From Closet to Concert Hall: How Jason Hainsworth Landed His Dream Sax
Considered one of the holy grails of the tenor saxophone world, the Selmer Mark VI is the model played by icons like John Coltrane and Michael Brecker.
Interviewed by Alex Heigl; condensed and lightly edited for clarity
For SFCM Roots, Jazz, and American Music Executive Director Jason Hainsworth, landing his dream instrument was a journey that took years. Though he found it in Florida, it turned out the instrument had been purchased in the Bay Area, and he's brought it full circle back to San Francisco. This is the story, in his own words.
"This Selmer Mark VI was made in 1962, that's kind of the sweet spot of the era. I'd been trying to buy one probably for 30 years and never could find one or could never afford one. It was the first saxophone to ergonomically pinpoint the most relaxed playing position. Saxophones before this, they were made almost like a clarinet, so you're playing very flat-fingered. So this was revolutionary and different from every other saxophone maker. And the sound itself is very centered, very focused, and the intonation from the bottom of the horn through the top of the horn is the most accurate of its time.
"So while I was in Florida, I put out feelers for years, told all of my saxophone repair people, 'I'm looking for a Mark VI. It can't be anything that's been re-lacquered, all original parts, and the serial number on the body has to match the one on the neck.' Because what happens sometimes is the body will be original, but throughout the years the neck gets lost or pawned or stolen.
"So finally a buddy of mine called me randomly and said, 'I think I have a saxophone for you, I want you to come to my house to check it out.' So I go over to his house and this sweet little lady dropped it off and said that she wanted to get the saxophone repaired. It used to be her dad's and her dad had passed away, so she took it out of the closet and noticed that it needed some work done. So he repaired it and asked her what she planned on doing with it? And she said I think I'm gonna sell it. So he calls me and I try it out and it's in mint condition, so he connects me with the woman.
"I asked her, 'How much do you want for this?' And she said, 'Well, you know, I've gone online, I've looked at what the going rate is, and I see on eBay it's like $8,000.' But I told her, I want you to know that I'm not a wealthy man. I'm just a professional saxophone player and I'm a teacher, and whatever I do with the saxophone, I promise you that it won't go to waste or done in vain. I will be playing this saxophone for people; it won't be locked up in the closet. And I won't sell it to anyone else. And that really affected her.
"Because there's a whole class of instrument collectors and re-sellers out there who will just, they will buy them as investments and flip them, just like houses. Non-musicians, mind you; they'll buy them, put 'em in their closet for a couple years, they'll see the the numbers appreciating and then they'll put 'em back online and sell 'em.
"So she said, How much can you afford? And I said 'I can afford $6,500 and I can give you a cashier's check for that today, because I had been saving years for just this occasion. So we decide to meet at the repairman's house, and she gives me a big old hug and tells me this story about her father who was a musician and stationed around San Francisco during World War II, and he bought the horn brand-new while he was out here. They eventually moved to Florida and he played in rec bands, stuff like that but he got too old and just kind of stopped playing it and put it in his closet, but he would always play for her.
"So I said, 'Well, again, you know, that's basically what I plan on doing. My son plays the saxophone, I taught him, and I'm gonna be playing every day in front of my students and teaching them how to play the saxophone and how to play music.' Then she said, 'Okay, well you don't have to tell me anything else. The horn is yours.' And she's actually kept in touch with me on social media, so sometimes I'll post a picture or video and she'll comment and say, 'Is that my dad's horn?' So it's great that we're still able to have that connection."