At 94, Santy Runyon can still swing an ax.
February 6, 2002
He can tell you the story behind every ax resting at his feet or he could go into detail about all the cats he’s played with, but Santy Runyon would much rather just blow.
At 94 years old, he’s at the age where whenever “I go into a restaurant and order three-minute eggs, they make me pay up front.” But it doesn’t show. He wears a red baseball cap with a fishing hook attached to the bill. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his bright eyes follow the notes on the sheet music in front of him and his fingers run up and down the keys of his alto saxophone. He blows into one of the mouthpieces manufactured by Runyon Products, a company he created more than 60 years ago with only an idea and a piece of chewing gum.
Runyon’s small studio sits in the back yard of his modest home in a quiet neighborhood in Lafayette. A plaque on the studio door reads “Santy’s Studio.” The room is full of woodwind instruments, mouthpieces, music and stories. The pegboard walls are covered with framed and signed photos from the likes of Jimmy Dorsey, Betty Grable, Harry Carney, Alvin Batiste and Edgar Winter.
In between playing his seven alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, a baritone saxophone, four soprano saxophones, a clarinet, three flutes and an alto flute, Runyon recently reflected on his life – a life that’s always been filled with music.
“You see,” he says, “I’ve got a story connected with everything.”
Before he was Santy, he was born Clinton Runyon in Chanute, Kan., in 1907. He was raised in the small town of Barnsdall, Okla., – Osage Indian country, where he learned to ride ponies bareback and where he learned about music.
When he was 6, he took up the violin. His sister, June, was only two years older and she altered the direction of his musical studies when she shut a car door on his pinky finger. It was a Saturday night in Barnsdall and “the only doctor they could find was stoned and he sewed it on crooked.”
His father was an engineer in the oil fields, but his dream was to own a movie theater. The elder Runyon even traveled to nearby schools with his gasoline-powered projection gear on a horse-drawn wagon. He would present the silent films on a white sheet for students in the school’s auditorium, until the day the generator caught fire and consumed itself. One time he tried to show the movies in a tent and a cyclone rolled through town and took his gear with it. On his seventh attempt, he established a movie house in Barnsdall.
At the age of 8, Runyon began his musical career in the pit of his father’s darkened movie theater. His father instructed the fiddler of the small orchestra to teach his son to play the drums “or I’ll get myself a new damn fiddle player in here.” Runyon was a trap drummer, providing the beat for the other musicians and the sound effects for the silent pictures. During scenes of rain, he rattled a large piece of tin to mimic thunder. He also imitated birds whistling, trains chugging, cows bellowing and guns firing whenever William S. Hart or Hoot Gibson fired their weapons on the screen.
Runyon was a bright child and managed to skip two grades in elementary school, much to his older sister’s dismay. At the age of 10, he picked up the saxophone and taught himself to play.
When he was 11, he read about the Bernoulli Effect and how it applied to aviation. Bernoulli, a 16th century Swiss scientist, observed that when air flowed horizontally, an increase in the speed of the flow resulted in a decrease in the static pressure. In other words, when air moves faster it exerts less pressure than slower moving air.
The Bernoulli Effect would later be used in designing the airfoil of airplanes. The shape of an airplane wing is designed so that air flowing over the wing travels faster than the air flowing under the wing, which means there is less pressure on the top than on the bottom of the wing. The increased pressure on the bottom of the plane creates lift, allowing it to leave the ground.
Runyon wondered how the effect might affect his horn. He took a piece of chewing gum, shaped it into a small hump resembling a miniature version of the top portion of an airfoil and placed it within the mouthpiece of his sax. The slight hump increased the flow of air going through the mouthpiece and made the instrument louder. For years, he closely guarded the secret of his chewing gum-modified mouthpiece.
It was while Runyon was attending the University of Missouri in Columbia that he made another important discovery.
In 1928, he was performing at Samson’s Café in Columbia in exchange for two meals a day. One afternoon a young college professor came into the café and told him, “You’re not getting the right sound out of that saxophone.”
In the professor’s lab, Runyon saw the first electric musical instrument, the theremin. The device looks more like a piece of furniture than it does a musical instrument. It is a box with two antennae extending from it, one horizontally and the other vertically. The player of the instrument never touches it to get sound out of it. Instead he moves his hands toward and away from the rods. One rod controls the pitch and the other controls the volume of the instrument. To Runyon, it sounded a lot like a musical saw.
The professor had built a device that allowed him to control the pitch of the instrument and produce precise pitches from the theremin. Runyon and the professor took the mouthpiece of a saxophone and cut it down to the shank. Where the reed of the instrument was normally placed, they devised a small speaker that was connected to the theremin.
When the theremin produced the pitch of A at 880 hertz through the modified mouthpiece, all the notes on the saxophone could then be played, without a reed vibrating on the mouthpiece. These led Runyon to another conclusion.
“Well, the damn thing’s not a vacuum,” he says. “You don’t have to blow it full of air. It’s already full of air. You just have to set the air in motion that’s already in the instrument.”
Runyon devised a teaching technique that he continues to use today. If the player can play the pure note that his mouthpiece is intended to play, detached from the instrument, then he can play any note on his horn well.
While working on his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma A&M, Runyon managed to support himself by putting together and performing in different bands. He made enough money to also dress well for the times, sometimes even better than his brothers in his Kappa Alpha fraternity. His friends constantly borrowed his new threads, prompting one of his fraternity brothers to comment, “Well, you’re just a regular Santy Claus, aren’t you?” The name stuck.
Although Runyon may have been looking good while playing, he also understood the importance of a musical education. He says, “Most of the jazz players didn’t go to school. They thought that was a dirty word – to read music. You weren’t supposed to be able to play jazz if you could read music. That’s what a lot of them thought. Man, if I wouldn’t have been able to read music, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my job.”
From 1931 until 1942, Runyon played with the 74-piece Chicago Theater Orchestra. He was making $150 a week. It was a time when public address systems weren’t yet commonplace and playing well was just as important as playing loud enough so the people in the balcony could hear you. He says, “You had better have some chops to play seven shows a day.”
It was there that he met his future wife. She was a dancer who would come in to watch the other dancers in the show perform. Runyon spied her sitting on the front row.
Runyon’s résumé is as impressive as his playing abilities. He’s played with Betty Grable, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. He has also taught some of the jazz world’s best players, including Sonny Stitt, Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, Bill Page and Charlie Parker “before he got on that dope kick.” In the early ’50s, Cab Calloway and Lawrence Welk hired saxophone sections for their bands that were composed entirely of Runyon’s students.
He designed the first woodwind mouthpieces for the J.J. Babbit Company, but he did not design them with his secret lump of chewing gum. He saved his secret until 1938 when he designed his own mouthpieces. He sold his first one for a baritone sax to Bruce Bronson who was playing with Tommy Dorsey’s band at the Panther Room of the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. Runyon says it was the first time anyone could hear Bronson playing. He was soon flooded with hundreds of orders.
In the early 1960s, Runyon moved Runyon Products to Opelousas. Today the company employs 13 people and sells mouthpieces to companies all over the world, including Israel, Italy, Singapore, South America “and every other place you can think of.”
Runyon says, “I think I’ve made some good mouthpieces.” They are made of 40 percent synthetic rubber and 60 percent acrylic. “This costs me $4 a pound,” he says. “I’m not making cheap stuff.” Runyon Products was also the first company to manufacture mouthpieces in other colors than the standard black. “Why do they all have to be black?” he asks. “The red is for playing hot, you see. The blue is for playing the blues.” But does the color of the mouthpieces really affect anyone’s ability to play? “I don’t think so,” Runyon says with a laugh.
Another one of his inventions is the spoiler, a small metal reed that can be wedged into the mouthpiece. It acts as another reed and increases the volume of the instrument. Runyon says it helps the saxophonist performing rock numbers to keep up with the amplified guitars. Runyon says, “We’re always coming up with something different and something new.”
His newest design was introduced Jan. 7. The Jaguar Jazz “V” Chamber mouthpiece is designed for the saxophonist looking for a deeper sound and a mellower tone. When looking directly into the mouthpiece, there is a V-shaped groove where the small hump usually is in Runyon’s mouthpieces. He says the mouthpiece gives the horn “a darker sound with that depth of tone and a big sound without sacrificing the volume all together.”
While Runyon has been busy throughout the years playing, teaching and designing mouthpieces, he’s still managed to be a family man. He’s the father of four daughters, all of whom were “first chair players” in the band while growing up. He’s also a proud grandfather, but he laughs when asked how many grandchildren he has. “I don’t know,” he says. “I have several great-grandchildren, too. And that’s nice. Very nice.”
He still teaches in his spare time. He met one of his students, who lives in Singapore, through the Internet. For the last eight months Runyon has been giving him lessons over the phone.
He continues to teach students how to get the perfect tone and he does so willingly and usually free of charge, giving credence to his moniker. He says before a student picks a woodwind instrument, “they better come to me and get started right.” With his mouthpieces “now they don’t have to worry about the tone. The tone will be there.”
He also continues to stress the importance of a musical education in a young person’s development. He thinks sports are fine for kids but “it would be good for them if they would do both. What are you going to do after you get too old to play baseball? Look at me. I’m making a living. You can’t play football all the time. You’re bound to have some other interests.”
Runyon is keeping busy playing, teaching, designing and making plans for his 95th birthday party. It’s become an annual tradition at Antlers in Downtown Lafayette on April 18 every year.
So what is his secret to a long life?
He says, “Two bourbon and Cokes every evening. Never three.” He laughs.
He says at his age, he deserves it, but he never really has been one to drink anyway.
“You can’t do it and take care of a good job,” he says.