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The Joy of Sax

Of all the types of popular music played and heard in the last seventy or eighty years, jazz has utilised more musical instruments than any other genre.

Sunil Sampat Jan 19, 2009
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Of all the types of popular music played and heard in the last seventy or eighty years, jazz has utilised more musical instruments than any other genre. The guitar is identified with rock & roll, rock and country music, the banjo with bluegrass and so on. Jazz has relied heavily on brass instruments, like the trumpet, clarinet, trombone and the saxophone. The sax in its various forms is easily synonymous with jazz. The identification of the alto and tenor saxophone sound with jazz is immediate and fairly universal.

Yet the man who invented the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, probably had no idea that his creation would hold such eminence in music. The saxophone had been used in classical music arrangements, but remained very much a background instrument. Later it was used in military and marching bands, but never enjoyed any prominence. How it found its way into jazz makes for an interesting story.

Around the year 1900, the Americans had several military encounters with Cuba. The troops would sail from New Orleans and were always accompanied by a marching band. Upon return from Cuba, the musicians in the band would sell their various instruments to locals, to enjoy some rock & roll in New Orleans. Cheap saxophones thus found their way into the hands of musicians just as jazz was evolving in that city. And thus the saxophone found its way into jazz.

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However, the saxophone was played in jazz bands as accompaniment to other instruments but never as one on which to solo. It was Coleman Hawkins who changed the role of the sax in jazz with his 1939 recording of ‘Body & Soul,’ where his tenor saxophone played the entire song with a rhythm section for accompaniment. It was a huge breakthrough in jazz and since that time the saxophone has been played as a major jazz horn.

Hawkins was a wizard on the tenor sax and had a warm and wholesome sound. His two contemporaries, Lester Young and Ben Webster, were equally unique in their tenor sax playing. Young had an exquisite, bluesy, wistful sound, while Webster’s sound was seductive. From the same generation came Johnny Hodges, who played alluringly on the alto sax. Benny Carter was another alto player who had a charming sound.

By the mid-Forties, Charlie Parker came on the scene and changed jazz forever. He was a magician on the alto, was one of the creators of the new sound: bebop. He was the Pied Piper of jazz and influenced everybody who followed him, although he died at the age of just 35.

By the mid-Fifties, the scene was dominated by Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Stan Getz and others on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Art Pepper etc on the alto sax. John Coltrane then came and rewrote all the rules with his tenor and soprano sax playing. Like Charlie Parker, Coltrane influenced generations of sax players. In the Sixties and Seventies, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter etc were the tenor sax masters. Among the contemporary sax players are Kenny Garrett (alto), James Carter (all saxophones), Brandon Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano (all tenor) and others.

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The sax sound in jazz is distinctive. The interesting feature for jazz aficionados is that each player has a sound that can be identified with the player, as unique as a fingerprint. Jazz is ultimately a music of “style.” That is why it makes for fascinating listening!

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