Normally, when a presidential candidate turns up on television to blow his own horn, it's no big deal. That's what voters expect a candidate to do. But when then-Gov. Bill Clinton showed up at "The Arsenio Hall Show" to blow an actual horn -- a tenor saxophone -- America watched with amazement.
Never mind that his tone was flabby and his phrasing was, as one reviewer politely put it, "rhythmically challenged." What excited the folks at home was that Clinton was honking away on a genuinely hip instrument (and playing an Elvis tune, to boot). In the context of presidential musicality, where musical talent usually extends no further than playing show tunes on the piano, Clinton came across as downright funky.
No wonder, then, that the saxophone has become the symbol of Clintonite cool. And so, to help you keep up with the tenor of the times, here's everything you always wanted to know about sax (but were afraid to ask).
Man behind the horn
Belgian-born Adolphe Sax was the man behind the horn. A talented maker of band instruments, he already had a hit of sorts in his saxhorn, a family of brass instruments that prefigured the cornets and baritone horns of modern marching bands, but felt that there should be a reed instrument capable of bridging the gap between the clarinets and the lower brass. Working at his Paris workshop, he developed the saxophone in the 1840s, and was granted a French patent in 1846.
Hector Berlioz described Sax's new 'phone as looking like someone had taken the mouthpiece off a bass clarinet and jammed it onto an ophicliede (a keyed bugle modern musicians can't even pronounce, much less play). Historians believe this was meant as a compliment.
There are seven voices in the saxophone family, but only four turn up regularly: Soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. The tiny sopranino sax (tuned a fourth higher than the soprano) and massive bass sax (which stands four feet tall) are relatively exotic saxes, while the world's supply of contrabass saxophones (6 feet tall and blessed with a bottom reaching a full octave below the baritone) barely reaches into the dozens. There also used to be something called the C-melody saxophone -- Bix Beiderbecke's sax man, Frankie Trumbauer, played one -- but it faded away with the Coolidge administration.
Telling them all apart is fairly easy, once you learn to identify
primary and secondary sax characteristics.
* SOPRANO: Even though some curved sopranos exist, most are long and straight, looking rather like a big, brass clarinet. Its tone can be sweet and high, but jazz players tend to go for a slightly nasal sound, which makes the soprano seem like a more muscular oboe. Sidney Bechet, the first jazz saxophonist of note, was a soprano man, as is Clinton-favorite Kenny G. Also, alto and tenor saxophonists often double on soprano, like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis.
* ALTO: By far the most popular saxophone, alto is the horn of Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and David Sanborn. Classically curved, it is distinguished from the tenor sax by its smaller size and straight neck, which juts at a 30-degree angle from the instrument's body. The alto sound is light and dry; think of Paul Desmond's tart presentation of "Take Five" with Dave Brubeck, or Phil Woods' feathery solo in Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are." But it can also have quite an edge, as Sanborn's squalling counterpoint in David Bowie's "Young Americans" makes plain.
* TENOR: This is the powerhouse of the sax family, larger than the alto, and with a neck curved like an angle-pose lamp. The President-elect plays one, and so did Prez -- legendary Basie saxophonist Lester Young. Back during the Big Band era, tenor men tended to go for a round, mellifluous tone softened with vibrato (think of Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians). But once bluesy bruisers like Illinois Jacquet and Red Prysock came into fashion, tough tenors became all the rage. That's why the sounds most associated with this horn today tend to be big and beefy, from King Curtis' honking break in the Coasters' "Yackety Yak" to Jr. Walker's frenzied scream in "Shotgun," to Clarence Clemmons' epic wail in Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland."
* BARITONE: Big and gruff, the baritone is at the low end of any sax section, and on the short end of saxophone popularity. Much bigger than the others, its bell is often almost as long as its body, and its neck looks like the trap at the bottom of a sink. That's not to say the instrument is without heroes; Gerry Mulligan plays the baritone, and so does Lisa Simpson. Usually, the baritone's role is more rhythmic than melodic, as with the stuttering basso grunts that punctuate any Tower of Power horn arrangement. Still, baritone soloists do occasionally have their moments of glory, as with Mike Terry's gruff, swinging solo on the Four Tops' "It's Same Old Song," or Steve Douglas' growling break in the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron."
No matter how much sax players might prattle on about their instrument's musical merits, one of the most appealing things about sax is that it's so sexy. Think about it -- have you ever heard of anyone picking up the piccolo to impress girls?
Why do saxophones seem so much more seductive than trombones or accordions? Some of it has to do with the instrument's vocal qualities. Trumpets may blare, clarinets can cluck, and violins often scrape and squeak, but a good saxophone player can make his instrument shout, growl, whisper and moan as eloquently as any blues singer.
But mostly it's a matter of context. Unlike other wind instruments, which can easily retreat to the respectability of chamber music or symphony orchestras, the saxophone is most at home with music of ill-repute: Jazz, blues, rock and roll. And, as we all know, that's where the action is.
Most people think the electric guitar is the quintessential rock ax, but saxophone was the original rock and roll instrument. In fact, many of the rock era's seminal works were sax-driven singles like baritone saxophonist Jackie Brenston's 1951 immortal "Rocket 88" (which many critics consider the first real rock and roll record), Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," and Tiny Bradshaw's "The Train Kept A-Rollin'," which was a feature for tenor man Red Prysock before the Johnny Burnette Trio turned it into a fuzz-guitar touchstone.
So what happened? One problem was that you couldn't sing and bTC play at the same time, as with guitar; another was that before the advent of transducers and mini-microphones, saxophone players had a hard time matching the volume of electric guitars, basses and keyboards. But the bottom line was that, as the pop music apartheid slipped into place in the '60s, sax was seen as a "soul" -- read "black" -- instrument, while guitars were considered "rock." Hence the flood of rock guitar heroes, and relative dearth of similarly celebrated sax men.
Sax and symphonies
Few orchestras have full-time saxophonists -- not because they don't like the instrument, but because there isn't a lot for an orchestral saxophonist to do. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were all long dead before the instrument was invented, and few of the composers who were around in the late 19th century had much use for the things. Consequently, there are no saxophone parts to be found in the symphonies of Brahms, the ballets of Tchaikovsky or the operas of Wagner.
That's not to say it has been entirely ignored. There is a noteworthy saxophone solo in Ravel's "Bolero," as well as in his orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" ("The Old Castle," to be precise). There's sax in Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," Bizet's "L'Arlesienne" and Vaughan Williams' fourth symphony. There are even several seldom-played saxophone concertos. But then, there are also concertos for harmonica, mandolin and sitar, and nobody plays them, either.
What are the words we use when we talk about sax? Well, it depends who's playing. Altoist Paul Desmond described his ideal tone as being like a dry martini; baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who anchored the Duke Ellington sax section, was once described as having a sound like two battleships mating.
Elsewhere, saxophones have been said to make all sorts of noises. They honk, shriek, wail, moan, bleat, blat, growl, groan, murmur, mutter, whisper, scream, holler, cat-call, snicker, steam. Sometimes, they sing like angels.
But not very often.
Saxophones are generally either E-flat or B-flat instruments, meaning that when the player fingers a "C," the concert pitch heard is either E-flat or B-flat. Sopraninos, altos and baritones are E-flat axes, sopranos, tenors and basses come in B-flat. (The only exceptions are the rare C-Melody sax, which is in C, and the ultra-rare contrabass sax, which is in F). But all saxophones use the same fingering, with a written compass stretching from B-flat below middle C to the F two-and-a half octaves above. Modern sopranos, altos and tenors have added a high F-sharp key, though, while baritones now extend their bottom half a step to A.
According to figures compiled by the National Association of Band Instrument Manufacturers, some 66,095 saxophones sold in the U.S. last year. Altos were the most popular saxophones, accounting for almost 84 percent of the total figure; tenors trailed at 8,194, while the combined figure for soprano and baritone saxophones was a mere 2,686.
Most sales for altos and tenors are of student models, which on average run about $900 to $1,000 for altos, and $1,500 for tenors. Professional models are considerably more expensive. A Selmer Paris alto goes for as much as $3,500, and a tenor for about $4,000. But that's a bargain compared to a French-built baritone, which lists for $6,600.