Many of us, handed a saxophone, wouldn’t have the first clue about how to play it properly, and almost none of us would have any idea at all about how to make one. Then again, those of us of a certain generation might feel an old memory coming back to the surface: hadn’t we once witnessed the inner workings of a saxophone factory? We did if we ever happened to catch the classic 1980 Sesame Street short above which shows the saxophone-making process in its entirety, beginning with flat sheets of metal and ending up, two minutes later, with jazzily playable instruments — just like the one we’ve heard improvising to the action onscreen the whole time.
Golden-age Sesame Street always did well with revealing how things were made in a characteristically mesmerizing way, as also seen around the same time in an even more widely remembered two minutes in a crayon factory. Both it and the saxophone workshop, though they use plenty of technology, look like quaintly, even charmingly labor-intensive operations today: in almost every step shown, we see not just a machine or tool but the human (or at least a part of the human) operating it.
And it turns out, on the evidence of the 2012 video from the Musical Instrument Museum just below, that the art of saxophone-making hasn’t changed as much in the subsequent decades as we might imagine.
With its more than ten minutes of runtime, the MIM’s video shows in a bit more detail what actually happens inside a modern saxophone factory, namely that of woodwind and brass instrument maker Henri Selmer Paris, whose saxophones have been played by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. And while some of the equipment clearly grew more advanced in the 32 years since the Sesame Street short, the overall process remains clearly recognizable, as does the concentration evident in the actions and on the faces of all the skilled workers involved, albeit on a much larger scale. The day when we can 3D-print our own saxophones at home — the culmination of the industrial evolutionary process glimpsed in two different stages in these videos — will come, but it certainly hasn’t come yet.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.