October 05, 2015
Celebrating Jazz: How the Saxophone Became a Jazz Staple
Credit: Jeremiah True, St. Louis Music, P. Mauriat Brand Manager
Jazz is widely considered by many to be the most diverse form of music on planet earth. From 19th century “Delta Style” blues to Traditional New Orleans “riverboat jazz,” from Coltrane to Kenny G, solo piano to modern jazz orchestra, Chick Corea’s Elektric Band to Jazz at Lincoln Center to the 1950s bossa nova craze, or from a small jazz club in Tokyo to a stadium showcasing Michael Buble, all of these things can be called “jazz.” Purists might argue that true “jazz” must have certain parameters, while a certain cross-section of jazz listeners considers hip-hop to be a natural evolution. Bottom line, jazz is an art form with “something for everyone.”
From it’s beginnings in the field-songs of the late 19th century, jazz music absorbed the sounds of whatever situation, town, tradition, or different musical genre influenced it at the time. Combining rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean with European harmonic structure, jazz did coalesce around one central maxim: improvisation. Early jazz groups would play popular songs and melodies of the time, adapt it to their particular instrument or ensemble, and then each musician usually would improvise a “chorus” over the existing harmony, essentially creating a new melody during each performance. Jazz arrangements of simple tunes became more complex over time, especially with the advent of the “big band,” where many musicians relied upon arrangements (either written down or arranged “in the head” on the spot) to add colors, textures, and ornaments to the given melody. But, the central tenet of improvisation is what made jazz strikingly different from other musical genres up to that point; no matter how complex the arrangement or large the ensemble, it was and is very rare for improvisation to be excluded from any style of jazz.
In keeping with the jazz practice of “borrowing and transforming,” instrumentalists did the same thing with their instruments. Instruments found in traditional and modern jazz were/are almost always found in the orchestras of Europe: piano, acoustic bass, percussion, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute, even violin. In the mid-19th century an instrument maker named Adolph Sax created an instrument that he hoped would bridge the gap between the woodwind and brass families—the saxophone! While the saxophone would go on to be featured in many late 19th/20th century orchestral pieces, it never quite “caught on” or was accepted into standard orchestral instrumentation like the clarinet, flute, bassoon, etc. However, military bands worldwide soon discovered its usefulness as an instrument, particularly on the parade ground, and jazz musicians soon discovered in the early 20th century what an incredibly versatile instrument the saxophone was, and still is.
To say the saxophone has become synonymous with jazz is an understatement. To the casual listener, just the mere presence or sound of a saxophone conjures up the mental image of the word “jazz.” Every big band of the 1940s had 4-5 saxophones, the hard boppers of the 1950s almost always featured a saxophone, John Coltrane took jazz saxophone to another level in the 1960s, and when the lines between jazz and “horn bands” in the 1970s began to blur, the saxophone was still on stage. Fast forward to the rise of “smooth jazz” in the 1980s and 90s, and names like Grover Washington, jr., Kenny G, Dave Koz, and Kirk Whalum (think Whitney Houston!) became almost “household” in nature, even amongst the most casual jazz aficionados.
In 2022, a young saxophonist named Avery Dixon appeared on a popular prime time “talent show,” and reignited beginner saxophone sales nationwide. Internet searches popped up everywhere inquiring as to the brand, type of sax, etc. that Avery played. One popular question was: “does Avery play a jazz sax?” That’s a very good question!!!
The saxophone was never intended for jazz use; jazz wasn’t even a “thing” when Adolph Sax patented the first saxophone in 1846. As various saxophone makers over the last 150 years have improved and developed the instrument, there was never a delineation for a “jazz saxophone.” When the legendary Mark VI was introduced in 1954, it was played by jazz and concert saxophonists alike—many times using the same mouthpiece and equipment! American, European, and Asian saxophone manufacturers sought to develop instruments that appealed to a wide range of musicians, from concert to jazz, amateur to professional, student to hobbyist. However, with the advent of the internet, and the “vintage movement” (clothes, cars, household furnishings…..instruments), many aspiring jazz saxophonists sought saxophones that facilitated the easy expression of jazz and improvisation. In general, jazz saxophonists were looking for instruments that were very free blowing, responsive, and capable of a plethora of tonal palettes. Thus, instrument makers responded with vintage finishes, enlarged bore tubes, flared bells, etc. There are still, however, many saxophonists that contend that a saxophone is a saxophone-period, whether it is for concert, jazz, military band, etc.
The P. Mauriat Promise
Enter a brand that makes a complete line of saxophones (from bass to sopranino), has multiple finish options, body construction options (from traditional French bore to Germanic, drawn tone holes or rolled), beginner to intermediate to professional level instruments, as well as custom neck options. That brand is P. Mauriat, created in 2003 by Alex Hsieh. Handcrafted in Taiwan, the P. Mauriat appeals to all saxophone players, depending on their needs and personal preference. Sure, P. Mauriat makes saxophones with the concert saxophonist in mind (Master-97 Series), but in so many cases P. Mauriat jazz artists chose these “classical” horns! P. Mauriat makes rolled tone hole, enlarged bore taper, flared bell saxophones designed to cut right through a big band, yet they’re played also in many military bands. The System-76 Series is designed with a vintage look and feel, yet most of the “modern jazz” P. Mauriat artists play the System-76! The bottom line is this: the player, whether a concert or jazz player, must select the instrument that gives “flight” to their voice, regardless of the instrument’s intended design (“classical sax” or “jazz sax”). Whatever one’s preference, P. Mauriat has a saxophone that will fit any player in any style.