York Band Instrument Company, or J.W. York & Sons was founded by James Warren York in 1882 in Grand Rapids, Michigan after a couple of partnerships with local businessmen. Primarily a brass instrument company, York mostly imported woodwinds and strings as stenciled instruments. The company started out by selling music supplies and stenciled instrument from overseas until they secured capital to buy tooling and hire instrument makers from Courtois, Besson, and Distin to start design of their own brass instruments. Their original saxophone line was not fully developed until the mid-twenties.
The company marketed three lines of instruments. York Band Instruments, Grand Rapids Band Instrument Company (GRBIC) instruments, and USA Line instruments. GRBIC was marketed as a possibly lower cost alternative to the York Band Instruments. The instruments had slight variations in construction, as well as less costly plating and bracing. Grand Rapids Band Instruments were made in the same factory as York Instruments by the same instrument makers, and sometimes GRBIC becomes synonymous with a York Instrument. USA Line instruments were York entry level instruments for the emerging school market.
York band instruments are still collected and played by a devoted group of followers. Instruments that date from 1940 and earlier are generally considered the more prized instruments, having been built in the original Grand Rapids factory in Michigan. Later instruments after 1940 may have been outsourced to other companies. York Instruments built before 1926 may be in high or low pitch which may be a pitfall when purchasing them to play. Instruments in low pitch in the twenties can be up to 5 cents flat from where pitch is today. In some cases, this can be solved with instrument technicians who can shorten lead pipes and slides to bring it to today's pitch standards. Large bore brass instruments from 1926 to 1940 are highly collectible because they are the most modern examples of York instruments made to professional grade, and meet today's standards for bore size and tuning. Unfortunately these later instruments are more rare, as the yearly production of band instruments in the 1930's were reduced due to the Great Depression in the United States.
York brass sound quality and workmanship were highly prized among its devotees. Although science experiments to recreate the chemistry of their brass have been attempted, most would agree the instruments made in Grand Rapids had superb workmanship coupled with superior design which greatly contributed to the "York" Sound.
There have been many attempts to revive the "York" brand but none have matched the popularity and passionate appeal of the original older brass instruments from Grand Rapids. The "York sound" is real by those who have played the instruments.
The following history is courtesy of Wikipedia:
James Warren York was a former army musician and played professionally in the Grand Rapids, Michigan theaters. He eventually decided to open his own instrument repair business and set up on the ground floor of a Monroe Avenue building in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1882. The early company originally started from a merger of two partnerships between "Smith and York" in 1883 and "York and Holton" in 1885. Together they were eventually reformed into the "J.W.York and Company". In 1887, Frank York, J.W. York's eldest son joined the business and it was named "York & Son". In 1898, Charles York, the youngest son joined the company which prompted him to again rename the business "York & Sons". The business went through various name changes ("J.W. York", "J.W. York and Sons", "J.W. York Band Instrument Co", "J.W. York Instrument Co.") before finally settling on "York Band Instrument Co".
By 1890, York was operating a successful instrument plant on Canal St. by importing instruments and producing a few original cornets and trombones. Newly designed instruments were added each year and in 1898, the company was manufacturing a complete line of cupped mouthpiece brass instruments. Frank Holton, Henry Martin Jr., Henry Martin Sr., and F.A. Reynolds, pioneers of band instrument manufacturing, were all once employed at the early York factories at 3,5, and 7 North Ionia Avenue in Grand Rapids. The factories were later relocated to the old Raniville Power building at the corner of Campau Ave and Lyon St. In 1908, a plant at 1600 South Division Avenue was built and lasted until it was closed in 1971.
In 1913, rights were sold to original partners James and John Duffy and a stock company was formed. In 1916 J.W. York retired from the company. The company was officially changed to York Band Instrument Company in 1926 when the York family relinquished all control, although the "York Band Instrument Company" name was used in promotional publications starting in the early 1920s after J.W. had retired. The company had various subsidiaries and used the proprietary name "Grand Rapids Band Instrument Company" and "USA Line" for their mass-produced and lower priced student quality horns. Additionally, York produced various stencil horns under the names of "Hallmark", "Acme", "Wolverine", and "Pioneer"
By 1890, York was operating a successful factory on Canal St, mainly by importing instruments, but also producing a few original cornets and trombones. Newly designed instruments were added each year and by 1898, the company was manufacturing a complete line of brass instruments.
Early pioneer band manufacturers like Frank Holton, Henry Martin Jr., Henry Martin Sr., and F.A. Reynolds, all were employed at the early York factories at 3,5, and 7 North Ionia Avenue in Grand Rapids. The factories were later relocated to the Raniville Power building on the corner of Campau Ave and Lyon St. In 1908, a plant at 1600 South Division Avenue was built and lasted until it was closed in 1971.
In 1913, rights were sold to original partners James and John Duffy and a stock company was formed. The company was officially changed to York Band Instrument Company in 1926 when the York family relinquished all control.
The company had various subsidiaries and manufactured instruments under the proprietary name "Grand Rapids Band Instrument Company" and "USA Line" for their mass-produced and lower priced student quality horns. Additionally, York produced various stencil horns under the names of "Hallmark", "Acme", "Wolverine", and "Pioneer".
The York Band Instrument Co manufactured a full line of woodwind, percussion, and brass instruments which included trumpets, cornets, horns, trombones, helicons, baritone horns, sousaphones, and tubas. However the brass instruments made before 1940 were known to have superior craftsmanship, ease of enunciation, intonation, and timbre, and were widely sought after by concert, brass, and military bands. The United States Army's Quarter Master Corps and the United States Navy historically used York instruments and still maintain them in their possession.
Two legendary York CC tubas were originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1930s. The tubas were later sold to Arnold Jacobs and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at different times and used by subsequent tubists in their orchestra. These tubas have become the arch-prototypes for as many as six modern tuba designs because of their excellent intonation, tone, timbre, and craftsmanship. These tubas are also the basis for the legendary "York tuba sound" that many tubists try to emulate.
As with many companies during the 30's, the York company fell victim to the Great Depression and was purchased by Carl Fischer for $300,000 in December 1940. This purchase left York a subsidiary of Carl Fischer. During World War II the company switched to the manufacturing of munitions. After the war, York produced primarily student instruments at the old Grand Rapids factories. The name York sometimes became only a stamp on stencil horns built from other manufacturers since Carl Fischer's outsourced work by merely using the York name. Higher quality instruments were transferred to the West German company Boehm Meinl as the "York Master" line.
By 1964 the York company was out of business. In 1970, Carl Fischer sold the York brand to the New York based Tolchin Instruments, Incorporated. Tolchin Instruments closed the original Grand Rapids factory in 1971. After years of mismanagement Tolchin accumulated an unmanageable $24 million debt. The York brand was sold to Boosey & Hawkes in 1976.
The goal of this site is to unite the research into the company that was York. Much of the research is scattered into different web sites on the internet. Please use the contact form if you would like to contribute historical artifacts such as catalogs, memorabilia, and pictures of instruments.
Our mission is to help people understand the York musical instruments. Every day they are acquired or bought online and played. This site can be a valuable resource in identifying instruments from around the country and world that bear the proud name of "York."