2 Great Days and 1 minty Mark VI

If you think about all the 365 days of a typical year, very few of them stand out because they were great days. In 2019 I have already had two great days. Why were they both great days? Because they involved the person who got me started on saxophone the RIGHT way, and who continues to inspire me, correct my mistakes, and kick my ass just when I think I got pretty good.

The first private sax teacher I had also happened to be my grade 8-10 band teacher. He was pretty new to the teaching game when I came along, but he had already put in 5 years with the US Air Force bands as a tenor/clarinet player. Kenton inspired me, and always pushed me to go further than I thought I could.

His saxophone at the time was a 1967 Mark VI tenor that he bought new. It came in one of those grey, semi-rigged, zippered cases that these days seem more of a curiosity than common.

Selmer zippered saxophone case, sax case, vintage case, grey case, handles

Source: zohrabs-gear-emporium on reverb.com

Over all these decades Kenton and I stayed in touch and remained friends. To this day we still get together and play. He still plays circles around me, and on occasion gives me the hardest materials ever to work on, so we have some challenging stuff to work towards during our next get together. (That book from Berklee still confounds me, but I digress…)

I of course have had my own Mark VI tenor since the 80s, and Kenton likes it. It and my 1950 Zephyr are Kenton’s favourites of all the tenors I own.

Kenton has always used his very vintage, Conn New Wonder as a back-up when his Mark VI was in the shop. Because these days the left pinkie cluster is no longer something he is willing to put up with, he has been play-testing new Selmers in hopes of finding something like his Mark VI.

Alas, the new Selmers were all falling quite short. He even tried a new Yamaha on an extended play-test, but coming from a vintage Selmer, the new Yamahas were not able to produce the sound he heard in his head.

Great Day 1 of 2019 – In search of a back-up for a Mark VI

My birthday fell on a Monday this year—the day after a weekend of shows for two different bands I play with. Kenton and his wife came up from the States and caught one of the shows, and then on my birthday he and I spent the day playing my horns.

He tried all my gigging tenors to see if any of the different brands would be something that might be a good back-up horn for him. The takeaway for Kenton was that all my horns were amazingly set-up, tight, and felt like new horns.

He wished his Mark VI could feel like this. I told him it could. All it needed was David’s care and attention.

Kenton asked me to keep an eye out for a Mark VI tenor for him. I told him horns have a habit of finding me. Don’t worry, I’ll find something. I offered him my Zephyr or Mark VI in the interim, but he said it’s OK. He’ll make do with the Conn until he finds a backup.

It was just over 24 hours after Kenton left our house that I got a phone call from another big band in the Metro Vancouver region. They needed a sub for their regular bari player, and wondered if I could come. The rehearsal was on Wednesday, the following day.

I had never subbed for them before, so I said yes. Doing so required me to do a lot of re-jigging of things the following day, but I had heard lots about this band, so I really wanted the experience of playing with them to see and hear what kinds of arrangements they played.

Besides, making new friends in the musical community is always a good thing, and helping out another big band is just the right thing to do. They’ve sent players to The Moonliters when we’ve needed subs.

As soon as I walked into their practice space the next day, a man walks up to me and says: “I know you. I’ve been to your house and played your bass sax.”

Indeed he had. Dave is the 2nd tenor player for the Bruce James Orchestra, and happens to be friends with the man who I bought my Toneking tenor from. After my Toneking came back from its restoration, Dave drove his friend over for a visit, and they spent the afternoon in my studio playing horns and visiting.

I got to sit beside Dave through the entire rehearsal, and we got caught up. He was using one of his two Yamaha tenors, and he told me that the one he was playing was the replacement for a Mark VI he had.

My ears immediately perked up, and I asked him about it. Turns out his Mark VI is like my new Couf bari was: basically a closet horn. He is the second owner, and he bought it from a working pro who he took some lessons from. That pro bought two new horns in 1968: this Mark VI and a Couf. He liked the Couf better, so the Mark VI basically sat in the closet untouched for years.

Once Dave bought the horn, he used it until he got his first Yamaha. I asked Dave if he was planning on selling his Selmer. He told me he was. I told him I think I have a buyer for it.

Selmer Mark VI tenor sax, 1968, tenor saxophone,

Dave’s minty Mark VI from 1968

Great Day 2 of 2019 – play-testing a minty Mark VI

Fast forward to 10 days after my chance reconnection with this minty Mark VI’s owner—and the word minty here is not being misused, even the typical tan/brown Chesterfield case hasn’t been out in the rain and looks like new, as of course does the horn. Dave, Kenton, and I met at my tech’s shop so Kenton could play-test this stunningly beautiful Mark VI.

Kenton brought his Mark VI with him, and David spent the first hour we were there fixing his Mark VI up so that some of the problems that had been plaguing him were gone. I brought along my Mark VI so Kenton had a larger sample size for comparison.

Dave’s Mark VI tenor from 1968 did not disappoint. Kenton play-tested the horn for nearly 2 hours, comparing it to the other horns. I had him try some other ligatures (yup, I know my way around David’s shop really well ;) ) and showed him how to apply the Rovner ligature a particular way to get the sound he is looking for.

When all was said and done, Kenton loved the horn. It had the sound that he was looking for. It had the feel of a new horn, yet was a Mark VI from 1968. Dave and Kenton agreed on a price, and the Selmer got its third owner: A pro who has a lifetime of experience; and who now plays in some great bands in the Western Washington.

Yup, Friday the 22nd of March was a great day. Getting to spend the day with some of my favourite musical people doing sax stuff is my definition of a great day. And let’s face it, the next best thing to buying a sax for yourself, is being with one of your closest musical friends when they buy one.

Given that Kenton was the person who made sure I got started playing sax the right way; corrected my bad habits before they became ingrained; and challenged and encouraged me through private lessons after school, it seems somehow àpropos that I was able to help him find a new Mark VI as a back-up to the one I remember.

Since I don’t yet have a vintage Conn in my tenor stable, I asked him what he was doing with his. He told me he was getting rid of it. Needless to say that Conn, with its big fat sound—and that I too remember from back in the day—will be coming to live with me.

Olds Super tenor sax, silver sax, weave pattern over photo

There are a lot of connecting threads in life, and it is truly an amazing thing when a day happens when they all seem to weave together to form a great picture. The events over the past couple of weeks got me thinking of something that I want to flesh out. Watch this space. More on that in the coming weeks.

© 2019, 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.


  1. Very intriguing circumstances of events Helen!! Everyone’s happy!!
    Alas!! Speaking of Kenton, since he has been play testing the newer Selmer’s, think he could provide some info on the Super balanced 80 series 2?? Thanks!!

    • I don’t know if Kenton play-tested a Series II or not. I don’t believe so. If I hadn’t found him a VI I think his next play-test was going to be a Series III and II. Kenton did however, play-test a brand new Reference 54. He was not impressed. That’s why he was hoping I would stumble across another Mark VI in my travels.

      I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something here that might seem contradictory given the vintage sax nature of my website. As much as I love vintage horns—and I should, since I have so many of them—I don’t recommend them as a great horns for students just starting out. (Stick with me here, and see where I’m going.) The reason that players like Kenton, myself, and so many others prefer the older Selmers are because we have been playing them for decades, and know exactly what it takes to make them play well, play in tune, and just as importantly, how to recognize a good one from a dog—since yes, there are lots of dogs among the vintage sax market.

      If you read any of the Selmer discussion threads in places like SOTW, you’ll soon find people complaining about the quality assurance problems that Selmer has with their new horns. I can’t comment with authority on this because I haven’t played that many (<20), but I can tell you that of all the new Selmer saxophones (alto, tenor, & bari) that I have tried, only 1 has been phenomenal, and that is a Reference 36 tenor that came from a Selmer Pro Shop: Kessler & Sons in Las Vegas.

      After playing Jim's Reference tenor, I knew that if I ever had to replace my tenor, I would go to see Dave Kessler in Vegas and pick out a Selmer that his shop set up perfectly—the way Selmer used to.

      Selmers are a very different animal. It doesn't matter if they are well set up or not. The point is they are not the easiest instrument to play. They have more resistance than other brands; their tuning requires more player adjustments than other brands; they don't hold their regulation as well as other brands; and they are in general more fickle than other brands. Some of the characteristics are also what make Selmers the go-to sax for many pros, since these characteristics help contribute to that sound that the brand is known for.

      At this point I can't remember with 100% certainty, but for some reason I was under the impression that you were just learning how to play sax. Am I wrong here? Or do you already play some sax?

      I always tell me students that they can't wrong with a Japanese-made Yamaha. Since you're looking for a tenor, I would suggest a YTS-52, or what is referred to as a "purple label" YTS-61. The 52 is Yamaha's intermediate horn and is excellent. Many pros use it. The 61 is their older pro horn. If you're trying to save $$ then of course the YTS-23 is always a great bet as well.

      The Yamahas have all the characteristics I outlined earlier when I described the YAS-23.

      Yamahas are incredibly popular horns, and have a very contemporary sound. Simply put: they are much easier to play than a Selmer; are extremely well built; and tend to hold their regulation much better than any Selmer I have ever encountered.

      For my own students, these are the horns I recommend hands down.

      • Well Helen, that was very enlightening to say the least. I am, more or less, just starting on my sax playing endeavor. I have been doing some research and your thoughts for a Yamaha for a student seem to be the consensus from many. With that being said, Yamaha it will be. I just purchased a mint YAS-26…and I mean MINT. Also have the Buescher enroute that I posted on SOTW last week…I got to have ONE anyway lol. The tenor Yamaha, it’s in the works. Thanks for your time Helen, you have been a GREAT help to me over the past couple of weeks… appreciated more than words can say. All the best!!

  2. Thank you, what a great story. I need that. I do a solo act with five instruments and don’t get to connect with others very often. Just today a met a pro tenor sax man, I hope that we can exchange some knowledge.

    • Hello William.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my tale of the minty Mark VI and my buddy Kenton.

      I know what you mean about working in isolation, and that feeling you get. Personally, I felt like I was not advancing, or like I was “missing” something.

      For nearly 20 years I worked in rock and blues bands where I was the only sax player. I worked with great musicians who also happened to be great people, but none played sax. Although musically I was evolving, I felt like my saxophone skills were not going anywhere.

      When I quit the blues band I was in in October 2013, I had no idea what would happen. Then just 2 months later I got called to sub for the Alto 2 chair in a local big band. Fast forward to today and I’m the band’s bari player (my main horn), and am surrounded by some of the best sax and horn players in Metro Vancouver. Playing this style of music all the time has challenged me musically, and made me a way better saxophone player.

      I get to exchange ideas all the time with players who have years more experience than I do, and who studied with different instructors, profs, and pros, so they sometimes have a different approach than I do. This open exchange of ideas is one of the greatest things about playing with others who play the same instrument that you do.

      I hope you have the chance to exchange ideas with the tenor player you met William. To me this free-flow of ideas is one of the greatest gifts of being a musician.

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