Monday, May 25, 2015

The Mark VI Mystique: Myths and Facts

The Selmer Mark VI is probably the most played, revered, sought after, collectible and collected saxophone in history.  Go to any vintage saxophone site, or shop where vintage saxophones are sold, and you will see more Mark VI's than any other vintage horn.  Roberto's Woodwinds in New York City even has a room dedicated to just Mark VI's.  Almost every top level player has played one at some point, and many still do.  For many saxophone players, the Mark VI is considered the greatest saxophone ever made. What is it about the Mark VI that has given this saxophone such legendary status and God-like qualities?  I have played literally hundreds of Mark VI's over the last 30 plus years, all having been properly set up, overhauled or otherwise repaired by my own tech, as well as the techs in the various shops I've worked in, and so they were all in the best shape when I played them. I have also tried out the many VI's that many of my friends play.  I have a little insight into them that was provided not just by research, but by Jerome Selmer when I had the opportunity to speak with him. He told me a few facts which will contradict what many Mark VI devotees believe and still believe even when presented with the facts.

When it comes to saxophones, no other horn has been surrounded by adoration and myth more than the Mark VI.  The purpose of this article is to give this legendary saxophone a full evaluation based on the literally hundreds of Mark VI's I've played, as well as the information I researched and what Jerome Selmer himself told me.  Keep in mind that some of what I write is opinion as well, but opinion based on experience, which means I've had hundreds of these in my hands and I've played them.  For example, tone is always subjective to the player and listener.  I prefer a well-rounded tone, a little on the dark side, but also with enough brightness to give it that vocal quality. I don't like a horn that is too bright because it makes my ears ring.  That is the other reason I never venture into altissimo unless necessary because going up there is unpleasant to my ears.  That's just me.  Conversely, I don't like a horn that's too dark because then it sounds muddy and too thick, not clear.  Of course, other things will affect the tone like mouthpiece and reed combination, and most especially the player.  Different players have different tonal preferences and usually choose their horns based on them, which is as it should be.  Many players tell me that the Mark VI is the best sounding horn ever.  That's where I disagree, and not because it isn't a great sounding saxophone, because it is, but it simply is not better or for that matter worse than any other great saxophone I've played.  I've played all the Selmers, as well as Conn, Buffet, King, Martin, Buescher, Keilwerth, Yamaha, Yanigasawa, Cuesnon, SML, Dolnet, etc., and they were all great sounding and playing horns.  I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Jerome Selmer and he is one of the nicest and classiest people I've ever met in the music business.  He graciously answered my questions concerning the Mark VI and Selmer saxophones in general.  He is devoted to his company and product,  so I have no reason to believe that anything he told me wasn't true.
Jerome Selmer and I at the unveiling of the DragonBird References and Series II saxophones, as well as the Jubilee Series II and III, at Steinway Hall in New York City, March, 2011

The Selmer Mark VI had a 20 year run, from 1954 to 1974, replacing the popular Super Balanced Action and succeeded by the not very popular and unjustly vilified Mark VII.  The serial number chart can give you a basic idea of how many total VI's were built in that 20 year period, as I don't have an exact figure otherwise.

Years of production by serial number

  • 1954- 55201-59000
  • 1955- 59001-63400
  • 1956- 63401-68900
  • 1957- 68901-74500
  • 1958- 74501-80400
  • 1959- 80401-85200
  • 1960- 85201-91300
  • 1961- 91301-97300
  • 1962- 97301-104500
  • 1963- 104501-112500
  • 1964- 112501-121600
  • 1965- 121601-131800
  • 1966- 131801-141500
  • 1967- 141501-152400
  • 1968- 152401-162500
  • 1969- 162501-173800
  • 1970- 173801-184900
  • 1971- 184901-196000
  • 1972- 196001-208700
  • 1973- 208701-220800
  • 1974- (After 231,000/Mark VII) 220801-233900
The "Official" Serial number guide issued by Selmer was not exact and Selmer never meant for it to be so. There can be as much as an 18 month (+/-) variation in actual production dates. This has been verified by original owners with receipts of their instruments showing purchase dates earlier than they would have been produced according to this chart. An example exists of an 89,000 series instrument sold in 1959. There is also a Mark VI tenor with a 236,000 serial number which would challenge the 231,000 Mark VII change-over. This gives rise to speculation that Selmer produced both the Mark VI design and early Mark VII horns concurrently, or possibly until the existing parts for the Mark VI were used up.
The Mark VI Soprano, Baritone, and Bass models were produced from 1954-1981. It is possible to find confirmed examples of these instruments in the serial range of # 55201-365000. The Mark VI Sopranino model was produced from 1954-1985 and can be found within the serial number range of # 55201-378000. The Mark VI was succeeded by the Mark VII, which was produced as alto and tenor saxophones only.

Many of the players who own a Mark VI call it the most revolutionary sax ever made.  This isn't totally true  as it evolved from the earlier Balanced Action and Super Balanced Action saxophones.  In fact, it was the original Balanced Action of 1936 that can be called revolutionary because it was literally a quantum leap from all sax designs that were current at the time.  Its closest rival as far as design and ergonomics was the Conn Connquerer, which was basically a 6M with improved keywork and more elaborate engraving.  The Balanced Action on the other hand was a completely new design which would set the stage for what is now the modern saxophone.  From the original Balanced Action, the design slowly evolved, with changes in bore size, the rotation of the bell, body and keys, the introduction of the removable bell, the sturdier ring shaped bell to body brace which was offset and was less prone to more sever damage than the old design which was just a straight wire soldered at both ends which would cause greater damage if hit or dropped.  You could remove the brace with the bell which made it easier to repair any damage to it and remove dents and dings.  The Mark VI evolved from this. The Mark VI introduced the tilted left pinky spatula which was more in line with the natural tilt of the pinky when playing, and the enlarged octave key which was also shifted to the right for a more natural and easy movement of the thumb when pressing the key.  
 The bore size was larger, but in the next 20 years, there would be constant changes to the saxophone, as well as the addition of the high F# key as a standard feature around 1968.  It had been available as an option before that.  Jerome Selmer told me that the craftsmen did not work from a set of plans or blueprints.  They continuously tweaked the horns as they made them, changing bore, bell and neck dimensions, and this wasn't done in any consistent manner.  Another myth that has gotten a lot of circulation and is believed by many is that the earlier ones are better, and one of the reasons is because they used brass shell casings from heavy artillery ammunition left over from WWII for the brass of the Mark VI.  He laughed at that one because he said if they were going to use left over WWII artillery casings they would have used them on the Super Balanced Action which was still around in 1945 when the war ended.  Remember, the Mark VI premiered in 1954.  At any rate, Jerome Selmer said this wasn't true.  The truth is, brass used in shell casings would be too soft and not be good for making a saxophone or any other brass instrument.

The next myth is about serial numbers, and that the Mark VI's of a certain serial number range, especially the earlier ones, are better than the horns with higher serial numbers, or that a horn of a certain year was better, etc.  I have had players swear and argue that this was true, and I asked them if they played every Mark VI from the whole 20 year span and could say it with absolute certainty. Of course not, just another belief that has no basis in truth.  Jerome Selmer said so himself.  The fact is, being hand made and constantly tweaked, each and every sax, regardless of serial number or year would play and sound differently, especially when you factor in reed and mouthpiece preferences.  That's true of any well made saxophone.  Like I said, I have played literally several hundred Mark VI's, and I have played some great ones from varying years and serial numbers, and some pretty dull ones from what are supposed to be, if I listened to some musicians, as the prime serial numbers or years of the Mark VI.  Sorry, but as with any hand made instrument, they're not all going to be perfect.  I've played a fair number of Mark VI's, all properly set up, that simply were pretty ordinary, while others are what you would expect from the Mark VI.  Today, with computer design, and more accurate placement of tone holes, improvements in keywork and placement and a more consistent ratio of zinc to copper in making the brass, modern saxophones are definitely more consistent in tone and quality than their older counterparts.  That doesn't mean that they're always better either, and once again, each horn will feel, play and sound differently to each player, and that's how it should be.  However, modern technology does make for a more consistent product.

To give the Mark VI its due, it's keywork and ergonomics have become the standard by which every modern saxophone is made to this day. Even after 60 years, there has been little or no change in the ergonomic layout of the saxophone, and every modern saxophone has copied the Selmer standard, as it has been proven to be the most comfortable and the most efficient layout.  Sure, some manufacturers may make minor changes in the ergonomics, but none noticeable, and they still all basically look like the Selmer.  No one yet has been able to come up with a better design and I guess there's a good reason why.  It's because the basic design and layout work very well and always has.  It also says something when every saxophone made not just by Selmer but by other manufacturers are always trying to market their instruments to be as good as a Mark VI.  Of course, there are many who continuously say that nothing is or will be as good as a Mark VI.  Well, when you've been playing an instrument for years, you get attached to it, as is natural with something that does become an extension of you.  Like the way I am attached to my Conn.  However, that evaluation of the Mark VI is also subjective and really cannot be supported empirically.  It doesn't need to be anyway.  If you think the Mark VI is the best sax ever made, then it is. If you feel you play your best on it, then that's the only reason you ever need to play any instrument.

With any old saxophone, and especially an old saxophone that has been frequently played and well-traveled, it is a fair bet that it has taken its share of abuse.  There will be dings and dents, and parts start to wear down, very similar to an automobile that has accumulated lots of road mileage.  The keys in time will simply wear down, and quite often a key post needs to be re-soldered onto the body.  Keys begin to rattle and get loose, causing leaks, and in time, there is only so much drilling that can be done before the set screws can no longer make proper contact with the rod and slip.   Even with constant adjustments and regular oiling, the keys and posts start to rattle very loudly and the action begins to loosen up.  This will be true of any old saxophone that has been played frequently.  Like your old car, at which point do you stop pouring money into constantly adjusting and repairing it, and buy the new car that will serve you for years before needing to be replaced?  Besides, the keywork on modern saxophones is better and more solid than it ever was.  Of course they better be with a new instrument.  Technology has really advanced in the manufacturing of saxophones, and I think players need to get over the idea that they just don't make them like they used to.  They don't for sure, but that is not always a bad thing.  However, in time, even today's saxophones will reach a point where the keys and posts start to wear, it may take some hits, things get loose. If you look at saxophone players from the swing era to the post-bop era, you'll see that most of them kept buying new saxophones every few years or so.

Another common problem I have seen with Mark VI's along with other old saxophones is the wearing down of the neck tenon from constantly putting the neck on and taking it off.  At some point in time, the neck gets so loose that no matter how tightly you screw it on, the neck freely moves and slips, which is another source of air leaking and bad tone and intonation.  To tighten a neck tenon, the repair tech has to ream and burnish it in order to stretch it so that it fits tightly on the body again.  That can only be done so many times until the metal wears and thins out.  David Sanborn once came into the shop to inquire whether we had any Mark VI's.  He told me that the neck tenon had been reamed so many times that it eventually cracked, rendering it useless.  I knew he was a Selmer man, and yes we did have some Mark VI's, and I also showed him the Reference 54's we had and why I thought it was a better idea to get them rather than another old saxophone.  Sonny Fortune and Richie Cole had switched to a Reference.  He tried out the Mark VI's we had and wasn't very thrilled with them (proving a point, they are not all going to be right when looking for a particular sound or feel), but didn't bother to try the References.  I like David Sanborn personally, a very nice guy and a great player.  However, he just couldn't move with the idea that anything was better than a Mark VI, and he ended up getting another one from a vintage dealer in New Jersey.  I'm sure that horn will encounter many of the problems of his old horn and also need frequent adjustments and repairs.

Mark VI players will say that the Mark VI was the best sounding saxophone ever made.  Yes and no!  I said earlier that tone is a subjective thing.  However, whenever I play any saxophone, vintage or modern, what always sells me on the horn or not is how the tone is to my ears.  I have a certain sound that I prefer and that any horn must have if I want to play it on a regular basis.  I also measure it against the sound of my Conn 6M, which I still consider among the best sounding horns ever. Taking that into consideration, I have played many saxophones old and new whose tone I liked better than many Mark VI's I've heard.  At the same time, I have played many Mark VI's that sounded as good or better than many other great saxophones I've played.  In terms of sound, or tone, there is nothing about a Mark VI that is any more special than a Conn M series, or a Buescher 400 or Aristocrat, or a Martin, or a King Super 20, or for modern horns, a Yamaha, Yanigasawa, Keilwerth, P. Mauriat and even a whole bunch of intermediate saxophones from some Taiwanese makers that have been impressing me lately, because they are in terms of sound, the equal or better of the Mark VI as far as I'm concerned.  That's just my opinion, and it is by no means a jab at the Mark VI.   It's just that I don't consider it the be all and end all of saxophones.  I have played Mark VI's that sounded full and clear, with a voice that sang, and others that sounded quite dull.  That's the nature of a handmade instrument.

Another misconception is the myth of "old world craftsmanship" which I addressed in another article. Most methods of sax manufacturing are the same as they always have been, and a look at the videos of the Buescher factory of 1924 and of manufacturing today, you will see the same kind of machines and methods in use then as now, but with computer technology, a saxophone is made better than ever, despite what anyone may think.  As for the sound, if it sounds good to your ears out of the box, it will only get better with time and use.  One reason why so many players tend to think old saxophones, and particularly the Mark VI sounds better, is because they have been played frequently over a long period of time.  The more any instrument is played, whether made out of metal or wood, the better and more resonant it will sound over time. My guess that the Mark VI's I played that may not have sounded so great was because they may have been in the hands of a collector or seller rather than a player.

Another argument I get from players if I say that while I consider the Mark VI definitely one of the great saxophones, it's not necessarily the greatest.  "Oh yeah?" they would say, "if it wasn't the greatest, why did so many great musicians play it and aren't playing Conns or Kings or Martins or Bueschers anymore?"  There are many reasons for that, but the main reason was that after WWII, the output and quality of American saxophones was beginning to go down.  Take a look at just about any big band prior to the war, and you'll see more players with the American made saxophones than anything else. After WWII that began to change.  The other problem was that American saxophone design no longer evolved. When the Balanced Action, then Super Balanced Action and finally the Mark VI showed up, it certainly was light years ahead ergonomically of any American saxophone, but the main thing was at the time, the Mark VI was actually cheaper than the equivalent American horns.  I won't go into the reason for that because it may sound too political.  However, coupled with the prices as well as the fact that American saxophones were no longer of the high quality that they were prior to WWII and for a only a short time afterwards.  Increasing labor costs led to the American saxophones becoming more expensive to make and that led to higher prices for a saxophone that was no longer as modern mechanically as the Mark VI.  Eventually, American saxophone production decreased and eventually ceased.  For the longest time, the Mark VI was the only game in town for a professional musician looking for a new and high quality saxophone until Yamaha hit the scene, followed by Yanigasawa, Keilwerth, and lately P. Mauriat.  Buffet's Dynaction and Super Dynaction had keywork that was considered by some players as slicker and better than a Mark VI, as well as having a great sound, but Buffet has never been able to achieve the success with their saxophones as they have with their clarinets. 

To me though, the funniest thing regarding the Mark VI mystique are the people, players and non-players alike who behave as if owning and playing a Mark VI gives them a special ability far beyond that of mortal men.  Many times, whenever a sax player would come into the shop, I would ask them which horn they played.  So many of them would literally puff up their chest, point their chin up as if to look down on me and say "I (heavy emphasis on the I) play a Mark VI!"  One woman even said to me, "I'll have you know (heavy emphasis on I'll and you) that I have a Mark VI!"  Seriously people, it is a great saxophone, but it's only a saxophone, not a symbol of your status in the world.  Another time the shop I worked in got in a few Mark VI's that were overhauled and then put into glass cases in the front of the store for sale.  During Thanksgiving weekend, many marching bands come into New York City to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.  Well, we were always prepared for the invasion of the band kids, because most of them were coming into the store to get books and accessories not available in the small towns they came from.  A bunch of kids, boys and girls ran up to the showcases, and literally drooling and with eyes popping out of their sockets were oohing and aahing and saying "it'a Mark VI, it's a Mark VI!!!"  I though they were going to have orgasms.

 I spoke with Jerome Selmer about the whole Mark VI mystique and what he thought about it.  I also asked him the question that so many Mark VI players ask.  Why did Selmer stop making the Mark VI?  About the Mark VI mystique, he laughed about it, saying he was appreciative that the Mark VI has such a reputation, but he also felt that the newest models and editions of Selmer saxophones were better than ever due to huge improvements in computer technology and manufacturing technology.  He dismissed the idea that the Mark VI was better and nothing was ever as good.  "What do they think?" he said. "Do they think that we killed off all the people that made the Mark VI? Many of the same workers, and apprentices of the older workers who have retired or passed on are still making saxophones today."  As for why they stopped making the Mark VI, he said it was time to move on, just as they had moved on from previous models. He said that a company should never stop looking for ways to improve their instrument and also make it more relevant to the modern world, at the same time making instruments that follow a tradition.  This is why now, Selmer has more models available at one time than at any time in their history.  It gives the player a real choice depending on their musical style and tonal preferences. That's as it should be.

So, am I here to tell you to give up your Mark VI's and play something else?  No, not at all.  My view is and always will be that if your instrument plays, feels and sounds the way you want it to, then that is the only important consideration.   It's a tool for the player to express their musical personality, it's not a god. However, as for me, I am excited about many of the new saxophones made by Selmer and all of the other major brands, and quite a few lesser known brands from Taiwan that have really impressed me.  I simply love the saxophone and always will, Mark VI or no!