The saxophone in Jazz music

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Since the onset of the 20th century, Jazz music has played an immense role in the African American music industry. The popularity of Jazz music has grown beyond the enclave of the United States and reached out to the entire world. In the history of Jazz music and its success, lie virtuoso performers such as Coleman Hawkins, Hershchall Evans, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Johnny Russell, Budd Johnson, Leon Chun Berry, Henry Bridges, Dick Wilson, Robert Carroll and many more (Evensmo 4). However, all these exemplary performance owed their success to one common instrument; the saxophone.

The saxophone has been billed as one the most magnificent instruments known to man with unrestricted possibilities. Evidently, among the ardent fans of Jazz music, the saxophone epitomizes jazz music. The saxophone’s unique nature and unlimited possibilities lie in its ability to use a variety of modes in expressing the performers’ soul. To this end, the sax fusion of woodwind and brass exhibited an ecstatic vibrato during performance by the great luminaries of Jazz music. Clearly, in tracing the historical origin of the saxophone requires an in depth knowledge of its inventor and its subsequent conquest over jazz music in tandem with the pioneer performers.

Invention of the Saxophone

The invention of the saxophone is credited to a Belgian by the name, Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax (Koenig 294).  Adolphe was born on 6th November 1814 and gained interest in musical interest from his father Charles (Koenig 294). Adolphe’s father was a professional craftsman of musical instruments. To this end, Adolphe became an expert craftsman of musical instruments when he was just six years old. Some of his notable specimens included clarinets and flutes. Moreover, he devoted more time in studying these two instruments at the Brussels Conservatory (Koenig 294). As a result, Adolphe noticed that there was a difference in tone between woodwinds and brasses. Evidently, he discovered that woodwinds were being overpowered by the brasses. Moreover, he equally noted tonal differences between the winds and strings whereby the latter was overpowered by the former. Consequently, Sax identified the need to invent a new instrument that achieved some semblance of balance between the strings, brass and woodwinds. He envisioned a sound that combined the brass tone from the trumpet and the woodwind sound from the clarinet. As a result, Adolphe innovatively incorporated the mouth piece from the woodwind and the structural form of the brass instrument. The end product was the saxophone.

To this end, the pioneer saxophone was a C bass which Sax displayed to the prominently renowned composer, Hector Belioz in 1841(Koenig 295). Belioz was mesmerized by the versatility, dynamic control and unique tone of the saxophone. As a result, in 1842, Adolphe migrated to Paris to publicize his saxophone. At around the same time, an article entitled ‘Journal des Debats’ was published by Hector Belioz. The article described Adolf’s innovative saxophone in depth. Consequently, by 1846 Adolphe Sax was officially recognized as the owner of the saxophone when it was exhibited in public during the Paris Industrial Exhibition. Moreover, in 1844 a concert organized by Hector Belioz and known as the Chante Sacre featured the saxophone for the first time. However, it was the opera of the ‘Last King of Juda’ that marked the orchestral debut of the saxophone. Apparently, Adolphe proposed a contest between bands. The contest pitted his army band composed of saxophones against another one that was composed of traditional instruments. Evidently, Adolphe’s band carried the day and hence proved that saxophones had the capacity to improve the quality of tone in all the bands. By 1845, the B and E flat saxophones replaced the French horns, oboes and bassoons that were used in French military bands (Zakian). This achievement heralded the end of the ‘battle of the bands.’ Over time, the saxophone rapidly became a vital component of all bands. Consequently, a series of other saxophones were created in quick succession. The fourteen family saxophones created included the E flat sopranino, B flat soprano, C bass, E flat alto, C tenor, F contrabass, E flat baritone, F alto, F sopranino, E flat contrabass, C soprano, B flat tenor, and the B flat bass (Koenig 296). It is critical to note that all the saxophones were different in size and pitch. Moreover, the saxophones that had E and B flat pitch were normally used by military bands while those with C and F pitch were mostly used in orchestras. However, majority of the saxophones in the fourteen families became redundant, and only a few significant ones are commonly used at present. These include the baritone, alto, soprano and tenor saxophone. Evidently, on 28th June 1846, Adolphe acquired a patent lasting 15 years for all his saxophones.

Musical Evolution of the Saxophone

The musical evolution of the saxophone was evident when composers started to use it in playing dance music. However, these meant that physical changes had to be done on the saxophone. The original model of Adolphe’s saxophone was created with a balanced tone that was smooth and mellow. To this end, modifications were done by companies such as the Millereau Company. It designed a saxophone in which the F# key was forked. The year 1885 realized the first saxophone designed in the United States by Gus Buesher. Other inventors such as Goumas designed a saxophone that had a fingering system like that of Boehm’s clarinet. Adolphe equally made some modifications to his saxophone such as increasing the length of the bell. His reason for extending the bell was to add the A and B flat. Moreover, he used the fourth octave key to extend the instrument’s range and incorporate the G and F# (Koenig 297). The Association Des Ouvriers is credited with inventing the tuning ring as well as the redefined G# Evette and Schaeffer. Further additional changes done to the saxophone included the 1886 invention of the half hole design that could be used by the first fingers in all hands. At the same time, the right handed C trill key invention was soon followed by the single octave key that included rollers for the low C and Eb. The saxophone’s mouth piece was also redesigned with a smaller model. Consequently, the end product was the loud, eccentric tone synonymous with jazz music. Following the death of Adolphe Sax in 1894, Adolphe Eduard inherited the business from his father.  To this end, the popularity of the saxophone soar through a series of changes that saw it becoming more associated with jazz music. Presently, the prominent saxophones are the tenor and alto models that have propelled a number of musicians to the hall of fame.

Luminary jazz saxophonists included Sidney Bechet who teamed up with Louis Armstrong to pioneer the improvised solo. Bechet switched from playing the clarinet to the soprano saxophone that won him a lot of accolades. Evidently, Bechet improvised the solo artist that was accompanied with small or large bands. Among his notable success included the ‘summertime’ 1939 recording composed by George Gershwin. In the recording, Bechet innovatively integrated the sound of the soprano saxophone with the trumpet’s power, and the clarinet’s graceful fluidity. Coleman Hawkins, born on 1904 and died on 1969, was another prominent saxophonist in the history of jazz music (Schuller, 430). He was renowned for his improvisational techniques with the tenor saxophone that had previously been regarded as a novelty. Hawkins’s mastery of the tenor saxophone arose from his knowledge of complex chord progressions (Schuller, 430). Moreover, his performances were characterized by fast vibrato and a deep, full throttle tone of jazz tenor. Frankie Trumbaur, born 1901 and died on 1956, was equally famous for playing the C melody saxophone during the recording of ‘Singing the Blues’ in the 1920’s (Schuller, 445). This performance catapulted Frankie to fame, and he is remembered by the dry and calm tone that inspired later day saxophonists. Charlier Parker was also a famous alto saxophone player who lived between 1920 and 1955. He is acknowledged for creating the lightning speed and high tempo bebop jazz music style (Brown 92). Charlie exhibited an incredible technique while playing the alto saxophone through his mastery of harmony and rhythm.


The saxophone’s versatility and tonal beauty have made it a necessity in a majority of bands. Furthermore, its beauty and unique aspect stem from the fact that it is the only woodwind that was not originally made of wood. In the history of jazz music, the saxophone has been hailed as an instrument with the ability to express the performer’s feelings, emotions and soul without uttering a word. Moreover, the saxophone is among the few instruments that have produced an endless list of illustrious performers through jazz music. To this end, the saxophone has spurred the popularity of jazz music from the Afro American enclave to borders beyond the United States.

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  1. Brown, John Robert. A concise history of jazz. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 2004. Print.
  2. Evensmo, Jan. “The History of Jazz Tenor Saxophone Black Artists 1917 -1934.” Norsk Jazzarkiv – Norwegian Jazz Archives, 1 Jan. 1996. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. < _1917_1934.pdf
  3. Koenig, Karl. Jazz in Print (1859-1929): An Anthology of Early Source Readings in Jazz History. 1856. Reprint. n.a: Pendragon Press, 2000. Print.
  4. Schuller, Gunther. The history of jazz the development of jazz, 1930-1945. New York: Oxford  University Press, 1989. Print.
  5. Zakian, Lee. “SaxophoneHistory.” JLP Home. Lee Zakian, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
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