David Bowie had one. Andy Mackay had one that he played with Roxy Music. Charlie Parker had one that sold for £93,500 at auction house Christies in 1994. John Dankworth had one that he played at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Ornette Coleman had one that he played on his Atlantic debut album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’, a landmark in avant-garde jazz. And now MoDiP has one: a beautiful, ivory coloured, plastic Grafton Alto Saxophone.
The Grafton’s story begins with Ettore (Hector) Sommaruga, born in Italy in 1904, who started his career making musical instruments as an apprentice at the age of twelve. He went on to gain a Diploma in Music, his principal study being the flute, so was both player and maker. Aged 22 he came to England to carry out and teach the process of gold-plating saxophones and whilst here, joined a jazz-style band playing alto sax. The following year he became a full-time professional saxophonist and over the next decade played his way across south-west Europe. In 1936 he returned to England where he ran a home for child refugees from the Spanish Civil War. He continued this work with Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany but when Britain declared war in 1939, he was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. Upon release he set up a business repairing musical instruments for the armed forces which flourished since wartime austerity meant that no new musical instruments were being made or imported. He established a factory in Grafton Way off the Tottenham Court Road in London (note the name).
As war ended, Hector had already developed his idea to produce a saxophone in plastic, filing a patent on 14th September 1945. He had predicted a post-war demand for instruments but was well aware of the increasing difficulties and expense of importing raw materials. At the same time, manufacturers were looking for new ways in which to use their huge stockpiles of plastics that were no longer needed for war use. Putting all this together, Hector believed that moulded plastic would be suitable for mass production and capable of producing a musical instrument that was affordable to all. An unplayable prototype was presented at the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946 but it took a further four years of development before the Grafton Alto Saxophone was commercially launched in 1950. It was described as ‘A Tone Poem in Ivory and Gold’ and sold for 55 guineas, half the price of a brass saxophone (equivalent to £1850 today).
Despite endorsement from such key players as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, John Dankworth, ‘Lazy Ade’ Monsbourgh and Harry Hayes, less than 3000 were ever made in the Grafton’s ten years of production. Hector himself became so disillusioned that he left the project in 1953, returning to France to run a motel. There are many reasons attributed to the Grafton’s fall into relative obscurity. Firstly, production was very slow - the assembly line averaged only 12 saxophones each week, mainly due to the parts that had to be finished and fitted by hand. Secondly, it was being sold so cheaply that there was little profit to be made per instrument. Thirdly, although the acrylic body of the saxophone was tough, it was brittle and could easily break if dropped. Additionally, Hector had introduced a non-standard spring mechanism which was difficult and expensive to repair. Finally there was the traditionalist point of view where musicians simply did not like the look of the Grafton and preferred the feel and sound of playing brass. The factory was closed in 1959 although outworkers continued to build one or two each week until the parts ran out in 1961.
Exuding 1950s Italian style, the Grafton is certainly a thing of beauty but is rarely seen being played these days. However, improvements in the development of plastics and manufacturing processes over the 50 years since production stopped have recently enabled a modern, comparable version of this plastic saxophone to come onto the market. The Vibratosax, first introduced in 2011 by Thai company Vibrato Saxophones, is made in polycarbonate and ABS and has been marketed as a ‘sax for all’, echoing Hector’s original dream. MoDiP will hopefully be featuring one to compare against the Grafton in an exhibition later this year.
Katherine Pell (MoDiP Administrator)
Goodson, S., 2014. The Grafton Plastic Saxophone (online). New Orleans: Sax Gourmet. Available from: http://www.saxgourmet.com/the-grafton-plastic-saxophone/ (Accessed 19 December 2016).
Horwood, W., 2011. The Grafton Story (online). Missouri: Saxophone.org. Available from: http://www.saxophone.org/museum/saxophones/manufacturer/60/history/0 (Accessed 19 December 2016).
Howard, S., 2015. Grafton Plastic Alto Saxophone (online). Hampshire: S. H. Woodwind Repairs. Available from: http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Alto/Grafton_alto.htm (Accessed 19 December 2016).
Howard, S., 2015. The Naked Grafton (online). Hampshire: S. H. Woodwind Repairs. Available from: http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/misc/nakedgrafton.htm (Accessed 19 December 2016).
Kennedy, S., 2015. Piyapat Thanyakij at Vibrato Saxophones Music Company Interview (online). California: Teen Jazz. Available from: http://teenjazz.com/teen-jazz-company-interview-with-piyapat-thanyakij-at-vibrato-saxophones/#sthash.6DAnJ2PX.dpbs (Accessed 9 January 2017).
USA Horn., 2016. The Grafton Acrylic (online). New Jersey: SaxPics.com. Available from: http://www.saxpics.com/?v=mod&modID=94 (Accessed 19 December 2016).