It is often said that the trumpet is the most defining instrument in jazz, it would be difficult to argue with that in the early days, but as the be-bop era came in the saxophone which had never been far from the front line became almost certainly the most influential instrument, Adolphe Sax had no idea what would happen to his invention when it appeared in 1841.
Many of the traditional jazz bands had saxophones in the line up, many didn’t. but once the big band era got going front lines of saxophones became the norm and it became in all its forms the driving force for most of the groups in the be-bop age.
Here I want to give some examples of the names playing the tenor saxophone that made their mark in jazz and have stood the test of time, and some of the more contemporary players who almost certainly will do the same.
This is a very crowded genre, there like most of us have favourites we like to push as the best of etc, it is impossible to include all and by necessity some will have to be left out even when they automatically can lay claim, with their importance in jazz, the right to be included.
I start with Stan Getz, one of the founders of cool jazz, a West Coast advocate who had no problem fitting in wherever he played, probably best known outside of jazz circles for his association with Astrud Gilberto and the Girl from Ipanema - a huge hit in its time - and a whole period where he played and promoted Bossa Nova sounds with many influential jazz greats. He had a unique smooth sound that is never ruffled or out of place. He started at fifteen and served his apprenticeship firstly with Jack Teagardens band and then the Kenton , Dorsey, and Goodman bands before embarking on a long career in his own name.
The Steamer is my favourite album from ‘56 and I do have an extensive collection of his work; videos of him are rare or withdrawn for copyright reasons or both and the good stuff apart from the Bossa Nova era just isn’t there, so…. here with Charlie Byrd, one of the all time great guitar players and Desafinado:
And an earlier Falling Leaves.
John Coltrane was way out in front when it came to pushing the boundaries in jazz, so far out he completely lost the plot in later life but fortunately the bulk of his work remains where it should be, at the top of the pile.
Influenced by Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and later Charlie Parker he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostik and Johnny Hodges before his late fifties association with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, a glorious period; but his debut album as leader, Giant Steps was a seminary album, it blew me away when I first heard it and the melodic chords on this were not just very difficult to play but constituted a new sound in the saxophone, much imitated later.
All the compositions on this album were his own and the three key change chord progressions are not only difficult but gave a magic sound.
Coleman Hawkins is one of the mainstays of jazz saxophone and one of the most influential of all players. Born in 1904, you could say he saw and played it all and indeed went the full gamut of music styles and was as influential in the be-bop era as any other. His version, everyone considers this number to be the high point of accomplishment i.e. when is x going to give the definitive version, is considered the best by most.
Body and Soul:
Lester Young born in 1909 was along with Hawkins the early vanguard of modern jazz, learnt the hard way with his family band in Vaudeville, left at eighteen and went to Kansas City where he met and joined Count Basie's Orchestra and later joined Fletcher Henderson. He also worked with Billie Holliday, another one with that effortless style that just seems so easy but isn’t, known as the President for his long position in the jazz hierarchy.
Here seen with his sideways playing style in a short film, not his best number but again they are hard to come by:
Ben Webster, another “oldie” learnt piano and violin at an early age then learnt the saxophone, was in Kansas City at the time that it was a melting pot of talent, played with many bands in the thirties and ended up with Ellington for many years. After he left in ‘43 he played with many and various artists and on his own, came to Europe in ‘65 and lived out his last years playing and living in several countries including the UK.
He never really embraced the new modern way and was still in the blues and swing style to the end. He died in Denmark and after his death a foundation was set up for the promotion of jazz in the country; it has become a prestigious award.
This is from the sixties here in the UK with our own, then young, Stan Tracy on piano:
Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis could never be accused of being pigeon-holed, with his music played with many different bands groups from soul to avant-garde he could blow with the best of them.
This is from ‘65, emerging from one of the greatest front lines ever assembled in jazz to perform this rousing solo:
Sonny Rollins: born in ‘30 he grew up in Harlem and was given his first musical instrument at the age of seven an alto sax, he started as a pianist and switched to tenor sax in ‘46. His high school band had, apart from himself, Jackie McLean, Art Taylor and Kenny Drew, not bad for a high school or anywhere else for that matter.
In the early fifties he was arrested for armed robbery and went to jail and later again for a breach of parole for using heroin; in ‘55 he entered the Federal Medical centre to try and break his habit and volunteered for the then experimental methadone treatment, it worked and he emerged clean, though feared his music would suffer. It didn’t, and he went on to greater things.
He played with Miles Davis Booker Little Max Roach and Clifford Brown but in ‘56 he made his seminal album Saxophone Colossus. The next three years saw him make more successful albums with various artists and formats.
In ‘59 he became frustrated with his own perceived musical limitations and took his now famous music sabbatical, during which he would play solo on the Williamsburg Bridge so as to not disturb the neighbours. He returned to performing in ‘61 with the album “The Bridge”.
After another sabbatical in ‘69 he returned again in ‘71 and has not stopped playing world wide since and has a huge recording catalogue.
This is a rare video of the time playing St Thomas (his birthplace) from the Colossus album:
Another piece with some of the more contemporary musicians will follow later.