A Brief History of the Saxophone

Nate Morris LSAT
3 min readFeb 17, 2022

The origins of the saxophone date back to the 1840s. After its popularity grew over the following decades, the saxophone became an iconic instrument in many musical genres, such as jazz.

A member of the woodwind family, the saxophone is made of brass rather than wood. Musicians play the saxophone with a single wooden, cane, or synthetic reed and a complex system of finger movements. These features make the saxophone similar to other woodwinds, such as the flute, rather than other brass instruments, such as the trumpet.

Wooden flutes were invented several millennia ago, while clarinets were invented much later in 1700. Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone in the mid-1840s, which makes it a relatively new instrument. The Belgian musical instrument designer was an expert in woodwind instruments but wanted to fuse woodwind and brass qualities in a single design. Sax patented his invention in 1846. According to Sax’s original designs, the saxophone family contained 14 different varieties, but the four main members (baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano) were the ones that survived over the years.

After Sax’s patent expired in 1866, other designers began creating different versions of the saxophone. In 1885, Gus Buescher built the first American saxophone. Within a few years, mass production of the instrument began. Brass manufacturer C. G. Conn modernized the instrument’s design, adding right-side bell keys on baritone saxophones. Today, Yamaha and Selmer are among the most respected saxophone brands.

The saxophone was initially welcomed as an orchestral instrument. Military bands also adopted its music, while prestigious composers such as Claude Debussy incorporated it in their compositions. In the 1920s, the saxophone quartet solidified the instrument’s place in classical music.

Vaudeville performers first played the saxophone in the United States in the early 1900s. Although the trumpet led most jazz bands, the saxophone was a prominent ingredient in recordings by Frankie Trumbauer and Sidney Bechet. When Coleman Hawkins used the tenor saxophone, it became more popular in the jazz genre. Soon, the swing era began and most bands started featuring saxophonists.

The saxophone soon made its mark as a jazz instrument when Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Stan Getz used the instrument in innovative ways. Considered one of the greatest saxophone players of all time, Parker played the alto sax and used its music to revolutionize jazz.

Coltrane played the tenor sax player and his collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk cemented his jazz legacy. Getz played tenor sax to channel the bossa nova style of music, which he introduced to American audiences.

By the mid-1950s, saxophones were played in other genres, such as funk, ska, and rock and roll. Pop music of the 1970s and 1980s also integrated saxophone solos, further popularizing the instrument. Famous sax solos include Clarence Clemons’ performance in Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and David Bowie’s solo in Modern Love.

In the 21st century, the saxophone has featured in hit pop songs such as Lady Gaga’s The Edge of Glory and Kendrick Lamar’s Alright. Musicians such as Kamasi Washington also continue to produce saxophone albums. In 2015, Washington released The Epic, a 17-track album blending soul and jazz.

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