Being a good saxophone caretaker

The concept of being a saxophone caretaker isn’t really outlandish at all

Any well-made professional—or even a good, student model saxophone from the early to mid part of the 20th century—when properly cared for, will serve its owners well for hundreds of years. Yes, you read that right, I wrote owners—as in multiple—and hundreds of years.

I am not talking here about the junk horns you can buy new for a few hundred bucks off eBay (or in the case of baritones, for under $2,000), but about the saxophones that were and are made by well-respected manufacturers, who used only the highest quality materials, workmanship, and quality control in their saxophones’ construction.

When I buy a vintage saxophone, I like buying it from the original owner. If the owner was a conscientious one, he/she kept the original accessories and/or documentation with the horn. This adds to the saxophone’s history, and down the road tells future owners something about where this instrument has been, and where it originally came from.

Examples from my personal collection of vintage saxophones

The Olds Super

Even if I don’t get the sax from the original owner, oftentimes there are clues where the vintage saxophone has come from included inside the case. For example, the Olds Super I bought last fall from Chadd at WWS had been exposed to water at some point, and its once-beautiful Lifton case was mouldy and literally falling apart at the seams.

Inside the stinky case however, were some treasures that indicated where this diamond-in-the-rough had been in its 78 year history. Sadly, the MP was gone, but the lig and MP cap remained, as did the lyre and neck strap. Something else that was in the case was an old, yellowed, water-damaged business card from business card, George Sarkis, saxophone tech, Philadelphia, repair tech George Sarkis in Philadelphia.

It didn’t take much Googling to come up with some very interesting information about George Sarkis. Before he passed away on February 19, 2005, he had the reputation as the “go-to” guy for saxophone repairs in the Philadelphia region.

We know that the business card I scanned above is very old. Just look at the convention of the phone number. However, the address on the card was where George Sarkis seemed to have his shop for most of his career. As a matter of fact, he had first moved in there in 1928.

George Sarkis, store front, 108 N. 18th St, Philadelphia

Thank you to dudovpiⒸs for sending and allowing me to use this photo.

Saxophone player Danny Luciano from Philadelphia has a very informative website. Besides being a very accomplished pro player, he created a website in order to use his 60 years in the business to help inform up and coming, would-be pro players.

Among the many fascinating articles Danny Luciano has on his site, is one titled: George Sarkis – The “Doctor of Horns”. I’ll let you read it on your own. Trust me when I say this, my Olds Super likely had some pretty heady company back in the day when it was in George Sarkis’ shop. Any one of the dozens of über famous saxophone greats who regularly played in Philadelphia, could easily have been drawn to this quite rare horn with its unique key cups and Art Deco styling.

Buffet-Crampon HP bari

The Olds Super I have is just the most recent example of an instrument that came with some clues about its history. In 2010, I wrote an extensive article about the Evette & Schaeffer HP bari that had belonged to the same person for over 60 years. That bari too came with some very interesting clues as to its past (prior to the previous owner getting it).

Before I got the Buffet-Crampon bari, Paul had owned it since 1945, when the drummer in the dance band he played in bought it for him, thinking it would add some different tonal colours to some of the band’s charts. Well it most certainly did add something to the band’s tonal palette. Sadly though, the HP tones clashed with the LP ones emanating from the rest of the band. Therefore this poor bari spent the next 65 years in its custom-made plywood case, protected with nothing more than a baby blanket.

Prior to Paul’s drummer buying the Buffet-Crampon bari, it must have spent at least part of its life on Vancouver Island. Canadian Pacific Express stickers on the outside of the case indicate that it was shipped from Nanaimo (which is where I bought the horn from coincidentally enough), to a Mr. Rob More in Courtney.

Canadian Pacific Express, railroad shipping label, early 20th century, Nanaimo, BC, Canada

vintage address label, shipping label, Canadian Pacific Express, railroad, Mr. Rob More, early 20th century, Courtney BC

Although today that roughly 100 KM trip is done by car in less than an hour, back when this horn was shipped by train, the Island Highway would have been only a rough, gravel road. Highway 19 wasn’t paved until the early 1950s.

Unfortunately there is no date visible on the shipping label, so we can’t be sure when it was sent via train. However, we know it was before 1945, when Paul came into possession of it. We also know that Canadian Pacific started building the rail corridor to Courtney after 1905, when they bought an existing railroad.

Therefore, we know that the Buffet-Crampon bari I am now the caretaker of, which was made in Paris, France in 1886, was shipped by rail on Vancouver Island at some point between 1905-1945.

A Toneking by any other name

Julius Keilwerth’s Toneking and The New King saxophones were arguably the most stenciled model that the company produced. Like so many of the European brands, JK stencils were identical to the brand-name horns that they were copies of.

Here in Western Canada the brand name Jubilee was sold by a number of music stores. The majority of Jubilee saxophones that I have seen were all made by JK in the 50s and 60s. I was fortunate enough to track down a matching set of JK-stencilled Jubilee saxophones that are stencils of their Toneking models (with the high F# key).

The 1957 tenor came through a friend of the original owner. This friend was tasked with selling the tenor when the owner could physically no longer play tenor sax. I got to hear the story of the strange customization to the left thumb rest and strap ring that were made on the horn by the owner—customizations which I had undone during its restoration.

Although the matching 1957 alto didn’t come through the original owner, but rather through a vintage horn dealer I know on Vancouver Island, it came with all its original accessories.

Jubilee alto saxophone by Julius Keilwerth, vintage, circa 1957,

Whoever owned this JK Toneking before, took great care to keep all its accessories together with the sax in the original green JK case. This turns out to have been a very good thing, because I have found nothing plays as well on this old-timer as the original JK MP. And although I have bought the JK a new case, I have carefully kept all the other original accessories together in the original case.

So getting back to my original point: We are the caretakers of fine saxophones

Any well-made professional—or even a good, student model saxophone from the early to mid part of the 20th century—when properly cared for, will serve its owners well for hundreds of years.

I gave you just four small examples from my personal saxophone collection. I could have given you many more.

For example, my Mark VI tenor has a very tragic story attached to it that involves the death of its previous owner. My Buescher bass saxophone’s history has been outlined since the very first incarnation of the Bassic Sax website nearly 20 years ago. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

We might open up our cheque books and wallets to buy a horn, but saxophones have a rather interesting way of outliving their owners. However, it all comes down to how the current owner looks after them, that will determine how they will fare in the future.

If a horn has been abused, E.g. if someone took a ball-peen hammer to the neck, or beat the shit out of it by banging it into chairs, stands, mic stands, walls, and everything else in its path, then a horn clearly is not going to fare very well. Bad saxophone caretaker. (Just think of all those poor beaten to shit baris we see for sale all the time.) Sure, damage can be fixed, but it will never be the same as a horn that has never been damaged.

Or if a horn gets used for decades, never sees a tech, and say is dropped and kicked around in its case, it too is going to have a tougher time down the road. Bad saxophone caretaker. Again, it can get repaired, but the bill is going to be higher, and depending on many variables, many owners may feel that the cost isn’t worth it.

If on the other hand, even if a horn is played daily, but gets seen by a good tech regularly, and has the necessary work done when needed, and isn’t abused, then that daily player could go on a become someone else’s primary horn. Look no further than my ugly duckling 1950 Zephyr tenor that bumped my killer VI into the back up spot.

The fine, vintage saxophones that many of us play today, and that turn up regularly as unrestored attic finds, were built to last generations. When properly looked after, there is no reason that they won’t be playable in a couple hundred years from now.

That’s why if you’re like me, and care about history, there are some things you can do to try and ensure that the horns you’re a caretaker of, retain some of their history for the next owner.

Concrete steps you can take to preserve your saxophone’s history

  1. Keep all the accessories with the instrument. If you sell the horn, include them, don’t sell them separately.
  2. If you’re going to be using your restored instrument as a gigging horn, by all means get it a new case. But if the old case doesn’t stink, isn’t mouldy, or isn’t offensive in some other way, keep it. It’s a great place to keep all the original accessories in. If you at some point sell the horn, make sure that the original case and accessories go with the horn as well as the new case.
  3. Keep any original documentation that came with the horn, and if you go to sell it, include it with the sax. Things like: tags, a company certificate, original bill of sale, etc.
  4. If there is a name tag on the case, take it off and keep it inside the accessory compartment of the case.
  5. Keep any invoices for extensive repair work done on your horn (overhauls, etc). If you sell you sax, include them with the horn.
  6. Try and sell your horn to someone who appreciates the backstory and history that your sax has. This increases the odds that it will be well-cared for, and that its future history with that owner will be preserved as well.
  7. Write the history of the sax, as far as its known, and keep a copy in the case.
  8. Figure out what you want done with your horns after you die. List them in your will, and include very clear and specific directions for your Executor to follow regarding their distribution.

I’m not saying go to all this effort for a student model Jupiter, or any of its contemporaries—since we know these things aren’t being made today to last.

I am suggesting however, that you take a closer look at the horns in your stable, and realize that it’s not just a sax with the name Selmer engraved on the bell, but even that Pan American from 1930, or JK-made whatever from 1955, or an Oscar Adler from 1940, or a modern Rampone & Cazzani , et al, that will still be kickin’ long after many of today’s horns have been recycled or re-purposed. It is those fine vintage horns, and the fine modern pro horns saxophones out there, for whom this collection of information is important.

Even if the data collection starts with you. At least it has started somewhere, and at some point in a saxophone’s history. Because if this article has gotten you to think of nothing else, it should have made you realize that there is a very good chance that your saxophone(s) will outlive you.


This article was updated with a photo of George Sarkis’ shop in Philadelphia. Photo provided by dudovpiⒸs.

© 2018, Helen. All rights reserved.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.

One Comment:

  1. It is a second nature to me that musical instruments should be treated with care; and a part of this is to know the history of your instrument.
    Most saxophones are slightly adapted to the prefered sound of the building era. When you play most saxophones from before 1950 in their original set up they sound completely different from now.
    Knowing this history can help to improve the sound of the instrument.
    So adding a written history of the saxophone is a good idea.
    Being a good caretaker, in my book, also means that new adaptation to the prefered sound and repairs should be rebuildable.

    Most old, and new, saxophones are made with technology from the time that Napoleon was defeated in the Netherlands.
    Technology developed to make things that lasted. This takes time and our economy has changed in such a way that time is considered to be too valuable to waste it on building a durable saxophone.
    The history of the silver Eagle is a good illustration.

    It is nice you mentioned Sarkis. He was also working on more durable saxophone pads
    He was a pioneer on polymer coatings which made pads more durable using dilluted yacht paint.
    Now most leather pads have a polymer coating to protect them from water.
    Also experiments with 3D printed saxophones could be a method to buid durable affordable saxophones.

    I am looking at these new and old technolgies in order to develop my own durable theophone.
    Just for fun, but respecting the history of the instrument.

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