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A History of the Saxophone in Jazz

By

Image of Jazz Saxophonist Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman

© Juan-Carlos Hernandez
It all started with Adolphe Sax, a Belgian instrument inventor. In 1842, he attached a clarinet mouthpiece to a brass creation that he named the saxophone. Because of its metal, conical body, the saxophone was capable of playing at volumes much higher than other woodwinds. It was used in military bands in the 1800s, but it took a while for it to be taken seriously by musicians.

Below is a brief history of jazz saxophonists, structured around the stories of the musicians who changed an odd invention into one of the most iconic instruments in jazz. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a rough sketch of the involvement of the saxophone in jazz.

  • Sidney Bechet (May 14th, 1897 - May 14th, 1959)

    A contemporary of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet was perhaps the first to develop a virtuosic approach to the saxophone. He played the soprano sax, and with his voice-like tone and bluesy style of improvisation, he boosted the involvment of the saxophone in early jazz styles.

  • Frankie Trumbauer (May 30th, 1901 - June 11th, 1956)

    Alongside trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, Trumbauer presented a refined alternative to the "hot jazz" of the first few decades of the 1900s. He rose to fame in the 1920s for recording "Singin' the Blues" on the C-Melody saxophone (halfway between the tenor and alto) with Beiderbecke. His dry tone and calm, introspective style influenced many later saxophonists.

  • Coleman Hawkins (November 21st, 1904 - May 19th, 1969)

    One of the first virtuosos on the tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins became renowned for his aggressive tone and his melodic creativity. He was a star of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra during the swing era in the 1920s and 30s. His application of advanced harmonic knowledge to improvisation helped pave the way for bebop.

  • Johnny Hodges (July 5th, 1906 - May 11th, 1970)

    An alto saxophonist best known for leading Duke Ellington's Orchestra for 38 years, Hodges played the blues and ballads with unrivaled tenderness. Heavily influenced by Sidney Bechet, Hodges' tone wailed with a fast vibrato and a bright timbre.

  • Ben Webster (March 27th, 1909 - September 20th, 1973)

    Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster borrowed a raspy, aggressive tone from Coleman Hawkins on blues numbers, and invoked Johnny Hodges' sentimentality on ballads. He became a star soloist in Duke Ellington's Orchestra, and is considered one of the three most influential tenor players of the swing era, along with Hawkins and Lester Young. His version of Ellington's "Cotton Tail" is one of the most famous recordings in jazz.

  • Lester Young (August 27th, 1909 - March 15th, 1959)

    With his smooth tone and laid-back approach to improvisation, Young presented an alternative to the gruff styles of Webster and Hawkins. His melodic style more reflected that of Frankie Trumbauer, and his "cool" expression lead to the cool jazz movement.

  • Charlie Parker (August 29th, 1920 - March 12th, 1955)

    One of the most Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker is credited with developing the lightning-fast, high energy bebop style alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Parker's incredible technique, along with his grasp of rhythm and harmony, have made him the object of study of virtually every jazz musician at some point in their development.

  • Sonny Rollins (b. September 7, 1930)

    Inspired by Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins developed a bold and quirky melodic style. Bebop and calypso have been featured prominently throughout his career, which is marked by continual self-questioning and conscious evolution. In the late 1950s, after firmly establishing himself as one of the top call tenor players, he abandoned his career for three years while searching for a new sound. During this period, he practiced on the Williamsburg Bridge. To this day, Rollins is evolving, and seeking out styles of jazz that will best express his ebullient musical character.

  • John Coltrane (September 23rd, 1926 - July 17th, 1967)

    Coltrane's influence is one of the most remarkable in jazz. He began his career modestly, attempting to emulate Charlie Parker. In the 1950s he found wider exposure through his gigs with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. It wasn't until 1959, however, that it seemed that Coltrane was really on to something. His piece "Giant Steps," on the album of the same name, featured a harmonic structure he had invented, and it sounded like nothing before it. He entered a period marked by a dismissal of linear melodies, fierce technique, and layers of harmony. In the mid 1960s, he abandoned rigid structures for intense, free improvisation.

  • Warne Marsh (October 26th, 1927 - December 17th, 1987)

    Generally under the radar for most of his career, Warne Marsh played with an almost stoic approach. He valued complex linear melodies over riffs and licks, and his dry tone seemed reserved and pensive, unlike the effusive sounds of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Although he never earned the recognition of some of his like-minded contemporaries such as Lee Konitz or Lennie Tristano (who was also his teacher), Marsh's influence can be heard in the modern players such as saxophonist Mark Turner and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.

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