Music technology changed a lot after World War II. Postwar introductions included the solidbody electric guitar, electric bass, seven-inch single, multitrack tape, transistors, and much more. On paper, it would seem like an ideal era to launch a new affordable alternative to the venerable brass saxophone.
London-based Italian inventor Hector Sommaruga thought so, anyway. He patented a basic design for a plastic alto sax in 1945 and built a non-working prototype a year later. With backing from John E. Dallas & Sons Ltd and others, he was ready to begin commercial production in 1950, naming his instrument for his workshop’s Grafton Way street address.
According to Steve Goodson’s SaxGourmet.com, engineering firm De La Rue produced Grafton’s molded plastic body, bell, and key guards out of an acrylic compound developed by Imperial Chemical Industries. The necks were made of brass because plastic necks tended to break.
At around £55—$154 U.S. at 1950 exchange rates and $1,640 in today’s dollars—the Grafton cost about half as much as a traditional brass sax at the time. Charlie Parker was its first famous early adopter, playing it for the 1953 Toronto concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach captured on Jazz at Massey Hall (also known as The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever). But it was Ornette Coleman who would use it to tear up the rulebook in his pursuit of free jazz.
Coleman began playing a Grafton in 1954 not because he liked its sound, but because he couldn’t afford anything else at the time. Yet, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff wrote in Coleman’s 2015 obituary, the plastic sax would become “an emblem of his early years.” It literally set the tone for his 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come: “The record’s swing and harmonic freedom, its intuitive communication between Mr. Coleman and [trumpeter Don] Cherry, and its ease with nonstandard ways of playing jazz made it a classic.”
It may have been the ideal choice for the iconoclastic Ornette, but the Grafton’s uniqueness ultimately spelled its doom. Goodson calls the plastic tone a mismatch for section playing and says the mechanism felt alien to most saxophonists. Worse, according to author and technician Stephen Howard, the Grafton was built with “just about the most brittle plastic ever made.” Techs trained on traditional saxes had a hard time repairing an instrument with an unfamiliar mechanism and few available spare parts. Even Coleman, frustrated by mechanical failures, eventually switched to a white-lacquered brass Selmer. A little more than 10 years after Grafton’s founding, the company closed up shop.
Today, most surviving Graftons are prized for display rather than performance. Among them is the one Parker used at Massey Hall, which brought a record price of $140,000 when sold at auction in 1994. It is currently on exhibit at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.
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Calling it a “new species,” D’Addario Woodwinds says its new VENN reed, available in a range of strengths for B-flat clarinet and alto and tenor saxophone, combines “the stability and longevity of a synthetic reed with the sound and feel of natural cane.” Built by layering polymer fibers of different strengths with resin and organic elements, the VENN doesn’t just last longer than natural cane; it also is more consistent from reed to reed, stands up to changing conditions, is less prone to damage, and requires less prep and maintenance.