NORTH READING – Norton Zieff, a founding member of Temple Emunah of Lexington, unexpectedly passed last year. Zieff’s legacy will not only be maintained by his loving friends and family, but also by his passion for music. He was classically trained in both the clarinet and saxophone at the New England Conservatory, and during his time in the U.S. Army, he led a band that performed throughout Europe during the Korean War.
Zieff will be remembered through his saxophone, a 1970’s Selmer/ Buescher Mark IV tenor sax, a professional-level saxophone that has been maintained for many years by Emilio Lyons, known by many as “The Sax Doctor.” He originally ran his shop out of Rayburn Music on Huntington Ave., next to Symphony Hall. Now, he is semi-retired and continues to work out of his home in Lexington.
After Zieff’s death, his family decided to donate the instruments to a school. That idea was scrapped after his loved ones realized that students can be neglectful with their instruments. They determined that Zieff’s professional-level instruments could not withstand rough handling. Instead, Freyda Zieff, Norton’s wife of 17 years, decided to give the instruments to Lyons, “The Sax Doctor.” The instruments were to be given to a musician of his choice.
Emilio decided to pass Zieff’s tenor sax to Steven Swartz, a longtime saxophonist and personal customer. Swartz, like Zieff, is a classically trained saxophonist. He started playing as a teenager and continued to play in a band when serving in the Vietnam War while stationed in Europe. Today, he continues to play Zieff’s saxophone in his band, “The JOY of SAX!”.
“It’s cathartic. It’s my therapy, you know?” Swartz said, describing his love for playing music. “It’s a very good horn.”
Despite the fact the saxophone was played for years before given to Swartz, one who did not play the sax would be unable to tell how old the instrument truly is due to the skilled upkeep of the instrument.
Although the outside of the saxophone may not be as shiny as it once was, the sound produced exceeds expectations: “Prior to this, I was looking for a tenor. So, I went online and found an online tenor for almost no money, maybe three or four hundred dollars. It plays great, but it still is not the quality of a professional, Selmer sax,” Swartz recalled.
“Zieff would go to Emilio for periodic repair – like we all do,” Swartz said. “After Zieff passed, the instruments were to be given to a professional, he thought of me, and here it is!”
Swartz shared some insight on how Zieff’s saxophone compares to others: “The gold standard is a Selmer Mark VI. That is the gold standard, and everybody wants a six!” Unfortunately, those saxophones cost millions. Much to Swartz’s luck, however, Zieff’s tenor sax comes close to the quality of the Selmer Mark VI.
Just as Jewish families often pass down certain family heirlooms, Norton Zieff’s tenor saxophone will continue to be handed down to other worthy horn players. Whatever tune that will emanate from this storied instrument will include a little bit of the soul of Norton Zieff.