The Legend of the Selmer Mark VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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