The Story Of Jazz Saxophone

AAJ Staff By

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For some, the saxophone is the sound of jazz. The unique fusion of brass and woodwind that is the sax found an electrifying vibrato in the hands of jazzmen that truly changed the world. The pale "pure" tone of the instrument, as first used in classical compositions, vanished in a musical blast of slurs ( Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges, occasional exciting "false-fingering" (Lester Young) and runs almost too fast, for some at the time, to listen to (Charlie Parker). Parker employed the range of the alto sax and its keying system to show the world a new music entirely, while "sonorists" like Stan Getz (possessor of "The Sound") turned the instrument into, effectively, the "sexophone." And so Hollywood movies have always automatically cued a sax solo " When Lights Are Low," as the Benny Carter title says.

Chapter Index
  1. Enter The Sax: Coleman Hawkins
  2. Swing Society: Lester Young
  3. The Influence Of Ellington
  4. Bebop: Charlie Parker
  5. Post Bop

Enter The Sax: Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins, known as "The Hawk" or "Bean," basically invented tenor sax as we know it, all the way down to Bill Clinton playing his way to office. After making many recordings with various groups and orchestras from the 1920s, the Hawk took an unusual step in the mid 1930s, travelling to Europe for four years. On his return to America in 1939, he recorded the classic "Body And Soul," a solo tenor exposition in front of a small group. This was the future, and indeed Hawkins said it himself in the early 40s, when he told a friend that small groups were the future of jazz. Yet, back in the '20s, Hawkins may have been an important builder of the big band era, as the orchestra with which he was most associated at the time was that of Fletcher Henderson, the great swing arranger (for Benny Goodman).

Hawkin's sound is full and round-bodied. Sounds like a wine, don't it? The revolutionary sound of the instrument, and its capabilities, is well demonstrated in this relatively early record by Hawkins with The Chocolate Dandies, from 1933:

Two years later, "The Hawk" was in Holland- here is a priceless film of him saying "hello," and playing, to the Dutch people:

Then there is the "must hear" "Body And Soul" of 1939:

Benny Carter

By the early thirties, Benny Carter was, with Johnny Hodges, one of the two main alto sax players around. He was also a noted arranger and composer: his "When Lights Are Low" is a classic tune (it was recorded by for example Miles Davis). Like Hawkins, he spent time in Europe in the mid '30s. Carter was active to 1997, and left us as late as 2003! Here are clips of Carter in the 1940s and in 1997:


Swing Society: Lester Young

Lester Young

Lester Young was the opposite approach to Hawkins: a light, airy sound that was soon transformed into bebop and modern jazz by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Lester played with Count Basie as the leading solo voice, and was also a very good composer. He became best friends with Billie Holliday, and unfortunately died within months of her also. He was rumored to wear lipstick at times, and his sensitive persona saw him sitting on the floor in the bathroom with his tenor sax, in tears. His peak tracks are generally felt to be up to and including 1944, when he was drafted. In the army, racism affected him badly, but many of his (more boogie) records after the war are also interesting.

Young's playing is very distinctive; as Count Basie said: "Lester was a stylist." He has a sideways sound, and indeed he used to sling his saxophone sideways on the band stand instead of facing straight ahead like the other players. There are photos of him standing up and holding the sax horizontally in front and to the side of him: this may have been for show, but it is HOW he sounded. There is an excellent double CD compilation on the Primo label, "The Immortal Lester Young."

Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young provide the template for tenor sax to the present (Coltrane apart of course). Hawkins sounds more mainstream, but it is really Young's vibratoless approach that made modern jazz possible.

A good description is from Answers.com: "Young's freewheeling style included holding the saxophone at odd angles: he often held it nearly horizontal. His signature porkpie hat also was copied by generations of jazz musicians. Young and his contemporary Coleman Hawkins are often listed as the original twin towers of modern jazz saxophone." Unlike the other twins, these two will never fall.

The 1936 track "Shoe Shine Swing" shows "Pres" in flight:


The Influence Of Ellington

Johnny Hodges

Parallel to or just behind Hawkins in terms of start time (Hawkins was already recording important records with Fletcher Henderson's band in 1924) was Johnny Hodges, the famous alto saxophonist with Duke Ellington' orchestra. Nicknamed "the Rabbit," Hodges is the most beautiful sax sound in jazz: rich, often described as "creamy," and setting up the most sensual of Ellington's masterpieces (or those his sidekick Billy Strayhorn), particularly in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Hodges stayed with Ellington until 1970 (he left for a five year period in 1951) as his premier soloist.

Here is a Hodges feature:

Ben Webster

Another powerful player in the general Hawkins mould was Ben Webster. Webster had a very distinctive sound, and is most famous for his immense contributions to Duke Ellington's peak band of the early 1940s, not surprisingly known as the [Blanton]-Webster band (Jimmy Blanton was the revolutionary bassist who single-handedly invented modern bass playing and provided the "spring in the swing" of the Ellington band of this famous era). The track "Cottontail" is a brilliant example of Webster's power and virtuosity, and, as it was recorded in 1940, is also an example (due to Ellington's writing) of virtual "pre-Parker modern jazz." Webster could do it. A quote attributed to Webster, from 1973, is this: "Son, you are young and growing, and I am old and going. So have your fun while you can!" Many brilliant photos of Webster are collected at Ben Webster

The masterful Webster plays Gershwin's "How Long has This Been Going On":

Harry Carney

Beginning his recording career in 1924 with Ellington, Harry Carney was the baritone saxophonist who gave Ellington his very important deeper sound area . Ellington's and Strayhorn's scores would have the trumpets, other saxophones and trombones on one stave each, but there was always a separate stave entirely for Carney: his lower baritone part was very important to the sound (an alto sax is relatively high pitched, a tenor sax lower, and the baritone very low).

Here is Carney playing his show piece, the solo in "Sophisticated Lady" in 1964:

Gerry Mulligan also played baritone sax, beginning in the early 1950s, but in the ("West Coast") modern jazz style. He made exceptionally interesting records with Chet Baker on trumpet, in their famous piano-less quartet over 1952-53.



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