There are a lot of myths and legends in the musical instrument industry. In the saxophone community, the biggest of both of these things is the Selmer Paris Mark VI. A saxophone that was only made in the popular alto and tenor pitches for twenty years between its introduction in 1954 and the final run in 1974, it has arguably come to be known as the “best”. What makes something the best though? Is it the quality of the design? The work that goes into the creation of the instrument? Is it the players that play it? Does the myth create the legend? Does history? Most modern saxophone’s key designs, even today, are based on those of the Mark VI; obviously the Mark VI is a legend for a reason. Sometimes the stars align in instrument making, where the perfect storm of design and parts comes together and creates greatness; it happened with the 1959 Gibson Les Paul, and it happened with the Mark VI. The Mark VI was the 6th official saxophone model released by Henri Selmer Paris, and no, there were no Mark I-Vs. Was the Mark VI called that because it was the 6th saxophone design? Well, it probably rolled off the tongue better than the Super Duper Action.
Selmer’s top people worked on making the Mark VI the best horn it could possibly be. It is sometimes said Selmer relied solely on world famous classical sax great, Marcel Mule. It is certain Mule had a lot of input and influence on the final product, but he was not the sole designer. While we look back at the Mark VI today with 20/20 vision and may say that the Mark VI was the horn that changed the saxophone world, the truth is that Selmer had first started to create what is now considered the modern saxophone with the Balanced Action and the Super (Balanced) Action in 1935 and 1947, respectively. Let’s take a trip with the way back machine and examine what makes the Mark VI the bees knees of reeds.
A Brief History
Henri Selmer Paris released their first saxophone, the Modele 22, in (you guessed it!) 1922, and soon followed with the Modele 26 in 1926 and the Selmer Super Sax in 1931. These models had a tone that would lay out the blueprint for the fabled “Selmer Sound” and had to begun to bare the familiar Selmer keywork on the main stacks, but suffered from awkward and uncomfortable pinky tables. In the 1930s, King, C. G. Conn, Evette/Buffet, Buescher, Martin, and Selmer were in competition for the booming Saxophone market, and all had their own unique keywork and traits. It wasn’t until the release of the Selmer Balanced Action in 1935 that we saw Selmer break the ahead of the pack. The Balanced Action moved the Low B and Bb bell keys to the right side of the bell, and introduced a left hand picky table that was quicker, lighter and considered by the majority of players to be more comfortable than other manufacturers. The bell to body connection utilized a ring for shock absorption purposes rather than a metal rod that can crush the bell or body with the right impact. A giant leap forward, but we’re not there yet.
Next to come was the Super Action, now known more frequently as the Super “Balanced” Action (to avoid confusion with the Super Action 80 and the current production models the Super Action 80 Series II). Selmer further refined the bore of the saxophone, improving the tone, intonation and response. The body to bell brace ring was now removable, a boon to technicians as the brace did not need to be desoldered when performing repairs. Most importantly, the upper and lower key stacks were now offset. The first sax to do so, and was likely considered to be awkward to players at first, but this advent made the Super Action ergonomically superior to the other saxes being produced at the time.
And there you have it. Case closed, wrap it up, we’re done here. That’s what most manufactures would have done, but Selmer was never one to rest of their laurels (or fleur-de-lis).
The Super Action would only last for seven years before being replaced.
Though the Super Action and VI share some common traits, so many improvements were introduced, it was named a new model (hence the new name, and numerical designation). Truth be told, the “VI” is in no way shape or form “shy of improvements”. It is very arguable the first sax that shares these common features: great playable ergonomics, improved intonation, and a focused, deep, beautiful tone.
It’s impossible to know just what went through the sax players of the day’s minds when the VI was unveiled. If you were 20 years old when the VI came out, and lucky enough to get a new one in its first years, please let us know (by the way, happy “80 something” Birthday!). If you got your VI in 1950s, and bought it at Sam Ash in Brooklyn, please drop us a line – we’d love to hear the story of you and your beloved Selmer Mark VI. Technical and structural advancements introduced on the VI are still utilized on today’s more precision horns, in whole or at least in part. Since it first launched, endless copies of the VI have been manufactured. Some borrow select attributes, and some are out and out forgeries. The changes brought on by the VI have found a home on nearly all future saxophones.
Some Mark VI improvements include:
A newly shaped, and stronger Octave key, and improved playability. Also in the strict playability or “action” side of things include the adjustable low F# cup, blued steel spring needle helped with a snappy action. The main stack (body or conically shaped main shaft) had an improved bore taper, adding depth to the tone. The keys were much more stable and sturdy, while allowing for less contact with the stack (less contact equals less interference with resonance and harmonics).
Famous Players of the “VI”
The Mark VI was played by every “star” of the time including John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. The full list is far too long, to be complete. The pairing of tone and action was not the only pairing that helped drive the legend of the VI. Some examples of highly regarded players, who paired up with the Selmer VI:
Coltrane was no ordinary player, even if you start with extraordinary as a bassline. From “Hard Bop” origins, Coltrane started out an Alto player, and soon after his discharge from the Navy in 1946, started playing Tenor. During his first collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in the mid 1950’s, Coltrane’s weapon of choice was a Selmer Super “Balanced” Action Tenor, although later he added both a Mark VI Soprano and a 1965 Mark VI Tenor to his arsenal. Coltrane’s far too short life and carrier, only leave the listener wondering what more the man could have achieved. From Hard bop, more to lyrical stylings, modal Jazz (listen to his treatment of “the Sound of Music’s “My Favorite things” on his Selmer soprano Mark VI). Coltrane also helped develop styles like Free Jazz, Avant-garde, and improvisational work, alongside fellow sax great Ornette Coleman (influential, and fantastic, ground breaking player, in the same light as “Trane” Parker, Rollins and more). Coltrane played with a who’s who of greats, including trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and Pianists like Ellington and Monk. “Trane” used his VI to the edges of its powers, at times overblowing into the altissimo range, or giving it an almost human voice quality. John Coltrane changed jazz, the sax, and music enough to be considered one of the 20th century’s greats.
Rollins is arguably one of the greatest Jazz Saxophonists that ever walked the Earth. If you were just about anyone besides Charlie “Bird” Parker, John “Trane” Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Art Pepper, you had every right to not want to share a bandstand with Rollins, especially if your axe, is a Sax. Rollins himself said that Jazz itself was force of nature, and a commune with God, due to its hopefulness written into the fiber of the art. Rollins and his VI are indeed close to, if not a true spiritual awakening to aficionados of Jazz, and the sax. Rollins was born in 1930, in NYC. He is often referred to as the “Saxophone Colossus”, after the ’56 studio album of the same name, which also features legendary drummer Max Roach. Far from being close to the highlight of Rollins seven decade carrier, “Colossus” is selected by the library of congress for its cultural and artistic significance. Rollins is now 89 years old. Rollins is young enough to still be walking the Earth, and old enough to have played with every significant Jazz musician from the late 1940s going forward. Rollins notes Coleman Hawkins and Parker as heroes. There were undoubtedly many “heroes” that Rollins gained ideas from, and respected deeply. The number of people that call Rollins a hero, and bestow respect upon him is endless. During Rollins live and studio recording years, his style evolved, pushing the art form forward, not the other way around. The “Colossus” played with Hawkins, Coltrane, Monk, Diz, Percy Heath, Freddy Hubbard, Miles Davis and so many more. Not a Jazz buff? Okay, add the Rolling Stones “(just) waiting on a friend”, from the 1981 smash “Tattoo You”. Not a “Stones fan”? The Simpsons character of Sax-man “Bleeding Gums Murphy” is loosely based on events from Rollins life.
The list of legends that all lived by and love the Mark VI as if it were a living breathing thing is far too long to list. The list of players will long outlive the model’s production: The last tenors and altos that bear the sacred name of ‘Selmer Mark VI’ were made in the mid-70s (more on that, later). Younger generations of greats will also embrace the horn of their fathers, and grandfathers. A short list includes Branford Marsalis, who is a classical and jazz virtuoso, (as well as contemporary genres, like rap). David Sanborn, who is just about every rock and roll star’s choice: Bowie, Clapton, the Becker brothers, Paul Butterfield and let’s not forget “I do the Rock” by Tim Curry (yea, the guy from the “Rocky Horror picture show”). Kenny G (plays a soprano MK VI, as well as the tenor and alto), Craig Handy (Charles Mingus orchestra, studio work and portrayed Coleman Hawkins in the film “Kansas City”. And the gone too soon Tenor virtuouso Michael Brecker.
It is no question people chase the tone and style of these men: He did play a “VI”, maybe that’s a good place to start, if I want “that” sound!
This statement is no stranger than hoping an Olympic White Strat will make you sound like “Hendrix”, or a 1959 Les Paul will bring the “Jimmy Page” out in you. Who knows? Maybe a nice Strat will help coax out some of your hidden Hendrix. In the case of the Mark VI, will your inner Hawkins, Rollins, Coltrane, or Sanborn be revealed? Not everyone who wears a Michael Jordan Jersey believes he will suddenly be capable of jumping 5 feet of the ground, but if you admire Mr. Jordan that much, it’s nice to share something.
The Selmer Mark VI Legacy
It’s a simple truth that the Selmer Mark VI was either the best, or among the best sax that money could buy, during its 20 year run. It is also a truth that a more modern horn will play with more consistent intonation. The Mark VI alto is especially noted for a badly out-of-tune lower register (more on that later). Selmer made Mark VI alto “special edition” with a low “A” key. It is said to be nearly unusable and therefore a collector’s (if not player’s) dream. In an orchestral setting today, use of a vintage MK VI will likely be frowned upon. Modern pro level saxes will play far more in-tune with the rest of the orchestra. The Selmer Paris Super Action 80 Series II, Yamaha Custom 82Z and 875EX, Keilwerth SX90R, P. Mauriat System 76, or Yanagisawa WO1 all have superior intonation, and are top pro-level saxophones, with a beautiful tone. An added benefit is a brand new, factory fresh horn will not need a trip to the tech for an overhaul, re-pad, or swedging, or a mysterious smell emanating from the case. So why is it that the Selmer Mark VI still stands as the world’s most sought after sax? Why do collectors (and players) shell out four times the amount of money for a Mark VI than a new, modern, improved horn? Does the “VI” sound that much better? Is it a simple case of hero worship?
Facts, Fiction, Myths, and Folklore
Okay, this part gets sticky for the true aficionado. The Mark VI has more mystery and myth than the Zapruder film.
Why did Selmer stop making the Mark VI? Selmer has a history of doing the best job possible when creating a musical instrument. The Mark VI is many things, but its birth is a decision to make a better sax than the Super Action model. Not many will dispute this, but many do not believe that this is the primary reason production of the Alto and Tenor Mark VI was halted around 1974. It is commonly said that the MK 7 alto and tenors replaced the VI due to outdated tooling. What do you think?
The Mark 7 is simply made to be a “model improved” sax. It would cost Selmer far, far less, to re-tool (if it were needed, all at once) for continued production on the VI, than to create and design a new model, from the ground up.
Part of the truth is something that plagues many manufacturers of items that work right, last long, and don’t change too much: Said manufacturers begin to compete with their own products. Why buy a new Mark VI, when a 2nd hand model will cost half the price, of new, even after an overhaul? While that is not the case anymore, of the Mark VI, it was back in 1975. In a case like this, what does a premier builder do? It’s simple on paper. Try to design a better model. Selmer thought that they had succeeded in improving the Mark VI with the Mark 7. Initial sales told them that they did. They were soon proven to be wrong, and quickly went to the drawing board for the next model.
Didn’t the 6-digit serial number Mark VI (post 1962) sound quality suffer because the 5-digit VI’s were made from World War II artillery brass? Who wants a horn made from spent Howitzer, or 88 millimeter flack cannon brass?
Selmer maintains records meticulously. Brass was acquired from the same sources at all times. The “recipe” for the brass alloy is a well-guarded Selmer Family secret. Anyway, if Selmer HAD used brass from World War II, they would’ve used it on the model that came out after World War II … the Super Action.
Is there a last MK VI alto or Tenor? Serials are sequential!
Yes and no. Some early Mark 7’s are transitional, and share many parts in common. There are full blown Mark 7 tenors with serial numbers that pre-date the oldest known Mark VI tenors. Some special order Mark VI horns have been completed after the first Mark 7 rolled out of the factory.
What year was the last VI of any kind made?
Sopranino Mark VIs are documented with serial numbers as late as 1985.
Some Mark VI horns are made outside France.
All Selmer Mark VI horns are made in France. All of them. Some horns are completed in France, and some will go to England, and some to Elkhart IL, USA. Exported horns left France without any lacquer, or engraving, and were complete, but unassembled. Engraving, finish, and assembly were done at location of import.
Does the Mark VI have a tone more loved than anything else?
Maybe, you will have to decide. Many an expert, aficionado, player, and fan have failed the blindfold test, on numerous occasions.
Yikes, this is a hot topic. All Selmer Mark VIs are indeed play tested before they leave the place of final assembly. Some say that the best horns are given to the super stars, the 2nd best go to dealers of high volume, and the 3rd class goes to rural markets, or slow selling localities. You may come across someone saying “my horn is only 15 digits away from Sanborn’s horn” or “my Tenor is 5 digits from Rollins” horn. Think: These are all play-tested, but serialized before they leave France. How do we know that the tenor, 5 digits from Rollins horn has some kind of special magic? I don’t think we do. It is, however fun information. Variations in tone are real, and may be sometimes due to the fact that each one is slightly different. Blueprints were not used. The fact is, any well set up and maintained Mark VI will sound great.
The Mark VI is no question an absolute marvel of 1950’s technology and its tone is sweet, and vocal like. In the hands of a good player, the Mark VI’s resonance, clarity and balance come to life. Hard-drives full of recordings will attest to the years of beautiful music, played on a VI. This is the horn that Sonny Rollins loved to improvise on, without the help of a piano, Drums, a stand-up bass, the Selmer Mark VI, and the truth. That’s a tough act to follow, even if a new axe has much greater precision, and maybe, just maybe, sounds as beautiful, haunting, and soulful.
In the end, the choice is up to you. Do you hear a beautiful horn? Do you have the kind of ears that hear history? There is no question at all: The VI is something special, even just to look at. The Selmer MK VI has earned its place in history by being a great sounding and great playing breakthrough horn. It helps that some of the greatest recorded sax music was played on a VI. Never, ever, miss an opportunity to learn more, so you can make your own mind up. Never ever, miss an opportunity to own a horn such as the VI, if you are so inclined, and your budget allows. It’s as close to owning “Excalibur” as any mere mortal will get.