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The Saxophone

September 3, 2002

A public radio commentary

We associate the saxophone with the mellowness of jazz, but it roots are very hotheaded.

The saxophone evolved from a bass clarinet built by the Belgian Adolphe Sax. It was the result of a scientific approach to designing instruments. For example, the most pressing problem of the time was placing the key holes in a wind instrument so that it was perfectly chromatic. Others did this by trial and error; Sax, though, used mathematics and acoustics to calculate exactly where to place the holes.

He thought so much of his new clarinet, that when he learned a musician in Paris was also debuting a new instrument, Sax dashed there to prove his better. He succeeded, even getting the musician's wife to say to her husband "when Mr. Sax plays, your instrument sounds like a kazoo."

The fiery young inventor returned to Brussels and entered a music contest. They only awarded him the second prize. This enraged Sax, who stormed back to Paris.

He was destitute until the French composer Berlioz learned about Sax's instrument. Berlioz wrote an article praising Sax and overnight the obscure Belgian instrument maker became famous. The fame brought him a loan, which let him start an instrument shop in a dilapidated shed. The temperamental Sax immediately upset the Paris musical establishment. He insisted that every piece for his instruments be made in his shop. At the time, instruments were made piece by piece by craftsman across Paris, then reassembled in a central shop.

So, repellent was Sax to the musical establishment that his shop was often robbed of expensive tools and irreplaceable plans for new instruments - and there were even three assassination attempts on Sax.

Unable to battle the sabotage any longer, he set up a new shop in a prison, where he trained convicts to build instruments. Under the watchful eyes of the guards there was no longer any smuggling of plans, or sabotage.

During this turmoil, he created his masterpiece: The Saxophone. It was well-received by the public and composers, but its acceptance was blocked by musicians, who threatened to strike if it were used. So, intense was the opposition to the Saxophone that its enemies legally banded into a group called the United Association of Instrument Makers. They sued Sax to strip him of his patents.

The lawsuits bankrupted him by 1852. He disappeared from public view for thirty years until a Paris newspaper reported that he was destitute. And it quoted him as desiring a "few hours [of] peace in a life eaten up by worry." His few friends petitioned the French government, which awarded him a small pension.

Only with his death did the lawsuits that had plagued him for fifty years end. His saxophone, of course, lived on, taking on new life only when jazz entered the musical world.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises