Sunday, November 27, 2011

The sexy sax. A instrument banned by the church and that helped launch a career to be a president. Yes, we are talking about the invention of the musical brass horn. The inventor Adolph Sax was born in Belgium 197 years ago. He was the son of a musical instrument maker. He invented his own musical instrument in the 1840’s.
It has a reed mouthpiece like a woodwind, but a body not made of wood but of brass. It became know as the saxophone. Classical music had no place for the saxophone. It was limited to military marching bands. Not everyone appreciated its sultry sexy sound. It is the only musical instrument that can take on the phrasing of the human voice.
Pope Pious X banned the use of the saxophone in church services on the grounds that it could provoke scandal. So, how does a priest, the highest priest in the Catholic Church, know anything about sexy or scandal if he doesn’t get any and is void of scandal in his life? The feelings that the sounds from this instrument invoke did not be unheard by the most religious.
Once the instrument was used by American jazz musicians, there was no turning back. In night clubs and in old movies like “Some Like It Hot” with two late great movie stars in drag, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. In the movie made in 1959 Tony is playing it all the time. The great jazz composer Dave Brubeck loved the sax and featured it as a solo instrument in his “Take 5” famous song.
In every New Orleans band you will find the sax being used by someone. Sax jazz greats include Charlie Parker and John Coltrane that made the sounds speak to you. The sax also got infiltrated into popular culture as well. It even made it as part of the Children’s popular series Sesame Street. There you will find the character Hoots the Owl who plays the sax.
More recently for at least a decade Lisa Simpson from the TV cartoon “The Simpsons” has been entertaining us on her saxophone. But perhaps the most famous performance came from then Governor Bill Clinton who picked up a sax and entertained all of America and probably boosted his appeal to voters.
Probably the most recent and most famous was the big black guy in Bruce Springstein’s East Street Band, the late great Clarence Clemons. In every song when Bruce took a break from singing something, Clarence chimed in with a great solo. Sadly, Clarence just died this past June at the age of 69. He put the instrument back on the map in pop culture.
I think that this relatively new born instrument still has a very long future in music. Kids are learning how to play it in many music schools and as electives in grade schools all over the world now. I wonder if Mr. Sax the inventor of such a thing knew how cool his invention would become generations later.

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