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Sound of sax: Cherokee Street music shop showcases history of the horn

Mark Overton's extensive collection of rare and historically significant instruments sits on the second floor of his Cherokee Street music shop.  5/25/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

If you walk into the Saxquest music store on Cherokee Street, you’ll probably want to pick up a saxophone, even if you don’t know how to play. The front room is full of them. The walls are plastered with images of jazz greats, like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins.

The folks at the store specialize in restoring and selling vintage instruments, but the biggest attraction is upstairs, where the inventory is definitely not for sale. That’s where owner Mark Overton displays his remarkable collection of saxophones.

The first thing you see is a big case with four very special ones. There’s an alto, tenor, baritone and soprano sax, all built by Adolphe Sax — the man who invented the instrument.

“There’s only a few places in the United States that have full quartets of Adolphe saxophones. I think maybe even the Smithsonian doesn’t have a full quartet,” Overton says. He’s right. According to the Smithsonian’s online catalog of holdings, the National Museum of American History has just one one instrument made by Sax, a cornet.

Overton has collected about 200 saxophones and tons of historical ephemera, including Sax’s family Bible. He’s displayed parts of his collection at the store since he opened shop there 10 years ago, but he just recently applied for nonprofit status and incorporated as the National Saxophone Museum.

How did this Iowa native wind up building a saxophone collection that by at least one measurement outshines the Smithsonian? He started playing sax in fifth grade, but was on a much different career path as a graduate student at Washington University, where he earned a PhD in molecular genetics.

“What I was doing was a cross between cell biology and biophysics,” Overton explains. “Basically, I had my head stuck in a test tube all the time.” His wife, Elke, was also a student, and they were looking for some extra cash.

“We kinda got by by buying and selling saxophones on the side, and that turned into more than a hobby after a little while.”

About 20 years later, Overton has two storefronts, offers free jazz shows and recruits area pros to give music lessons. In addition to the Cherokee Street location, he owns Saxquest West, at 2614 Metro Blvd., in Maryland Heights. He counts 14 employees, half of them full-time. All of them play saxophone and many gig professionally.

The collection includes these plastic saxophones made in the 1950s. 5/25/18
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
The collection includes these plastic saxophones made in the 1950s.

It’s also common to run into professional musicians like Jeff Anderson shopping at Saxquest. Anderson, a sax and bass player, was picking up a horn after repairs on a recent afternoon.

“It’s not just a sax shop, it’s a sax shop run by professional musicians,” Anderson said. “So when I need feedback I can get feedback from them ‘cause they know what they’re talkin’ about.”

The saxophone museum features scores of instruments crammed into a couple rooms. The collection offers a tour through the history of the instrument. Many of the older saxes are decorated with intricate engravings — from a fearsome dragon to a golfer wearing a plaid vest.

“These two here in the middle of the museum are both bass saxophones,” Overton said, pointing out two impressive specimens. “They’re gold plated, they’re elaborately engraved. All up and down the bell, the body tube, all the keys have elaborate engraving on them.

"Man, I can’t imagine, it would have taken, boy, weeks. A couple weeks to engrave that guy.”

Also on display are two white, plastic saxophones made in the 1950s, and a prototype for a saxophone lamp, with light bulbs nestled in the instrument’s mouthpiece and bell. That product never made it to market. 

Some of the instruments and ephemera on display 5/25/18
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
Some of the instruments and ephemera on display

So what does Overton find to be so special about the saxophone? He said he figured out early on he didn’t want to try being a professional performer, but when he plays just for fun, it still makes him feel the same way he did when he first picked up the horn as a child.

“I guess it’s just a happy place, right? It’s where I like to be.”

Now that he has nonprofit status, Overton wants to fully upgrade his display from a private collection to a full-fledged museum, a process that’ll involve transferring ownership of his collection to the newly formed nonprofit. He’s starting to apply for grants and would like to move the National Saxophone Museum into its own building in the next five years.

For now, the collection is available to be viewed, free of charge, during the store’s regular hours. Overton invites folks who play the sax to bring a mouthpiece and take some of the vintage instruments for a spin.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter@jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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