The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. This week, museum staff is telling us about some famous woodwind reeds that were made here in Lowell. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.
Otto Conrad operated his reed making shop in Lowell from 1948 until near his death in 1958. He was a distinguished craftsman who left a significant mark on the world.
Otto was born in Germany in 1884. He studied clarinet, beginning at fourteen years old and practicing for eight hours a day for four and half years. He excelled in his music and played in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and with Swiss opera houses and symphonies in Zurich and Basel.
In 1923, George Eastman, famed head of the Eastman Kodak Company, brought Mr. Conrad to the United States to teach clarinet in the Eastman school of music in Rochester, New York. For twenty years Otto Conrad also played in the clarinet section of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1948 Otto and his wife, Johanna (Fanselau), came to Lowell to be near their children. Here he taught clarinet lessons and played in the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Though Otto Conrad was a remarkable performer and teacher, it was his designs and craftsmanship that revolutionized reed making and distinguished his talent. He worked with the leading reed makers in Europe for twenty five years. In 1933 he began developing his own reed. In designing the Conrad Reed he did his own independent research and applied what he had found to his designs.
He discovered that the secret of a high quality reed lies in the quality of the cane that it is made from, along with the “cut”. The cane used by Otto Conrad had to be harvested at exactly the right moment – when the sap runs down in the fall. Only the best parts of the finest stalks are used in making the reeds. He believed that care must be taken to ensure that the cane had the correct mineral content. Too much silica makes a reed too brittle, and too little makes it easily waterlogged. Mr. Conrad started with rough cane and then smoothed, cut and shaped it. His wife helped him, trimming reads and grading them from soft to very stiff.
Musicians worldwide sought out Conrad Reeds. Artie Shaw, widely regarded as one of jazz’s finest clarinetists, endorsed the Conrad Reed in 1939. Upon his death in 1958, Otto Conrad was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.