The Story Of The Saxophone


The most acclaimed saxophone players in jazz — Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Getz, Buddy Collette, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane — played a Selmer.

H Selmer continues to innovate and set new benchmarks in the world of the saxophone.

There’s a sense that Florent Milhaud likes the scorching intro to ‘Baker Street’, or the big break in ‘Born in the USA’, every bit as much as he likes Kastner’s pioneering orchestral work ‘Le Dernier Roi de Juda’. “That’s the amazing thing about the saxophone,” he says. “It’s just such a versatile sound as it gets used in all sorts of music: from rock to jazz, funk and R&B to classical. Listen to some jazz and then listen to an orchestral piece and it’s like listening to two different instruments really.”

Milhaud thinks about the saxophone a lot. He’s the product manager at H Selmer, French maker of, arguably, the best saxophones in the world. It was this company that set the benchmarks as a specialist in saxophones in the early 1920s with its Modele 22, complete with sculpted braces and decorative engraving.

But what really allowed it to push ahead was its innovation: the Selmer Balanced Action, launched in 1935, basically repositioned all of the keys to make play that much easier, such that it became the standard for all saxophone designs. Yes, there are other important saxophone makers — P Mauriat, Yanagisawa and Keilwerth among them — but they all essentially make something based on this Balanced Action design. This is why, if you think of the most acclaimed saxophone players in jazz: Jimmy Dorsey to Stan Getz, Buddy Collette, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, they played a Selmer. One of Coltrane’s Selmer saxophones is even now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

Indeed, it may have been some 170 years this year since Adolphe Sax patented his strange-looking new brass instrument but the developments keep coming. Selmer has just spent three years developing the first new kind of reed for this instrument in decades, while demand is such that it has launched Seles, a spin-off brand of professional-standard saxophones at almost half the price of its hand-made models. The faster people can get onto a better instrument, Milhaud says, the easier it is to learn how to play, and so the better for saxophone music.

“Designing a new model is extremely complex,” says Milhaud, “but you always have to keep thinking about it. There’s this idea that the saxophone is done, but there’s always evolution, in materials or construction. These are the kinds of projects you know when they’ve started but are hard to know when they’ve finished; you tweak one parameter and that adversely affects another. Change the way you solder a certain part and it changes the entire sound. You’re always looking for the right balance.”

There are some objective parameters, he explains: intonation and projection, for example, although he concedes that why a professional player selects one instrument over another is all too often in the ear of the beholder. “That and the fact that those who can afford them tend to be drawn towards those instruments with the greatest amount of hand-making in them,” says Milhaud. “The saxophone is a particularly complicated instrument because it has so many parts, and we’ve yet to find a way to make them to the tolerances required using machines. But, even then, I think players want that human element.”

Selmer often sells its saxophones to people with only an amateur interest. “The shape of the saxophone is so interesting, so weird really, that some people just love it as an object,” Milhaud says. “We have collectors who will want one of every model we make.” On occasion, Selmer also makes special editions for those whose interest is much more particular.

A lot of requests are superficial: a change made to a production-line model; or a special lacquer or engraving. But professional players sometimes have much more taxing demands. “We’ve had players who wanted to change the position of a key so that it’s a better fit with their hands, for example,” says Milhaud. “Or to blend characteristics of different models into one. We’ve even worked on a saxophone commissioned by one player who wanted extra keys added so they could play quarter tones. That’s at the extreme, but it’s possible and we’re always interested in meeting special requirements because making them improves our knowledge too.”

In fact, it was an improvement in 19th century engineering that allowed Sax to develop his instrument in the first place, and, which, in turn, has meant that the saxophone has always been identified with modernity and exoticism, whether that be from Berlioz or The Boss. That’s also meant that the saxophone has long been a bit of an outsider; not widely regarded as a ‘legitimate’ instrument and, at times, even associated with society’s dissolution. As late as 1948, a UK performance of ‘Job’ by Vaughan Williams was given without its prominent saxophone solo because church authorities refused to allow such a ‘profane instrument’ into the church where the concert was taking place.

Such associations still linger, but, says Milhaud, these days, the saxophone’s hint of physicality, even sensuality, only add to the instrument’s appeal. “Generally, times have change. These days, nearly everyone loves the sound of a saxophone in some way or other. We’ve even made a vegan saxophone for one client. No, really...”

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