When it comes to the history of jazz, the saxophone has played a crucial role in many of the most popular styles and movements. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that one specific manufacturer – Selmer – is responsible for providing many of the greatest players with their instrument of choice.
In this article, we’re looking through the history of Selmer saxophones and their role in the history of jazz…
Founded in 1885, Henri Selmer Paris has a long history of manufacturing quality woodwind and brass instruments, but perhaps its most important contribution to the jazz world are the legendary Selmer saxophones.
The list of jazz musicians who have favoured Selmer saxes over the years is pretty comprehensive.
From the original greats like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane to modern stars like Branford Marsalis and Michael Brecker, it’d be almost impossible to name a list of best jazz albums without coming across a bunch of these horns.
Of course, in the saxophone community, the Selmer Mark VI is the holy grail for most players.
Manufactured for just 20 years from the mid-50s to mid-70s, it coincided with one of the most fertile periods of development in jazz history (hard bop, cool jazz, avant garde, modal…)
But, despite that, Selmer have proved their quality with other incredible saxophones both before and after that golden era of MKVI saxophone manufacturing.
In this article, we’re going to dive into some of the most famous types of Selmer saxophones – from the very first Modele 22 in 1922, to the highly regarded Reference 54 & Reference 36 made today – and look at some of the key musicians and key albums they feature on.
If you’re a saxophone aficionado and have additional information you think we should include, feel free to use the comments section at the end.
- 1 Modele 22 – the birth of Selmer Saxophones
- 2 Super “Cigar Cutter” and the early 1930s Super Sax model
- 3 Selmer Balanced Action and the Super (Balanced) Action
- 4 Selmer Mark VI – the saxophone legend is born
- 5 Selmer Super Action 80
- 6 Selmer Reference 54 / Reference 36 – modern vintage saxophones
Modele 22 – the birth of Selmer Saxophones
Whilst Henri Selmer Paris had established its reputation as a woodwind maker since the late 19th Century, and even made saxes using the classic Adolphe Sax blueprint, it made its first serious mark on world of saxophones in 1922 with the launch of the Selmer Modele 22.
Henri and Maurice Lefevre had spent the 2 years previously developing tooling and manufacturing methods at a new factory in the French town of Mantes and, by 1922, the new saxophone was launched commercially.
According to Selmer, “this new technique simplified manufacturing, eliminated sealing problems with welds and enabled a better standardisation of manufacturing.”
Whilst the key-work and design was a long way off the later models – and the tuning often difficult to control – the Modele 22 nonetheless laid the foundations and hinted at the future success of Selmer as makers of the worlds best saxophones and set them apart from their American counterparts at the time.
Whilst jazz as a genre was still in its infancy at the launch of the Modele 22, its C Melody version (made along with the rest of the saxophone family after the success of the alto version) became popular with jazz musicians of the day.
Most notably, American musician and bandleader Frankie Trumbauer made this type of saxophone famous and, perhaps as a result, the great Coleman Hawkins also started on the C Melody.
Super “Cigar Cutter” and the early 1930s Super Sax model
In 1929, with newfound international fame as saxophone makers, Selmer bought the Adolphe Sax & Co company, giving it sole rights to that instrument-making legacy.
During this period, it had launched the Selmer Super Sax range, which was distributed across various models. Perhaps the most famous was the the Cigar Cutter. Named by the Americans as a result of its of its octave key design, it also included several other design upgrades and refinements on the previous models.
In terms of jazz musicians of the day, Zoot Sims reportedly played a Cigar Cutter, as well as Coleman Hawkins on some of his earlier recordings.
Of course, the history of vintage saxophones doesn’t stop back then; this video, for example, shows modern sax great Chris Potter trying out an SSS Cigar Cutter
Selmer Balanced Action and the Super (Balanced) Action
If you’re looking to pinpoint when the ‘modern’ saxophone as we know it today was built, your best bet is probably the mid/late 1930s with the launch of Selmer’s Balanced Action saxophone.
According to the company, the origin of the Balanced Action name comes from its balanced key work and distribution of weight. “The basic prototype of the modern saxophone and the majority of the changes built into it have been kept to this day. The key work was entirely redesigned. The low B and Bb keys were moved to the right side of the bell, allowing for easier operation of the key work.”
Overall, the resulting horn was easier to use; lighter, quicker and more comfortable – all of which freed up the player to perform with an extended technique and greater flexibility.
Whilst the Balanced Action laid the foundation, the Super Action (or the Super ‘Balanced’ Action as it is known) – which was launched in 1948 – refined things further.
In particular, work on the bore improved the intonation and overall sound.
Ben Webster quickly upgraded to a Selmer Balanced Action when they came onto the market and, as we described in our article about the horns, mouthpieces and reeds of the saxophone greats, John Coltrane famously played a Selmer Super Balanced Action in the earlier part of his career.
“There’s something more vulnerable about it, a little more poignant, and greater range for inflection. The Mark VI has a sound that’s slightly more focused and powerful, but maybe not as expansive.”
Selmer Mark VI – the saxophone legend is born
If you know anything about Selmer, you’ll have almost certainly heard about the Mark VI. Launched in 1954, Selmer Mark VI saxophones have gone down in folklore as the best ever made.
If the Balanced Action in the years before paved the way for modern saxophone design, the MK VI refined many of the features and paired it with that magical sound.
The $40,000 saxophone
Getting its name from the fact that it was the 6th model since the original Modele 22, particularly sought-after horns from this era (they stopped production after just 20 years) can go for eye-watering amounts.
Commenting to Pitchfork, New York saxophone store owner Roberto Romeo said he rarely sells a Mark VI tenor for less than $8,000 (the altos can be less expensive) – and that once sold one that had never been played for $40,000!
It’s estimated that Selmer produced between 150,000 and 200,000 Mark VIs, most of which are thought to be around today.
Why is the Selmer Mark VI the best?
This is a good question, and one without a simple answer!
Of course, at the time, the technical advances made it a no-brainer for many jazz musicians. But even as modern production methods have advanced, it still retains this legendary status.
Sometimes the stars align and the actual result is much more than the combination of a few technical progressions. The mix for the brass alloy (a closely guarded Selmer secret), the actual people working on these in the factory, the materials available at the time.
But there’s also a feeling among some that the timing has some part to play.
The Mark VI was being manufactured and used during golden age of jazz in the 1950’s and 1960’s. So many of the greatest albums in jazz history were recorded in this period and so the Mark VIs, which were played on so many of them, were also enshrined into jazz history.
If the solos of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins form a major part of your jazz education, why wouldn’t you jump at the chance to play the same model of sax that they did?!
Who played Selmer Mark VI saxophones?
Well, the list is pretty comprehensive, if you look at the tenor saxophone greats from the mid-1950 onwards!
John Coltrane was one of many players who made the switch from a Selmer Super “Balanced” Action to a Mark VI as soon as they came onto the market.
Sonny Rollins apparently picked up his Mark VI from a New York saxophone shop back in the 1970s and has played it ever since.
And, according to Selmer themselves, “a limited production alto featuring a low A also appeared under the label “Mark VI”, which had fans such as Ornette Coleman.”
More recently, saxophone giant Michael Brecker (featured here) upgraded to a Mark VI midway through his career and today, more than 40 years after the final Mark VIs were made, there are modern players like Kamasi Washington who are vocal proponents of the Mark VI.
Selmer Super Action 80
At the beginning of the 1980s, Selmer launched the first of 3 Super Action 80 saxophones (Series I, Series II and, in the 1990s, Series III)
This instrument followed the less popular launch of the Mark VII and aimed to bring together the technological developments from that experiment, with the ergonomics and feel of a Mark VI.
Still manufactured to this day, it’s a popular choice for many horn players who want to pair the history of Selmer saxophones in jazz, with a more modern and easy-to-maintain horn.
Whilst this model is available in all common sizes of saxophone (the first prototype was actually a baritone), it’s the alto version which has been most-celebrated and used.
In fact, according to Selmer, it’s “without doubt the world’s most popular professional alto saxophone.”
Of course, as a saxophone that was launched in the 1980s, it doesn’t boast the same list of jazz legends as the earlier models, but there are indeed a wide range of modern greats playing on this, including Mozambican jazz-saxophonist Moreira Chonguiça (“one of the finest exponents of innovative and original jazz from Africa”).
Selmer Reference 54 / Reference 36 – modern vintage saxophones
In 2000, Selmer announced the launch of 2 new saxophone models inspired by two of their greatest vintage horns.
The legend of those two saxophones (especially the MKVI) has not diminished in the years since production stopped, so it seemed logical for Selmer to try to recapture some of that magic, with a more modern (and perhaps in-tune friendly) approach!
As with the original MKVI, the Reference 54 has a full, rich sound and is ergonomically smooth. It’s even put through an oxidation process to give it that vintage look.
According to a review by Tom Christensen for Jazztimes magazine, it is “noticeably heavier than the Mark VI. This is probably due to the more extensive key work on the new horn that includes extra supports for the longer rods and thicker metal for the keys. The keys on the body of the horn and the spatulas for the little fingers on both hands feel very close to my Mark VI.”
Similarly, the Reference 36 takes elements of its 80 year old counterpart and infuses them with the precision and action that 21st Century production allows.
The response to these horns has been largely positive and, whilst there will always be those saxophonists who want ‘The Real McCoy’ from years gone by, many others have adopted these modern hybrids.
Modern players who endorse these horns for Selmer include Jean Toussaint (who started out with Art Blakey and the Jazz messengers in the 80s) and Chico Freeman and we featured this model in our list of the best saxophones for jazz.
Thanks for joining us on that brief history through the legend of Selmer saxophones! If you haven’t yet tried one, it’s highly recommended! If you have – and would like to share feedback – please feel free to use the comments section.
If you’re ready to dive into some more saxophone related content – both in terms of the instruments and the player – you can find all our sax articles here.