Of all the band instruments, the saxophone has generated the most controversy. Its creator, who earnestly set out to make a new kind of instrument in the 1840s, was attacked for making a tool of the devil, capable of manipulating a listener’s sexual desires with its sound. For the next 170 years, it would be associated with the military, Vaudeville and circus folks, African-American communities, and members of the lower classes, as well as general impropriety and questionable morals.
The saxophone, the only “woodwind” instrument that’s never actually been made of wood, uses a single reed and an all-metal body, usually brass, that’s played similarly to a clarinet. The alto sax is the most popular instrument in the family. The 16-inch soprano sax is the only sax with a straight bell; the contrabass sax stands 6-1/2 feet tall.
Belgian clarinetist and flutist Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax, the son of the country’s head instrument maker, became obsessed with the notion of creating a new instrument in his 20s. During the early 1800s, Sax noted an imbalance in orchestras: The brass instruments overwhelmed the woodwinds, while the woodwinds drowned out the strings. He wanted his instrument to create an equilibrium between the timbre of the clarinet and the power of the trumpet.
In 1841, he succeeded, inventing the first saxophone—a C bass sax he called a “bass horn”—which he promptly showed to his friend Hector Berlioz. The great composer was wowed by this one-of-a-kind versatile instrument. Adolphe Sax moved to Paris in 1842 to promote his invention. Berlioz helped him, reviewing the new instrument in the magazine “Journal des Debats” and featuring the instrument he dubbed “le saxophon” in an 1844 concert. That same year, the sax had its first big public debut, at the Paris Industrial Exhibition, and by December the instrument had a role in George Kastner’s opera, “Last King of Judea,” performed at the Paris Conservatory.
As an experiment to prove the tonal importance of the saxophone, Sax pitted the 35 members of the French army band, with only oboes, bassoons, and French horns, against a 28-member band that included saxophones in a “battle of the bands.” Sax’s band was the clear winner, and so in 1845, he was allowed to replace the French army band’s standard instruments with B-flat and E-flat saxophones. Soon, the sax was considered a vital part of all French military bands.
During the summer of 1846, Sax acquired a 15-year patent for his 14-member saxophone instrument family, which included the E-flat sopranino, F sopranino, B-flat soprano, C soprano, E-flat alto, F alto, B-flat tenor, C tenor, E-flat baritone, B-flat bass, C bass, F-flat contrabass, and F contrabass. (Today, only five of these are still used, classified as soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass.) The following February, Sax established a saxophone school at the military band academy called Gymnase Musical. The Paris Conservatory hired Sax as a professor in 1858.
That said, Adolphe Sax's insistence on developing a better woodwind angered many instrument makers and influencers in the orchestra community. Some competitors stole his patented...
Sax’s enemies noticed another trait particular to the sax—its timbre was rather sensual, and in fact, when played a particular way, it could sound downright libidinous. The S-curve of the saxophone seem to imitate the undulating curves of a snake or a dancing woman, and the sound seemed to have an almost mystical power to compel listeners to follow their most depraved desires and commit acts of evil. Of course, critics used this against Sax, and its association with the sin of lust made the instrument an easy target in uptight Victorian society. Pope Pius X even wrote a screed against the sax in 1903, asserting that it fostered “disgust or scandal,” effectively banning it from religious music.
On top of all that, the imprecise tone of the saxophone made it impractical for large orchestras. Instead, the sax was relegated to all-sax ensembles, one of the first of which was part of a minstrel show at a touring circus, known for its blackface performers and “freaks” living on the margins of society. So Sax never achieved his dream of creating a new instrument for the formal symphony. However, he did find financial success with military bands all over the world, and French military music made its way to the United States through New Orleans, where the sax was first introduced into the underground “jazz” sound emerging in nightclubs in the 1910s.
It was an open secret that the popularity of the instrument in the military made it a cash cow. As soon as the saxophone patent expired in 1866, other instrument companies rushed in, producing their own saxophones, including Buffet Crampon’s 100 series and Millereau Co.’s patented saxophone with a forked F-sharp key. In 1875, Gourmas patented a key arrangement similar to Boehm’s system for the clarinet. Still, Mr. Sax was able to extend his patent for the general inventions of the saxes until 1881, with a longer bell and a fourth octave key. The saxophone got a C trill key and a half-hole system for first fingers in 1886, and in 1888, the single-octave key and rollers for E-flat and C were included.
American bandleader Patrick Gilmore in New York City got on the saxophone bandwagon in the 1870s, followed by U.S. Marine bandleader John Philip Sousa in the 1880s. Meanwhile, Ferdinand August "Gus" Buescher—a foreman at the C.G. Conn instrument factory in Elkhart, Indiana—was tinkering with an early Sax model of the instrument. In 1885, Buescher led Conn’s attempts to produce the first American-made saxophone, which Conn introduced in 1887. But it wasn’t until the turn of the century, when Buescher was striking out with his own company, that he got to focus on perfecting the sax, which he issued with a silver-plate finish. Leblanc, Holton, Martin, and White (using the King brand name) all got into the saxophone business soon after.
Immediately before Adolphe Sax’s death, he wrote a letter to his brother Alphonse, in which explained dreams where “black devils were blowing his horn and summoning all the damned to the infernos of hell.” (Given the way his competitors tormented him, this is hardly surprising.) When Sax passed away in 1894, his son Adolphe Edouard inherited the company.
Outside of military-style bands in the United States, the sax was also adopted by the Vaudeville performance circuit, which was considered very edgy and racy at the time. By 1914, saxophones were already important to the burgeoning sound of steamy, seedy, rebellious music known as “jazz,” a euphemism for sex, which first appeared in African-American clubs. By the 1920s, the saxophone was a hot item, used in big bands playing both Dixieland and swing jazz. Schools were even starting to form bands with a saxophone section. In 1928, the Henri Selmer musical instrument company purchased the Sax family’s factory.
Even though jazz (and by extension, saxophones) was becoming more and more socially acceptable in U.S. society, there were still many old-fashioned folks that questioned the sound's respectability. Part of this had to do with the fact that the sax sound was used to express the shadowy side of life. Of course, much of the concerns were simply masking underlying racism and elitism, as jazz music and dance came out of African American and poorer communities.
In the 1930s, Ladies Home Journal, a magazine for proper American gentlewomen, spoke out against the questionable morals of jazz. The genre was banned in Nazi Germany, referring to the sound embodied by the sax as America’s “jungle music” and “degenerate music.” Stalin called the saxophone an instrument of “capitalist oppression.” In fact, parts of Eastern Europe continued to ban sax performances until the 1980s, when Kenny G was playing it to produce the most innocuous smooth jazz imaginable.
In the 1950s, just as youth rebellion was becoming cool, the sleazy, slow sax sound was usurped by the brash, high-energy riff of the electric guitar. Still, high-school bands and jazz musicians kept the saxophone manufacturers busy. Selmer made its ultimate refinement of the sax in 1954 when it introduced its Mark VI saxophone with superior tuning, considered by many to be the company’s finest sax ever. Top musicians including Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Branford Marsalis, John Coltrane, David Sanborn, and Kenny G declared their allegiance to this model. In 1980, Selmer debuted the Mark VI’s successor, the Super Action 80 series saxes.