||The following interview is based on a visit with Robb Stewart
in his workshop and home in Arcadia, California, in May 2005, and
some emails in the fall of 2006. Robb is one of the foremost brass
instrument makers, restorers and dealers of vintage instruments in
the United States. If you have a vintage brass instrument that needs
repair or restoration, Robb is the person to go. His expertise will
help you assess or date your instruments, and his meticulous work
is rarely found elsewhere.
Sabine Klaus: When I visited your workshop in
beautiful Arcadia, California with a group of cornet-enthusiasts in May
2005, I immediately realized that they all couldn't do without you. Their
vintage horns simply wouldn't play like they do, if they hadn't gone through
your hands. All these cornet players and collectors are incredibly grateful
for your work. They would show you their instruments and seek advice on
what to do with leaks or stuck valves, how to get the dents out of a bell,
and how to transform a battered old horn into a beautiful great player
again. How did you become the leading expert and restorer in 19th and
20th vintage brass instruments in the US?
Robb Stewart: I had interest in old and unusual brass instruments
early on. I would look for books on musical instrument in the library
and go through the big books of patents looking for brass instruments
as well as cars and airplanes.
SK: Where did you grow up and go to school?
||RS: I was born in Chicago and grew up mostly
in rural northern Illinois. I started playing the cornet in the 5th
grade band. I continued playing in the school bands all through school
and became very serious about being a trumpet player, although I never
had any private lessons. Moving to California and playing in several
honor bands and orchestras opened my eyes to what a long way I had
to go to become a good player. While a senior in high school (1976),
I started attending a repair class set up at Fullerton High School.
The teacher, Don Heaston, got me a job at Bartold Music in Woodland
Hills CA in 1977. Norm Bartold was quite a character and had a large
collection of antique instruments hanging in his shop. I would occasionally
work on these and Norm suggested that I reassemble used parts to appear
as some of these antiques to be sold as replicas. I worked there for
two years and started my own business in 1979. Norm continued to encourage
me to make instruments and by 1981, I had enough new parts around
to make a replica over the shoulder Eb cornet. Word of this got out
and I sold this to the 11th North Carolina Regimental Band. They asked
me to make an Eb tuba next.
SK: How did you go about setting up your own workshop?
RS: Norm Bartold was closing his shop and I needed a job. I set
up a shop in a two-car garage and continued to get work from many of the
same customers. Larry Minick, who was the best repairman in town at the
time, would send customers to me that he didn't have time for. More importantly,
Larry was always willing to give advice and scold me when I really messed
SK: How do you develop your models?
RS: I tooled up to make Eb keyed bugles in 1983 which involved
making the bells and keys in my shop. I now make Bb keyed bugles as well
and have made them in copper, nickel silver and Sterling Silver. I have
improved my instruments over the years and have made over 250 to date.
I have made many different designs that customers have asked for, including
cornets with bells forward, upright, over the shoulder and circular. Also
ophicleides in C soprano to Eb contrabass, "English" bass horns, an orchestral
F trumpet, post horns, coach horns and English hunting horns in Sterling
Silver. This has always been an adjunct to the more profitable repair
business and I have always had call for customizing modern instruments
as well. Some of my favorites are double tubas in F and CC for Tommy Johnson
and the Fluba (flugelhorn shaped tuba) and Selfphone (baby sousaphone
in F) for Jim Self. As much as Los Angeles is an entertainment capitol,
there are not enough professional brass instrument players to keep a repair
shop busy full time.
SK: When you make vintage instruments how faithful are your
copies? Do you copy the original in every detail, including possible design
flaws, or do you make some sensible changes and "improve" the original
RS: I copy the originals as closely as it is practical to do.
I have rotary valves made to my size specifications, but I can't make
exact copies and still be able to sell them for a profit. I recently made
a copy of a Graves circular Eb cornet as an exercise in getting as close
to the original as possible and to have an example in my collection. If
I were making this for a customer, I would have to charge more than double
what I normally charge for a cornet. I don't see any need for improvement
of the best instruments made 150 years ago and I wish that I could make
mine exactly like them. Original keyed brass instruments vary to a surprising
degree and I believe that I have been fairly successful in getting mine
to play as well as some of the better originals.
SK: Have you ever gotten a commission from a composer
to develop a new instrument, say in the way Richard Wagner influenced
the brass design of his time?
RS: My biggest passion has always been history of brass instrument
makers and restoring and preserving antique brass instruments. I find
it the most satisfying work and I believe that it is my greatest strength.
I feel that it is very important to reproduce missing parts to appear
exactly like the original. When a part looks wrong or the instrument has
other sloppy workmanship like parts mounted wrongly, this becomes the
focus of the instrument, rather than the beauty of the design or the historical
SK: In the Joe and Joella Utley Collection we have both, new
instruments made by you and historic ones which you repaired and restored.
I have been impressed by the high standard of workmanship of both. When
you replace a part it is hard to distinguish it from the original just
by looking at it. However, you do something that I have appreciated very
much; you stamp the new part with your initials. How did you get acquainted
with common conservation practices that preserve an instrument not only
in its playing qualities, but also as a historical document?
RS: I have worked for several museums, but mostly for individual
players and collectors. I have learned some things from museum people,
but preservation is mostly common sense. I try to make good judgments
regarding historical importance of particular instruments and how to deal
with a damaged or missing part. There has been a growing interest in history
during my whole career and in the last five to ten years the interest
in 19th century brass instruments is booming.
SK: I was amazed seeing your home. You and your family
live in a museum, which you created yourself. How did this come
RS: In 1986 Nancy and I really wanted a beautiful old Crafstman
style house and Monrovia was more affordable than most of Southern
California. We couldn't afford anything really nice, so we bought
the neighborhood eyesore and spent the next twelve years fixing
and restoring it. It was the same with furniture. We bought a few
nice pieces but prices were escalating and I found that I could
better furnish the house if I built exactly what we wanted.
click on image for larger example
SK: When we visited, we all got a ride around the block
in your beautifully restored 1912 Hupmobile. Is this hobby related to
your interest in brass instruments?
RS: It's the same fascination with industrial history. I could
make a hobby of any old mechanical object and its history. I've had a
passion for old cars since I was a child and it's safe to say that I'll
never be able to afford to get into antique airplanes! The next time that
you visit, I hope to have the EMF (restoration project car) ready to take
SK: Present day 19th and early-20th-century brass music revival
in the United States owes you much. Many of the vintage bands couldn't
play without your work. How does it feel to occupy such a key role in
this revival movement?
RS: I do feel very fortunate to be able to make a living while
at the same time creating something. Even though the restoration projects
are the creation of craftsmen more than 100 years ago, I feel that they
are now a part of my legacy as I am part of theirs. In most cases these
instruments will receive better care in the coming centuries than they
have had in the last one. I try to educate my customers in the importance
of preserving history rather than just hoarding trinkets. In the future
there will be fewer historically important instruments damaged for the
sake of display.
The Robb Stewart "Three-in-One"