I may have mentioned on this blog that I have a 1917 Conn Wonder ‘Vocal’ cornet that I got from my late friend Max Spikes. However, I have long heard that the most sought-after model was the Conn ‘Victor’ – particularly the 80A variant. Many of the greatest cornetists – including Bix Beiderbecke – played this model. It is this model cornet that Bix is holding on his knee in the most famous picture of him shown below.
In fact, Bix thought so highly of the 80A that he reportedly bought one for Jimmy McPartland, who replaced him in the Wolverines in 1924 when he left to join Jean Goldkette. Jimmy played the 80A that he received from Bix for the rest of his professional career.
I had been casually looking for an 80A, as these horns have such a great reputation, and recently I found one on eBay. The horn looked to be in pretty good shape and I corresponded with the owner, learning that the horn did not have the original case or accessories, but that it played well. Turns out the previous owner is a trumpeter, and he took good care of the horn. After the bidding subsided, I managed to get it fairly inexpensively and it arrived a week later.
Well! These horns deserve every bit of their lofty reputations. At .484, they are definitely large-bore, and for a guy who primarily plays trombone like me, they are much easier to play than the smaller bore models like my Vocal. I have been astonished by how free-blowing the Victor is compared to my Vocal. My particular model is from 1927, meaning that it has the quick-change mechanism to convert from Bb to A intact – Conn removed it from this model in 1939 or so, though they continued making the horn on into the 1950s. Very cool to be able to do that on the fly. The micro-tuner also is in very good shape, so I can tune the horn precisely as I desire.
I have also found that the descriptions of them as being very dependent on mouthpiece for their sound are accurate. These horns really do deserve their reputation as chameleons. When I used the 1917 Conn Wonder mouthpiece or the similar-vintage H.L. Clarke mouthpiece, the sound is the dark, mellow, ‘Conn’ sound of the early 20th century. However, when I put in one of my modern mouthpieces, such as my Bach 7c, I obtain a sound much more similar to what I can get from my 1994 Bach Stradivarius 180-43G trumpet.
As far the as my horn’s physical condition, it is not bad. The silver plate is deeply pitted and no longer shines well in several places, though the gold-wash bell interior is in very good shape. But the valves, the slides, and the compression are stellar. The horn plays quite well, and I am very pleased with it.
The bottom line is that if you play cornet and you have the chance to get one of these horns in good condition, do not hesitate. There are a lot of them out there in various conditions, and the prices are not exorbitant since there are so many. They are highly-esteemed for a reason and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how well they play.