Sacking the sax's seamy image. `Poor relation' of the reeds finally getting some respect
Washington — WHAT'S this? Two hundred fifty saxophone players on the steps of the Capitol in Washington? That's right, and it was touted to be the largest aggregration of saxophonists ever to play an outdoor concert in the United States. The event was part of the recent Eighth World Saxophone Congress, and the musicians who performed at the Capitol are members of the North American Saxophone Alliance.
The sax hasn't always been a part of such a high-toned organization or the recipient of such honors (it has sometimes been called a ``poor relation'' of the other reed instruments). Nor has it always been on such friendly terms with government. In fact, the saxophone got into a lot of trouble with the Soviet government during the purges, when it was banned as a symbol of that ``subversive'' American music called jazz.
Adolphe Sax, the Belgian wind instrument maker who invented the saxophone and patented it in 1846, surely had no idea of the turbulent future of this friendly, not-so-difficult-to-play, conical, reeded horn.
Originally the saxophone was intended for military bands, and its use was sanctioned early on by French military authorities. Ranging from the rare sopranino to the even rarer contrabass sax, with the commoner soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes in between, the new instrument caught the fancy of one Hector Berlioz. The composer found saxophones to have ``rare and valuable qualities. On the whole it is a timbre quite its own, vaguely similar to that of the violoncello, the clarinet and the English horn with a half-metallic admixture which gives it an altogether peculiar expression. The high tones of low saxophones have a plaintive and sorrowful character; their low tones, however, have a sublime and, as it were, priestly calm.''
It wasn't too long, though, before the saxophone found its way into American jazz, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others. Commented saxophonist-composer Marcel Perrin in his book, ``Le Saxophone'': ``In truth, the public has not acknowledged the saxophone, except in jazz. There -- and exceptions are very rare -- its sonority has been totally deformed. It's for those who wish to make nasal or miaowing or strangulated sounds.''
Hardly Berlioz's conception of the saxophone! And, to be sure he made his point, Perrin added, ``They [jazz musicians] astound their listeners by their tours de force and their acrobatics -- such things should be left to clowns.'' So much for the transcendent genius of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, Harry Carney, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, etc.!
Despite the complaints of detractors like Perrin, the saxophone continued to flourish in jazz and is now considered a symbol of that art form. It lends itself naturally to the individualistic approach and improvisations of jazz, with its proximity to the human voice and its fast-speaking properties. Jazz musicians have found the saxophone easier to ``get around'' than, say, a trumpet or a trombone.
But this facility has provoked some criticism from certain factions of the jazz audience, too. Sometimes a player will get a little carried away with himself, inviting comments like, ``Boy, that guy must get paid by the note!'' or, ``What is this -- a race to the finish?''
Nevertheless, in the hands of a sensitive musician, the saxophone is a wonder of versatility. It can sound as limpid as dripping honey or as guttural as a bullfrog, with any and all variations in between.
But even some jazz musicians have become fed up with the saxophone's poor image. It seems that in the movies, for instance, every time something slightly seamy or off color is about to happen, sure enough, in jumps a saxophone with a sinewy, sultry, provocative melody. Give us a break! cry the die-hard saxophone aficionados, and some respect, too!
After all, the list of prominent composers who have written music for the saxophone is long. With names like Ravel, Saint-Sa"ens, Delibes, Puccini, Massenet, Debussy, Berg, Honegger, Britten, Satie, and, of course, Berlioz, to name just a few, shouldn't the long-maligned instrument have at least a bit of clout? And don't forget that in 1928, an enterprising fellow named Marcel Mule formed the Quatuor des Saxophones de Paris -- a quartet consisting of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones -- for the purpose of performing and recording classical music. The group did just that, performing and recording extensively, and even winning the Grand Prix du Disque in 1938.
So, all the opposition notwithstanding, when Hector Berlioz prophesied that composers and musicians ``will hereafter derive wondrous effects from saxophones . . . ,'' it seems he was quite right. At least we can be sure that those 250 saxophonists on the Capitol steps are keeping the faith.