The History of North Conway Music Center starts with
 
The Charles Ponte Music Shop in the 1930's.


 
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 and Les Brown 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. He 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 in "Hold that Ghost" with superstar sex symbol Jean Harlow and the Three Stooges.

charlie ponte and frank ponte at ponte music company
Charlie and Frank Ponte having a serious discussion at the shop on West 48th Street in mid-town Manhattan circa 1960

 
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 has just completed and gave him on the spot. "When you make your first money with this oboe", he was told, "then you think about paying for it, till then - practice." The player was Phil Bodner. They became life-long friends and Phil is 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, 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.

Paul Mellon. 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, in a photo taken on tour in India. English Hornist with the Israeli Philharmonic for over twenty years and a great teacher.

 
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, a founding member of the New York Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet, a great oboist and a really helpful teacher.

 
Car? What Car?
On one afternoon during my first semester at school, I drove from Long Island in my fathers 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 store front. 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.

Harold Gomberg. When he called my home he would announce himself gruffly, saying "This is Harold Gomberg of the New York Philharmonic".

 
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.

The Long Island Youth Orchestra performs worldwide.

 
Thanks For The Memories
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 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 entire 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 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 Brooklyn, where I was living. The fruit store is still there but they never took down the internally lit Charles Ponte Music Company sign from the second floor where it still hangs today. 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. Over the 26 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.
 
We moved to New Hampshire in 1996 and continued building the Charles Double Reed Company. Today it is one of the premiere double reed companies in the country, and serves tens of thousands of double reed players throughout the world.
 
North Conway Music Center, is located in the same building as Charles Double Reed Company, and has grown dramatically since it was founded in 2008. Starting out with a few guitar strings and some clarinet reeds, we filled a niche that has long been neglected. The community and our wonderful valley visitors have embraced us and we continue to expand to meet and exceed expectations. We now offer a full line of instruments including guitars, basses, banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, woodwinds, brasswinds, keyboards, drums, and more. We offer hundreds of music titles and keep tons of accessories in stock at all times. Three repair technicians are on staff, and our lesson program continues to grow quickly. It's almost like going back to our roots, as we now find the shop filled once again with lots of different types of musicians, both pro and beginners. Come by and say hi!
 
If you have comments about our history or care to share your own reminiscences with me, I would be very pleased to hear from you. Contact me at brian@northconwaymusic.com or call me at (603) 356-3562.
 
Best Regards,
Brian Charles
Owner and Chief Noise Maker

Brian in 2006.
 

Brian in 2009