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The Grafton Acrylic

Charlie Parker played one on the famous Jazz At Massey Hall Album: Coleman played one on his revolutionary Change Of The Century: the 23 year old Johnny Dankworth (as he was then) played one with his poll-winning Seven in the early 1950s. It was the strangest looking saxophone you ever saw, made out of cream-coloured plastic and named the Grafton Acrylic.

In 1951 it sold for 55 guineas (£57.75), in the sixties they were practically giving them away, but nowadays a Grafton in good condition - if you can find one will cost you an arm and a leg. Parker's own instrument was sold at auction in September for a small for small fortune. More about that later, but first a bit of history.

When the smoke of World War Two cleared in 1945 Britain found itself broke. There was no money for essentials let alone luxuries, and virtually all imports were banned, especially anything that had to be paid for in US dollars. At the same time, there was a great hunger for fun and entertainment. In packed ballrooms and drill halls people danced nightly to the music of live bands-ranging in size from the humble accordion and drums to a full 16-piece dance orchestra. Naturally there was a call for saxophones, but most saxophones came either from France where factories had been destroyed, or from the US which was out of the question.

Enter the Italian engineer and musician Ettore (Hector) Sommaruga. During the early years of the war he had been interned on the Isle of Man as an 'enemy alien' and during that enforced idleness he had foreseen not only the post-war demand for instruments, but also the difficulties over imports and raw materials. The answer he decided would be a saxophone made in Britain using the new plastics developed for the war effort. The toughest plastic at the time was an acrylic called Perspex, the stuff used in making the cockpit of the spitfire. Something along those lines should do nicely.

By 1947 Sommarua had knocked up a prototype at his little works in Grafton Way, London WC1 (hence the name) and had it on show at the year's Britain Can Make It exhibition. Manufacture was licensed to Dallas Musical Instruments Ltd, and by 1950 the saxophone was in full production at their factory at Bexleyheath, Kent, to the accompaniment of an florid advertising campaign, featuring the slogan ' A tone-poem in ivory and gold'.

The company worked hard to get well-known British players to endorse the Grafton, among them Harry Hayes, Britain's leading altoist of the pre-bop generation. Now aged 85, he recalls it as "a beautiful instrument to play. The keywork was unbeatable and it was perfectly in tune". In fact the Grafton was the first saxophone to have its tuning electronically checked before leaving the factory.

Not everyone who endorsed the instrument played it regularly, but Dankworth did. As the young, glamorous leader of Britain's top modern jazz group, he was the Grafton's most valuable ally and the company provided him with two altos, specially customised to his requirements. The high point of the Grafton's public image was during the year of the Festival of Britain, 1951, when the Johnny Dankworth Seven topped the bill at a packed concert in the brand new Royal Festival Hall, the ivory and gold glinting in the spotlight.

Back at the Bexleyheath factory, things were not looking so bright. Roy Wood worked on the Grafton from the beginning, and was in charge of production from 1953.

The Grafton was not an easy thing to manufacture. The plastic body was injection- moulded and some of the holes had to be drilled out and filed by hand. The keys came as rough casting and they had to be smoothed off, fitted with pads and springs, polished, gold lacquered and mounted - all by hand. It was a slow job, but if you tried to rush it you broke something; then you'd have to cement the broken bit and wait for it to harden. We had a whole assembly line doing the work, but we never managed more than about 20 completed instruments a week. The average was around 12.

Even then they'd be piling up unsold in the warehouse. At one point in 1953 there was such a stockpile that Dallas turned the Grafton line over to making plastic novelty calendars for the Coronation. I know that whenever we asked for a raise they quoted the sales figures at us.

It can't have made money, not at the price they were charging. It cost about £14.5 to make a single instrument. It sold in the shops for just under £58, but that includes purchase tax at 66%. When you take off wholesalers' and retailers profit there's not much left.

Even having Johnny Dankworth playing the Grafton didn't quite get over people's suspicions that somehow it wasn't a real saxophone. Once import restrictions were eased and continental factories got back into production with cheap brass instruments there was no hope for it.

The original order had been for enough parts to make 3000 instruments, with a few extra bits for spares, but when Dallas closed down the Grafton production line in 1959 nothing like that number had actually been completed. By this time Roy Wood had left, and the company arranged for him to build Graftons on a freelance basis using the left-over parts.

"For a couple of years, right up to until late 1961, I made up one or two a week in my garden shed. In the end they wanted to get shut of the whole thing and offered to sell me the remaining parts, but they weren't complete sets and couldn't have been made up into instruments. So I turned it down and they junked the lot for scrap. Except for this." From a drawer he produced a plastic saxophone body, ready drilled and prepared, bearing the serial number 13082- the unborn embryo of the very last Grafton.

One of the people buying those late models, assembled in Roy's shed, was Ornette Coleman. He bought his first one in Los Angeles in 1954, because it was cheap and it was all he could afford. In 1961 he told Nat Hentoff " I didn't like it at first, but I figured it would be better to have a new horn anyway. Now I won't play any other. They're made in England and I have to send for them. They are only good for a year the way I play them."

Ornette believed that the plastic instrument had a special tone quality and produced 'purer notes'. This would have surprised the staff at Bexleyheath who conducted blindfold tests to ensure that the sound was indistinguishable from that of a brass alto. Ornette shared Harry Hayes's admiration for the setting of the keywork. "flat like a flute keyboard".

Grafton's one export attempt ended in disaster when a crane dropped a crate containing 200 instruments from a great height onto a concrete dockside in New York. That was in 1953 and Ornette's first Grapton was probably one of the few survivors. Where Charlie Parker got his from is a complete mystery. It's serial number 1026 means that it is a very early model - the 265th in fact. He played it not only at the Massey Hall concert on 15th May 1953 (which was photographed) but also on several broadcasts durin that year. We know this because the MC mention the fact. In a brief interview with one of them. Leonard Feather Bird says the instrument was "a gift from an English man about three years ago" - ie 1950 which fits with the serial numbers.

So who was this mysterious Englishman ? Where did Bird meet him? There is no record Of Bird ever having visited Britain. The nearest he came was Paris in 1949, and Sweden, followed by Paris again in 1950. It has been suggested that Bird flew home from Paris on the second occasion via London Airport, and he may have stopped over. If he came into town he could have strolled down Charing Cross Road, in those days lined with musical instrument shops, and into Shaftesbury Avenue. There at number 156, he would have found "The Saxophone Shop" owned by John Pausey, a friend of the Grafton inventor Hector Sommaruga. Could it just possibly be that%u2026.? Well not really. Pausey would hardly have kept a meeting like that secret from is friends, one of whom was Harry Hayes, who never heard any mention of Bird visiting London.

Whoever gave Bird the Grafton did him a Favour Because he always had it available when his regular horn ( a King Super-20) was in the pawn shop. No pawnbroker would offer him any thing against the poor old Grafton so it was always there to fall back on.

Not much of an epitaph is it? But 10265 had the last laught on September 1994 at a sale of Charlie Parker memorabilia at Christie's the London auction house, where it fetched a total £93500.00 a sum to make every pawnbroker on Second Avenue weep bitter tears.

Nowadays never mind ivory and gold you can buy saxophones in all the colours of a tutti frutti lollipop. They cost a great deal more than 55 guineas and no doubt any pawn broker would give you a loan on one without batting an eyelid. Meanwhile the old Bexleyheath factory has been demolished in favour of a roundabout and a luxury hotel and Roy Wood is still on the lookout for stray keys and other bits and pieces to complete number 13082 the very last Grafton of all.

Footnotes & References

  1. Grafton's Sax Appeal by Dave Gelly -

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