When the Sax Meets Politics
HARRY TRUMAN didn't give up playing the piano when he became president of the United States. Neither did Richard Nixon. But no Russian hard-liner used the piano against them the way Vladimir Zhirinovsky has made the saxophone a political instrument against Bill Clinton. You can almost feel the czarist condescension when he refers to America's head of state playing his saxophone.
Vladimir the Tasteful must have fallen over his samovar when Clinton began his first European trip as president by unashamedly thanking Belgium for the saxophone, because it was Belgian Adolphe Sax who invented the instrument that he has enjoyed for so many years.
I know a little about how the president felt. I've had an even longer appreciation for whoever invented my instrument, the drum. And when Clinton went on to Prague and jammed with Czech musicians on ``Summertime'' and ``My Funny Valentine'' - on which I've accompanied sax players a zillion times - I thought, how wonderful to be president! Out-of-office musicians are never sure of their welcome on other people's bandstands. I once did offer - and was invited - to play a couple of numbers with a band in Berlin. But now, for Bill Clinton, any place on Earth is like a paraphrase of Robert Frost's definition of home - where, when you have to go there, they have to let you sit in.
To play with one saxophonist is fun, but to play with a big band's full sax section is sublime. Like floating on a cushion, riding a wave, or being inside a choir or a fairly mighty Wurlitzer. When the saxists all stand - playing fanatically together in a passage that would be hard enough for a soloist - it's clear that Carl Sandburg went only so far with his ``long cool winding saxophones.''
Yet the Zhirinovskys of this world would think of Clinton's beloved Adolphe Sax as ``that terrible man'' - just as Richard Wagner did before he got into a fix. Here was the composer's big chance, putting on ``Tannhauser'' in Paris! But those Parisians in 1861 wouldn't sit still for an opera without a ballet in the second act. Drops of sweat flew as Wagner added the lush Venusberg ballet music, complete with parts for a dozen French horns. But wait, there weren't that many French horns in all of Paree. What to do? Could anything substitute? That's when Wagner went to Sax, who saved ``Tannhauser'' by lending some saxophones, invented just 20 years before.
The sax has come a long way from there since then - hasn't it? -
to play a duet in the wilderness with a howling wolf. That's one of saxophonist Paul Winter's pursuits when he isn't creating an unearthly beauty by playing like a phantom of the cathedral in the upper reaches of New York's St. John the Divine.
In the years since Wagner, the saxophone has starred in works such as Debussy's ``Rapsodie'' for saxophone and orchestra, Ibert's ``Concertino da Camera,'' and Webern's ``Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone (Bill Clinton's instrument), and Piano, Op. 22.'' And in the world's longest crescendo, Ravel's ``Bolero,'' the saxophone gives a wake-up warmth to its turn at the relentlessly repeated theme. Stravinsky wrote for a full sax section in his ``Ebony Concerto'' for clarinetist Woody Herman's band in a Carnegie Hall performance.
Adolphe Sax was a maker of clarinets. He became a saxmaker, the story goes, after he tried to play a low-register brass instrument, the ophicleide, by replacing its cup mouthpiece with a clarinet mouthpiece. A clarinet's thin wooden reed vibrates to create sound in a cylindrical tube. With a cup mouthpiece, the blower's lips vibrate to produce sound in a conical or tapered tube, often bent as in a bugle.
Sax went on to design hybrid instruments with conical brass tubes and reed mouthpieces. These were saxophones, not to be confused with another instrument of conical body, the ill woodwind that nobody blows good (as comedian Danny Kaye said) - namely the oboe. The saxophone may be easier to play passably than the oboe, with its cranky double reed, but the sax is no cinch to blow good.
Soon many different saxes were developed, shaking down into a family of eight - mainly the soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. The big swing bands customarily used four saxes, usually two altos and two tenors, with a baritone often added to make five. In Lee Barron's ``Odyssey of the Mid-Nite Flyer: A History of Midwest Bands,'' I find a vintage photo of the Carl Colby Orchestra with a sax section of only three, two altos and a tenor.
That combination produced more of a swing sound than the hotel bands with three tenor saxes that ``mooed all night long,'' as band chronicler George Simon puts it. Freddy Martin led one of those ``sweet bands'' and refined the mixture to win national fame. He didn't purport to play jazz, but his mastery of the tenor sax impressed some notable jazz saxists - Chu Berry, Johnny Hodges, and Eddie Miller.
Trumpeter Louis Armstrong had dominated the early years of jazz. But when tenor man Coleman Hawkins came along in the '20s and '30s, the legacy of Adolphe Sax took the forefront - soaring with landmark figures like Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane.
Coleman Hawkins, the slightly younger Ben Webster, and Lester Young all apprenticed in the Midwest. Webster played and studied with Young's father, and Lester practiced with him. But for years, Webster said, he tried to play like Hawkins.
In 1939, Hawkins made the turning-point record of ``Body and Soul,'' to which I dare to claim a direct line. At least I've played with a trumpet player who played with Hawkins on the date: Tommy Lindsey, as he's listed on the label, now known as Tom Lindsey. When we play that old tune again, I imagine echoes of the Hawkins genius. Swing musicians used to improvise by making interesting additions to and variations on the melody. Hawkins took all the notes in all the chords as his domain and constructed a whole new melody.
This is what trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and fellow bop musicians later did with a vengeance - often borrowing the chords from a familiar song, inventing a different melody, and giving it a different name. The other high priest of bop, Charlie Parker, took the saxophone to new levels of virtuosity. The Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts of the '40s included times when the intricate, burly-toned Hawkins, the skimming, vibrato-less Young, and the volcanic Parker were all together - talk about summits, Mr. President!
And a follow-up question, sir? Could learning the sax be learning good politics after all? Listen to Dizzy:
``For a guy's musical development, the same rule applies to jazz as to any other field; you collect facts, and study. You listen to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, two guys who played the same instrument but played it very differently. Both of them have something in common. Because both of them played the truth, your job is to find what is the common denominator....''