Take a moment and see if you can guess the name of the man who invented the saxophone. It’s Sax, of course. Adolph Sax (1814-1894) was a Belgian instrument maker who was trying to create a horn that combined characteristics of both the clarinet and brass instruments. His goal was to produce a powerful woodwind that could play as strongly as trombones and trumpets in military bands. The result after several years of work was the saxophone, which he completed in 1845.
One of the most frequently asked questions about the saxophone is, “Why do we call it a Woodwind instrument if it is made out of brass?” The saxophone is a woodwind because it is played like all other members of that family — the saxophonist changes pitch by pressing down keys, which cover a series of holes on the surface of the horn. Also, the mouthpiece of the saxophone works in the same way as the clarinet. The mouthpiece has a reed attached to it, which vibrates when the saxophonist blows through it. Reeds are made from a large grass called [i]arundodonax[i] or [i]arundo sativa[i], which is mainly grown in the Var region of France. Mouthpieces are constructed from a form of hard rubber, plastic, or metal. The only similarity that saxophones have to brass instruments is the material from which they are made.
The saxophone has a normal range of two and a half octaves, but most professional players can extend that range to three and a half octaves or more through a system of complex fingerings. There are four main instruments in the saxophone family — the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. Each consists of a main body, a neck, and a mouthpiece. A neck strap, which is worn by the player, supports the weight of the instrument and the horn is balanced with the right thumb and the mouth. The musician articulates notes by lightly touching his tongue against the reed while blowing through the mouthpiece.
Adolph Sax intended that his instrument be used in military bands and it quickly gained popularity in those ensembles as well as marching bands and concert bands. Although the saxophone never became a standard member of the symphony orchestra, many composers took advantage of its unique tone and included it in some of their orchestral compositions. Most notably, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) used it in [i]Bolero[/i], and Serge Prokofiev(1891-1953) wrote for it in [i]Lieutenant Kije[/i] and[i]Romeo and Juliet[/i]. Also, Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Jacques Ibert(1890-1962), and Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) wrote outstanding solo concertos for saxophone and orchestra.
Although the saxophone has not received widespread acceptance in the field of classical music, it has been immensely popular in the world of jazz, from its beginning to the present. The most significant and influential saxophonists in jazz are Charlie Parker (1920-1955) and John Coltrane (1926-1967). Both of these musicians elevated saxophone playing to new levels and also took jazz in new directions. Perhaps the most important player today is Michael Brecker who has influenced numerous jazz and rock musicians.
Various characteristics of the saxophone have made it popular among musicians and audiences. When played by a good musician, it has the potential to be very expressive because of its wide volume range and its many tonal possibilities. The saxophonist can produce a sound that is very sweet, or light and airy, or very harsh and edgy by “growling” which is created by humming through the instrument while playing. Also, the saxophone is capable of playing very fast runs of notes. Besides its importance in jazz, it has also been a significant solo instrument in rock and popular music.