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Adolphe Sax died 100 years ago, in Paris.

At the time, hardly anybody noticed, or remembered who he was. Just another instrument-maker who had once been all the rage. Berlioz had liked him. Rossini had liked him. They were dead too.

But in the hundred years since his death one of the instruments he invented has become the most popular wind instrument in the world.

The saxophone is the only well-known instrument in common use which commemorates the name of the man who invented it. It is the only instrument which has come into use in historical times ready-born, instead of as a result of centuries of evolution.

Adolphe Sax himself thought of the saxophone as a classical instrument, or at the very least a military band instrument.

He might have been horrified had he known that by 1910 it was becoming popular (again) as a novelty instrument and as an invader into the dance orchestra.

By the 1920s it had become a symbol of youthful exuberance, loved if you were youthful and exuberant, hated if you thought the 1920s were a poisonous and wicked era. Aldous Huxley referred to the " wailing of sinful saxophones ". Lots of people said much worse things.

From the 1930s on it became the symbol of jazz, which meant that it was:-

a) sexy - even the way different jazz players held the instrument, and lazily stuck a smoking cigarette near the top, gave ample scope for exotic variations...

b) defiant - an unusually large proportion of the black jazz pioneers played saxophone, from Coleman Hawkins through Lester Young and Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane

c) revived musically - jazz musicians did things with the saxophone tone and technique which nobody had ever dreamt of.

In popular music it has sometimes been ousted by the electric guitar as the symbol of sex and revolt ( Bill Haley had saxophones in his Rockets but ten years later The Rolling Stones felt no need to blow anything except the occasional harmonica ) but it came back well in the 1980s as a symbol, and it now gets a fair showing in TV commercials, the ultimate test of any instrument's prestige.

Besides all this, Sax's life seems mundane at first sight. His father was an instrument-maker and Adolphe himself grew up in the workroom spent a lot of time churning out traditional instruments. But he was always looking for ways to improve the old ones, and he first made a name for himself improving the clarinet of the time, which had some long-rooted design flaws in the gap between upper and lower register.

Indeed, you could make a very boring programme about the sort of problem which Sax loved to tackle all his life. How to compensate for the fact that slide trombones can't be played very fast. ( He made a valve trombone with six valves, which meant that the player had to finger with both hands - unheard of for a brass instrument. ) How to increase speed of execution and chromatic tuning on a horn. (Various valves were tried, discarded and improved...)

But there was a more lively side to his life. He was a man who not only made allies, but also made enemies easily. Other instrument-makers often claimed that Sax's 'inventions' were merely improvements of other people's designs, which he had nicked, and sometimes they were right. The Germans especially refused to be impressed by him....

When he moved to France from Belgium, the whole of the French instrument-making establishment lined up against him and from time to time he had his factory wrecked, his plans stolen and his workmen bribed. His chief assistant was killed - most people think that Sax was the intended victim. Sax was very keen to be allowed to supply the French army bands with instruments, and on several occasions arranged spectacular combat by concert against rival bands (rather like the steam contests which Brunel got involved in ), but he was a rotten businessman and every time he secured a good deal, he let it dribble away.

He was declared bankrupt not once but three different times during his life.

He invented a gun during the Crimean War (the Saxocannon ) which he claimed was so powerful it would reduce Sebastopol to smithereens. It was not built.

He invented a steam organ so huge that it could be built on one of the hills of Paris and supply music across the whole city, without amplification. It would be driven by the steam from a locomotive positioned underneath it, and would be so loud it would drown the noise of the steam engine. (Radio 1 in 1860... ) It was not built.

He invented other instruments named after himself. The saxotromba, which is now lost. The saxhorn, which is one form of what most people in most brass bands play, but people in brass bands can never agree what their instruments are called from one country to another....

And now, 100 years after his unmourned death, the saxophone is alive and kicking. There are many saxophone quartets, both classical and jazz (i.e. World Saxophone Quartet, 29th Street Quartet, Itchy Fingers ). There is Urban Sax, perhaps the most ambitious musical street theatre group ever devised. And in 1994 there is a huge festival planned by Dinant, Adolphe Sax's birthplace, to fill the whole of the summer with the sounds of the saxophone, and to remind the world that at least one Belgian is a world-beater (and to glide over the fact that they didn't even wave a flag to him in 1894 when he died ... ).

All that has ever been missing is one really great composer to write for the instrument...

That's the material, The best way of combining then and now, it seems to me, is to use today as the basic material, and to ask the question from time to time: 'But who was the man who gave his name to... ?' and to slide back into history with the aid of a narrator, before coming up to date again. In other words, go back and forth from Adolphe and his struggles to the modern day glamour/grittiness/glitziness of the instrument. Where Moondog, Danny Thompson etc fit into this, I am not sure....

Radio Proposal 1993


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© Caroline Kington