The legend of Selmer Mark VI

Fools did it: in the twenty years that the Mark VI alto was in production, Selmer made at least seventy design changes. There were also changes in tenor. The horn was never built to a fixed template, so even within the same cohort they varied slightly in the setting of the bell or the placement of the posts to which the keys are attached. (Outside the U.S., the first-decade horn was not named. «Mark VI,» a marketing term coined by the company’s U.S. arm—it was Selmer’s sixth distinct model—came later.) These variations came down to individual craftsmen. «You had some big discrepancies in terms of the diameters, in terms of the length of the necks, the angulation or the angle and the relationship of the diameters, the ergonomics,» Milhaud told me.

It is difficult to reconcile this fact with the specific serial number superstitions that exist about the Mark VI. It’s not just that older horns with lower numbers are more valuable. Those in eighty-five thousand are considered the horns of the Brecker series. Altos in the One Forty Thousand are known as Sanborns, named after the searing sound associated with R. & B. saxophonist David Sanborn. Tenors in the range of one hundred and twenty five thousand are sold as horns of the Coltrane era. And while the Mark VI varied in subtle ways over the decades, each batch certainly had its quirks and quirks. Perhaps the distraction itself was one of the keys to creating something that was at least occasionally extraordinary. Or maybe the magic of the human touch is another myth.

Still, Milhaud believes people misunderstand what makes the Mark VI great. The musician most involved in the development of the alto was Marcel Mule, a famous concert soloist in mid-century France and Selmer’s acoustic advisor at the time. Mule hated jazz. Maybe that helped. The Mark VI was not a one-dimensional instrument bound by brass band conventions; he could do whatever the player wanted him to do. It wouldn’t hurt. Every note, from Getz’s greasy whisper to Brecker’s jagged pronouncements, could come from a Mark VI. Thoughts flow without hindrance. «It’s talking about an instrument that has a very strong personality,» Milhaud said. “She has no personality.

Even now, making the perfect instrument is a surprisingly human process. Selmer’s factory is not so much an industrial plant as a large workshop, spread over four buildings, all of which stand in the backyard of the house where two of Selmer’s daughters once lived. Selmer saxophone necks are still shaped by humans; They are filled with ice for resistance, then placed in a clamp and bent by hand into their final shape. The bells are rounded by workers with a machine that I would best describe as a sort of side potter’s wheel. Much of the process still involves manual twisting and hammering and soldering, nearly five hundred pairs of hands working together in turn.

I only saw one step that was fully automated: they sped off into a separate room, an orange robotic arm blasting its horns. The robot was brought in about a year ago, Oriez said — the job was particularly rough on the shoulders and elbows. At one point in the manufacturing process, I observed a woman inspecting the body tubes, marking with a red pencil the parts she thought were defective. Editor, like me.

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

But to understand the mystique of the Mark VI, you have to look beyond what happened when production began. You also need to know what happened when production ended. Selmer discontinued altos and tenors in 1975, convinced he had created something better. A new acoustic consultant, Michel Nouaux – a virtuoso like the Mule – helped the company design another classic instrument, the Mark VII. Selmer “moved to rigid templates,” explained Pipher, “so that conformity replaced the individuality of the instrument. Maybe something got lost in that transition. But there were other problems that are easier to detect. Nouaux was a large man and designed a horn with a large and heavy key. Ergonomics was off. «He made instruments much more for himself than for the saxophonist community,» Milhaud told me. He added: «So it was a mistake.» The horn could not get out of the way.

Selmer recovered from the Mark VII. In 1986, it launched the Super Action 80 Series II, now its longest consistently produced model. The brand is considered well enough to rival competitors like Yamaha and Yanagisawa, who make top-tier horns at lower prices. However, Selmer Paris is constantly waging a war on two fronts, fighting with the leading Japanese manufacturers for the loyalty of most saxophonists and with its past for the hearts of the best players in the world.

The day after the trip to the factory, I visited the company’s offices in a modest building in the famous Montmartre district of Paris. Devices in display cases lined the entrance hall; what looked like an unusually large bathtub was located next to the kitchenette on the second floor of the office. Last year, after more than ten years of development, Selmer Paris released the new flagship Supreme saxophone. I wanted to try it – there weren’t many in the US yet. I also wanted to ask Milhaud about his efforts to convince pros to switch from the Mark VI to the Supreme instead.

Milhaud, a compact man in a white linen shirt, partially unbuttoned, took me into a soundproof practice room and handed me a tenor. “Top tenor, meet Chris,” he said. Then he smiled. “But it’s not a Mark VI. I admired the rose gold paint etched with little leaves and floating cubes, then took a few minutes to warm up before moving up and down the horn. It had a big sound with a buzzing low end. I felt good that morning.

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As I was leaving the practice room, I bumped into Baptiste Herbin, a virtuoso French alto player who had come to the office to test mouthpiece prototypes. Herbin plays with incredible speed and precision. (When Kenny G was in Paris, he looked up Herbin to jam.) Herbin often plays Supreme, and I asked him how he got himself convinced to switch. He wasn’t, he said—not quite. One day, several years ago, he left his studio with two horns: his Mark VI and a modern Selmer, the Reference 54. He was taking them on vacation. He put his horns on the curb when he went to call a taxi. When he looked back at the sidewalk, the old corner was gone.

I didn’t play Mark VI in Paris. I drove home to Chicago, where I drove to a woodwind repair shop tucked into a tight space next to the El tracks. PM Woodwinds has scuffed wood floors and shelves full of corners fresh from the workbench. This is where you repair your tools. It’s been run for thirty years by Paul Maslin, a big man with muscular arms that look like they could go around a corner. We sat down in two blurry blue chairs in the middle of a narrow hallway and talked about saxophones. An old analog clock on the wall had a message on the face that said, “You’ll play better with Selmer.

Maslin is a techie at heart and didn’t have much patience for questions about magic or spirits. Still, he believes there is something special about the Mark VI and that it cannot be found again. «People keep trying to recreate something you can’t recreate,» he told me. “I always say: You can’t recreate a time period.

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

He produced three Altos, including a very late Mark VI, serial numbered in the two hundred and forty thousand range, among the last ever produced. There was also a mid-series Mark VI that shone. Maslin assured me that it was not repainted. I had to play it first: if there was any magic, it would be here. I picked it up, hit the keys and blasted the air with the horn. And it spoke clearly, in round, soothing tones. It sounded like me. It was more like a blessing than a curse that day.

Perhaps the magic of the Mark VI is the faith players bring to it. As I chased the ghosts, I kept thinking about the player I first heard more than a decade ago when he was still a teenager. I was watching the finale of the Essentially Ellington Festival—think March Madness for high school big bands—and Patrick Bartley started playing. He’s a killer straight saxophonist who can channel the sounds of different eras with ease. He then formed an American group dedicated to Japanese pop music, J-Music Ensemble, and now lives in Tokyo, where the saxophone is perhaps more popular than anywhere else in the world. (Ten years ago, Selmer’s Japanese market was six times its American market.)

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Online, Bartley fans try to analyze his setup. Is it a purple brand Yamaha viola? What year is it from? But Bartley was always indifferent to equipment. «The sax just helps you play the music,» he told me. «It’s more in the player than in the corner.» Previously played on a Yamaha YAS-62. He now plays a JL Woodwinds saxophone, assembled in John Leadbetter’s Manhattan shop. Never owned a Mark VI. He’s not torn about it.

I wanted to know how he avoided the obsession that grips so many others. He told me that growing up, his family never had the money to buy a professional horn. When he was in elementary school, his mom lent him student saxophones. Then Wynton Marsalis heard him play and told the mother that her son had something special. She bought a Yamaha YAS-23 in installments: thirty-five dollars a month for four and a half years. It wasn’t perfect; they could not afford regular repairs. But it was his. Then, as a high school senior, Bartley was accepted into the Vail Jazz Workshop, a residential program for promising young musicians. Saxophonist Jeff Clayton led it that year.

Clayton played a King Super 20, the same model made famous by Adderley. He saw how the students admired it and let Bartley try it. «I gave him my horn in return,» Bartley recalled. “He’s putting his mouthpiece on my horn and he’s really struggling. He says, ‘How do you play it? This corner is unplayable.» And I was like, ‘That’s all I got.’ «

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

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


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