Copper in the Arts

September 2012

Super Sax Back

By Courtney H. Diener-Stokes

Saxophonist Mike Smith Saxophonist Mike Smith

Photograph courtesy of Powell Flutes

Chicago-based saxophonist Mike Smith, 55, has performed and recorded with such jazz greats as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole.

Five years ago he had a thought.

"It was my idea," he says. "To build an instrument that is built on a famous old saxophone called the King Super 20."

According to Smith, the American-made instrument, popular in the 1940's, 50's and 60's, was used by many famous sax players such as Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley.

"I always thought this was a great instrument," Smith says. "I thought it was a good time to bring an American made instrument back."

A collector of vintage King Super 20s, Smith describes how the cost of manufacturing in America led to the eventual phasing out of the iconic King Super 20.

"In the last thirty years there hasn't been an American-made saxophone," Smith says.

His determination to resuscitate the instrument led him to engineer John Weir, Toronto, Ontario and Steven Wasser, owner of Verne Q. Powell Flutes in Maynard, MA.

"Each member of that team contributed design ideas to this instrument," Wasser says, which led to their first prototype.

"Now we're in production with the alto," Smith says.

Smith's current role is that of artist and design consultant with Powell.

"This is kind of Mike's dream saxophone," Wasser says.

Silver Eagle prototype A prototype of the Powell Silver Eagle saxophone.

Photograph courtesy of Powell Flutes

Powell Flutes, which recently acquired E.K. Blessing Co., both long-standing, household names in the world of musical instruments, anticipates making deliveries of the new alto saxophone before the first of the year.

"Right now we are building twenty-five of them," Smith says, of orders that are in the process of being filled.

Called the Powell Silver Eagle, the alto, made of brass and silver, retails for $9,390. The all-brass alto version will retail for $7,990.

"This is a very high-end instrument," Smith says. "Eventually we will make a cheaper line that will be more for students and intermediates."

Powell also has a tenor sax in development and a soprano and baritone will follow suit, covering the whole family of saxophones.

While some parts of the new sax are made in Maynard, MA, which is Powell Flute's headquarters, it is put together in Elkhart, Indiana.

"It is a very famous part of the country where they made a lot of musical instruments from the turn of the century to the 1980's," Smith says. "We hired some of the people that used to work in the industry."

Silver Eagle The Powell Silver Eagle saxophone.

Photograph courtesy of Powell Flutes

The factory in Elkhart was an old RV factory converted by Blessing, which still prides itself in making all of its brass instruments in Elkhart.

Prior to production, Powell had a couple of prototypes test-driven.

"I brought them all around the country for different musicians to try and they gave favorable reviews," Smith says.

The research and development in creating the Silver Eagle was intensive, along with setting up the capability for manufacturing.

"We started from scratch basically," Smith says. "We bought some of the tooling from a factory in Germany. The acoustic design and all of that tooling had to be made brand new, other than the keys."

Smith and Wasser describe attributes of the Silver Eagle that make it unique.

"Some of the build quality is different. There is precious metal on it - it is made with a sterling silver neck pipe and bell," Smith says. "The body is made of brass and the tone holes are made of silver."

Holes of a saxophone are typically built in and then drawn up.

"Ours are actually silver brazed to the body," Wasser says of one of his primary design contributions.

The intent from the beginning was to take the basic design of the original instrument and modernize it.

"We built on something that was old and tried to improve it," Smith says.

Wasser credits an overall team approach that brought the Silver Eagle to life, ranging from contributions in product development and technology to finance, equipment and tooling.

"The two people that are now quarterbacking and driving this to the finish line are Ed Kwityn and Daryl Greising," Wasser says.

"We have done the design work and it is Ed and Daryl who bear the responsibility for taking the design and making instruments that we can deliver to musicians."

Resources:

Powell Flutes, 1 Clock Tower Pl., Maynard, MA, (978) 461-6111

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