Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Reason to toot his own horn

Las Vegas man brings big band sound to Vegas gig, exports it through trumpets he crafts


Leila Navidi

Tony Scodwell tests out a trumpet inside the workshop behind his Las Vegas home. Scodwell, who heads Tony Scodwell’s Big Band, has been making trumpets in Las Vegas since 1988. He was once the road manager for Doc Severinsen, former band leader on “The Tonight Show.”

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Scodwell buys the various parts for trumpets, and after an exacting process of baking the "bell," assembles, tests and sells the instrument.

Click to enlarge photo

Horns are individual, Scodwell says. "Some things are mechanically constant, but will play different because of metallurgical differences; that's just the way brass is," he says.

If You Go

  • What: Tony Scodwell’s Big Band
  • When: 2 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Charleston Heights Arts Center, 800 S. Brush St. near the intersection of West Charleston and Decatur boulevards
  • Tickets: $5; 229-6383

Sun Blogs

Trumpet player Tony Scodwell is always blowin’ and goin’.

The 62-year-old Las Vegas musician stays home for a rare local gig Sunday at the Charleston Heights Arts Center. Scodwell will lead his 16-piece big band in a concert honoring his former boss, Harry James.

Scodwell frequently performs with symphony orchestras around the country. He just returned for jazz festivals in St. George, Utah, and Johnson City, Tenn.

But he finds it tough to get gigs in Vegas, his home for almost 40 years.

“I had been doing two or three concerts here a year, but with the budget cutbacks it’s hard to find work locally,” says Scodwell, a veteran of the Harry James and Stan Kenton big bands and road manager for trumpeter Doc Severinsen. “Musicians shouldn’t be selling themselves. It’s hard to book yourself as a solo artist. When I was road manager with Doc I was talking to booking agents all the time. They couldn’t wait to call me back, but now they hardly know who I am. You’d think they’d be kind enough to call me back.”

A native of Beloit, Wis., Scodwell attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston until he quit to play trumpet for Kenton’s orchestra and later with James’ band.

He’s as enthusiastic about performing as ever, but his life has many divisions. He shoots photographs professionally, restores old cars (28 Alfa Romeos, two Ferraris and a Maserati) and bottles his own wine.

He also makes trumpets. He recently traveled to Austria to help a friend make some horns.

He’s been making his trumpets in Las Vegas since 1988. He assembles them in a workshop behind his house, which serves as a photo studio, rehearsal hall for himself and his band, and a manufacturing center.

Every week or two he turns out a trumpet he sells for about $2,800.

“They’re priced competitively,” Scodwell says. “Most horns like this sell for $3,000 to $3,500.”

He says there are only a handful people in this country who make horns the way he does.

“There are a lot in Europe,” Scodwell says. “But over there I wouldn’t even be recognized because I’m not a certified brass maker. They have an apprenticeship program and everything.

“They are very good, but they are not horn players.”

If there is an upside to the down economy, it’s that it gives him more time to work on his trumpets.

“I have a lot of orders,” he says. “I make them very slowly, so people are always waiting for them. They don’t seem to mind.”

Scodwell buys all of the trumpet’s parts — including the bell (the curved tubing and end of the horn where the music comes out), the lead (pronounced “leed”) pipe into which the mouthpiece is inserted, and the valve section (which contains the three valves that create the range of notes).

He “anneals” the bell, baking it in an electric cooking oven at 850 degrees for 30 minutes.

“No more, no less,” he says. “You heat treat the brass bell, which makes it really vibrate for the player. It transforms a piece of brass. Annealing a bell, in effect, lines the molecules up in a uniform fashion so the length of the brass works in unison.

“It makes the trumpets livelier in your hands and to your ears. The sounds have got more vibrancy, more pizazz.”

Finally he assembles the instrument.

“Every step is critical, from getting the correct width of the lead pipe’s tapered end (8.75 mm) to the points where braces are soldered on to stabilize the instrument,” he says. “You have to find the sweet spot for the braces.”

The location of the braces affects the tone of the horn, and the “sweet spots” vary with each instrument. No matter how standard the production process is, Scodwell explained, every trumpet will vary by degrees because of differences in the metal and other factors.

“Some things are mechanically constant, but will play different because of metallurgical differences; that’s just the way brass is,” he says. “I know what works.”

Scodwell’s biggest advantage over other manufacturers, even the major ones, is that he is a top trumpet player. “I’m not only able to make them, but test them. I’ll play them a couple of weeks before I send them out, maybe take them to a gig.”

Scodwell mostly makes instruments to his own specifications but sometimes will do requests. He also puts out a line of Harry James trumpets.

“Harry drank a lot,” Scodwell says. “He had a carrying case that held two trumpets, vertically, and there was a compartment in the middle for a fifth of Smirnoff vodka. When I make a Harry James trumpet, I put it in a carrying case and I include a fifth of Smirnoff.”

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