I’ve mentioned a few times before that I played the clarinet as a kid (and compared myself to Benny Goodman) but I’ve also always had a fondness for the sound of a saxophone. I’ve never played one — it was all I could do to manage the clarinet — but I had a couple of talented friends who could play several different kinds of woodwinds. I remember looking at their gleaming brass instruments festooned with all shapes and sizes of keys and thinking they looked so much more impressive and complicated than my boring black clarinet.
That all went through my head when I recently stumbled onto a little history about the saxophone. It seems that the guy who invented it (and yes, his name was Sax) had a lot of close calls during his lifetime, so it’s entirely possible that we might not have saxophones today if his luck hadn’t held. Of course, it’s probable that a similar instrument would have been invented by someone else, but the name would probably not have been as catchy. Can you imagine a Jonesaphone or a Smithaphone?
Antoine-Joseph Sax, who was given the nickname ‘Adolphe’ as a child and pretty much used it from then on, was born a little over 200 years ago in the city of Dinant, which is now in Belgium but was in France at the time of his birth. (No, the town didn’t move — the border did.) The thing is, it seems that he was always getting into jams of one kind or another while growing up, but rather than describe them I’ll just post this cute little video:
Sax came by his interest in musical instruments honestly, because both of his parents were artisans in the craft, so it’s not surprising that he took up the same business while still in his teens. He started by trying for redesigns and improvements of existing instruments, and had his first success with a type of valved bugle, which would lead to a whole family of instruments known as saxhorns. They eventually became very popular around Europe, even forming the basis for saxhorn bands, and some of them are still in use in concert bands today. Of course, some of his instruments were a little odd, like various members of the trombone family. But Sax didn’t just design valved brass instruments. He also explored the woodwinds, and that meant new ideas for flutes, clarinets, oboes and the like, and the development of his namesake, the saxophone.
In the 1840’s he began planning a whole family of saxophones, designing them on paper before ever actually creating the instruments. To describe it in simple terms, he wanted something that could handle intricate musical passages like a woodwind, but with more volume and power, like a brass instrument. When he finally began producing his designs, many influential musicians of the era praised them, but saxophones didn’t really find much of a home in established orchestras for many years. Meanwhile he was constantly fighting for the rights to his patents, and on top of that his health worsened in his later years. Although his name would forever be attached to the family of instruments he designed, he died in poverty at age 79 in 1894.
I’m certainly no authority, but it seems to me that the golden age of the saxophone didn’t really begin until well after the turn of the twentieth century, when modern orchestras began featuring them in a more prominent role. And they really exploded in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when they began to be showcased in bands. Some of the leaders themselves were saxophonists, like Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, and Glen Gray. Others used them to great effect, like when Glenn Miller installed his signature sax-driven sound on songs like “Moonlight Serenade“. (You can hear examples by clicking on the links.)
Here are some of my other favorites. The first features two legends, one playing alto sax and the other baritone sax. The second shows a tenor sax icon, and the third an alto sax master playing the same song, for comparison. Hope you enjoy them.