Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"I'm A Jazz Musician, Not An Entertainer"

I go out a lot to the various jazz, blues and other music venues in and around New York City to see and hear other vocalists and musicians, and have even worked in a few of them myself.  I also happen to know a lot of musicians, and most of them are working in one way or another, despite the seemingly diminishing gigs in New York City and elsewhere. They keep working by playing as many weddings, bar mitzvahs and other special occasions and events as they can book.  Some are able to do pit work in Broadway shows, others will take whatever gig it takes to keep making money doing what they really love to do.  

For example, a really good friend of mine, a sax player who also doubles on flute and clarinet, which he has to do to get many of these gigs, will take a gig regardless of musical style. His whole approach is, whether he really likes the music or not, he will play it and have fun with it.  He has a wardrobe to fit any occasion.  He's got the suits for the jazz gigs, the leather, chains and other paraphernalia for rock and funk gigs, and when he's onstage, he will play to the audience and entertain them.  He is the one that wins the crowd and has them cheering and out of their seats, dancing and whooping it up.  Why?  Because he entertains, and because he entertains and gets the crowd pumped, the crowd stays, buys more food and drink, has fun, and when it's over the crowd is happy, the club owner happy because he made money, and my friend and the band are happy because they also made some money, made some friends, occasionally get "lucky" and are asked to play again, thereby securing another night they will get paid, and maybe get "lucky" and be asked to play again.  In more than several instances, they were hired for a wedding gig or bar mitzvah or for a different club date by people who were in attendance at one of their gigs.

I also have a few friends who are a very special breed of musician.  They have worked long and hard on their craft, practiced hours a day, learned every scale and chord sequence backwards and forwards and up and down.  They can take any tune in existence and re-harmonize it to the point where you had no idea that was the tune they were playing.  They get gigs in certain venues, occasionally get paid for them, if at all, because you know "it's not about the money", and when they're not playing, they have to work their day jobs like other mere mortals.  Some work in music stores, but most work jobs unrelated to music.  They hate their jobs, even the ones working the music stores, because they want to be out there showing the world all of the musical knowledge and wisdom they have accumulated through all of the years of intense practice and playing.  The thing is, when they play a gig, the only people in attendance are their friends, and a few people who actually like that stuff, whom are very few.  Very often the band outnumbers the audience.  

One of my friends, a brass player was once lamenting this fact to me.  I told him that the all the places I have either played or gone to see other players that were packed were because of one big factor.  We and they entertained the crowd, played music they enjoyed and could have fun with, got them involved in the show, etc.  When a person walks into any venue, if they see that crowd having fun, and hear music that makes them tap their feet and want to dance, they will come in and stay a while. The big name Jazz venues in NYC like Blue Note for example, will have a crowd no matter what, because they will always have big names playing them.  Smaller local venues, many playing in the same areas as the big name clubs need another angle to attract the crowd.  They can't get the big names and charge the big cover charges clubs like the Blue Note Note can and so need a different way to bring in the crowds.  In the West Village in NYC for instance, where several of the world's great jazz clubs are located, there are a few places that have no cover and where bands like my friend's band play regularly.  They are all excellent musicians, but they entertain, play music people recognize, get them involved with call and response routines and finally get them up to dance.  Whenever his band is onstage, they look and act like they're having fun and impart that to the crowd. As a result, the club stays packed from the time the music begins until closing time.  A lot of food and drink sold by the house, a lot in tips for the bartender and waitresses.  Everybody is happy. 

I told my brass playing friend this, and his response was, "I'm a jazz musician, not an entertainer.  I just don't do that shit.  I'm not going to start doing covers of pop tunes for some tourist who doesn't understand real music".  That one really got me.  Real music!  I asked him what the hell is real music?  His response was "music that relates to spirit, to what's inside you, that speaks to you".  So I said "Yeah, but the swing, bop, blues, soul, funk and pop tunes I and my other friends play speak to a lot of people, and when we entertain them and have fun with the music, they love it".  "That's just pandering man.  Anyway, I have fun playing my music".  I said, "Well, to be honest with you, it may be fun for you to play, but it sure isn't fun to listen to", and then left it at that.  

I am not going to tell you or any musician what kind of music you should like or play, that is always a personal choice.  However, don't get the attitude that the world thinks like you do and that they are unenlightened and just don't get your music.  I respect the time and effort you put into playing your music, but really, sometimes it's just musical masturbation, and no one else is interested, because if they were, you would be playing to crowds instead of an empty room, with people occasionally walking out once they've had the chance to pay attention to what you were doing.  Don't complain about not making money as a musician and then berate those who do.  If you want to make money, don't be afraid to take the weddings and bar mitzvahs, and above all, don't be afraid to entertain. Don't think that the players who entertain aren't every bit the musician you purport to be, that they didn't spend as much time and effort honing their skills as you did, maybe even more so.  And in case you need a reminder that great innovative world-class musicians can also be world-class entertainers, here are some examples to remind you.  Happy New Year everyone and I will see you next year.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

To all of my friends, followers and readers, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year, and may 2015 be an even better year for all of you.  I also want to thank all of you for your support in helping my blog reach a wider audience world wide.  What started as just something casual that I enjoyed doing has now become important to me, as I wish to bring together saxophone players from all over the world and those who want to play the saxophone, by providing interesting and reliable information and assistance in choosing the right instrument, accessories, and learning about the history of great instruments and musicians.  For 2015, I will increase my output of articles and cover more of CD reviews, reviews or recommendations for saxophone accessories, and everything related to the saxophone.  Bless you all!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Modern vs. Vintage Saxophones

I've played a lot of saxophones over the years.  From working in music retail, to the many friends I have who play, and the friends I have that repair and service saxophones, and I have had the opportunity to play literally hundreds of saxophones, vintage and modern.  Anyone who follows my blog knows how I feel about the great vintage saxophones, particularly my beloved old Conn 6M, but after having played many modern saxophones, especially horns made in the last 20 years, I have come to different conclusions about whether or not vintage saxophones are better or not from their modern counterparts.  I will also dismantle a few myths about vintage versus modern saxophones and saxophone manufacturing in general.  

First, let's define what makes a vintage saxophone a vintage saxophone.  I've read many different opinions on what makes an old saxophone "vintage", so rather than settle on any one definition, I'll just use my own.  Some use the 20 to 30 year rule for defining vintage.  Well, I won't, because many modern horns are of that age, but I would hardly call them vintage as most of them after all this time are simply the same model with perhaps slight key improvements, cosmetics, perhaps the occasional change of neck, but still basically the same horn 30 years later.  Also, many student and intermediate saxophones are that old and you could hardly call them vintage, though some stores and web sites try to sell them as such, but in reality are nothing more than old, cheap and not so well made horns.  

To me, what makes a saxophone "vintage" is not just its age, but its style, its pedigree so to speak, its use as a professional instrument in its time and whether or not it was at the peak of design, sound and function at the time it was made.  Also, a clear difference in design, bore sizes, keywork, etc., for each model line that preceded it and from the ones that would succeed it.  Let's look at the evolution of design and keywork from Conn and Selmer as examples.

From left to right, we see the evolution of Conn's sax design in 4 models. The New Wonder, a.k.a. Chu Berry, the Transitional, the 6M and the 26M.  The New Wonder had split bell keys, low B on the right side, low Bb on the left.  Note the design of the G# pinky cluster.  The Transitional model starts morphing into the M series, where both bell keys are on the same side, and the underslung octave key is introduced, but still uses the same G# cluster design.  The 6M now has a redesigned left hand G# cluster, and all the way on the right, the 26M, one of the rarer models made between 1935 and 1940 has more elaborate engraving, a choice between the New York neck (pictured) or the underslung octave key neck, and the repositioned G# cluster moved forward to make it more ergonomic.  It also featured the Permajust system, which instead of using felt and cork to adjust key heights which would wear and pack down with frequent use, instead used adjustable screws which could keep the key heights adjusted indefinitely.  A mark of old saxophone design is wire key guards, and notice that the bell key guards are anchored to both the body and bell, and are soldered on so they cannot be removed and which if dropped or hit, would actually cause more widespread damage to the saxophone.  There is also a single piece of wire to brace the bell to the body, also making it susceptible to more damage if hit or dropped.  After this, Conn's designs did not evolve, and over time, the quality of the horns also went down. The same was true of other American manufacturers, and that factor, along with escalating prices for their saxophones (yep, at the time, Selmer saxes were better designed but cheaper to buy), lead to the decline and fall of American saxophone production.  

From left to right, we see the evolution of Selmer's designs, and which are the template that all modern saxophones are drawn from.  We start with the Model 28, and you see the same design elements that were in most saxophones at the time, except they put the bell keys on the same side of the horn a few years ahead of the American makers.  The quantum leap in design begins with the Balanced Action.  Bell keys moved from the left side of the bell to the right, a more ergonomically positioned G# cluster than other horns of the time, A 2 point bell to body brace, making it sturdier and causing less damage if hit or dropped, and could be removed.  Sheet metal key guards instead of wire, giving wider and better protection, and they could also be removed to provide better access to the bell, body and keys when being repaired.  The Super Balanced action adds the Remov-A-Seal from the bow to bell, so the bell can be separated from the body for easier access when repairing any damage to the bow and bell.  It also repositioned the keys in a more radial fashion, rather than straight down like all other saxophones, for a more natural and relaxed position for the hands.  Finally, the Mark VI, which is the most modern design of vintage saxophones and has been the basis of all modern saxophone design.  
 There were changes to the design after the Mark VI, employing a 3 point bell to body brace which makes it a little sturdier and also supposedly helps the horn be more resonant.  Every modern saxophone pretty much will look like this, with sometimes slightly different design elements, like double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys, or a brace to anchor the G# cluster to keep it in adjustment better.  

So are vintage saxophones better than modern ones?  At one time I actually believed they were, because when I played my old Conn against some newer horns, my Conn shined, and it still does.  However, the fact is that modern horns are really better than they ever were.  Better by design, and as far as sound goes, well, if you have a well made sax, and you have the right mouthpiece to suit you, and you practiced and are a good musician, then it will sound just fine but probably play better as far as action and ergonomics go. The fact is, I have played some modern horns that sound every bit as good as my old Conn, but simply play better. 

At this point in time, the technology for building saxophones is available to anyone that cares to build them.  With computer programs, it is far easier to determine correct tone hole placement and heights and key placement.  All factories, whether in France or China, have access to the very same metals and materials as the most famous brands do.  The fact of the matter is, building a saxophone is not really as much of an art as it is a process.  There really are no special skills involved, almost everything is done by machine and the only real art is the engraving.  Whether a saxophone is a great horn or a piece of junk comes down to only two things: quality of materials and the quality control itself.  Is the inspector catching any flaws in the adjustment or alignment of the keys, are there any visible blobs of solder, or has the solder not applied correctly where a key post or guard has fallen off?  Is everything screwed tightly into place?  Has it been test played enough to determine intonation and key action?  If the same materials were used and the quality control was strict, then whether it's made in France, Taiwan, China, Vietnam or Indonesia, or wherever, all things being equal, one saxophone will be as good as another whatever price.  I have played a Chinese made Buffet 400, several Taiwanese made saxes like P. Mauriat, Chateau and the Selmer LaVoix, the Yamaha YAS 480, which is now made in China, and I have to tell you, they all sound as good as my Conn and as good or better than most of the Mark VI's I've played, and the action and ease of playing are definitely better. 

Does this mean you should ditch your vintage horn for a new one?  Absolutely not. If your horn sounds the way you like, if you are fine with its keywork, then stick with it.  One thing about any old instrument, whether made of metal or wood, if it has been played often over a long period of time, the material will achieve a resonance that gives it a more refined tone over time, or at least a tone that is shaped by the player.  However, the same will happen with a new horn after it has been played a while.  That should destroy the myth that old saxophones are inherently better than new saxophones.  Actually, the quality of saxophones, even the cheapest brands, is better than it ever has been, and because of the shift in saxophone production to Asia, has enabled the player to better afford a quality instrument that will sound and play great without breaking the bank.  This is why I can recommend a saxophone from these places. The factories are modern, as is the machinery, and in many cases they are using the same metal and materials as the more well known brands, so then it's just a matter of quality control.  If you buy a Chinese made sax but that is under the umbrella of a famous brand that applies strict quality control, then that saxophone will be as good as anything else out there. For example, the Yamaha YAS 26 student model and the YAS 480 intermediate models are now made in China, but with no loss of quality because of Yamaha's strict standards of quality control.  

Over the last few years, as I played many modern saxophones that were made in Asia, I was really amazed how good they all were, and it made me reexamine my outlook on vintage horns versus modern ones.  Of course, the great old saxophones are still great, as long as they are properly maintained, they just really aren't better in general than modern horns, and definitely not as easy to play.  Anyway, it wouldn't make sense for any reputable maker to make an inferior instrument at any price.  So now, my Conn rests at home, and I pull it out only for playing in my room, or when I play one of those gigs with a band that plays swing music and all the players have instruments that were made in the late 20's through 40's for "authenticity" even though if we used modern instruments, it would still sound the same, it's just for looks, not that the average person who comes to the gigs would know the difference anyway.  For everything else, it's my modern sax, because frankly, it fits my hands better and sounds every bit as good as the old horn with the same set up I use on the other.  

So especially if you are starting out on the saxophone, it is much better to get a good quality modern horn, because of the ease of playing, intonation, and just the fact that it's new and it hasn't been handled or mishandled by someone else before you.  Just like buying a new car with modern designs and safety features compared to an old car with questionable handling and reliability and perhaps a shady history. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Great Saxophonists From The 1920's Through The Swing Era

While I love the jazz from the bop to the post-bop era, and the great saxophonists of that time from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, my very favorite players came out of the swing era.  Of course, many of the players that would later be the foundation of bebop and beyond got their start with many swing era bands and they would eventually take jazz to newer places while the greats of the swing era became the elder statesmen for future generations.

Swing music was the jazz music of its day, and the popular music of its time.  The greatest standards in jazz were written during this era, and the musicians of this period also established the standard in musicianship and in jazz improvisation.  Most of the greats were able to transcend their styles and adapt to the changing music and changing times, while others just kept swinging as they always did without regard to the changing times, because that's just what they did and others just disappeared into obscurity and some sadly passed away before their time. 

What defines swing is that in 4/4 time, the accents of the beat are on 2 and 4, whereas music like polkas, folk, etc., the accents are on 1 and 3.  Swing gives a more relaxing feel to the music, but at full throttle also injects high energy into the listeners ears and to dancers movements.  As Duke Ellington says in one of his most popular compositions "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing".

It started in New Orleans.  In Dixieland music, which has its roots in the Crescent City, the only wind instrument that was in common use was the clarinet, the rest being brass, percussion, acoustic bass and banjo. The saxophone was never included in a Dixieland band. Then came Louis Armstrong, who really gets credit for bringing jazz to the world, and the concept of swing that is the basis for jazz.  In Dixieland music, the musicians played what was called collective improvisation, where all the players would be playing their solos at the same time, like in parades at Mardis Gras.  Louis Armstrong introduced the concept of the individual soloist, the concept of swing, and as such, it required a higher level of musicianship from the players, because now they would be up front, not lost in the jumble of sounds from the other players in the band. 

When Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to go to Chicago, then eventually for New York which would become his permanent home (when he wasn't constantly on the road), he established jazz as a legitimate force in music, a music that required as high a level of musicianship as classical music.  A swing band had to be tight and the musicianship precise in order to play the charts, but at the same time the musician had to think literally on their feet because improvisation was also the main component of jazz.  The saxophone became an important part of the big band for several reasons. As a reed instrument, it has a voice-like quality, capable of a wide range of tonal expression and the sax section can act like a string section in an orchestra.  Being made out of brass, it had the power to be heard like the brass instruments.  The keywork made it possible to play fast, smooth and flowing lines, making it a perfect instrument for improvisation.  The configuration of the modern big band sax section can be attributed to Benny Carter, who wrote the first arrangement for 2 altos, two tenors and 1 baritone when he was with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1928 and which became the standard configuration for reed sections since.

The swing era saw many of the greatest saxophone players of all-time come into prominence, and they were the parents and grandparents of what would become modern jazz, because I don't care what style of music you play, if you play the saxophone, you owe a lot to these players.

Sidney Bechet

The jazz saxophone really did start in New Orleans.  At the same time Louis Armstrong was introducing his innovations to jazz, Sidney Bechet was playing the first jazz saxophone, which was the soprano.  It makes sense, since until that time clarinet was the only reed instrument in the Dixieland bands and Bechet was originally a clarinet player.  He made the switch to soprano saxophone since it was so much like a clarinet,  and the saxophone made its entry into jazz. Later on Bechet would move to Boston, and took on a young protege by the name of Johnny Hodges.  Later, Bechet would live in France where he was lionized, and there is a statue of him erected in Paris, as well as in New Orleans. 
Sidney Bechet
 Here is Sidney Bechet in a live performance

Frankie Trumbauer

When Louis Armstrong came to Chicago he influenced musicians of all races.  During the 20's, there would be a couple of white musicians that would put their own stamp on jazz and influence players of all races.  They were Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist, and his sidekick Frankie Trumbauer, who was the only saxophonist to make his mark on the C Melody saxophone.  For the uninitiated, most saxophones are pitched in Eb or Bb like most other wind and brass instruments, some have been pitched in F at one point, which means they are transposing instruments.  If you were a sax player reading off a piano chart, you would have to transpose in order to play it in key.  The C Melody allowed the player to read directly off piano or guitar sheets without transposing.  In pitch, it falls between the alto and tenor, and if it had a straight neck, looked like a large alto, curved neck like a small tenor.  The C Melody was eventually discontinued around 1931 as a regular production saxophone, and could only be obtained thereafter as a special order. 

Frankie Trumbauer possessed a high level of musicianship, and his facility was well known.  He was cited as an influence by Benny Carter and Lester "Pres" Young, both who started on the C Melody before taking up the horns they would become more famous for.  Lester Young even said that his softer tone on the tenor was attributed to getting that C Melody sound on his tenor. Frankie Trumbauer was to make many recordings with Bix Beiderbecke, but later retired from music to become a professional aviator.  
Frankie Trumbauer
 Here are two examples of Frankie Trumbauer playing with Bix Beiderbecke.  The first one, "Trumbology" demonstrates his technical agility.  The second one, "Singing The Blues", shows his lyrical side.

Coleman Hawkins

Jazz saxophone as we know it really got started with Coleman Hawkins.  He is the father of the tenor saxophone, and until Lester Young came along, his boisterous sound was the standard for tenor saxophone, and still influences many tenor players to this day, in jazz and rock.  He came into prominence with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, and in the 1930's moved to France where he studied music theory.  When he returned in 1939, he made the landmark recording "Body and Soul", which would redefine jazz and become the precursor to bebop.  Up until that time, players would improvise over the written chord changes.  Coleman Hawkins introduced the concept of improvising new changes over the existing chord patterns, allowing the player to expand his ideas and create newer variations on the melody.   He continued to be an influence and an elder statesman of jazz until his death in 1969. 
Coleman Hawkins
 Here is the classic 1939 recording of "Body and Soul"

Johnny Hodges

Johnny Hodges was one of the three original swing era stylists on the alto saxophone, which was comprised of him, Benny Carter and Willie Smith.  He started on soprano saxophone as a student of Sidney Bechet in his hometown of Boston, then switched to the alto saxophone so as not to be too much like Sidney Bechet.  He moved to New York and achieved prominence as the lead alto with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  Through the years he would leave Ellington to form his own small combos, but would always eventually end up back with Duke until his death in 1970.  Ellington considered Hodges alto as important to the overall sound of the orchestra, and Duke along with Billy Strayhorn composed several pieces to showcase his unique voice.  His sound could be characterized as smooth, very vocal, with a firm blues base. He was the most lyrical of all alto saxophonists, but he could also play a gutsy blues when the occasion called for it.  Charlie Parker called him "the Lily Pons" of the saxophone, referring to a famous opera singer of the period who had a beautiful voice.  John Coltrane also cited Hodges as an influence, and in fact apprenticed under him in one of Hodges small combos when he took a sabbatical from the Ellington Orchestra in the 1950's.  
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges playing "Prelude To A Kiss" with Ellington, which I consider one of the most beautiful ballads ever played on the alto saxophone

Benny Carter

The second of the original swing era stylists, Benny Carter was and is my main influence on the alto saxophone. His career spanned 80 years, from the beginnings of jazz way into the modern era, outliving his contemporaries and many of his musical descendants.  He was the first to arrange for what would be the standard modern saxophone section, and he was as talented on the trumpet as he was on the alto.  He was instrumental (no pun intended) in integrating the musician unions so that not only could black musicians receive the same scale and vie for the same jobs, but also so that musicians of all races could play together without the restrictions that were in place at the time.  He has scored for Hollywood movies and TV shows (M Squad with Lee Marvin), arranged for other bands like Gene Krupa and Count Basie, lead his own big bands that would feature musicians who were later to form the basis of modern jazz, like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, J.J. Johnson, Art Pepper and Kenny Clarke.  Miles Davis has said, "Everyone should listen to Benny Carter.  He is a music education unto himself".  
Benny Carter
This is a film documentary on the life of Benny Carter "Symphony In Riffs" which is also the title of one of his more famous swing era big band compositions.

Willie Smith

The third swing era alto stylist to be included in the "Alto Triumverate" is Willie McLeish Smith.  Willie Smith rose to prominence in the 1930's with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, then would later go on to play with Duke Ellington, replacing Johnny Hodges when Hodges left on one of his sabbaticals to form his own small combos, then with Gene Krupa, playing many of the Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts with Gene's trio, and then playing the remainder of his career with the Harry James Orchestra.  His style could be considered somewhere between Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.  His tone was smooth like Hodges, and his technical facility like Benny Carter.  
Willie Smith
Here is Willie Smith playing Sophisticated Lady with Duke Ellington, also featuring Harry Carney on Bass Clarinet

Harry Carney

Harry Carney was the first real baritone saxophone soloist and came into prominence with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where he was to play for his entire career.  His rich and robust sound was a mainstay in the Duke Ellington sound along with Johnny Hodges.  
Harry Carney
Here is Harry Carney playing "Sophisticated Lady" with Duke Ellington. Note his use of circular breathing to sustain that last note indefinitely.

Lester Young

Lester "Pres" Young was one of the most original stylists on the tenor sax. He represented the antithesis to the big fat Coleman Hawkins influenced sound, playing in a softer almost alto like tone, which made it difficult for him to get gigs early on in his career.  He finally found a home with the Count Basie Orchestra, becoming one of the most influential tenors in jazz.  He also made many legendary recordings with Billie Holiday, and in fact he was the one who dubbed her "Lady Day".  They were the perfect compliment to one another.  His fluid lines, based on the thematic approach as opposed to the chordal approach were the opposite of the Hawkins style, and he influenced future generations of saxophone players in the modern era.  He created the classic jazz cat's style with his own vernacular and his pork pie hat, and that he smoked marijuana regularly.  He was misunderstood much in his life, and that lead to many personal problems. He died in 1959, and Charles Mingus wrote "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat" as a tribute to his memory. 
Lester "Pres" Young
Here is Lester Young playing "Mean To Me".

 Leon "Chu" Berry

Chu Berry's career lasted only 10 years when it was cut short in a tragic car accident in 1941.  At the time of his death, he was becoming as influential a saxophonist as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, and had he lived, would no doubt have occupied the same place in the pantheon of the greats.  He had a big sound and a very advanced harmonic conception for the time. He was and still is a great influence on later generations of tenor players.  He played with Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, and with Cab Calloway until his untimely death.  He played the Conn New Wonder Transitional saxophone which would later unofficially bear his name and has gone by that ever since.
Chu Berry
Chu Berry playing "Body and Soul" in 1938, one year before Coleman Hawkins' landmark recording.  Also featured is Roy Eldridge on trumpet.


Ben Webster

Ben Webster, who was also known as "The Frog" and "The Brute" was one of the most influential tenor saxophonists in jazz.  Though firmly rooted in blues and swing, and not really flexible in other styles, he still remained a strong influence on modern players for his raspy and big sound in uptempo swing numbers, and his breathy, very identifiable sound in ballads.  Ben Webster credited Johnny Hodges as his influence, and in fact, Ben did play in the Ellington Orchestra for three years, his most notable solo featured in "Cottontail".  He played with a virtual Who's Who of jazz greats: Oscar Peterson, Benny Carter, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Ellington, Sid Catlett, Charlie Parker, and the list goes on.  He was an influence on players like Scott Hamilton.  He spent the last ten years of his life in Europe, dying in Denmark, and his ashes are interned in Copenhagen.
Ben Webster
 Here is Ben playing the Billy Strayhorn composition "Chelsea Bridge" in his unique ballad style

Jimmy Dorsey

Jimmy Dorsey was actually a more influential alto saxophonist than is generally known.  Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley have cited him as one of their influences.  Jimmy played early in his career with Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer.  later, he formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra with his brother famed trombonist Tommy, but their differences lead to the breakup of the band and they went their separate ways until they rejoined briefly in the 50's until Tommy's death in 1956.  Jimmy died 8 months later in 1957. He had a tremendous technical facility, playing songs at incredible speed when he wanted.  His two showpieces, "Oodles Of Noodles" and "Beebe" show his agility on the alto.  He also played the clarinet. 
Jimmy Dorsey
Here is Jimmy playing his two showpieces.  First "Beebe" followed by "Oodles Of Noodles"

 Herschel Evans

For three years, Herschel Evans sat next to Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra, playing some of the most memorable duets in any big band.  Their contrasting styles worked perfectly together, as in "One '0' Clock Jump".  Herschel was a big influence on Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate.  He also played with Harry James, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson.  He died of heart disease at the young age of only 29.  
Herschel Evans
This is the Count Basie Orchestra with Herschel Evan taking the tenor solo on "Basie's Boogie". 

Illinois Jacquet

Illinois Jacquet can be considered the first of the "Texas Tenors", a style characterized by liberal use of the upper and lower registers, big sound, lots of honking and squealing, and which would influence the sound of R&B and Rock saxophone styles.  He came into prominence with the Lionel Hampton band with "Flying Home".  
Illinois Jacquet
Here is an excerpt from "Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story

Arnett Cobb

Another "Texas Tenor", Cobb was also known as the "Wildman Of The Tenor" because of his raucous style. He played in Lionel Hampton's Band after Illinois Jacquet, and was also an influence on later R&B and Rock saxophonists.  He died in 1989.
Arnett Cobb
Here is Arnett Cobb playing in a more relaxed manner, but still with a big sound, almost sounding a little like Ben Webster

Pete Brown

Pete Brown doesn't get a lot of mention but I think it's time.  He was an alto saxophonist, and had a light, airy sound that was the main influence of Paul Desmond.  It was said that Paul could play every Pete Brown solo from his head.  He played with Willie "The Lion" Smith, Buster Bailey, Sammy Price, Coleman Hawkins, and made his last appearance with Dizzy Gillespie in 1963 shortly before his death. 
Pete Brown
You can definitely hear Pete Brown's influence on Paul Desmond with his version of "Moonlight In Vermont"

Bud Freeman

Bud Freeman began his musical career with the "Austin High Gang" in Chicago in the 1920's.  Later he would play with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman before forming his own band.  Later he was a regular fixture at Eddie Condon's Club on W. 52nd Street.  He died in his hometown of Chicago in 1991.
Bud Freeman
 Here is Bud Freeman performing at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1985

Louis Jordan

Louis Jordan achieved his greatest popularity from the 1930's until the 1950's and was known as "King Of The Jukebox" and was the most popular bandleader after Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He was a consummate showman as well as an excellent musician, and composed many classics of swing and early R&B, most notably "Caldonia" which was later covered in a more modern arrangement by Woody Herman. His style of energetic swing and blues influenced the sound of early rock 'n' roll music, especially with his use of the electric guitar and organ.  His main sax was alto, but he played tenor as well, and was a great performer with a comedic flair.  He died in 1975.  
Louis Jordan
 Here is Louis Jordan with perhaps his most famous number, "Caldonia"

Marshal Royal

Marshal Royal has played with Lionel Hampton, and for 19 years was lead alto and music director of the Count Basie Orchestra until 1970.  He also played with Duke Ellington and Earl "Fatha" Hines. In 1989 he took the lead chair in Frank Wess' Big Band until his death in 1995.
Marshal Royal
Here is Marshal Royal with the Count Basie Orchestra playing "Lonely Street".

There are other great players that I left out, like Bud Johnson, Buddy Tate, Tab Smith, Earl Bostic, Lucky Thompson, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, all worth checking out, but these are among my favorites of the period and players that really set the standard for jazz saxophone and later styles as well.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Intermediately Priced Pro Saxophones For The Working Saxophonist On A Budget (or the serious student)

Most of the working saxophone players I know, as well as other musicians, are not stars or in bands headlining in some of the most prestigious clubs and concert venues in the country or touring the world playing in front of thousands.  Most working musicians I know have to do every kind of gig, from studio work to bars, small clubs, VFW halls, weddings and bar mitzvahs, store grand openings, etc., as well as teach in order to make ends meet.  In many cases, in order to work those increasingly hard to get gigs or to do studio work, they have to be doublers, meaning playing more than one type of saxophone as well as flute and clarinet, or some other instrument.

With the price of saxophones skyrocketing, it's getting more and more difficult to find professional level instruments that are affordable.  The price for a Selmer Paris alto for example exceeds 6 grand, the tenors 7 to 10 grand and the baris at 10 grand plus, and I'm talking discounted prices if you can get them. Top of the line Keilwerth, Yanigasawa and Yamaha saxophones are not far behind, and in fact Yanigasawa 992 series is even pricier, I saw their altos at 8 grand and tenors at 10 to 12 grand, and that wasn't list.  All of the working musicians I know do have that one Mark VI or Series II, III or Reference, or maybe their Yamaha Z or EX, their Keilwerth SX90R or Yanigasawa 992 that they keep as their main horn, used only for their favorite gigs, but some of them have to play more than one saxophone in the studio or onstage with a band, or when they play that rowdy bar gig, they're not going to take their precious Mark VI where it may get damaged by some drunken idiot, or stolen. All of my friends who own more than one saxophone do not own all Mark VI's or top of the line new or used ones.  They can't, they just don't have the money.  In order to have a full line of saxophones to get more gigs, they bought intermediate saxophones from well known brands or pro models from lesser known brands that look and have all the features of a pro horn.

For this article, I not only look at saxophones I have tried and liked, but also asked my friends what they were playing and recommended for an intermediately priced pro horn.  I'm discussing only new horns, but there are plenty of used horns out there, and if you can find one in good condition for the right price, then you should by all means buy it.  However, while there may be book value on used saxophones, in general. the price you pay for a used one will greatly vary from one seller to another, and whether it was from a dealer or if it's a private transaction.  So for this article, I am only writing about new saxophones, where the prices are more or less consistent from store to store, and especially with the larger dealers and chain stores.  I will not only discuss the major brands, and other lesser known brands that still make a quality product, but also proprietary brands, which are instruments made for a store or dealer by a factory in Taiwan or China and stamped with the store or dealer's name.  In this case however, the proprietary brands I will discuss are by well known repair techs and dealers who maintain and back up their products.  However these proprietary brands have managed to sell quality pro saxophones at a price that even students can afford.  While the resale value of proprietary brands is next to nothing, they are still good instruments and will serve the musician who doesn't care about name or status quite well.

None of the saxophones in this article are cheap.  The reality is that even the cheapest student saxophones that are worth playing at all go for at least $500 to $700, and that is still on the low end.  If you want quality, you have to pay more, but in the end it's worth it when you have an instrument that will play with you, not against you.  Some of my readers may have already advanced beyond the beginning stage and are now ready for something better than the student horn they were playing.  It is now possible to get a moderately priced pro level horn.  The line is really blurred now between pro and intermediate, and in fact I would go so far as to say that modern intermediate horns that are made by respected brands are really entry level pro horns.  They have the looks and features of pro horns, are well made and solid, and sound good.  So as far as prices go, I looked at saxophones that were 3 grand or below for alto, tenor and soprano, and under $4500 for a baritone.  In some cases, I did not add the tenor or baritone of the same model line because they were above the price criteria I am using as a guideline or I could not obtain appropriate images to show.  The price difference between an alto and a tenor for example can be anywhere from $100 to $800 or more depending on the brand as well as the dealer.  Some brands like Buffet for example have what is called MAP pricing.  This means that no dealer can sell the same instrument below a certain price as established by the manufacturer, so you will often see the same instruments at the same prices regardless of who the dealer is, even one famous for giving big discounts.  All sopranos, altos and tenors shown here are retailed at 3 grand or less, and all baritones are below $4500.  However, there is still a very wide choice of saxophones that are professional grade that fall within these price guidelines, and all quality instruments.


For a long time, Selmer was pretty much the only choice for professional saxophones, and Selmer Bundy II was once the only choice really for a decent student saxophone, and they even marketed the Signet model as an intermediate model, which was no more than a Bundy II with a little better cosmetics, but were soon discontinued.  The Bundy II's and Signets were made in the Selmer USA facility in Elkhart, Indiana, which was once the Buescher factory.  For a while, Selmer USA even made lower cost pro horns like the Omega, and they were decent horns, they just didn't sell very well. Yamaha came along and took over the student market that was once occupied by Bundy II with the YAS and YTS saxophones, which were superior in quality and playability to the Bundy horns.  Eventually they were also able to intrude into Selmer's domination of the pro market starting with the 52, and then the 62, 62II and now the 62III, and extending into their Custom Z and EX saxophones.  This also paved the way for other top grade professional saxophones from Yanigasawa and Keilwerth to enter the market. 

Selmer, realizing that they were losing their once dominant share of the market, revamped their professional line of Paris saxophones, and introduced into the market new lines of student, intermediate and entry level pro horns.  The Prelude series, which is the name they apply to all of their student wind and brass instruments, are made in China, but I always have had issues with their quality control. I rarely have found one that was good right out of the box. A tech really needed to go over them quite a bit to make them play as they should.  Once that was done, they were fine. Not as good as Yamaha or some other brands, but decent.  With new pro saxophones coming out of Taiwan at intermediate prices, Selmer joined the fray with some of their own offerings of horns made in Taiwan.  They also introduced their first true entry level pro saxophone with the AS42 alto and the TS44 tenor, which is a collaboration between Selmer Paris and Selmer USA.  More on that below.

LaVoix II

Selmer introduced the LaVoix series about 10 years ago as an intermediate or entry level pro saxophone.  They are made in Taiwan for Selmer, and they're what you would expect from most horns made there nowadays.  They are available in gold lacquer, black nickel, silver plate and rose brass finishes.  I find these saxes have good projection and spread, a very open sound, but a tad on the bright side, though the tenors have a nice full low end, so I think they would be more suitable for jazz, blues, rock and pop gigs.  

AS42 and TS44
This is the first saxophone made by Selmer that is a collaborative effort between Selmer Paris and Selmer USA.  The body, bell and keywork is made in the Selmer USA facility, and the neck is provided by Selmer Paris.  This is being marketed as an entry level pro horn akin to the Yamaha YAS and YTS 62 saxophones.  Many players may not be aware of just how important the neck is to the saxophone.  In fact, it really is the single most important piece of the saxophone.  It determines how the air passes through the tube, level of resistance, intonation and overall sound quality.  In this case, the neck makes an otherwise intermediate looking horn become a professional sounding horn.  It's actually the single most expensive part of the horn. The look is nothing special on this model. No engraving, and only the Selmer stamp and model number to tell you which model it is.  I find the tone to be somewhere in the middle, not dark and not too bright.  Another horn I think best suited for jazz. blues rock and pop, not so much for classical.  For more information, click on the link below:

P. Mauriat

P. Mauriat has been around for over 10 years now, and has been able to gain entry into a market that was dominated by the Big 4 for a while.  Well known pros like Greg Osby and my friends James Carter and Keyan Williams are endorsers for P. Mauriat, as are many other professionals. They offer what is probably the largest range of quality professional saxophones that are under 3 grand as well as a baritone under $4500.  They are made in Taiwan by Albest, and Alex Hsieh, owner and president is another friend of mine I'm glad to say, and is quite passionate about his product.  If you ever by chance find yourself in Taipei, Taiwan, you must visit the P. Mauriat showroom.  A feast for the eyes and ears.
From left to right we start with the saxophone that made P. Mauriat's reputation and is still its best selling saxophone, along with its tenor equivalent.  The PM67RDK alto and the PM66RDK tenor introduced P. Mauriat into the professional market.  They feature a vintage dark lacquer, abalone key pearls and rolled tone holes that are rolled from the existing metal like old Conn saxophones, not soldered on rings like Keilwerth.  They have a dark but powerful sound, with a clean high end and a full, robust low end.  This remains their flagship model and is still their best seller.  Next is the same model but with a cognac lacquer, which is a very deep gold lacquer. It gives it the appearance of a classic vintage saxophone.  Next is the 86UL. It is an unlacquered horn with a rich dark brown/reddish vintage finish, and looks like a well played and worn classic saxophone.  It is like their System 76 horns, which have flat tone holes and a larger bore than the rolled tone hole models.  Like all Mauriats that I've played, they have a powerful tone with excellent projection.  The last is the LaBravo, which is a no frills basic pro or intermediate horn depending on how you look at it.  It has a brushed gold lacquer finish and a nickel silver neck, which gives it a brighter tone but with a little punch. Great for blues and rock, fusion and pop.  It also comes as a tenor, see below.
Here are two more altos worthy of consideration. The 86SS with satin silver plate, and the 87 brushed nickel silver with gold plated bell.  The soprano is a System 76 one piece with dark lacquer.  P. Mauriat makes a wide range of sopranos from one piece, dual necks, tipped bell and curved sopranos, all coming in a variety of finishes, and all for under 3 grand.  So far, every Mauriat soprano I've played has good intonation, a full sound, not shrill as sopranos can sometimes be.  
Finally is the LaBravo tenor saxophone, and two baritones, the PM301 with gold lacquer, and the LaBravo. There may be other models from P. Mauriat that may fall within the under 3 grand and $4500 price range. For more information click on the link below:


Yamaha was the first Japanese saxophone, as well as the first saxophone in general to begin chipping away at Selmer's dominance of the pro saxophone market  and giving Selmer the first real competition it had in years, with the introduction of their model 52, which evolved into the 62, 62II and now 62III.  The numbers refer to the changes in the neck, as the body is the same, except that they eventually went from the decal logo on the bell of the 52 and early 62's to the stamped logo and more elaborate engraving on the later and current models.  Yamaha was able to break into the market by offering a high quality saxophone with excellent keywork and playability at a price below the Selmer.  They also paved the way for entry into the market for Yanigasawa and Keilwerth, both of which began their entry into the US market by making saxes for other companies under different names.  LeBlanc tried to revive the Martin brand with saxophones made by Yanigasawa, and Keilwerth was introduced under the H. Couf brand.  They were good enough that not soon thereafter, they were marketed under their own brand and with much success.  Later on however, Keilwerth almost went bankrupt, and was eventually purchased by the Buffet group, which has revived the brand a bit.  Anyway, the quality and durability of Yamaha saxophones, from the 23 and 26 series to the 62, Custom Z and EX series have always made them an excellent choice no matter what level you're at.  
 From left to right we start with what is actually marketed as intermediate saxophones. the YAS480 alto and YTS480 tenor saxophones.  They are both no frill horns, minimum engraving, but with all the features of a pro horn.  Excellent build quality and keywork, and I found that tone-wise, they are equal to the 62, so here is a horn that though intermediate is a good entry level pro horn or second horn.  Next is the 62III, the descendant of the original 52 which brought Yamaha into the market and gained the brand the respect that Japanese horns previous to this did not have.  Remember, at one time Japanese saxophones were on the same level as Taiwanese horns once were, and Chinese horns still are.  However, demand for cheaper but still high quality horns changed the market and improved quality of the saxophones made in Asia.  The 62III is Yamaha's entry level pro horn, and in my experience playing many of them, they are on par with any of the best saxophones at any price out there.  Also, Yamaha has a better resale value than some other brands.  All in all, you can't go wrong with this saxophone.  Next to that is the limited edition 62III with dark vintage lacquer and nickel keys.  This falls under the price range established here, yet being a limited edition, has the possibility of being a collector's item and increasing its resale value.  Time will tell.  Below that is the only Yamaha soprano that falls within our price range, the YSS475.  I find it every bit as good as any soprano I've played at any price, good sound, and of course the keywork and intonation.  Why spend more on a soprano when this will do just fine and is built to go the long haul?  For more information click on the link below:


Buffet Crampon began making saxophones before any other manufacturer other than Adolphe Sax himself, producing their first saxophone in 1866, only 20 years after Sax patented the instrument.  The first saxes built by Buffet were licensed by Adolphe Sax, so they were basically Adolphe Sax horns under their brand.  However, after the patent expired, Buffet began making improvements in the keywork, as well as expanding the range of the sax, which until the Selmer Balanced Action, was the standard by which other manufacturers followed.  Their line of top professional horns starting with the Dynaction, Super Dynaction, S1 nd Prestige models rivaled the Selmer Mark VI in ergonomics and sound, but never gained the kind of popularity that Selmer had, and unlike their clarinets have.

In 2009, Buffet unveiled its 400 series saxophones.  Marketed originally as intermediate horns, they had all the features as well as the look, sound and playability of a pro horn and soon were being played by professionals, such as my friends Russel Kirk who plays the gold lacquered alto, and Lauren Sevian, who plays her gold lacquered baritone with the Count Basie Orchestra.  They come as an alto, tenor and baritone and have either a deep gold lacquer finish or vintage matte finish.  The alto and tenor are made in China and the baritone in Taiwan.  Other features are double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys, and elaborate engraving all over the horn from the bell and bow, to the neck and key cups, giving it a classy appearance.  They come in a high quality ProTec like case with backpack straps and a large pocket big enough to carry books and accessories, and the Buffet-Crampon logo embroidered with gold stitching, not only presenting an attractive package, but a quality one.  Anyone who has read my review of the 400 altos knows I am a big fan of this saxophone, because I feel at this price point, it is one of the best horns on the market, fit for any professional looking for a reasonably priced pro saxophone. 
The gold lacquered tenor and baritone fall within the price range established here, but the matte lacquered versions are above this price range, though you may find used ones under that.  However, I would avoid early versions of the tenor, because they had issues with the neck that made them very resistant and stuffy sounding, but that has been resolved with a redesigned neck.  One way to tell is that the early necks had a higher arc or curve than standard tenor necks, which is very noticeable. The altos and baritones however were always good and so if you find a used one in good condition, go for it.  For more information click on the link below:


Chateau saxophones are made by Tenon Corporation of Taiwan, and are fairly new to the marketplace.  However, the two models I actually played were high quality, beautiful looking saxophones that are priced below the saxophones above, at least for the time being.  You can read my review of the the matte copper and nickel silver altos pictured below in a previous article. Tenon also makes saxophones for Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet line which will be discussed below.  Aside from the two I played because my sax tech had them, I haven't found any other stores in the greater New York area that carries them.  If you can find them, give them a try.  They are a hidden treasure in this market. 
From left to right are some of their alto saxes, the first two made of 93% copper for a rich tone, the third of solid nickel, the last with 85% copper with a deep gold lacquer and deluxe engraving.  
The tenors pictured from left to right starts with the tenor version of the dark lacquer alto, a brushed matte lacquer finish, and standard gold lacquer finish, all models with 85% copper.  For more infornation click on the links below:

Other brands that make moderately priced pro saxophones that are worthy of consideration are Antigua Winds, Cannonball and Jupiter.  For more information on these brands and where to buy them, click on the links below:



Proprietary Brands

Proprietary brands are instruments made by a factory, usually in Taiwan or China, that are made for and stamped with the logo of the store or dealer  that sells them.  While the majority of store brands are stock horns made in Chinese factories and mostly second rate, there are a few dealers that have high quality saxophones made to their specifications and represent an excellent value for the pro or semi-pro player on a budget.  The proprietary brands that I will recommend are from dealers who started out as repair technicians, then began customizing necks and mouthpieces or making their own mouthpieces for their pro clients, and expanding their business repairing and selling vintage horns and then developed their own saxophone line and saxophone accessories.  Since they are sold by experienced and well known repair technicians, all the saxophones will have been set up before they are sent out or sold directly to the customer, and they are all backed up with a guarantee by the dealer.  If you go to their shops personally, they will be there to fix or adjust your sax.  Keep in mind that being proprietary brands, they will have a very low if any resale value, but if you're a working pro, or even a student not hung up and name or status, and just need a high quality horn that is also affordable but that you can take to a gig, then these saxophones represent an excellent value.  All the saxophones come with a quality case, and in most instances, the mouthpiece will actually be a better one than the stock mouthpiece provided by some of the name brands.

Phil Barone

A respected repair technician located in New York City, Phil Barone started out by customizing and then creating his own mouthpieces which became popular with many professionals in the city, including Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean to name just two.  He expanded his business by offering a full range of high quality pro level saxophones made in Taiwan and built to his specs from straight to curved sopranos, altos, tenor and baritone with a wide range of finishes and options at very hard to beat prices.  A friend of mine who needs the full saxophone range for his studio gigs has his Honey Gold Lacquer Alto and Vintage Bronze  Tenor models, and I was amazed at their build quality, but even more amazed at how well they played and sounded.  If you're not hung up on resale value and just want an excellent looking, sounding and playing horn, he has one of the best deals you will find anywhere.  He also offers custom necks and mouthpieces.  For more information click on the link below:


Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet

Steve Goodson is a New Orleans based dealer who is the repair tech to the stars, and over the years developed his Saxgourmet line of professional and semi-professional saxophones, which are built by Tenon Corporation, the same company that makes Chateau, as well as a full line of sax accessories, some exclusive to him.  You can learn more by clicking on the link below:


Roberto's Winds (RW Saxophones)

Roberto hails from Italy, and began with a small repair shop in Manhattan.  Roberto has some of the best players in NYC and the world as his clients.  Soon he expanded by opening Michiko Studios, where you can rent a studio for rehearsal, or where some of the top teachers in NYC give their lessons, then expanded his business to selling vintage horns at first, then he developed his own brand of reeds and got exclusives for various sax accessories, and finally to his own line of saxophones.  His saxophones are made to his specs in Taiwan.  He's a nice guy too.  If you go, also stop by and take a lesson from Tim Price, who regularly teaches at Michiko Studios.  For more information click on the link below:


If you're a working pro or just a weekend warrior, or a serious student, these saxophones represent a great value along with high quality.  If you can find a used one in good condition, even so much the better, but I believe you can't go wrong with these horns. 


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Selmer Saxophones: A History Of Excellence and Innovation

I think it almost goes without saying that whenever you mention the saxophone, at some point if not right away, the name Selmer will be the one most associated with it.  Compared with some other manufacturers like Buffet, Conn, Buescher, Martin and the French manufacturer Cuesnon, Selmer appeared rather late in the game, but over the years, due to constant refinement and innovation, managed to outrun the field, until the aforementioned companies with the exception of Buffet stopped all saxophone production.  Today, companies like Keilwerth, Yamaha, Yanigasawa and P. Mauriat are producing saxophones that compete well with Selmer, but they, like all modern saxophones, are based on the Selmer model.

I had the pleasure of meeting the President of Selmer, Jerome Selmer on two occasions.  The first time was in 2001 when the Reference Series was unveiled at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in New York City.  I was playing a Reference 54 alto, and this tall man with a French accent walked up to me smiling, said he was listening to me play and asked how I liked the horn.  I had played a matte lacquer finish horn before that I really didn't care for, but the one I was playing with a deep gold lacquer I liked very much. I told him so. He smiled then handed me his card and it turned out to be Jerome Selmer himself.  He said if I was ever in Paris to please stop by the factory and I could see and play all the saxophones I wanted.  He was very warm and cordial, a classy gentleman, and I never forgot that.

Ten years later, and Selmer is unveiling the final editions of the Reference 54 "Bird" series, of which there were 7 in all, one for every continent and in tribute to Charlie Parker, though the only Selmer I ever saw a photo of him playing was a Jimmy Dorsey model, and I believe according to legend, that Jimmy Dorsey actually gave it to him himself after seeing him play a battered old sax with keys held together with rubber bands and saying "you need this more than I do".   Anyway, the last edition would be with the "Dragonbird" engraving.
They also added this engraving on their Series II and III saxophones.  The unveiling was held at Steinway Hall in New York City, which you can read about from my post on October 25th 2011.  As I made my way down the hall on the second floor where the unveiling was, there stood Jerome Selmer, who smiled as I approached and was personally welcoming me and everyone else that came that day.  He looked exactly the same as when I met him 10 years before, and every bit as warm and cordial, a class act all the way.
Sorry for the fuzziness of the picture, the photographer forgot to use the flash which would have made the image sharper.  Anyway, that day I played a Reference 54, two actually, that I had to honestly say were the best horns I ever played.  I played both the standard deep gold lacquered one and the Dragonbird, and they were awesome.  I have tried out many Selmers over the years, including over 200 Mark VI's, and none of them compared to these two in terms of tone and ease of blowing, intonation and responsive keywork.  It was as if they almost were playing themselves and all I needed to do was put my hands on the keys, my lips on the mouthpiece, and just breathe naturally.  The other thing was that it played exactly the way I like to sound, the way I always hear myself.  At the same time, other players trying the same sax sounded different from me according to their styles.  Of course, it usually is that way, but what I mean is that the saxophone showed that it was capable of a wide range of expression.  In a previous review I had played a dozen Reference 54's and had the same feeling about them.  Excellent saxophones, but they just didn't make me go "Wow!".  Well, these two horns did make me go "WOW!" and then some, and when I tried all the other saxes that day, I was impressed with all of them.  There was a consistency to the product I didn't hear before. Not that they were all generic sounding, oh no, just that there were no duds in the whole bunch, at least not to my ears.

I told Jerome Selmer about my feelings of the earlier models as well as how awesome I thought the latest editions were and I asked him what was being done differently, because I knew they had to be doing something.  He gave me some interesting insights.  He told me that all of the earlier models were not just handmade, but the craftsmen and women never actually worked from a blueprint or prototype.  The craftsmen themselves often changed little things as the horn went along.  This is why you can find such a great discrepancy from one horn to the next in the same model range.  Now they were using computer modeling, and more modern factory technology. There was actually less hand hammering of bells and body because the workers were developing severe carpal tunnel and other injuries to their wrists.  They were doing far more machining than they ever did, and yet the horns I played were more consistent and the tone of every one of them was pure and resonant.  I guess I can now throw away the old romantic image of the craftsman painstakingly hammering a bell hundreds of times, putting every piece together by hand, like an artist producing an image on canvas or a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone and coming up with a work of art that contains the soul of the artist.  It seems that modern technology can produce a better instrument, and one that can still be expressive, or more so than its older counterparts.  It takes the player to inject soul into it.   

It seems Selmer has poised itself once again to stay at the top of the saxophone world.  If they can continue to produce saxophones like they do, and continue their tradition and history of innovation, they no doubt will.


Chronological History of Selmer and Selmer Saxophone Models


  • 1885 : Creation of the Selmer Paris company: Henri Selmer begins manufacturing reeds and mouthpieces.
  • From 1898, with the help, Henri Selmer starts manufacturing clarinets and settles his workshop at 4, place Dancourt, Paris. The same year his younger brother, Alexandre (b. 1864), joins the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a clarinetist, remaining until 1901. 1900-1999


    • 1900 : Henri wins his first Bronze Medal in the Paris Exhibition.
    • 1904 : The Selmer Paris clarinets are presented for the first time at the International Saint Louis Fair (USA), where Henri wins a Gold Medal. At this period, Alexandre Selmer, Henri's brother, has been first clarinetist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for two years. From 1903, he plays the clarinets his brother is manufacturing in France. This will strongly contribute to the development of their sales in the US.
    • 1905 : Paul Lefèvre and his son Henri, who had been working for Maison Robert (a clarinet manufacturer), join Henri Selmer's team. Henri takes over the Barbier Company (a flute manufacturer, rue du faubourg Saint Denis, in Paris). The following year, Alexandre officially establishes himself in New York USA, where he starts selling the Selmer Paris clarinets. This first structure will later become the H&A Selmer (USA) company.
    • 1909 : Alexandre Selmer joins the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as first clarinetist. There, he has the opportunity to play under the conductor Gustav Mahler.
    • 1910 : Maurice Lefèvre, Paul Lefèvre’s second son, joins the Selmer Paris team. Alexandre, after having opened his first shop in the United States, decides to return to France, entrusting the management to one of his students, George Bundy.
    • 1919 : Opening of a new factory in Mantes whose technical direction is headed by Maurice and Henri Lefèvre, both son-in-laws of Henri Selmer. Other saxophone manufacturers, like Dolnet and Evette-Scheaffer, are already established in this city.
    • 1922 : 31 December 1922, the first Selmer saxophone is finished : a “Series 22” alto. The “Series” 22 makes way for the “Model 22”. The whole family is offered, including the “C Melody” tenor saxophone. Selmer then counts 50 instrument makers who manufacture 30 saxophones per month.
    • 1923-24 : Extension of Mantes factory. Three new workshops are constructed: one for reeds, two for saxophones. The workshop at Place Dancourt is reserved for welcoming musicians.
    • 1926 : A new logotype "Henri Selmer Paris" is adopted : the laurel wreath replaces the lyre. Engraved on all Selmer Paris instruments, this original logo is still used today as the seal of authenticity for the original "Henri Selmer Paris". Saxophone “Model 26” comes out. Around 136 workmen work at Selmer.
    • 1927 : Metal clarinet comes out. Grand prize at the International Exhibition of Geneva, for the production as a whole. George Bundy buys the store from the Selmers, changing the name to H. & A. Selmer, Inc. There was no remaining financial connection between the Selmers, in Paris, and Selmer in America. Bundy was appointed the sole distributor for Selmer Paris instruments in the United States.
    • 1928 : Creation of the company "H.Selmer & Co", in S.A.R.L. form. “Model 28” comes out. Creation of Selmer–Canada.
    • 1929 : Purchase of the Adolphe Sax workshops: Selmer Paris becomes sole legatee of the saxophone concept. Creation of Selmer-London. Presentation of a special model of saxophone (no. 9909) with 12 amethysts for the Barcelona International Exposition.
    • 1930 : Manpower rises to 175 people who manufacture 300 instruments per month. Release of the saxophone “Cigar Cutter”. Grand Prize at the Exhibition of Liege.
    • 1931 : Acquisition of “Millereau”, a brass manufacturer.
    • 1932 : Selmer branches out into guitar manufacture in partnership with stringed-instrument maker Mario Maccaferri. They run a workshop where the "Selmer - Maccaferri", guitars are made that were immortalized by Django Reinhardt.[3]
    • 1933 : Release of the "Armstrong" trumpet model later known as "Balanced", and of the model Harry James.
    • 1934 : release of the "Radio Improved" saxophone.
    • 1936 : Selmer Paris revolutionizes the saxophone with a new model which will be called “Balanced Action”. France encounters social troubles and the factory is occupied.
    • 1941 : Disappearance of Henri Selmer. Maurice Selmer becomes president of the Selmer company. Release of Saxophone N° 30 000.
    • 1946 : By the end of the war, manpower had fallen to 80 people, but from 1946 the production went up to 250 instruments per month.
    • 1948 : Release of the "Super Action" saxophone
    • 1950 : The production rises to 650 instruments per month.
    • 1951 : Release of the Soloist mouthpiece.
    • 1952 : Production of the Selmer-Maccaferri guitars is stopped. In United States, a new promotional campaign accompanies the release of the Super Action.
    • 1953 : Death of Alexandre Selmer. Jacques Selmer, youngest son of Maurice selmer, incorporates the company. The third generation of Selmers, Jean, George and Jacques, are in place.
    • 1954 : An exceptional season, with the release of three legendary models: “Mark VI” range of saxophones, developed with Marcel Mule, the “Centered Tone” B-flat clarinet, and the “K-modified” trumpet. The same year, Selmer also starts to market the “Clavioline” (Constant Martin).
    • 1958 : Transformation of the company from S.A.R.L. to a Public company. 370 employees manufacture 1000 instruments per month.
    • 1960 : Release of the B-flat and A clarinets model “Series 9” and “Series 9*”
    • 1961 : Henri Lefèvre is named President.
    • 1962 : Release of the "Deville" brand for brass. The "Bolero" and "Largo" trombone models, developed with Gabriel Masson, are also put on the market the same year. Saxophone n° 100 000 is produced (June 28, 1962).
    • 1963 : Exclusive distribution rights obtained in France for "Vincent Bach" (U.S.A.) brass.
    • 1964 : Release of a microphone especially intended for the amplification of woodwinds (saxophone, clarinet and flute)
    • 1965 : Installation of a new head office, rue de la Fontaine au Roi in Paris' 11th district. Selmer Paris takes over exclusive distribution of "Premier Percussion" instruments in France.
    • 1966 : Production of Series 10, alongside series 9 and 9* clarinets
    • 1968 : Death of Henri Lefèvre. Georges Selmer is named President. Release of the trumpet model “Radial 2”.
    • 1971 : Release of the clarinets B-flat and A “Series 10” model in the USA
    • 1974 : Release of the "Mark VII" saxophone model developed with the assistance of Michel Nouaux, and ending of the “Mark VI” production.
    • 1975 : Release of the Marchi system clarinets, in collaboration of Joseph Marchi.
    • 1977 : Release of the clarinet model "10S" and the trumpet “Series700”. Brigitte Selmer, daughter of George Selmer, enters the company the following year.
    • 1981 : Release of the "Super Action" model. The Myrha street factory is closed and brass manufacturing transferred to Mantes. The following year, Jerome Selmer, son of Jacques, starts at the company.
    • 1983 : In collaboration with the instrument maker Ernest Ferron, Selmer launches Variospec, an impedance variator.
    • 1984 : Release of the "Recital" clarinet, developed with the assistance of Guy Dangain.
    • 1986 : Launch of the alto and tenor “Super Action 80 Series II” saxophones
    • 1990 : Release of the "Series 1100" and "Series 1200" tenor trombones.
    • 1993 : Launch of the B-flat clarinet “Prologue” and “10S II”. The "Super Action 80 Series III" soprano is presented at the 10th International Saxophone Congress in Pesaro, Italy. Saxophone n° 500 000 comes out of the Selmer Paris workshops on July 19, 1993: it is a "Super Action Series II" alto saxophone, gold plated and engraved. Bill Clinton and his Selmer Paris saxophone enter the White House.
    • 1994 : The bass clarinets evolves: the models “23/II” and “25/II” replace the “23” and “25”.
    • 1995 : Release of the B-flat trumpet, “Chorus/80 J” model. The “Series III” Soprano replaces the “SA 80/Series III”.
    • 1997 : Release of the “Series III” tenor saxophone.
    • 1998 : After Georges and Jacques Selmer's retirement, the baton is passed to the fourth generation: Patrick Selmer as president; Brigitte Dupont-Selmer as vice-president; Jérôme Selmer as general manager. Opening of the new factory (+3,000 m²): the Mantes production site now extends over a 20,000 m² area. Release of the "Signature" clarinet, developed with Jacques Di Donato.
    • 1999 : Release of the "Series III" alto saxophone. Presentation of the “53 M” bassoon, developed with Philippe Hanon. Launch of the Super Session Soprano mouthpieces and the CP100 clarinet mouthpieces.

    2000 to the present

    • 2000 : A limited edition available in three instruments for the year 2000: the Signature clarinet (gold plated), the Series III Alto saxophone and the Chorus 80 J trumpet (sandblast silver-plated).
    • 2001 : Release of the "Reference" tenor saxophones and the "Concept" trumpet and flügelhorn
    • 2002 : Two new models round out the range of clarinets in B-flat and A : the "Odyssee" and the "Artys". New editions of the “Soloist” mouthpieces are released.
    • 2003 : Release of the "Reference" alto saxophone. Launch of the "Pro-Line" range of military band instruments.
    • 2004 : 1904-2004 : a hundred years of Selmer clarinets. Release of a special edition anniversary model: the "Saint Louis" clarinet. Release of the "Privilege" bass clarinet. Opening of the showroom and concert hall at the head office, rue de la Fontaine au Roi. Revival of the Selmer Editions.
    • 2005 : Selmer holds its third "Selmer & Friends" concert at the Olympia music hall to celebrate its 120th anniversary.
    • 2006 : Release of the clarinet "Arthea" model.
    • 2007 : Release of the trumpet "Sigma" model.
    • 2008 : Release of the baritone “Series III” and clarinets B-flat and A "Privilege".
    • 2010 : Selmer Paris celebrates its 125th birthday with a new look saxophone: new lacquer, new engraving, new octave key. Release of the mouthpieces “SD20” and “Spirit”.

    Selmer Saxophones Over The Years

    The first Selmer saxophone was the Modele 22, produced in 1922.  It was a fairly unremarkable horn, and in that time, professionals still preferred saxophones made by Conn, Buescher, Martin and to a lesser extant, Cuesnon.  The one feature that made it different from other saxophones at the time was that the bell keys were located on one side of the bell, whereas other saxophones of the period still employed split bell keys, meaning B and Bb were opposite one another on the bell.
     Selmer Modele 22

    Modele 26 and 28

    The Modele 26 had improved keywork over its predecessor, and the Modele 28 is really the same saxophone, except it was made after Selmer acquired the original Adolphe Sax factory in 1928.
    Modele 26

    Modele 28

    Around the same time they bought the Adolphe Sax factory, they made limited editions of "Adolphe Sax" horns that used the bodies of original Sax instruments with Selmer keywork.  The engraving was similar to Adolphe Sax horns. About 1300 of these were made, but I have never seen one nor can I find a picture of it other than this.

    Also in this time period they produced Modele 28's that were designated as "New Large Bore' because obviously the bore of the saxophone was larger than the other models.  Other than that, keywork and design was the same.

    Super Series

    Starting around 1931 Selmer launched the Super Series, which included the legendary "Cigar Cutter". so named because the octave mechanism resembled one, and was the name designated to the first 2000 or so saxophones produced in the Super Series line.  
    Next came the "Supers" which utilized the rocker type of octave mechanism that has since become the most copied style of all octave mechanism designs.  This was followed by the "Radio Improved" which featured slightly improved keywork and a redesigned G# cluster and neck.  Another interesting feature is the teakettle octave vent. 
    Note the tea kettle octave vent

    The Jimmy Dorsey Model

    The Jimmy Dorsey Model was actually released during the middle of the Balanced Action run in 1938, but used the same body and keywork of the Super Series, but with a Balanced Action Sheet bell key guard placed over the wire key guard.  They were available only as an alto and tenor, and are among Selmer's rarest horns, only about 200 having been produced.  
    Here is Jimmy playing his tune Beebe on this saxophone

    The Balanced Action

     Introduced in 1936  the Balanced Action represented a significant change in the design and manufacturing of saxophones.  In 1935 Conn had introduced a more ergonomic keywork with their 26M and 30M "Connqueror" saxophones, but the Balanced Action was basically a quantum leap of saxophone design.  Selmer streamlined the feel of the action by placing the bell keys all on the right side of the bell. The responsive action of the lower spatula was achieved by placing the rods down the front of the body instead of the side, a radical and innovative design. This was accomplished by a 14 degree turn of the bell-bow assembly and the neck. This allows for the newly designed bell-key and G# key spatula to direct the left little finger in a natural, closing motion rather than pushing "sideways". As a result, less exertion is needed to close the low B and Bb, and the key action is more direct and solid. Previous models in the 1930's had the bell keys all on the left side, a design continued by the American manufacturers except King, starting with their Zephyr model and continuing to the King Super 20, though their keywork was not quite as refined as the Selmer.  The early Balanced Actions still have the bell to bow rings soldered to the body. The "Remova-a-Bell" seal was first introduced with the Super Balanced Action saxophones.  The other difference that should be noted between a Balanced Action and Super Balanced Action is that the B and Bb key guards are separate on the Balanced Action, and one piece on the Super Balanced Action.

    Super Balanced Action

    The Super Balanced Action was introduced in 1946 and featured slightly changed neck and bore proportions, refined ergonomics, the "Remov-a-Bell" seal which made it easier for repairmen to have access to the bell in order to fix and remove dents and other damage to the bell.  The tone holes were also offset in a more radial fashion, whereas earlier BA's were more or less in a straight line, like other saxophones.

    The Padless

    The Padless was introduced in 1938 and made in the US at the Buescher factory, which was assembling Selmer saxophones that came into the US.  Buescher was later bought by Selmer.  The padless was a revolutionary design, using rubber "O" rings instead of pads to seal the tone holes.  However, the design was never popular and never took off.  This is the second rarest model after the Jimmy Dorsey sax.  Less than 2000 were made and it was discontinued after 6 months of production. You can see in the photos that although produced at the time of the Balanced Action, the design is more like a Buescher of the period including its G# cluster, bell keys on the left side with wire key guard of the Super Series. 

    The Mark VI

    Unarguably the most famous and sought after saxophone in history, and arguably the best saxophone ever made. Introduced in 1954 and finishing its run in 1972, a span of 20 years, it didn't take much time for all the other saxophone manufacturers and models to slowly fall by the wayside.  The Mark VI may be responsible for or at least be a large factor in the demise of saxophone manufacturing in America.  There are other reasons of course, but by this time, the design and keywork was leaps and bounds above other makers. Some will say the best sounding too, but I don't agree there.  I have played over 200 mark VI's, all in proper working order, and have found lots of inconsistencies in the sound, using the same set up I always use.  That's as it should be considering the horn was hand made, and anyway, tone is subjective, and also considering what Jerome Selmer told me about how they did not work from blueprints or models, and tweaked things as they went along without a definite line of demarcation from one horn to another.  However, there probably are very few saxophone greats who have never played a Mark VI at one point or another.  

    The mystique of the Mark VI is so great that many younger players, when they achieve a high level of playing and also have the bucks to afford one, immediately go looking for a Mark VI, like the Knights looking for the Holy Grail.  All I can say is, if you find one and it is the right saxophone for you, if it sings for you the way you want it to, then by all means get it.  However, if you believe that having a Mark VI will magically make you a better player, you need to go back to school.  The best Mark VI will still sound like shit if you cannot play it, pure and simple. That also goes for any saxophone.  Jerome Selmer also told me that while he appreciates the place the Mark VI has in its history, he still feels that the newer Selmer saxophones are better because of improved technology.  He also said that the same people who are alive or who apprenticed during the Mark VI's production are still building Selmer saxophones today. "What do they think? That we killed off all the workers after we stopped making the Mark VI?"  He also dispelled as a myth that models with the 5 digit serial numbers were better than others, or even that any particular serial number was better than another.  Regardless, the Mark VI has rightfully earned its reputation as one of the great saxophones ever made.
    The Mark VI was also made for a brief period with a low A option like you find on modern Baritone saxes.  I only know one player who has one. Note the extra key under the thumb rest like a Bari, and the extra key and longer bell to accommodate the low A. 

     The Mark VII

    The Mark VII can be considered the Edsel of the saxophone world. It was barely on the market before it was being vilified by those who felt the Mark VI was the greatest saxophone of all time. The Mark VII was introduced in 1974, and the question was asked by many was "WHY?"  According to Jerome Selmer, they simply felt it was time to move on, just like they had done previously in their history as they evolved their designs. Furthermore, the Mark VII was never intended to be another Mark VI, though they did try to market it that way in the beginning.  The fact that it never caught on does not make it a bad saxophone, it just isn't a Mark VI, and that is really what caused it's failure in the market.  One innovation was that it featured the altissimo F# key as standard, where before you had to order it as an option. 

    Some of the earlier Mark VII's used Mark VI bodies with the new VII keywork put on them.  However, the big difference that can be felt is that the G# cluster is wider and the horn has a heavier feel and darker sound in general.  However, they are not bad horns at all, they are just not Mark VI's, and you can find them out there at a decent price compared to other Selmers.  Like I said, they are good saxophones, just don't expect a Mark VI and you'll be okay.

     Super Action 80 and SS Series II and III

    By 1980, because of the failure of the Mark VII, Selmer realized they had to turn things around.  During the reign of the Mark VI, Selmer was king, the Mark VI completely dominating the professional saxophone market.  By 1980, their sales were way down and they faced stiff competition from Yamaha and Yanigasawa which made excellent copies of the Mark VI but were cheaper to buy.  Also Keilwerth got into the market by first producing the H. Couf line.  The downturn in Selmer sales and the Mark VII also created the market for used Mark VI saxophones which persists to this day.  No longer the dominant maker on the scene Selmer began its slow climb back up with the Super Action 80, Series I.  It was certainly an improvement over the Mark VII, and the soprano with two detachable necks was first introduced with this line.  In 1986 the Series II was introduced, which was just the SS80 with improved keywork and more "VI like".  The Series III which runs concurrently with the Series II has a larger bore and neck dimensions, with a more open sound suitable for jazz players, whereas the Series II has a more focused sound more suitable for classical players.  The newest models have other modifications, most notable but unnoticeable by any player are the slightly repositioned and raised tone holes.  Jerome Selmer said that with modern computer technology, they were able to determine the exact position and height of the tone holes for the best intonation and projection. Judging by what I played during Selmer Week at Steinway Hall in 2011, I may be inclined to agree that it makes a difference. 
     Reference 54 and 36

    In 2001, Selmer introduced the Reference 54 and 36 series.  The idea was to bring back the spirit of the Mark VI and also the Balanced Action saxophones.  What Selmer did was to literally reference the best Mark VI alto and tenor they could find, as well as a Balanced Action tenor, and with the aid of modern computer technology, analyze the makeup of the brass, the zinc to copper ratio, as well as the bore size and neck dimensions, and then make it the same way, but using more modern keywork and placement of the tone holes. The only reference in the keywork to the original is a round pearl for the side F# as well as one for the high front F, instead of the teardrop shape key used on modern saxes. Reference 54 of course refers to the first year the Mark VI was introduced, and Reference 36 refers to the first year the Balanced Action was introduced.  The reference 54 is available in alto and tenor only, and the Reference 36 only in tenor. 

    Did they succeed in recreating the Mark VI? Yes and no. The early Reference 54's I played were beautiful looking, solidly made horns that did not impress me sound-wise.  I mean, they sounded good, but they didn't sound better than my old Conn though I would concede much better keywork, or sound better than many other new and vintage horns that I had tried out.  Of course, I felt that way about the Mark VI too. I played some real good sounding ones, and others I thought sounded shrill or flat.  Regardless of what Mark VI affecianados say, while the core sound may have been dark, I never found it consistent from one horn to another.  Mostly good yes, but still not consistent.  However, while less than impressed with the early References, the least I could say was that they were consistent in tone.  

    In 2011 when Selmer unveiled the Dragonbird series, my opinion was quite different after playing the newest edition References.  They were consistent, yet each one still had its own characteristics, but they all had a clean, full, round tone with excellent projection.  They were simply the best saxophones I had up to that point ever played.  That included the tenors I tried. So the yes is that I think they are now outdoing the Mark VI, and no, they really shouldn't try to be another Mark VI, or Balanced Action.  They are great horns on their own. 

    Here are two videos on the history of Selmer and how Selmer Saxophones are made: