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.
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
playunder 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
saxophonemanufacturers, 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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 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.