‘Horn doctor’ Mike Corrigan makes Kansas City’s musical instruments well again

Mike Corrigan, president and master craftsman at B.A.C. (Best American Craftsman), hand-hammered a custom trombone bell, building a new instrument from scratch in the company's downtown  factory. Now Corrigan, 34, and his business are keeping the spirit of Kansas City’s sound alive while supplying trumpets, trombones and other instruments to musicians at all levels, from Kansas City area school children to professionals Trombone Shorty and Van Halen.
Mike Corrigan, president and master craftsman at B.A.C. (Best American Craftsman), hand-hammered a custom trombone bell, building a new instrument from scratch in the company's downtown factory. Now Corrigan, 34, and his business are keeping the spirit of Kansas City’s sound alive while supplying trumpets, trombones and other instruments to musicians at all levels, from Kansas City area school children to professionals Trombone Shorty and Van Halen. The Kansas City Star

Blood has dried on the manufacturing floor, and Mike Corrigan refuses to clean it.

The horn maker wants to remember what happened that day nearly a year ago in his instrument factory at 12th Street and Lydia Avenue. It’s a reminder of how quickly his business is growing.

Corrigan’s horn factory sits in a neighborhood that once was part of Kansas City’s jazz scene. Eighty years ago, the building housed an aircraft manufacturing plant, where workers often walked to the nearby jazz clubs and spent their off hours knocking back a beverage while listening to one of the acts passing through town.

Now Corrigan, 34, and his business are keeping the spirit of Kansas City’s sound alive while supplying trumpets, trombones and other instruments to musicians at all levels, from Kansas City area school children to professionals Trombone Shorty and Van Halen.

And when horns are hurt or sick, Corrigan and his crew can make them well again.

The business, Best American Craftsman (B.A.C.) Horn Doctor, displays some of its higher-end instruments in a music center showroom in south Overland Park.

Many are produced the old 12th and Vine district building, where employees mold sheets of brass into horns — carefully honoring a tradition that was best known in the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s a trade that only a few instrument companies are willing to tackle.

“Most are really large and not producing by hand, like us,” Corrigan said.

Corrigan walks onto the company’s manufacturing floor east of downtown, where he and his team set up the operation in early 2014.

Work benches and stations are set up and ready to put the next touch on instruments. Tubes of brass, sheets of brass and solid brass await their turns.

“From these raw materials we fabricate instruments,” he said.

Corrigan picks up the bell part of the trumpet and demonstrates a technique called “brazing.” It’s like welding but with a lower temperature. Then he hammers out the metal as the bell hardens and uses a big torch that turns a glowing red to soften the material again.

Surrounding him are traditional tools along with other makeshift ones that Corrigan has found help with the process — mallets, rawhide, a block from a board.

“Some of the techniques I’ve learned while working with other craftsmen,” he said.

The making of the bell is handed down like a trade. There are basic techniques, but every craftsman adds his own touch.

Corrigan acquired the machines over the years; some of them are antique and date to the 1930s and 1940s.

B.A.C. is now channeling that old-time vibe.

Preserving Kansas City’s jazz heritage is part of the mission, and Corrigan had a moment of inspiration when he attended a jazz performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Wynton Marsalis was playing, and Corrigan connected through musician Elliot Mason, who plays trombone with Marsalis’ group.

The Kauffman had just opened, and Corrigan thought it would be cool to get the band to shop at his store in Johnson County. When they found out it was 40 minutes — one way — from downtown, they backed out.

“Mason said, ‘I don’t think we can do it,’” Corrigan lamented. “How cool would it have been to have Wynton Marsalis!”

They hung at the hotel bar instead.

The episode led him to look for a location closer to downtown performance venues.

Gary Sage, research and policy officer for the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, helped Corrigan find the factory space.

During the process of a move, a company tells the development corporation what it is looking for, and the corporation finds spaces that could work.

“We had sent him a whole list of them, and he had to do the leg work,” Sage said of the process that happened a few years ago as Corrigan prepared for the move.

Corrigan also spoke on several occasions with Mayor Sly James, who encouraged him to bring his business to Kansas City.

Sage hopes B.A.C. can reach out to the urban schools in Missouri as he has on the Kansas side.

“For downtown Kansas City, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of creative business, and Mike’s business just personifies what creativity is,” Sage said.

Corrigan grew up south of Washington, D.C., in Waldorf, Md. He was the youngest of four and always wanted to be in a band. As a child, he watched old movies with his family.

“One that really spoke to me was ‘The Glenn Miller Story,’” he said.

He attended private school, and the cost of extras, including music instruction, was something the family couldn’t afford. When Corrigan was in the sixth grade, his father retired from the Air Force and started teaching at the school. His father’s teaching position allowed Corrigan to finally start taking band classes.

“Then the decision was: Did I want to be like Louis Armstrong on trumpet or did I want to be like Glenn Miller on trombone?”

He chose trumpet.

“I see where I am and feel bad my siblings never got an opportunity (to play an instrument),” he said. “My life is surrounded by everything that I had because of music.”

In high school, he realized he might be able to receive a music scholarship for college. He thought his only career options were in music education and music performance. But his high school band director, Richard Hood, knew he enjoyed fixing instruments and directed him to Red Wing Tech, now part of Minnesota State College, so he could pick up the trade.

In college he played mellophone in the marching band, traveled around in a bugle corps and later met his wife, who was in the group’s color guard. She was from Overland Park.

After receiving his certificate in 2000, Corrigan worked for S.E. Shires Co., a Boston manufacturer, and that set the tone for his career path. There he learned to make instruments by hand, an art that few companies invest in.

Corrigan founded Best American Craftsman (B.A.C.) while in Boston and moved the operation here when the couple moved to Overland Park in 2004.

He started buying instruments on eBay and repairing them. He eventually started working with the Olathe School District, and the company now has a contract to maintain its brass instruments while reaching out to other school districts.

B.A.C. sells instruments in a wide range of prices. Its workers design custom orders and make those horns by hand, but the company also has designed a series of pro-level and entry-level instruments produced elsewhere but sold by B.A.C. after they’re checked for quality. Used instruments also are refurbished and sold there.

Master craftsman Andy Vavricek, who grew up in Olathe, was at Johnson County Community College and shopping for a horn when he met Corrigan in 2004.

Vavricek mentioned he didn’t have career plans, so Corrigan advised him to learn the instrument trade at Red Wing. He did.

“And I came back,” Vavricek said.

Corrigan wasn’t ready to hire someone when Vavricek returned with his degree, but Corrigan kept his promise.

“I could tell Andy was really excited about this and I was like, ‘Go to school and you’ll have a job.’ And he literally did, and he came back and said, ‘I’m ready,’ and I said, ‘OK, I guess I have to hire you.’ ”

The two started the business in a basement office.

“The first year was crazy,” Vavricek said.

Then they were kicked out of the house after the first of Corrigan’s two children was born in 2007.

A customer stands at the counter of the B.A.C.’s Overland Park store and points to a shelf a few yards away.

“That material is heavier duty,” Corrigan says, explaining to the mother how well an instrument case would hold up for her student musician.

Brass instruments sit along the wall and line the window. A workbench used for making repairs lines another wall. Another room shows off the higher-end pieces for sale, including the latest addition of guitars and orchestral strings.

The company moved to Overland Park about a year ago from a larger warehouse space in Olathe.

The storefront at 14933 Metcalf Ave. gives the business a street presence on a thoroughfare traveled by thousands of cars daily. Motorists can now stop in on impulse.

With the added spaces come guitars, drums and orchestral strings along with the repair, student-level instruments and other accessories, such as music stands that hold more than one instrument. Employees include repair technicians and salespeople.

Corrigan makes new instruments for students but also stocks vintage instruments from collectors. The custom horns start around $3,600 go as high as $7,000. The entry-level ones start at $850.

“The move to this location helped to expand the showroom,” he says. “It’s more instruments and more accessories and more of an intimate setting.”

With the showroom come the names. One of B.A.C.’s custom horns was played in Bruno Mars’ band during his Super Bowl show last year. Instruments from his factory have been on stage with Wynton Marsalis, Kool & the Gang and Van Halen. Sinbad is the latest entertainer to put in a custom order.

Musician Marcus Lewis moved to the Kansas City area in 2013, settling first near Zona Rosa in the Northland. The musician plays trombone for Janelle Monáe, who hails from Kansas City, Kan. He also takes his big band around town and will be at Louie’s Wine Dive April 17 and Take Five Coffee on April 23.

“I knew about Mike before I actually moved here and knew about the instruments he made,” said Lewis, who is one of B.A.C.’s endorsed musicians, which means that he exclusively performs on B.A.C. instruments and spreads the word about the company.

His group has rehearsed at the downtown location. “We instantly connected.”

Kansas City is a special place for jazz, he says.

“Charlie Parker was born here and he is probably the most influential jazz musician ever,” Lewis said. “And Mike’s here making custom-made trombones and horns. It’s just the right time and right place for someone like Mike to be in Kansas City. The jazz and the commercial scene are growing.”

Corrigan points toward the factory floor.

“That’s actually the blood,” he says, his fingers directed at a dark stain. “It was just me and Andy, and it just happened.”

Corrigan had been operating the lathe, a machine that rotates and is used for making and spinning the bells of instruments.

“I had just spun it up and it was running really fast and I was sanding and working on a bell,” Corrigan recalled. “It was just a fluke accident and it snagged my finger. It happened so fast.”

Corrigan managed to flip the off switch and ran into the hospital wearing his apron and goggles.

It’s been only a year, and slowly he’s gotten more comfortable after losing the pinkie on his right hand. It helps Corrigan to remember to keep perspective as business takes off.

“I’m glad it happened to me and not one of these guys,” he said. “I don’t ever want to clean that anvil and it reminds us, ‘Let’s step back and think about what we’re doing.’”

Corrigan has a prosthetic finger so he can play the bagpipes, his instrument of choice in recent years.

But he has hopes that the new location and factory near Kansas City jazz’s spirit and soul will bring music to B.A.C. Corrigan has dreams of a rehearsal area or maybe even a club.

Like the Kansas City song, they are “standing on the corner of 12th and Vine,” only a few blocks away.

“It’s exciting to think of the musicians who might have walked by,” Corrigan said. “Even the people who worked in this building were influential because if they had not gone to the clubs, there would have been no music.”

And now it’s come full circle. He is making the instruments that are making this music.

Related stories from Kansas City Star