In 1925, violinist Ernest LaPrade wrote a charming children’s book entitled Alice in Orchestralia, in which a young girl travels to a magical land of talking musical instruments. Although obviously modeled on Alice in Wonderland, the book is in the didactic tradition of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, introducing young readers to the standard instruments of the orchestra and their roles. (In fact, one could easily imagine Alice in Orchestralia being turned into a narrative concert piece like Peter, with the only drawback being that the book features even less plot than the similar Tubby the Tuba.)
At one point, Alice encounters a lonely outsider camping at a fork in the road between the villages of the woodwinds and brasses:
“Why do [the brass] turn you out?” she asked.
“They claim I’m a wood-wind instrument, because I’ve got a reed like a clarinet, and they say I ought to go and live in Panopolis.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Oh, I’ve tried to, time and again, but it’s no use. The wood-wind instruments say I belong in Brassydale, because my body is made of brass. So at last I got this tent and pitched it here, halfway between the two villages. It’s damp and rather lonely, but at least they can’t turn me out of it.”
After a little more discussion, the loner reveals that his name is Saxophone.
Nowadays, there is little dispute that the saxophone is a genuine woodwind instrument (using historian Curt Sachs’ terminology, a “single reed aerophone,” like the clarinet), the method of sound production being more important than the material from which the body is made. In fact, if the saxophone’s metal construction were truly disqualifying, one would also have to evict the metal clarinets and oboes that have been experimented with over the years, not to mention the flute.
There is also no question that the saxophone (or rather saxophones, in several sizes) has earned its place as a recognizable and easily available instrument, at least the sizes in common use. Unlike the ophicleide it is hardly obscure, and unlike the harpsichord it has never really gone away since its invention.
Still, the saxophone’s dual nature has been problematic since Adolphe Sax patented it in Paris in 1846. Most texts point out that Sax combined the clarinet’s single reed with the oboe’s conical bore, resulting in an easy-to-blow woodwind with a simplified fingering (the clarinet’s cylindrical bore causes it to overblow at the twelfth rather than the octave, resulting in a more complicated fingering pattern); historian Anthony Baines, however, speculates that Sax may have hit upon this combination by attaching a bass clarinet mouthpiece to an ophicleide—both instruments were specialties of his shop—creating a true woodwind-brass hybrid. Likewise, its brass construction and wide bell give it a powerful tone that blends equally well with brass or woodwinds, so it’s not unreasonable to consider it a bridge between the two groups.
The saxophone was initially developed with the military band in mind, and it was quickly adopted by the French authorities for that use. However, the qualities that made it perfect for bands—its volume, its distinctive timbre—have made it only an occasional visitor to the orchestra as a special color, despite Hector Berlioz’s enthusiastic prediction that it—or rather, an entire section of them—would become a regular part of the orchestra of the future. (It’s often forgotten, in fact, that Sax’s original design included two families: a group in the “band” keys of B-flat and E-flat, and a group in C and F for orchestral use. Of the second group, the C “melody” saxophone, a tenor that allowed sax players to read from scores in concert pitch, survived the longest but was out of production by the middle of the twentieth century.)
One could easily be led to believe that the saxophone’s adoption by jazz bands in the early twentieth century led to its increased popularity, but the opposite appears to be true, at least in the earliest days of jazz. Concurrent with the rise of jazz was a fad for saxophones (and other “novelty” wind instruments) on the Vaudeville stage, led by such groups as the Six Brown Brothers (who were active from about World War I until 1933). The saxophone became (along with the banjo) a symbol of student life, as necessary to depictions of 1920s college students as the raccoon-skin coat and football pennant, and a musical shorthand equivalent to the bongos in the beatnik ‘50s or sitar in the psychedelic ‘60s.
Manufacturers responded to the instrument’s popularity with a number of short-lived saxophone variants, some (like the slide saxophone) little more than novelties and others simply straightened out standard saxes. Of greater interest is the “Conn-O-Sax,” a straight F alto with a resonating bulb on the bell, and clearly positioned as a single-reed alternative to the English horn. The Conn-O-Sax was only made in 1929 and 1930, and examples are now very rare and highly collectible, but it has been adopted by some jazz players and shows like Saxophobia, which specializes in demonstrating a wide variety of old and new saxes. It is a unique instrument, and it seems that there would be a market for a modern reproduction, or perhaps even a revival by the Conn company.
When the saxophone was heard in jazz of the 1920s, it was most frequently a soprano replacing clarinet or cornet, or bass, replacing the tuba or string bass. There just wasn’t room for the alto or tenor to play in the improvisatory New Orleans style without stepping on either the cornet or trombone line. (It is for this reason that the tenor saxophone included in much post-World War II “Dixieland” sounds especially inauthentic.) It wasn’t until jazz migrated to Chicago and New York that a fad for oddball instrumental combinations, at least on record (including such eccentricities as the “goofus,” a kind of melodica*, and even “swing harp”—orchestral harp, that is, not harmonica), made room for the saxophone as a lead instrument.
Exceptions include the larger bands fielded by King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson and the “symphonic jazz” of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, but in those groups arrangements became more necessary to corral the larger numbers of players. The differentiation between soloist and accompaniment is clearer, foreshadowing the swing style of the 1930s. The saxophone’s presence thus became a dividing line between “hot” and “sweet” players, and between New Orleans purists and fans of the coming swing era: some of the harshest criticisms come from jazz historian Rudi Blesh, who as late as 1946 bemoans the replacement of the trombone with the saxophone in the Chicago style in his New Orleans-centric history Shining Trumpets: “For even an inferior trombone breathes new life into the music which the fashionable foghorn, the saxophone, had murdered.”
The saxophone fad eventually gave way, as all fads must, but not before the association between the saxophone and jazz had become permanent. Even before its versatility and technical fluency made it a natural vehicle for such giants as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, the saxophone became an internationally recognized symbol, embraced by energetic youth and reviled by totalitarian governments. It’s no wonder: the saxophone may have started out with the body of an ophicleide or bass clarinet, but its shape is unique: in profile it makes a perfect logo. As Czech novelist Josef Škvorecký writes in his essay Red Music, both the Nazis and the Soviets sought to root out the saxophone (replacing it with the cello in most cases), but for opposite reasons: to the Nazis the saxophone’s association with an African-American musical form made it musically suspect (even before that, Germany had been one of the few nations to exclude the sax from its military bands); to the Soviets the hybrid nature of the instrument was somehow “bourgeois,” not of the people. Ultimately the saxophone has outlasted both of them.
* A favorite solo instrument of Adrian Rollini, who was also known as the “Wizard of the Bass Sax.” Rollini was truly a renaissance man of offbeat instruments.