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A Brief History of the Saxophone

Written by Atharva Patwardhan

The saxophone is one of the most recognisable and newest instruments to be made in recent history. Its distinctive gold colour and curvy design has become iconic at this point in both modern pop music and jazz music from the early 20th century. It has travelled all over the world where it has been used by many. Its sweet solos and soft and expressive tone has been put to use by many musicians and others around the world today use these techniques to enhance their music. You can find various videos online of people making covers of famous songs or busking in the streets, using the saxophone. Its soft or harsh tone (depending on the player) has been used to create a variety of emotions in music. It is utilised in some classical music, very extensively in military and marching bands, jazz bands (obviously) and in rock’n’roll and pop music. With it fitting in almost any genre and containing a very distinctive sound, it remains one of the most popular musical instruments in the world today.

The inventor of the saxophone was a Belgian instrument maker called Adolphe Sax and he invented it to combine the best qualities of the woodwind and brass instruments at the time. It was created somewhere amidst the early 1840s and several saxophones were patented on 28 June 1846. He had escaped death seven times, before inventing the saxophone! (but I won’t discuss that right now)

It had already won praise by then by Hector Berlioz, saying, “Dreamy, melancholic, sometimes with the hush of an echo. I do not know of any instrument having this specific tone-quality”.

Sax ranked the instruments in terms of pitch and noted transposition of the instruments. The Bb and Eb pitched saxophones soon become dominant in the scene and are the saxophones that are used today. There were other saxophones produced in the early 20th century like the “C Melody” and “C Soprano” but neither were used very much. Saxophones in F transposition were made in the 1920s but failed to spark popularity and thus the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone remain as the four leading voices in the family to this day.

George Bizet was one of the first composers to write for it and paved the way for others to write for it too. Marcel Mule was known to be one of the best classical saxophones at the start of the 20th century. He developed classical repertoire and tried to establish the saxophone quartet as a legitimate chamber ensemble at the time. Other notable players and educators at the time include Larry Teal, Frederick Hemke and many more. The saxophone did not remain, however, in the classical scenario for long and does not remain as an iconic instrument in the genre.

It was first used in military bands because of its projection, nearing the end of the 19th century and then ushered into the jazz world shortly after. Rudy Wiedoeft and the Brown Brothers Sextet helped popularise it and helped the develop the technical and sonic potential by playing fun music at the time. In 1914 and in the Roaring Twenties and onwards, the saxophone entered into the world of jazz and was used in bands led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. In New Orleans, new styles of jazz music were emerging with small ensembles and different rhythms being experimented with. Sub-genres of jazz include ragtime and swing and they were a mixture of African-American and European style of music mixed together. Scott Joplin was one of the first people to start the jazz era, with his ragtime compositions gaining immense popularity. He wrote “maple leaf rag” in 1899 and his compositions gave a unique blend of classical structures and techniques and African melodies and rhythms.

The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, formed in 1923, featured arrangements to back up improvisation, bringing the first elements of jazz to the large dance band format. All of these large bands included saxophone solos and features with other instruments.

The association of dance jazz bands wouldn’t peak until the 30’s and 40’s where the term, “It don’t mean a thing, unless it’s got that swing” by Duke Ellington was coined. This was called Swing music and was developed by African-American jazz musicians and became the scene of popular music at the time. These big bands were characterised by emphasis on the off–beat and large ensembles featuring soloists to which the saxophone was used. The saxophone grew in increasingly popularity during this time. Sidney Bechet was one of the first virtuosos for soprano saxophone and an example of his playing, is displayed in “Summertime”.

In the mood by Glenn Miller became the most popular swing band song with it topping the charts in the US for 13 weeks consecutively and was used to brighten the mood of war soldiers during WW2.

In the mid 1940’s and 50’s, Charlie Parker was a prominent figure in establishing the bebop genre and solo potential for the saxophone. This genre was not made for a dance format and relied on expressive emotion and soloing on rapid chord changes throughout. John Coltrane was another figure in the bebop scene, who had the recorded the piece “Giant Steps” in 1959. It remains one of the most feared songs in jazz today because of its insane speed and changing chord progressions. Other bebop players include Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Julian “Cannonball” Adderly.

In the 1950’s, new styles of music like R&B and Rock’n’roll were emerging along with bebop and blues. Paul Desmond was responsible for writing “Take Five”, a piece in the cool jazz genre, that was played by the Dave Brubeck quartet. The piece has become of one the most popular jazz songs in the world and Desmond described his sound as “a dry martini”.

Bossa Nova was a type of Brazilian music which was popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. The phrase Bossa Nova means literally “new trend” or “new wave” and many saxophonists took advantage of this slow and expressive music. “The Girl From Ipanema” by Antônio Carlos Jobim and saxophonist Stan Getz were influential figures in this style of music.

In the 1960’s, the sax was taken to the silver screen by Henry Mancini’s, “The Pink Panther” which one of the most iconic sax songs to date. Yakety Sax by Boots Randolph was one of the leading voices in the “Nashville Sound”. It originated during the mid-1950s as a subgenre of American country music. It was an attempt to revive the sales of country songs which were being taken over by rock’n’roll. Maceo Parker was the lead funk saxophonist in many of James Brown’s hits and a key part of the band to which he played alto, tenor and baritone. He played in the Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1970’s and wrote Brown’s most popular song, “I feel good”.

Eddie Harris experimented his jazz music in a soulful and groovy way which attracted a new audience. Stanley Turrentine was another who went forward with soulfulness and “Sugar” is a good example of this.

The saxophone was in a powerful place in the 70’s as it was featured in a lot of pop hits like “Brown Sugar” by Rolling Stones, “Turn the page” by Bob Seger, Young Americans by David Bowie and many more. In the mid-1970’s, a new type of “Afro beat” music emerged in Ghana from Nigerian singer, Fela Kuti. Wayne Shorter was a major force in jazz fusion music in the late 1960’s in which musicians blended jazz harmony and improvisation with rock music, funk, and rhythm and blues.

In 1978, Gerry Rafferty released “Baker Street”, which showcased an epic sax solo in the song. It spent four weeks at No. 1 in Canada, No. 1 in Australia and South Africa, hit No. 3 in the United Kingdom and the Top 10 in the Netherlands. From the 80’s and onwards, it was used in pop and jazz extensively. “Just the two of us” by Grover Washington Jr. and smooth jazz connoisseur, Kenny G’s, “G force” was just a few of the many. In 1984, the sax reached the pinnacle of peak of greatness with George Michael’s, “Careless Whisper”. Its definitely most iconic sax song has sprung a love in the instrument for many people.

In jazz, Michael Brecker and Joshua Redman very much afloat with Brecker’s “nothing personal” in 1987 and Redman’s “Jazz crimes” in 2002.

In 2000’s and onwards, “Thrift shop, Last Friday night, Calabria and Talk dirty featured prominent sax lines and solos in all of them and boosted the people’s love of it in pop. The saxophone has appeared in many more and if you listen closely enough, you can definitely hear it and realise why musicians decide to use this instrument.

The saxophone is used in many types of music for its soft sound and expressive voice. It has been comfortably set as an icon in American jazz and pop music and remains the most iconic jazz instrument in history. Its sound has been experimented by many and its gold colour and distinctive curves make it stand out. Go and listen to the music which highlights the potential of this remarkable piece of machinery.

About the author

Atharva Patwardhan

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