Thursday, September 18, 2008

Antoine-Joseph "Adolphe" Sax

Few inventors can predict, let alone control, the destiny of their creations. Many struggle to profit from their work even when the concept proves commercially successful. Antoine-Joseph "Adolphe" Sax couldn't have foreseen the musical trajectory of his most famous invention (and hardly did he profit from it). What was intended for orchestral music and military bands in the 1840s instead made itself at home in the world of jazz, playing a major role in that genre's progression in the early to mid 20th century.

Sax was born in 1814, the son of a Belgian instrument maker. He learned from his father the intricacies of instrument-making and became something of a clarinetist himself. After years of tinkering with existing horns, Sax designed a family of instruments, in two groups of seven (seven instruments suited for orchestral use and seven for band use) that would bridge the gap between woodwinds and brass instruments. While he succeeded in this technical goal, he had mixed luck promoting the instrument. Orchestras were set in their ways and did not want this new invention to disrupt their traditional line-ups. He faced legal maneuvers by instrument makers, a couple of bankruptcies, and even threats on his life. Luckily his instruments fared better with French military bands, but arguably the important point is that they survived long enough to play a leading role in the development of America's indigenous music.

There's no reason to believe that Sax had the goal of creating an icon of sensuality and soulful self-expression, but we can all be thankful for his role in opening a musical platform for the likes of Coltrane, Parker, Henderson, Rollins, and so many others.

Adolphe Sax on Wikipedia
NPR Interview with the author of "The Devil's Horn"
Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music
Saxophone Timeline

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