A History of the Saxophone, its Performers, Styles and Pedagogy Prior to World War II

Almost every musical style where the saxophone is heard today initially resisted and rejected inclusion of the saxophone because of its abrasive and “primitive” sound. As both its players and the instrument itself have been refined and players have improved, the distaste musical society once held for this instrument has significantly diminished. Over the last century, the saxophone has overcome its initial rejection to become one of the most popular instruments in Western music. More and more people have learned to play saxophone as its popularity has grown, with the instrument available to buy in music stores in Lincoln Nebraska, as well as all other good music stores. There is one particular genre of music that eventually accepted the saxophone as one of its predominant instruments and is, in fact, the style most frequently associated with the saxophone – jazz.

The Origins of the Saxophone

Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musician and instrument maker, was the inventor of the saxophone. Sax initially received music instruction from his father, Charles Sax, the Instrument Maker to the Court of the Netherlands. He later received formal training at the Brussels Conservatory where he studied voice and flute and later, clarinet.

Adolphe Sax was acknowledged as a skilled instrument maker and was known to frequently experiment with currently produced designs. These experiments lead to the development of the valved brass saxhorn family, the vastly improved clarinet, and eventually, the saxophone.

The saxophone was debuted at the Brussels Exhibition in 1841 where the instrument was “sent flying with a kick by an unknown person at a time when the inventor, Adolphe Sax, was away.” Shortly after, Sax was visited by Lieutenant General Comte de Rumigny, who encouraged Sax to move to Paris and aid the revitalizing of French military bands. Once arriving in France, he was highly praised in an article by Hector Berlioz in 1842, which included an early description of the saxophone.

In France, Adolphe established the Adolphe Sax Musical Instrument Factory at No. 10 Rue St. Georges. His craft and growing business challenged existing instrument makers who were also attempting to design new instruments for the French military bands resulting in a series of threats, thefts, and legal battles that would continue throughout the rest of Sax’s life.

On 22 April 1845, Sax competed against another instrument maker as part of the invitation to submit improved instruments for the French military’s use. The opposing band, directed by Michele Carafa performed on existing instruments, while Sax’s group directed by M. Fessy demonstrated Sax’s reforms including the saxhorn and the saxophone. Sax’s ensemble was declared the winner of the competition, instating a ‘near monopoly mandating the use of his instruments’ in military bands.

The results of the competition outraged his competitors who responded through the establishment of L’Association Generale des Ouvriers en Instruments de Musique (The United Association of Instrument Makers) to “protect their rights” as instrument makers. However, evaluation of the acts of the organization reveals that it was merely a disguise for a combined effort to attack Sax and his inventions. One of its first moves as an organization was to challenge Sax’s patent of the saxophone claiming that it already existed in other forms, that it did not in fact, actually exist, and that if it did exist, it was not a musical invention. To support their side, several saxophones were purchased and the engraving removed and then re-engraved to indicate another manufacturer. These forgeries were not well executed and quickly proved false. In response to this lawsuit, Sax withdrew his patent and gave other manufacturers a year to create a rival instrument, but the plaintiffs were incapable of doing so. Sax was granted a patent on the saxophone family on 22 June 1846. Several similar lawsuits ensued, and in combination with an unfortunate incident with a loan from an anonymous benefactor, eventually lead to his bankruptcy and financial ruin.

On 7 June 1857, Sax was asked to establish a saxophone class at the Paris Conservatoire and remained in that position until 1870. Interestingly, the position was not reinstated until 1942.

There are various theories regarding the invention of the saxophone. Frederick Hemke alludes to an Argentine instrument made of a cow’s horn with a tip shaped similar to that of a single reed instrument. Another presumable ancestor of the saxophone is the alto fagotto invented by London’s George Wood in 1830. The instrument is similarly shaped to the bassoon, but performed with a single-reed.

There are four different schools of thought regarding how Sax invented the saxophone. The first is that Sax was attempting to design a clarinet that played octaves rather than twelfths. The second is that he substituted the cup mouthpiece of an ophicleide with the single reed mouthpiece of the clarinet. The third theory is that he used the single reed mouthpiece on a bassoon, while the fourth is that the saxophone was invented through experimentation and was unintentional or “by accident.” Sax’s son, however, claims that his father’s work was intentional.

The theory regarding improvements made to the ophicleide appear the most probable. The first saxophone was constructed of a metal body similar to that of the bass ophicleide with extended keywork and a modified bass clarinet mouthpiece. Sax, in fact, first described the instrument as a ‘new ophicleide’ or ‘ophicleide à bec’, and this particular bass saxophone was the one introduced at the Brussels Exposition in 1841. The term “saxophone” was first introduced by Berlioz in 1842 upon Sax’s arrival in Paris.

The saxophone was originally conceived in two sets of keys, F and C for orchestral use and Eb and Bb for military band use. Both groups were invented simultaneously as a family of fourteen saxophones. The patent date for this “new system of wind instruments, called the saxophone”, as stated in Sax’s application, is 1846. The alto saxophone became a popular choice because its small size allowed for virtuosity. The saxophone was designed to play three octaves, however most musicians were not able to perform in the upper range. George Kastner, with the assistance of Sax, created the first saxophone method book. It is believed to contain the truest picture of how Sax conceived the saxophone, including the original three octave range use of the saxophone intended by Sax and its use as a melodic, solo instrument.

The Beginnings of the Saxophones Use in Ensembles

When Parisian musicians first heard the saxophone, they exclaimed its beauty, “You cannot imagine the beauty of sound and the quality of the notes”. The first performer on the saxophone was probably Adolphe Sax himself. He performed on the instrument in Brussels in 1841, Paris in 1842, and on various public occasions. In 1853, he also founded his own five-piece saxophone “brass band.”

Outside of Adolphe Sax’s performances, saxophone was first used for teaching purposes at the Gymnase Musical Militaire in Paris from 1846 to 1848. In 1854, he reintroduced the instrument to French military bands and taught military bandsmen at the Paris Conservatoire from 1857 to 1870.

Sax asked many European clarinetists to play his instrument, including Louis-Adolphe Mayeur and Henri Wuille, who performed on the instrument as soloists. Henri Wuille (1822-71) was one of the first soloists to perform on the saxophone in both England and the United States while Edouard Lefebre (1834-1911) was known as the most “outstanding” soloist in America from the 1870s to the 1890s with both the Patrick Gilmore Band and the John Philip Sousa Band.

During the mid to late 1800s, the tradition of military and amateur wind bands was flourishing throughout Europe and North America. After the Civil War, brass bands captivated America, and every town boasted at least one. In Europe, the saxophone was employed in military bands from the time of their invention. This excluded Germany and Austria, which did not include saxophone until 1935. From 1845-8, French military bands had two saxophones, and then in 1854 the number rose to eight, and finally settled at four in 1894. By the 1890s, saxophone quartets had also become a staple in regimental bands in Europe.

After hearing the French Garde Republicaine Band’s six-piece saxophone section at the International Peace Jubilee in Boston, P.S. Gilmore became the first to welcome the saxophone into his brass band. Among the saxophonists to join Gilmore’s band, was French saxophonist Eduoard A. Lefebre. Saxophonist Eduoard A. Lefebre was first featured as a soloist in Gilmore’s band on 18 November 1873 and was the leading member of its three-piece saxophone section by 1878. In 1892, Gilmore’s band had grown to include eight saxophones including soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and contrabass. The standard saxophone instrumentation in American military bands was only alto and baritone sax, and the inclusion of tenor, bass, or contrabass was rare until the early 1900s. After Gilmore’s death, Lefebre joined Sousa’s band.

Saxophone Becomes a Popular Instrument

There were several things going on in the early 1900s that led to the sudden popularity of the saxophone. In the United States, touring military, municipal, and circus bands and music hall performances, such as Vaudeville, led to the increasing exposure of the instrument to the American public. Until 1916, Lefebre’s solo playing was the only exposure to the solo and virtuosic qualities of the saxophone, but it never gained significant popularity. Around 1916, C-melody saxophone player Rudy Wiedoeft began recording and promoting the saxophone as a “high-class” instrument, changing the public’s perception of the saxophone. This began a saxophone craze in the 1920s that launched the saxophone into dance and jazz bands.

Saxophone Becomes a Jazz Instrument

After the turn of the century, brass bands were the main musical training for African American musicians. During the band era, some black bands differed from the white bands by their “syncopated” style known as ragtime. This style initially included very little improvising, but as it developed into jazz, improvising became a dominant part of the style. An important bandleader of this style was James Reece Europe. He directed the Dixieland Brass Band and was the first to incorporate saxophones into dance bands because he saw them as a more effective counterpart to brass. The addition of saxophones into his band was influenced by his performance with the French Garde Republicaine, while he was stationed in France during the First World War. However, this did not become a staple in groups until arrangers began to write for saxophone sections.

Jazz developed out of the popular ragtime style. The definition of ragtime is rather vague because at the height of its popularity, ragtime was actually used to define any style of syncopated popular music. The style now known as New Orleans Jazz was originally known as New Orleans style ragtime. It featured the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, but featured a modified brass band as the instrumentation. These instruments included clarinet, cornet, trombone, tuba, and a drum line, which was assembled into a drum set. It was during this era, that the first well-known saxophonist emerged – Sidney Bechet.

The switch from clarinet to saxophone, in the jazz dance orchestra, was a slow process. Although a few New Orleans Jazz players switched to saxophone, such as Sidney Bechet, saxophone did not truly become associated with jazz until the Kansas City Jazz era. By the 1920s, once jazz had moved out of New Orleans and into Chicago and other parts of the United States, bands began experimenting with saxophone in their ensembles. There is very little photographic evidence of the inclusion of saxophone in bands prior to 1915 and very few written sources suggesting its use until after World War I.

Larger bands began to appear during the 1920s due to the availability of larger performance space for dancing. During this era, Eb, Bb, and C saxophones were included in the jazz and dance bands (C-melody saxophones lost popularity in the 1930s). Well-known jazz groups’ clarinetists began to double on the saxophone when greater volume or a sweeter sound was needed. Some of these groups included the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Fletcher Henderson, and even King Oliver who used a C-melody saxophonist.

In the 1920s, saxophone was only beginning to root itself in the jazz idiom, and was still primarily a double for clarinet players. It is in the late 1920s and 1930s during the swing or big band era that the saxophone emerges as a solo and leading instrument in bands and true pioneers of the instrument appear.

The dance bands were divided into three sections; reeds, brass, and the rhythm section. Most bands had a saxophone section including three or four saxophones, and the first full (modern) five saxophone section (two altos, two tenors, and one baritone) appeared in the Benny Carter band in 1933. By the 1940s, as the swing era evolved and big bands flourished, most bands hosted the full AATTB section. The 1950s and the advent of rock and roll and the electric guitar essentially signaled the end to the popularity of the dance bands and the saxophone.

Exceptions to the saxophone’s decline in popularity during the rock era include “Honkers” Big Jay McNeely and Louis Jordan. These players implemented a “screeching and honking” style that was popular during the early rock period.

Pioneers of the Saxophone

There are many notable players that pioneered the use of the saxophone in the jazz genre. The first musician to become well known as a saxophonist was clarinetist, Sidney Bechet. Bechet first started at the age of six on the clarinet and soon became well known in New Orleans as the best clarinet player. By the age of 15, he was performing with Willie “Bunk” Johnson’s Eagle Brass Band. Bechet was first exposed to the saxophone while he was in Chicago, but did not began playing on the instrument until he purchased one while he was in London in the 1920s. He remained a saxophone player for the rest of his performing life, preferring it to clarinet because of its loud volume.

Another notable player from the big band era is tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins began on C-melody saxophone and in 1921, switched to tenor saxophone. He claimed that his unique sound was because he tried to sound like he was trying to play C-melody saxophone on tenor saxophone. Coleman Hawkins is regarded as the first major jazz improvisor on the saxophone. He denied this and attributes improvisation to saxophonists Prince Robinson, Happy Caldwell, and Stump Evans. He is, however, most certainly the first to develop a style of playing unique to the saxophone. Prior to Coleman Hawkins, saxophone players adapted the clarinet style of playing to saxophone, but Hawkins created a sound distinctive to saxophone.

Other important early saxophone performers include alto player Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Bud Freeman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Carter. C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer was an important pioneer on the instrument, and most alto and tenor saxophonists modeled their playing after him. Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist in Duke Ellington’s band was also an important pioneer. He proved the baritone saxophone to be an important solo instrument.

The Legacy of the Saxophone

Since its creation, the saxophone has faced a great deal of rejection and hesitation. Despite its rocky beginnings, it has become one of the most frequently appearing instruments in a variety of genres and ensembles. It can be seen performing as a solo instrument in classical, jazz, and popular styles or in a section in wind ensembles, orchestras, marching bands, all styles of jazz, and as part of the so-called horn section in pop and rock. The saxophone’s current popularity is largely attributed to the jazz genre and its performers. During the swing era, as the saxophone rose in popularity and refined instruments and performers emerged, the saxophone became accepted as an expressive and dynamic instrument ensuring its place in music ensembles of all genres.



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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.