The Legend of the Selmer Mark VI

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The harmonics of the saxophone concentrate around similar frequencies as the human voice. When you play it, the shape and size of your mouth and throat contribute to the resulting tone. The jazz great Coleman Hawkins once said that your sound is “the one thing nobody can take away from you.” I’ve played the saxophone for about twenty years, and I know that this doesn’t always feel like a blessing.

You can’t change who you are, but you can change your instrument—or parts of it. The saxophone has four principal components, and players endlessly debate the best models of most of them. Reeds of various makes and strengths have passionate partisans; the mouthpiece, on which the reed sits, and the ligature, which connects them, also inspire dispute. But, when it comes to the largest part of the saxophone—the horn itself—there is little argument. Since the release of the Selmer Mark VI, in 1954, it has been played by nearly all the greats: Coltrane, Getz, Rollins, Coleman, Shorter, Brecker, Parker, and on and on. Kamasi Washington plays a Mark VI; so does Kenny G. The lineage of the jazz saxophone is inseparable from this particular make and model, which is literally a piece of history; the last tenors and altos were made half a century ago.

That enduring preëminence is something of a mystery. Selmer Paris, the manufacturer of the Mark VI, is not alone in making good saxophones, and the Mark VI is hardly the only good horn the company has made. Sound can be measured, and we can determine with a degree of precision at least some of the factors that enable an instrument to produce beautiful music. Antonio Stradivari, for instance, carefully tinkered with the geometry of his violins—the relative concavity of the back and the front, the thickness of the wood—to produce his legendary results. (The varnishes he used may also have helped.) But our responses to particular sounds are more difficult to explain or to assess. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the aura that attaches to certain instruments is material or myth.

The Mark VI is not a Stradivarius; it’s worth saying. Only about six hundred of Stradivari’s instruments have survived, and buying one of his violins might set you back millions of dollars. No one knows exactly how many Mark VI’s remain, but, by 1975, when the production of altos and tenors ceased, about a hundred and eighty thousand had been made—today, you can find one at shops in most major American cities, for about the cost of a used car. How nice a used car we’re talking about depends on the particular instrument. The most prized Selmers tick off the boxes on what John Leadbetter, who runs a saxophone shop in Manhattan, calls “the checklist.” The lacquer should be original—dark cellulose, with an engraving done in the Elkhart, Indiana, factory where the instruments were finished. The horn should have a low serial number; the older ones, people say, are the best. Find one like that, and the price will likely run to more than ten thousand dollars, several times more than even a very good modern horn. But should it?

“With all old instruments like this, it’s always a fine line,” Chris Potter, a modern giant of the saxophone, told me. “Is it just kind of making a fetish out of something that you think is going to help your music, or is it something real?” Years ago, Potter spent a day and night testing horns at a shop in Iowa before zeroing in on an old Mark VI. “The heavens opened up” at three in the morning, he said. He’d found his horn. “I think it’s real,” he told me. Bob Reynolds, who plays saxophone with the jazz-fusion collective Snarky Puppy, said, of the Mark VI, “I think there’s something magical about this, in the Stradivarius kind of way.” The first Mark VI he heard was a hand-me-down owned by the lead alto in his high-school big band. “It had this wear and tear on it,” he said. “That was the first thing that appealed to me.” Reynolds got his own later, after testing nearly a hundred. Someone could make a horn identical to it, he said, but that one “wouldn’t have the ghosts in it that mine does.”

I’d never played a Mark VI until recently. I’d gone through half a dozen mouthpieces and ligatures and a panoply of different reeds, but I’d attached them all to a first-generation Yamaha YAS-82Z alto that I got fifteen years ago. That horn was there for marching-band performances in high school and big-band concerts and cocktail hours in college. It was there for funk sets at house parties and electro-pop gigs at dive bars. I brought it to different cities, where I noodled in lonely apartments, basking in my sound or, more often, feeling bad about it. I know that how you feel affects how you play, and that if I want to get closer to what I hear in my head I just need to practice. But, in my weaker moments, I’ve wondered about the magic horn. What sound might it grant me, if I got my hands on one?

The saxophone is relatively new to the scene, as major musical instruments go. Adolphe Sax was born in what is now Belgium in 1814; a serial inventor, he survived multiple brushes with death—a gunpowder explosion in his childhood, two assassination attempts when he was an adult—and once conceived of a steam organ so large it would be built on a hillside and powered by a locomotive. He also had an idea for a brass instrument that lent itself easily to marching. He didn’t make much money off it, and died a poor man, in 1894. If jazz existed by then, he hadn’t heard of it.

In 1929, Henri Selmer, a French woodwind manufacturer, bought up the last of Sax’s workshops. Selmer had begun making saxophones, in 1922, after they caught on in America. In the twenties, the market exploded. American manufacturers—Conn, King, Buescher—became major competitors. The giants of the early jazz age played all kinds of horns: Coleman Hawkins played a Selmer, Lester Young played a Conn, Cannonball Adderley played a King. (Charlie Parker, who spent much of his life in the throes of heroin addiction, pawned off too many saxophones to be identified with a specific horn, except perhaps the plastic Grafton he played at a single performance, in 1953.) Saxophones of this period have relatively varied shapes. Conn experimented with an underslung octave mechanism and an ineffective bulging device on the end of the neck called a microtuner, for tiny pitch adjustments. Some saxophones had the bell keys, now always on the right side of the instrument, on the left.

This variety ended, more or less, with the Second World War. American factories were diverted toward the war effort; Selmer maintained production, albeit at a smaller scale than before. By mid-century, if you wanted a high-quality saxophone, you got a Selmer, and the Mark VI became the standard. Many earlier horns won’t even fit into modern cases, which are typically built to accommodate the shape established by the Mark VI seventy years ago.

Selmer still makes its saxophones outside Paris, in the medieval town of Mantes-la-Ville. This past summer, I paid a visit. The company’s president, Thierry Oriez, greeted me at the door. Then he led me and the company’s de-facto historian, Douglas Pipher, on a tour of the fourteen-kilometre path that each saxophone follows as it evolves from sheet metal to horn.

Pipher doesn’t work for Selmer. He’s merely obsessed with its history, and has probably done as much as anyone to unearth it, poring over company records in an effort to understand which horns were produced and when. (Some Selmer devotees were convinced that these ledgers were closely guarded secrets; Pipher mentioned this to the company’s saxophone product manager, Florent Milhaud, when he asked to see them. Milhaud said nobody had ever asked.) Pipher had to move houses, in rural Ontario, to make room for all the Selmer instruments he owns. At the factory, he was dressed in his signature outfit: black T-shirt, bluejeans, dark sunglasses. He added his own commentary to the tour with great zeal.

A persistent theory holds that the war not only weakened Selmer’s competition but improved the company’s materials. Selmer, the story goes, used brass repurposed from artillery shells to make the Mark VI—some saxophonists are convinced that the quality of the instrument dropped off after that metal ran out. None of that, though, is true. (I broke this news to multiple players, who expressed sincere disappointment.) Even so, Pipher said, it’s possible that the war contributed to the Mark VI in other ways. “This is my guess, it’s not a fact,” he told me. “But older guys who were too old for the army would be the master craftsmen. They’d be in there, they don’t have a large supply of brass. So they’d have more time to experiment and fool around.”

Fool around they did: in the twenty years that the Mark VI alto was manufactured, Selmer made at least seventy design changes. There were changes made to the tenor, too. The horn was never built to a tight template, and so, even within the same cohort, horns varied slightly in the settings of the bell or the placement of the posts to which keys attach. (Outside the U.S., the horn hadn’t been stamped with the name for its first decade. “Mark VI,” a marketing term concocted by the American branch of the company—it was Selmer’s sixth distinct model—came later.) These variations came down to individual craftsmen. “You had some big discrepancies in terms of diameters, in terms of length of necks, of angulation or angle and relationship of diameters, ergonomics,” Milhaud told me.

It’s hard to square this fact with specific serial-number superstitions that exist about the Mark VI. It’s not only that older horns, with lower numbers, are more valued. Those in the eighty-five thousands are thought of as Brecker-serial horns. Altos in the hundred and forty thousands are known as Sanborns, named for the searing sound associated with the R. & B. saxophonist David Sanborn. Tenors in the hundred-and-twenty-five-thousand range are marketed as Coltrane-era horns. And while the Mark VI did change, in little ways, throughout the decades, each batch surely had standouts and duds. Perhaps the variance itself was one of the keys to making something that was at least intermittently extraordinary. Or maybe the magic of the human touch is another myth.

Milhaud, in any case, is convinced that people misunderstand what makes the Mark VI great. The musician most involved with the development of the alto was Marcel Mule, a famous concert soloist in mid-century France and Selmer’s acoustic adviser at the time. Mule hated jazz. This may have helped. The Mark VI was not a one-dimensional instrument bound to the conventions of a wind band; it could do whatever a player wanted it to do. It wouldn’t get in the way. Every tone, from Getz’s oily whispers to Brecker’s serrated declarations, can come from a Mark VI. Ideas flow without impediment. “They speak about an instrument which has very strong personality,” Milhaud said. “It has no personality.”

Even now, making the perfect instrument is a surprisingly human process. The Selmer factory is less an industrial plant than a large workshop, spread across four buildings, all of which sit in the back yard of a house where two of Selmer’s daughters once lived. The necks of Selmer saxophones are still shaped by human beings; they are filled with ice for resistance, then put into a clamp and bent by hand to their final shape. The bells are rounded off by workers using a machine I can best describe as a sort of sideways pottery wheel. Much of the process still involves manual twisting and hammering and soldering, nearly five hundred pairs of hands working, sequentially, together.

I saw just one step that was fully automated: set off in a separate room, an orange robotic arm buffed the horns. The robot was brought in about a year ago, Oriez said—that job was particularly rough on shoulders and elbows. At one point in the production process, I watched a woman inspect body tubes and denote sections she deemed flawed with a red pencil. An editor, like me.

On the old Selmer house, where the daughters lived, there were royal-blue awnings and shutters, the same shade of blue that appears on the necks of many of the company’s instruments. I’d come to the factory to see the cold, metallic truth. Instead, I had found more romance.

But to understand the Mark VI mystique, you have to look not only at what happened when production began. You also have to know what happened when production ceased. Selmer discontinued altos and tenors in 1975, convinced it had created something better. A new acoustic adviser, Michel Nouaux—a virtuoso, like Mule—had helped the company design another classical instrument, the Mark VII. Selmer was “shifting over to strict templates,” Pipher explained, “so that the individuality of an instrument was replaced by conformity.” Perhaps something was lost in that transition. But there were other problems that are easier to pin down. Nouaux was a large man, and he designed a horn with big, heavy keywork. The ergonomics were off. “He made the instruments much more for himself than for the community of saxophone players,” Milhaud told me. He added, “So it was a mistake.” The horn couldn’t get out of the way.

Selmer recovered from the Mark VII. In 1986, it launched the Super Action 80 Series II, now its longest consistently produced model. The brand is regarded well enough to rival competitors such as Yamaha and Yanagisawa that produce top-level horns at lower prices. But Selmer Paris is constantly fighting a two-front war, battling with the top Japanese manufacturers for the loyalties of most saxophonists and with its past self for the hearts of the best players in the world.

The day after my factory trip, I visited the company’s offices, in an unassuming building in the famous Paris neighborhood of Montmartre. Instruments in display cases lined the entryway; what looked like an unusually large tuba sat next to the office’s second-floor kitchenette. Last year, after more than a decade of development, Selmer Paris released a new flagship saxophone, the Supreme. I wanted to try it—there weren’t many in the U.S. yet. I also wanted to ask Milhaud about his effort to persuade pros to move on from the Mark VI and adopt the Supreme instead.

Milhaud, a compact man in a white linen shirt, partway unbuttoned, took me to a soundproof practice room and handed me a tenor. “Supreme tenor, meet Chris,” he said. Then he smirked. “It’s no Mark VI, though.” I admired the rosy gold lacquer etched with small leaves and floating cubes, then took a few minutes to warm up before I began to move up and down the horn. It had a big sound, with a buzzy low end. I was feeling good that morning.

As I left the practice room, I bumped into Baptiste Herbin, a virtuosic French alto player who had come by the office to test prototype mouthpieces. Herbin plays with outrageous speed and precision. (When Kenny G was in Paris, he sought out Herbin to jam.) Herbin often plays the Supreme, and I asked him how he’d been persuaded to switch. He hadn’t been, he said—not exactly. One day, a few years ago, he left his studio with two horns: his Mark VI and a modern Selmer, the Reference 54. He was taking them on vacation. When he went to call a taxi, he put the horns down on the curb. When he looked back at the sidewalk, the old horn was gone.

I didn’t play a Mark VI in Paris. I went home to Chicago, where I drove to a woodwind-repair shop tucked into a tight space next to the El tracks. PM Woodwinds has scuffed wood floors and shelves full of horns fresh off the work bench. It’s where you get your tools fixed. It’s been run for thirty years by Paul Maslin, a big man with muscular hands that look like they can get around a horn. We sat down in two fuzzy blue armchairs in the middle of a narrow hallway and talked about saxophones. An old analog clock on the wall had a message on its face: “You’ll play better with a Selmer.”

Maslin is a technician at heart, and he didn’t have much patience for questions about magic or ghosts. Still, he believes there is something special about the Mark VI, and that there is no finding it again. “People keep trying to re-create something that you can’t re-create,” he told me. “I always say: You can’t re-create a time period.”

I asked if I could play some old horns, including a Mark VI or two. It took a few moments for him to find some; there are usually more in the shop, he said, but they had been flying off the shelves. Selling or working on old Selmers makes up probably about a quarter of Maslin’s business, he said.

He brought out three altos, including a very late Mark VI, with a serial number in the two-hundred-and-forty-thousand range, among the last ever made. There was also a middle-serial Mark VI, which gleamed. Maslin assured me it hadn’t been relacquered. I had to play that one first: if there was any magic, this is where it would be. I picked it up and pressed the keys, put air through the horn. And it spoke, clearly, in round, comforting tones. It sounded like me. On that day, it felt more like a blessing than a curse.

Maybe some of the magic of the Mark VI is the belief that players bring to it. As I was chasing ghosts, I kept thinking of a player I first heard a little more than a decade ago, when he was still a teen-ager. I was watching the finals of the Essentially Ellington festival—think March Madness for high-school big bands—and Patrick Bartley began to play. He’s a killer straight-ahead saxophonist, able to channel the sounds of different eras with ease. He went on to found an American group dedicated to Japanese pop music, the J-Music Ensemble, and now lives in Tokyo, where the saxophone may be more popular than it is anywhere else in the world. (As of ten years ago, Selmer’s Japanese market was six times the size of its American one.)

Online, Bartley’s fans strain to parse his setup. Is that alto a purple-label Yamaha? What year is it from? But Bartley has always been indifferent about gear. “The saxophone just helps you play music,” he told me. “It’s more in the player than the horn.” He used to play a Yamaha YAS-62. Now he plays a JL Woodwinds saxophone, assembled in John Leadbetter’s Manhattan shop. He’s never owned a Mark VI. He’s not torn up about it.

I wanted to know how he’d avoided the obsession that grips so many others. He told me that, growing up, his family never had the money to buy a professional horn. When he was in grade school, his mom rented him student-model saxophones. Then Wynton Marsalis heard him play, and told his mother that her son had something special. She bought a Yamaha YAS-23 on a payment plan: thirty-five dollars a month for four and a half years. It wasn’t perfect; they couldn’t afford regular repairs. But it was his. Then, as a high-school junior, Bartley was accepted to the Vail Jazz Workshop, a residency program for promising young musicians. That year, it was run by the saxophonist Jeff Clayton.

Clayton played a King Super 20, the same model made famous by Adderley. He saw the students admiring it and let Bartley give it a try. “In return, I gave him my horn,” Bartley recalled. “He puts his mouthpiece on my horn, and he’s really struggling. He’s, like, ‘How do you play this? This horn is unplayable.’ And I was, like, ‘That’s all I got.’ ”

After Bartley returned home, he got a phone call from Clayton, who told him and his mother that the Vail Jazz Foundation had bought him a professional saxophone. It was that Yamaha YAS-62, in like-new condition. Bartley and his mom began to cry. “My playing just transformed overnight,” he told me. “I didn’t even care what it was. I got a horn that can play.” He played it for twelve years. Every time he tried another horn, it felt off. “It wasn’t mine,” he said. “It’s not my horn.”

When he got to the Manhattan School of Music, a few years later, he saw plenty of old Selmers in the hands of his classmates. Once, when his horn was in the shop, he borrowed a Mark VI from one of them. “It was one of them low-serial-number ones or whatever from the sixties,” he told me. “It had this and that. It was a beautiful horn. It looked great and, sure, felt cool. But I went back to my Yamaha and it was like a breath of fresh air.” The sound is how you feel about yourself. ♦


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