Even though we were founded in 1983, our story really began in New York City in the 1930’s.
Come with us and take a trip back in time . . .
New York’s Golden Era
In the 1930’s, as it is today, New York City was a Mecca for all varieties of musician from saxophone pioneer Charlie Parker to Maestro Arturo Toscanini. Though not quite at that elite level as a player, Charles Ponte was English hornist of the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra as well as a member of the Paul Whiteman, Les Brown, and Ted Lewis Bands. His big band sax sound and not inconsiderable ability to play the elusive double reeds helped him become quite well known among musicians throughout NYC in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Charlie played with or was friends with Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Harold Gomberg, Samuel Baron and dozens more of the worlds finest musicians from all genres. It was during this time that he became close friends with Benny Fairbanks and Sam Shapiro, both soloists with major big bands. The three of them appeared together as members of the Ted Lewis Band in the Abbott and Costello classic “Hold that Ghost”.
Charlie Ponte and Frank Ponte at Ponte Music Company in the 1970’s.
Charlie with Ted Brown, 1950’s
Not Quite Famous
From the 1930’s through the 1970’s, West 48th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues was the block to be on if you were a top woodwind repairmen or had a music store for professionals in Manhattan. Broadway theatres, Carnegie Hall and later, Lincoln Center were all nearby. It was a natural spot for all kinds of musicians to gather between matinees and after shows or performances.
Charlie, Benny and Sam decided that although they loved performing, being on the road and working late into the night was too disruptive to home life with their new families. They talked about starting a new store on 48th Street for woodwinds and strings, but nothing really came of it. Big band road tours called both Sam and Benny away for months at a time while Charlie, at home in New York playing at Radio City, kept thinking about their plans for a store.
The inscription on this photo reads: “To Charles Ponte, with my heartiest good wishes, Sincerely, Jean Harlow. Anybody got a dime?”
The Start of Something Big
Not very long after, Charlie rented a room on West 48th Street from Linx and Long, a venerable woodwind music store, and started selling whatever instruments he could buy and fix up. Since half the musicians in New York knew and loved him, his shop quickly became the in place for premier players to hang out. Hordes of younger musicians who emulated those players followed soon after.
Among those younger players were some of the giants of today. One story that I’ve heard a dozen people repeat (including the player himself) concerns a then-young musician who was trying to break into the music scene on clarinet but wanted to double on oboe and had no money to buy one. He was casually talking about this with Charlie, expecting only a sympathetic ear. What he got was a brand new Ponte brand oboe which Charlie had just completed and gave him on the spot. “When you make your first money with this oboe”, Charlie said, “then you think about paying for it, till then – practice.” The player was Phil Bodner. They became life-long friends and Phil was one of the finest doublers ever to play in New York. Look for his credits everywhere from Sinatra to Steely Dan including notable jazz gigs with Benny Goodman (1955), the Gil Evans Orchestra with Miles Davis (1958), Oliver Nelson (1962), J.J. Johnson (1965-68) and Bill Evans (1974).
Benny Goodman was a long time friend of Charlie Ponte who came in to buy clarinet reeds at the shop well into his 80’s.
The Road to Home
To keep up with the growing demand, Charlie started buying new instruments to sell, then accessories, then double reed equipment, strings, guitars, tubas – anything and everything musical. His shop expanded tremendously and virtually exploded out of Linx and Long.In 1947, he rented his own store on West 48th Street with an internally lit “Charles Ponte Music Company” sign proudly swinging outside. Inside was growing the largest and strangest conglomeration of musical instrument supplies and parts that has perhaps ever existed in one place. Benny and Sam stayed on the road for a few more years, but as the big bands began to die out they joined up with Charlie and once again, the three of them were working together.
The store name stayed Ponte’s, but they were a team. Growth was exponential and the store gained an international reputation as touring musicians from all around the world stopped by during their New York performances. They brought word back to their colleagues of this wonderful “musicians candy shop”, run by and for musicians. Few knew that during this time, billionaire Paul Mellon invited Charlie to help him develop music schools in Haiti. They worked together for years and Charlie donated thousands of dollars of musical instruments and a lot of his time to this project. They remained lifelong friends.
With the guidance of his friend, billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, Charlie Ponte donated instruments and gave jobs to Haitians as oboe and bassoon reed makers!
The Times They Were a Changin’
Through the 50’s and 60’s, as development began to infringe on the now long gone Tin Pan Alley, jazz’s famed 57th Street and the Music Row of 48th Street, Charlie held fast, growing his business in the same store front which he now owned.Finally, with parking garages and office towers going up on all sides of their turn-of-the-century brownstones, most of the stores were forced to relocate. Some closed their doors forever. Among them, the venerated and still missed Linx and Long.
Charles Ponte Music Company relocated to West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues where a few of the other long-time shops had moved, including Giardinellis. Here, Charlie, Benny and Sam continued to prosper and fill their store with friends.
Sonny Rollins visited weekly to try out instrument after instrument in the basement of the shop, and played so strongly he often rattled the whole store.
First Time Visitor
When I met Charlie, Benny and Sam in 1969, I was still in junior high school and simply needed a bunch of cane and a knife to learn how to make oboe reeds. My first teacher, Merrill Greenberg, now of the Israeli Philharmonic, was attending Juilliard and had me stop in to Ponte’s for supplies. I took one of my first trips into the big city and got myself a Ponte Knife (now called the Charles knife) and some Prestini cane. From then on, I visited often for supplies and shared the intense reverence for the place that many felt.
Merrill Greenberg on tour in India. He has been English Hornist with the Israeli Philharmonic for over thirty years.
After 2 years of study with Merrill, I went on to study with Jerome Roth, 2nd Oboist (ret.) of the New York Philharmonic for two additional years. A sweet and brilliant man, his devotion to his students seemed endless.I then gained acceptance to Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard School as a scholarship student of Harold Gomberg. This was a fulfillment of a dream I had had since the day I started playing oboe. He was the solo first oboist of the New York Philharmonic for about 40 years and an old buddy of Charlie Ponte.
Jerry Roth was a founding member of the New York Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet, a great oboist and a really helpful teacher.
Car? What Car?
One afternoon, during my first semester at school, I drove from Long Island in my father’s car and left it parked in front of Ponte’s. I rushed in to pick up my oboe which had been worked on by repairman, Pedro Rivera. I walked briskly to the back room of the long narrow storefront. Directly in front of the repair department stood my teacher and Charlie. Both had turned around and were staring at me. I was terribly intimidated and immediately forgot about my haste. Apparently they had been talking about me because Gomberg had recognized my oboe. It was his main performance oboe before he sold it to me, so he recognized the peculiarities of this particular Loree, number BI-37.
The oboe was ready but Gomberg asked me to play it right there to test it out. For a good 15 minutes, he and I took turns playing the oboe with Pedro doing a few minor revisions to the repair work. I was in complete awe of Gomberg’s playing and thanked him for helping me as he left to get to Lincoln Center for a performance. Of course, I had totally forgotten about the car which had already been towed away and was on its way to the 11th Avenue Police lot.
When he called my home he would announce himself to my mother by saying “this is Harold Gomberg of the New York Philharmonic”. Here seen with his brother Ralph, who also studied with Tabuteau, and led a successful career as first oboe of the Boston Symphony.
A New Job
When Gomberg left, Charlie asked me if I was interested in a job making reeds in his shop starting right away. I was excited, elated and still intimidated. Being like most double reed players, I viewed reed making as a curse as well as a blessing, so I replied, “I’m not sure”. I called my dad to get his opinion. He thought this could be a good thing, as long as it didn’t interfere with my schoolwork. “And by the way,” he asked, “how’s my car?”
Over the 5 years that followed, I learned as much working in Charlie’s shop as I did in school. I made reeds 3 days a week, 7 hours a day at Pontes’ and continued my studies at Manhattan and then Juilliard Schools with Gomberg until he retired in 1980. I went on to study with a host of others on various instruments and composition. I started my solo playing career on a 6 week tour of the countries on the Indian Ocean as oboe soloist with the Long Island Youth Orchestra. Charlie was furious that I was going to be away for 6 weeks and fired and re-hired me twice in the weeks before I left. Finally, he fired me again on the last morning before I was to leave.
I returned 6 weeks later, tired but feeling full from a successful tour. I showed up at his shop the next morning. Without so much as a nod, he told me that I made lousy reeds and I had better get back to that desk and start making them.
In 1983 at the age of 85 Charlie decided to retire along with Benny, Sam, Charlie’s brother Frank, a trumpet player who ran the brass department and Harry Nifik, the cranky sax repairman who worked on the second floor. Some eras end with a bang – this one ended with a strange whoosh as a bizarre parade of instruments were sold off to dealers throughout the country as the business was closed down.
We sold off the entire 1982 McDonald’s Marching Band drum section, dozens of Greek “C” clarinets, a large bushel basket of French horn bells, tons of miniature “Pignose” amplifiers, hundreds of assorted Chinese musettes, the list is practically endless.
Charlie even handled the sale of the McDonald’s Marching Band instruments.
The Next Generation
Happily, he reserved the entire double reed department for me and allowed me to use his storefront for half a year while I got myself settled, juggling a business and music performance career. He had been through the same thing himself.
When the building was about to be sold and transferred to its new owners (a Dominican fruit store) it seemed natural to change the slowly regrowing business into a mail-order concern. I renamed it Charles Double Reed Company and moved it to my Brooklyn apartment.
Charlie retired to Indiana, living with his daughter and her family until he passed away in 1990. Charles Double Reed Company started with the names and addresses of 600 double reed players that I collected in those last 6 months of Charlie’s store front. The company outgrew my living room quickly and we relocated to a loft space at West 28th Street in Manhattan. Once the internet became the major form of sales and communication for us we felt free to spread out, and chose the beautiful resort town of North Conway, New Hampshire as our home.
Over the years since I started the company, we’ve grown hundreds of times over, with customers in all 50 U.S. States and 160 other countries. It is with great respect and pride that we continue the prestigious Charles Ponte tradition.
Founder/Director Charles Double Reed Company
We are VERY interested in acquiring photographs and memorabilia from the heyday of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, 52nd Street Jazz Scene and West 48th Street Music Row. If you have anything, or can provide a lead, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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