Recently I had the great fortune of playing on a good condition Grafton saxophone at Blowout Sax brought in by Suzie.It is an injection moulded, cream-coloured acryli c plastic alto saxophone with metal keys, which was manufactured in London by the Grafton company, and later by ‘John E. Dallas & Sons Ltd’.
Only Grafton altos were ever made, due to the challenges in making larger models with 1950s plastic technology. Production started in 1950 and ended ten years. Grafton saxophones have a very distinctive appearance due to their 1950s Italian style. The mechanical action of Graftons has an unusual “spongy” feel to it, without the quick, “snappy”, positive feel of other more conventional saxophone actions. The plastic technology used in the Grafton dates from the late 1940s and is therefore nowhere near as robust as the injection moulded plastics used in the 21st century.
Problem with the Grafton alto sax
The basic problem with Grafton saxophones is thatparts of them could easily crack, fracture or snap off during normal use. Not only do Graftons use a non-standard spring mechanism to operate the action, but spare parts are unavailable. Not surprisingly, Graftons are challenging and expensive to overhaul or repair when compared to saxophones made entirely of metal . As a general rule, Graftons are now regarded purely as collectors’ items i.e. for display purposes only. This is because they are fragile and very easy to damage, which detracts from their monetary value.
The tale of Charlie Parker and the Grafton
A sales representative for Grafton asked Parker to use a Grafton for a Massey Hall gig in May 1953 as once again Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker had pawned his saxophone. Although Parker was under exclusive contract to use only one type of saxophone whilst gigging in the United States, outside the U.S.A. he was free to use any sax he wished, including this Grafton. The recording of Parker can be heard on the CD “Jazz at Massey Hall”. The Grafton saxophone that Parker used (serial number 10265) was sold at the Christie’s London auction house in September 1994 for £93,500, though this was because of its association with a famous jazz musician rather than the instrument itself having any special merit. The buyer was the American Jazz Museum, located in Parker’s home town of Kansas City.
The other exponent of the Grafton was Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman used to play a Grafton purchased in 1954 originally because it was the cheapest saxophone he could replace his first tenor with after it was broken. In the late fifties and early sixties, Coleman was known as “the man with the plastic horn”. However, Coleman subsequently replaced his Grafton with a white-lacquered Selmer alto instead.
The Legacy of Grafton
As of 2010 there are no manufacturers of plastic saxophones, with the exception of Vibrato Sax.Here’s Lowri with her pink version of the Vibrato Sax.It is incredible light and from a young beginners idea excellent but it still is a tad expensive as a new costing over £300 from www.sax.co.uk.On playing it is light and tonally satisfactory but improvements could still be made in the mechanism which I imagine can only be a matter of time. Lowri has now graduated onto her dads lovely black and gold alto sax now.
Plastics technology has advanced significantly since the 1950s. Superior polymers now exist which are much more durable, not to mention the possibility of using composites of the carbon fibre for component parts requiring extra strength so watch out for more and improved plastic saxophones in the 21 century.