repairs to be completed. George’s worktable faced the large store- front window he enjoyed watching the passing cars and people.  He sat in a secretarial chair as he worked on the instruments. Normally, the customer would sit on a stool by his side making conversation as he fiddled away. Strange as it seems, at any given time of the day you were able to see jazz legends who had come to get their instruments repaired, standing and waiting,  inside or outside by the curbside, if it was a nice day.

   George remembers one occasion when Charlie Parker came to Philadelphia to play at the famous Blue Note Club at 15th and Ridge Avenue. He showed up one afternoon looking like he and a companion had driven through the night, and explained frantically that he had no money and no instrument. He asked if he could borrow an alto sax and mouthpiece to play his club date. Sarkis not only let him borrow the horn but also made sure that he had enough money to get by for the rest of the week.

 A typical day for Sarkis might have been like this: Gerry Mulligan would appear in the doorway, his baritone sax in one hand, and start explaining to Sarkis with the other hand what was not functioning with certain keys of his saxophone. Meanwhile, Cannonball Adderley would have driven up to the curbside and double-parked for a moment in order to drop off his alto sax!

 One summer day in the early 1960’s I had stopped by the shop to pick up my newly repaired tenor saxophone. While standing in the doorway talking to George, I saw a familiar face leaving the Musician’s Union Hall (Local77) that was located a few doors down. It was Woody Herman!  He was walking toward the shop (eating a ham and cheese sandwich) he stopped in to pick up his clarinet and alto sax because he was leaving for a tour in Europe. That was the first time I had ever met him. We talked for a while about the music business and about his recordings with tenor man Sal Nistico, who played all the solos at that time. He, George, and myself all started joking about the limited space in the shop but Sarkis reminded us that he was. . .   “at this same location since 1928, I don’t have to get any bigger than this, and it’s more fun this way, I get to spend more time in close contact with all these great jazz musicians who are my friends. What more can you ask for?”... George Sarkis no longer works at this quaint little store. He is retired and enjoying everything else life has to offer him. 

On many occasions, I have been in contact with my good friend saxophonist Stan Ross who also remembers George as a close friend and a special person that always had an open door to young musicians such as us . . . whether we had money or not to pay for the repairs on our horns.  A special thanks to Stan Ross & dudovpi©s for sharing these memorable photos from his archives.

 

 

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    GEORGE SARKIS - "The Doctor Of Horns" - DANNY'S BLOG - Danny Luciano

Reader Comments (6)

Thank you for this piece about my grandfather. It brought back a lot of good memories that I shared with my familly. We love him and still miss him.
February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRandall Sarkis
Randall,

George was a good friend to us - Joe Fortunato, Stan Ross, Ray Fern and myself - he named us "The Philadelphia 4 Brothers"

Thanks for visit to the website - please spread the word.

Take care and stay well.

Danny
February 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDanny Luciano
I was really pleased to find this article. I met George Sarkis only once - back in 1974. But I never forgot him - or his shop on 18th Street.

I was working my way through college as a conductor on the Reading Railroad back then, and another Reading conductor, Joe Ansuini, who was himself a tenor sax player back in the 1950's, was the one who introduced me to George. Joe told me he played professionally with Gerry Mulligan and others in Philadelphia during the 1950's, and even had an opportunity to go on tour, but his wife was pregnant at the time and he decided he needed a job with a regular income - which is how he ended up working for the Reading Company.

Joe was very encouraging to me when he learned of my musical interests, and one of the first things he did during one of our layovers between trains was to walk me over to 18th Street from Reading Terminal to show me the location of Musician's Union Hall-Local 77, and to meet George Sarkis, whose shop was only several storefronts away. Joe told me that if I ever needed any adjustments or repairs made to my horn, there was only one place to take it - and George was it.

I spoke to George for probably less than five minutes, but I never forgot him, nor his shop. I remember him being as warm and as encouraging as though we had known each other for years. And even though his shop was small and quite cluttered, one still couldn't help but take note of the autographed photos of all of the jazz giants hanging on the walls who brought their horns here. For me, as an impressionable kid, very much wet-behind-the-ears, the whole atmosphere of the place only served to reinforce its legendary reputation. Kind of like finding the Holy Grail of instrument repair shops! It was great to see the photos of his shop again - and they're exactly as I remember it!

Thanks very much for posting this article. It's important that George and his work not be forgotten.
May 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Nogar
David,

George was a good friend to us - Joe Fortunato, Stan Ross, Ray Fern and myself - he named us "The Philadelphia 4 Brothers"

Thanks for visit to the website - please spread the word.

Take care and stay well.

Danny
May 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDanny Luciano
George got my dad into music, in fact my dad's sax and clarinet were via George back in the 60's and 70's. When I started playing brass instruments and needed repairs my dad took my trumpet to George! George and my dad are no longer with us, but the instruments George helped connect my dad and me to (and kept in working condition) are still around, in great playable condition.
April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
Mr. Sarkis was a close friend of my dad and his father. He repaired and maintained my dad's instruments forever. My dad also bought new instruments and his cases through Mr. Sarkis. My dad stopped playing in the late 90's and died in 2004. I have my dad's instruments, a tenor (Buffet Super Dynaction) and auto sax, clarinet and flute, and would love to have them cleaned and maintenance performed. Where do you recommend now that Mr. Sarkis is no longer alive. By the way, I used to go with my dad to George's house in Drexel Hill to drop off or PU.
November 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatte Marshall Michel

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