Adolphe Sax, were he alive today at age 203, probably wouldn't be surprised that Macklemore's 2012 hip hop hit "Thrift Shop" featured the saxophone because he designed it for versatility. By combining the agility of woodwind with the projection of brass, Sax created an instrument that is at home in virtually every musical genre. With a single reed mouthpiece, the saxophone is officially a woodwind instrument, even though it's made of brass. In fact, in its soprano form, the sax looks like a brass clarinet (see photo).
Structurally, the sax is a thin, brass, conical tube, flared at the end, with about 20 tone holes covered by keys that the player opens or closes (some holes are open by default, some closed). In the alto, tenor and baritone versions, the tube is bent into the traditional folded U, while the soprano sax is usually straight.
The soprano sax is what drew me to the instrument in the first place — my 10-year-old self, transfixed by Sidney Bechet's "Summertime" on my parents' wind-up gramophone in all the high fidelity of a 10-inch shellac record. My early flirtation with jazz was soon swept away by Bill Haley, Elvis, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. Rock 'n' roll was my thing in those awesome (and awful) pubescent years and rock bands had plenty of use for the sax — most combos included one or two of them to help pump out that insistent 4/4 beat.
Somewhere in late '50s, though, Paul Desmond wrote "Take Five" for the alto sax and it became the biggest-selling jazz single of all time. I loved it and was at the same time vaguely aware that someone called John Coltrane played a mean tenor sax on his Giant Steps LP. The sax kept popping up in popular culture, too: Henry Mancini's chromatic Pink Panther sax theme from 1963; a year later, Stan Getz's "Girl from Ipanema" again showed the sax's versatility as it embraced the bossa nova. The '70s brought us Bobby Key's tenor sax solos on such Stones' hits as "Brown Sugar," Bob Seger's opening alto wail on "Turn the Page" and Clarence Clemons on Springsteen's Born to Run album.
Saxophones are found just about everywhere there's music: in the classical repertoire (Ravel's Bolero, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), military bands (many of Sousa's marches), William Lovelock's chamber music, bebop (pioneered in 1939 by jazz sax pioneer Coleman Hawkins in "Body and Soul"), Lester Young's "cool" jazz and, of course, in rock, pop and rap.
Adolphe Sax, from Dinant and later Brussels, Belgium, was looking to fill the gap between woodwind and brass instruments. Before inventing the saxophone, he was already experimenting with a precursor of the tuba (the last brass instrument to join the orchestra) and the euphonium (the bass "saxhorn"). Both his parents were instrument designers — they were responsible for improvements to the French horn that have lasted to the present time. Adolphe learned to play the clarinet early on, experimenting with a design for a bass clarinet that would have won the gold prize in the Brussels Industrial Exhibition — except the judges said he was too young. In 1842, he moved to Paris, where, four years later, he patented his saxophone designs: seven pairs of them in different sizes and tonal ranges. Later, a tangle of lawsuits over his patents led to repeated bankruptcies and he died penniless in Paris in 1894, an unworthy ending for the man who gave us the magic of the sax.
Barry Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) plans on being reincarnated as a tenor sax virtuoso.