If some instrument makers are like purebred dogs, James Cox is one scrappy mutt.
He's the kind of maker who studies suspension bridges so that his cellos can withstand greater tension and give greater power; he deliberately crossbreeds different types of 18th-century models, mixing the classic purity of Stradivariuses with the gritty power of Montagnanas; and he uses the American wood that many of his rivals disdain.
"I'm a bit of a renegade who goes a little outside the standard practices [of instrument making]," says Cox, 42, a plain-speaking, compactly built man whose bald pate is as smoothly polished as one of his instruments. "If someone says that American spruce and maple aren't good enough for fine instruments, I say b.s. to that -- I have the proof right here," he adds, patting one of the cellos by his side.
It's little wonder that when Yo-Yo Ma, who is himself something of an individualist among cellists, wanted a modern copy of his $4 million "Davidoff" Stradivarius, he went to Cox to get it copied. The Cox copy is the only modern cello Ma owns. The great cellist became interested in meeting Cox and hearing his instruments when he heard that Cox, a luthier (or stringed-instrument maker), located in Baltimore's Remington neighborhood, had made two instruments for the Peabody Conservatory's Stephen Kates, whom Ma regards as one of the world's greatest cellists.
"There are a number of people making really fine instruments now," says Ma, who will play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday and Friday. "But what impressed me about Jim was that he had put so many thoughts into building a cello. He seemed to be not just concerned about copying old models, but in trying to understand what makes them great and going as far as possible to make them better."
With concert fees like his, Ma doesn't have to worry about price. But, compared to what older instruments cost, Cox's are a bargain. For the six weeks that he takes to make an instrument, he charges $10,000. (He used to charge $8,000, but upped his price when Kates told him that no one would take him seriously if he didn't charge more.) Like Ma's, the greatest Italian instruments now cost in the millions. Though good 18th-century stringed instruments can be bought for less, they are now so expensive that the violinist Isaac Stern advises young string players not even to consider buying an old instrument unless he or she has at least $250,000 to spend.
When asked if he thinks that the prices of old Italian instruments are inflated, Ma, who went into debt several years ago to finance the purchase of his Strad, begins to giggle.
"What do you want from me?" Ma asks when he recovers from his fit of laughter. "Compared to Van Gogh's 'Irises,' which sold for about $55 million, they're really cheap and this is the time to buy!"
The high prices and the limited availability of the great Italian instruments have put them out of range of most players. Luckily, the "small is beautiful" and "back to the earth" artsy-craftsy aspects of the counterculture had helped to create a generation of young craftsmen ready and willing to fill the void.
Cox is a perfect example of the breed. "I went to the University of Maryland at College Park so I didn't have to become cannon fodder in a rice paddy," he says. "Then I drew number 312 in the draft lottery and that was the last college saw of me."
A love of woodworking
But Cox was almost predestined to work as an instrument maker. He has always loved working with wood -- he chops down his own trees and ages the wood for instruments. From the time he was a teen-ager, he had worked as a trim carpenter for his father, a contractor who specialized in historic restoration. He had always been interested in art but abandoned painting and sculpture because modern art didn't appeal to him.
"I like things that exhibit technique," he says. "A Jackson Pollock looks like a house painter's drop cloth to me."
And he was always interested in music.
"White man's folk music at first -- stuff like the Kingston Trio," he says derisively. "Then, when I was older, grittier stuff like the early Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker." He began to play the guitar, rapidly figured out that the most demanding music for the instrument was for classical guitar and then -- at the age of 17 in 1968 -- decided to make one.
"It stank," says Cox, who has a habit of emphasizing one word in a sentence, with his voice growing higher and louder. "It didn't play in tune. The frets weren't quite where they were supposed to be, and it had a finish like an alligator that had been dropped into the Sahara."
Bad as Cox says that guitar was, it encouraged him enough to write several instrument makers to ask if they would take him on as an apprentice.
Almost all of them wrote back to say, in Cox's words, "To forget it."
"What else should they have said?" Cox asks. "If we make 'em right, the damn things last for centuries."