Surely Adolph Sax had no idea concerning the implications of his incredible invention in the 1840’s. Described by Berlioz in a generous review as a combination of strings and brass that could be an alternative to the brass section in a marching band, or maybe in the orchestra, history seems to have proven that the saxophone was created for a music that didn’t exist in Adolph’s time. The saxophone found its home in jazz and more than any instrument symbolizes it to the world. In jazz the saxophone’s assets shined: its linear and logical key layout meant the fingers could go places fast and with ease; a beautiful and sensuous shape; a powerful and loud presence if need be; a sound somehow akin to the range(s) of the human voice; a relatively small learning curve, certainly compared to the strings, other woodwinds and brass; and an important consideration….the saxophone was not prohibitively expensive. There was a time in the early part of the 20th century that the horn was the rage and one could find them everywhere. As well, the saxophone was a beautiful instrument to behold with all the brass and key work featuring etched designs (who can forget the “naked lady” engraved on the Conn tenor) embraced by the player and glistening to the listener.
The history of jazz is intrinsically tied to the saxophone. After Louis Armstrong, the line of innovation goes straight from Coleman Hawkins to Lester Young, from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and for me, most of all, John Coltrane. What they all had in common is the saxophone’s tone and possibilities of endless nuance which could be coaxed from it regardless of the style being played. From the honkers who inhabited rhythm and blues bands to the heavy vibrato employed by the saxophone section of Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, from the silky sound of Paul Desmond and Stan Getz to the cry of Ornette’s plastic horn, the saxophone’s ability to take on the personality of its player is outstanding. It was the next best thing to the human voice, but with more agility and technical possibilities, all in pursuit of creating a melody, a single note line that might be remembered for posterity after it was played. After all, in jazz, isn’t the primary goal to create a new melody using the given harmony as a framework, in real time? Even if there is no harmony as in freer jazz idioms, inventing a melody still represents the main challenge. The saxophone fit the bill perfectly!
Another “gift” from Mr. Sax was the different ranges that the saxophone family could embody, much like the string section. An instrument for every taste from high to low, from soprello (one octave above the normal Bb soprano) to contra contra bass saxophones (one octave below the normal bass saxophone). To each his own. Certainly a case could be made for the saxophone being the voice of the 20th century, of urban life, of sexual innuendo, of partying and melancholy-what a broad range!
For me it was 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll when the saxophone (especially tenor) was the main solo instrument taking eight bars here and there, a direct feature of the rhythm and blues tradition. The saxophone solos on Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” and Duane Eddy’s ”Rebel Rouser” hooked me big time. I just wanted to play tenor, but my parents insisted (wisely as it turned out) that I play the piano for at least two years before choosing an instrument of my choice. Once I did that by age twelve, the common wisdom was to play clarinet first because of its difficulties. Obediently I followed directions, but must admit that to this day the clarinet is not among my “desert island” choices though I admire guys who play it like glass. (The same can be said for the flute.) The final act in getting hooked on the saxophone was seeing Coltrane live many times during my teenage years. I couldn’t believe that was the same instrument I had home under my bed in Brooklyn. Trane transcended the horn raising the bar to unimaginable heights. Within a little more than one hundred years, the saxophone had done it all. For my life the soprano became my main voice. I could feel that it fit my personality and body.
Bill Lee gives us the whole deal, from the famous to the not so well known, including those who excelled on the so-called “doubles” that saxophonists are traditionally indebted to play. Herein lays a wealth of resource material about hundreds of players, all having in common their love of the saxophone. Adolphe Sax is smiling down on us horn players!! As Bird put it so succinctly: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
April 3 2010
Stroudsburg, PA USA