Publication Date

Spring 2022


The Saxophone instrument family has achieved widespread success and recognition in the context of jazz and popular music, but has a more complex role in the western classical music tradition. Instrument maker Adolph Sax invented the Saxophone in the 1840’s while living in Paris. Thanks to Sax’s connections to prominent figures in 19th century France, the instrument family saw initial success despite severe pushback from competing instrument makers and composers. Though it never became a standard instrument in the orchestra, it did have material written for it, including some notable solo pieces. That success did not continue, however, and by the last few decades of the 1800’s, with Sax declining in influence, the instrument fell into relative obscurity in the context of classical music. During that period in the United States, the instrument became prominent in popular music and among amateur musicians, thanks to its ubiquity and the relative ease of playing the instrument. With the rise of jazz in the 1920’s in the United States, the instrument achieved unprecedented levels of popularity. Though Adolph Sax envisioned the instrument in an orchestral context, its role in jazz was different, leading to physical changes to the instrument to make the sound louder, brighter, and more piercing. Further, following in the tradition of African folk music, which emphasizes unique timbres rather than pure tone, the unique capabilities of the instrument were frequently utilized. The first World War and Europe’s fixation on “primitive” cultures led to the African American jazz tradition finding footing in Europe, bringing with it a newfound interest in the saxophone and a resurgence in its use in western classical music.



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